Orban’s Hungary Holds First Election Debate on TV in 18 Years

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling party was put on the defensive on government-controlled state television as contenders for next month’s European Parliament election held the first televised debate in the country in 18 years.

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Opposition politicians jostled to outflank one another in criticizing the erosion of the rule of law and alleged graft under Orban’s self-styled illiberal rule since 2010. There were 11 candidates speaking on Thursday evening for eight minutes each on topics ranging from immigration to democracy.

“Voters can choose to keep Hungary a family-owned company where the prime minister’s family gets to own a large share of the country’s wealth, or we can build a new country, brick by brick,“ said Peter Magyar, an upstart opposition politician who’s soared in polls.

But it was the fact that debate took place at all which was remarkable in Hungary, where Orban’s media dominance, including of state TV, had effectively shut out the opposition from the airwaves. The last time an election debate was held on state TV was in 2006.

Read more: A Fresh Upstart Takes On Orban in Hungary

The event on Thursday only went ahead after Magyar threatened to stage a demonstration at state television headquarters if his demand for a live debate was ignored.

“The fact that a debate is taking place on state television is in and of itself evidence of the squeeze on Orban’s Fidesz party,” said Agnes Urban, an associate professor at Corvinus University and director of Mertek, a media watchdog.

Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has been buffeted by a series of scandals this year, a patchy economic recovery and a runaway budget deficit before the June 9 European ballot, which takes place alongside municipal elections in Hungary.

Magyar’s appearance on the political scene and his ability to capitalize on the political momentum have raised the stakes in the ballot contests, which come halfway through Orban’s fifth term in office.

Media Control

Executives at state media, where the political messaging is tightly controlled, declined to respond to emailed questions to explain the decision to stage the debate.

Orban didn’t take part since he doesn’t helm Fidesz’s list for EU parliament though he’s actively campaigning in the vote that the opposition is casting as an unofficial referendum on his rule. The premier has called for a large rally in Budapest on Saturday.

Orban’s party, along with a satellite offshoot, is on track to win 11 of 21 European Parliament seats up for grabs in Hungary, according to the latest Europe Elects projection published on the Euroactiv website.

While that still puts it in first place, its estimated 44% share of the vote would mark the worst result in an EU election for Fidesz, which had won more than half the vote in the past three ballots since 2009.

Magyar’s Tisza party is projected to win six seats in the same poll, which would eclipse all other opposition parties and open a path for the political neophyte to claim the mantle as Orban’s main challenger in the 2026 parliamentary election.

Magyar, a former diplomat who entered into politics just a few months ago, was hoping to win over potential Fidesz voters in his first prime-time appearance on state television. He’s said he won’t take up his seat in the EU parliament and will stay in Hungary instead to build out his party over the next two years.

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