'Revolution' in air as actor stumps for Hungary opposition

Nagy says he had not been involved in politics before Magyar convinced him to join the campaign (ATTILA KISBENEDEK)
Nagy says he had not been involved in politics before Magyar convinced him to join the campaign (ATTILA KISBENEDEK)

Pounding the campaign trail ahead of European elections, emerging Hungarian opposition leader Peter Magyar drew tens of thousands on Sunday in a stronghold of nationalist leader Viktor Orban.

Speaking just before him was well-known screen actor Ervin Nagy, whose support Magyar has managed to grab to lend celebrity power to his campaign as his own star rises.

Magyar shot to prominence in February on the back of a scandal that hit Orban, posing the most serious challenge in his 14 years in power.

In Magyar's latest rally in Hungary's second biggest city, Debrecen, tens of thousands of people cheered on the former government insider who is now one of its fiercest critics.

"Change can be stopped for a few days, a few weeks, but no one in history has ever stopped it and neither can they," Magyar told the crowd.

Accusing the government of populism, cronyism and corruption, Magyar's campaign is raising hopes for a "system change", said actor Nagy, known from Hungarian films such as the historical horse-racing adventure "Bet on Revenge" and Oscar-nominated drama "On Body and Soul".

"Time has come for change... We have simply had enough," Krisztian Kovacs, a 29-year-old accountant, told AFP at the Debrecen rally.

Magyar, 43 and a self-declared conservative, since last month leads a political group, which aims to be "neither right nor left" to challenge Orban.

The campaign is growing so fast, Nagy had to lend the politician his pick-up truck to stand on for a speech at one spontaneous rally.

"We didn't have time to get a stage," said Nagy, 47.

"There's a revolutionary mood, like in 1956," he said -- a reference to the historic uprising against Hungary's Soviet-backed communist rulers.

- 'Dictatorship-lite' -

Magyar seized the initiative in February when an ally of Orban, Katalin Novak, resigned as president after it was revealed she had pardoned a convicted accomplice of a child abuser.

Magyar's TISZA (Respect and Freedom) party has already eclipsed the rest of the opposition heading into the European elections on June 9.

A recent survey by pollster Median showed the party had 25 percent support.

Nagy says he had not been involved in politics before -- but Magyar only took an hour to convince him to join the campaign.

He believes the EU member country under Orban has been turned into a "kind of dictatorship-lite".

Since returning to power in 2010, Orban, 60, has changed laws to restrict independent media, civil society, arts and culture.

"If someone is defiant, if they go into opposition, or at least criticise the powers that be, there are consequences," Nagy told AFP.

He says he himself has been blacklisted after making a comment critical of a senior member of Orban's Fidesz party.

One producer was told that their film would not get financing if Nagy was in it, the actor said.

Nagy said Magyar could reach "millions of people who have (so far) preferred to stay away and not participate in the democracy just because they were so apathetic and frustrated".

- Tough battle -

But Magyar faces tough resistance.

Orban has brushed off the challenge, but nonetheless "Fidesz has been making serious efforts to nip this movement in the bud," said political analyst Zoltan Lakner.

Posters commissioned by Fidesz have sprung up across the country, depicting Magyar as "Brussels' humble servant" alongside other opposition politicians.

He also faces negative coverage by media close to Fidesz, ranging from serious domestic abuse accusations, which he denies, to sneering at his "woman's sunglasses".

Last month, he said he came under investigation by the Sovereignty Protection Office, a controversial new government agency set up to curb foreign influence.

Magyar's supporters say his strength lies in knowing the system from the inside.

A lawyer by training, he worked for years as a diplomat in Brussels.

His ex-wife is a former Orban ally: former justice minister Judit Varga.

Magyar's biggest challenge, said Lakner, is to quickly build up his party, finding qualified people who do not pose a political risk causing "a lot of trouble later on".

"But if Magyar manages to unite opposition voters behind him, he can present a viable alternative for dissatisfied voters."