Hungary's five-time Prime Minister Orbán is facing a new serious contender in upcoming EU elections

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — About three months ago, a scandal rocked five-time nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Fidesz party which prides itself on upholding family values and Christian conservatism.

As party leaders attempted damage control after close Orbán allies, President Katalin Novák and Justice Minister Judit Varga, were forced to resign over a presidential pardon for a man convicted of covering up a string of child sexual abuses, Péter Magyar saw a chance and broke ranks with the party in February.

In a matter of weeks, Magyar — a 43-year-old lawyer — built a political movement, now poised to become Hungary’s largest opposition force and challenge Orban's party in the June 9 European Parliament and municipal elections.

Magyar said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that the upcoming vote was a “prelude” to his planned run in the 2026 Hungarian national elections.

Whether he can score a win remains to be seen.

Orbán has delivered his Fidesz party four straight wins in Hungary’s parliament since 2010 and secured more than half the vote in the last two elections for the European Parliament. Polls show his party is still expected to outperform opponents despite a dip in popularity and a deep economic slump that have cost the premier thousands of supporters.

Still, Magyar seized on the growing disenchantment with the populist Orbán and breathed life into the existing but inactive Tisztelet és Szabadság, or Respect and Freedom, party.

In a series of widely followed interviews and public rallies, he accused Orbán’s government of overseeing deep corruption and a pervasive government-controlled propaganda network while presenting himself as a more moderate conservative alternative.

“Our offer is very simple: We must do something completely different in Hungary,” he said in the interview, adding that Hungarians were "fed up with the fact that there is an economic, political, moral, legal, and subsistence crisis here in 2024.”

Polls in May showed that Magyar's party had the support of around a quarter of likely voters for the June elections.

However, voters have been disappointed before.

Two years ago, around 2 million Hungarians pinned their hopes for change on a coalition of six opposition parties that had put aside political differences to form a united front against Fidesz in national elections.

But when Orbán's party once again won in a landslide, infighting followed, leading to the de facto dissolution of the coalition and a crisis of credibility for the opposition.

“It’s certain that people are at least as fed up with the opposition parties (as with Fidesz)," Magyar said.

Since April, Magyar has been touring Hungary’s rural heartland, Orbán’s hub of support, drawing thousands of curious onlookers in a feat few traditional opposition politicians have succeeded in before.

At a rally earlier this month in the city of Debrecen, a Fidesz stronghold, Magyar told a crowd of around 10,000 that “government propaganda” had tried to discredit his movement as “just a downtown Budapest media hack.” He also criticized Hungary’s opposition parties as having abandoned rural Hungarians.

The June elections come while the war in Ukraine rages amid fears Russia could turn its sights on the Balkan region.

Orbán has cast this year’s elections as an existential struggle between war and peace, portraying his party as unique in calling for an immediate end to the fighting in Ukraine. Critics say this would allow Russia to retain territories it has occupied and embolden it further.

The long-standing prime minister has maintained his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin even after Moscow launched its military operation against Ukraine in 2022, and accused the United States and the EU of being “pro-war,” and his domestic opponents, including Magyar, of planning to involve Hungarian soldiers directly in the conflict.

He has also criticized imposing sanctions on Moscow and threatened to veto EU financial assistance to Kyiv while ramping up energy deals at a time when most EU countries have sought to limit the use of Russian fossil fuel.

Despite decrying Orban's dealings with Russia, Maygar shares some of his views that sanctions have disproportionately harmed European economies. He also agrees with Orbán's criticism of Kyiv's treatment of a sizable Hungarian ethnic minority at Ukraine’s western edge.

Still, he is unequivocal in pointing out the potential risks if Russia was permitted to retain the Ukrainian territories that it has occupied — including the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

“Putin is the aggressor, Putin attacked Ukraine, and there is no excuse for that. Ukraine’s struggle for territorial defense is absolutely justified," he said in the interview.

Hungary under Orbán has been locked in a protracted struggle with the EU, which has accused him of flouting rule-of-law and democracy standards and failing to crack down on corruption that misuses EU funds.

Since 2022, the European Parliament has formally considered Hungary a “ hybrid regime of electoral autocracy,” no longer qualifying as a genuine democracy.

The bloc has withheld some 20 billion euros ($21.7 billion) in funding to Budapest over its rule-of-law violations, which has further hindered its flagging economy.

But Magyar said he and his party would “put an end to these completely unnecessary rule of law debates" with the EU, and pointed to the bloc recently releasing frozen funds to Poland only months after the pro-EU Prime Minister Donald Tusk took over from the previous right-wing government.

It was a sign, he said, that new leadership could finally bring that money home.

“I can promise to all Hungarians, and to Brussels, that we will be able to find solutions (for releasing the funds)," Magyar said. "Hungary really needs the frozen funds, but the EU also needs a more constructive Hungary.”

Justin Spike, The Associated Press