Orban Invincibility Shattered as Hungarian Upstart Takes Off

(Bloomberg) -- Upstart politician Peter Magyar smashed Hungary’s image as a country with no alternative to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s rule by surging to second place in European Parliament elections.

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Magyar’s center-right Tisza came in at just under 30% in Sunday’s ballot, more than triple the support of a more established opposition alliance. The result makes him a natural challenger to Orban in the 2026 parliamentary elections.

While Orban’s nationalist Fidesz won the overall vote with almost 45% support, it was the worst result for the five-term leader in a European Union election since Hungary joined the bloc in 2004.

The surprise result came on a day when Orban’s ideological allies, including France’s Marine Le Pen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, outperformed in the EU elections. It also came just weeks away from the start of Hungary’s six-month EU presidency on July 1.

The forint was the worst performer across emerging markets on Monday, following the euro lower as global election risks again took center stage for investors. Magyar’s gains may complicate Orban’s challenge to shore up the budget if the government opts for more stimulus to woo voters, as it did in the run-up to the 2022 parliamentary ballot.

“This is the beginning of the end” of Orban’s rule, Magyar told cheering supporters in his post-election speech in the early hours of Monday, describing Tisza’s performance as a “political landslide.”

In a whirlwind campaign across Hungary, Magyar organized the biggest anti-government protests since Orban’s return to power in 2010. A former government insider turned whistleblower, he seized on ruling party scandals, economic weaknesses and called out corruption under the prime minister’s self-styled illiberal rule.

While a general ballot is still two years away, Magyar said he’d start to rapidly build out his nascent party to be ready in case Orban were to call early elections. In an interview broadcast on state television, Orban ruled out an early ballot, saying his Fidesz party had until 2026 to improve on Sunday’s result, which he nonetheless hailed as one of the best in Europe.

Media Apparatus

Magyar’s showing was all the more remarkable given that the former Brussels-based diplomat and state company executive only registered his party at the last minute.

He faced off against the entire state apparatus, including Europe’s biggest pro-government media juggernaut. State TV had held its first election debate in 18 years, the only chance Magyar had along with 10 other opposition candidates to speak there.

The EU continues to withhold about €20 billion ($22 billion) of funding earmarked for Hungary due to graft and rule-of-law concerns during Orban’s 14-year rule, which has seen the once liberal, anti-communist leader morph into a far-right politician with close ties to Russia and China. He’s ruled by decree since the Covid-pandemic.

Despite talking up the win — Orban told supporters that his party has now defeated the “old and new” opposition — it was a disappointing showing, with Fidesz also failing to oust the opposition mayor of Budapest in local elections held the same day.

Culture Minister Janos Csak resigned after the vote, Mandiner weekly reported on its website, becoming the first cabinet member to quit post-election. It wasn’t clear whether Orban would seek broader government changes in a political reset.

Orban had cast EU elections as a choice between war and peace in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He portrayed himself as the one preventing Hungary from sliding into a potential nuclear conflict via his attempts to stop or slow Western aid to Kyiv.

--With assistance from Andras Gergely and Veronika Gulyas.

(Updates with Orban comment in eighth paragraph.)

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