‘The time is here’: the ex-government insider shaking up Hungarian politics

<span>Péter Magyar has declared that he will launch a new political party to challenge the rule of Hungary’s longtime prime minister, Viktor Orbán. </span><span>Photograph: Balint Szentgallay/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Péter Magyar has declared that he will launch a new political party to challenge the rule of Hungary’s longtime prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Photograph: Balint Szentgallay/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

It is a chaotic political saga that Hungarians are following like a soap opera.

A former government insider has become the talk of the country after he publicly broke with Hungary’s powerful leadership and declared he would launch a new political party.

Until a few weeks ago, Péter Magyar was virtually unknown. Now, he is dominating conversations and headlines – and making the government of Hungary’s longtime prime minister, Viktor Orbán, deeply uncomfortable.

A lawyer by profession, Magyar once belonged to an elite circle around Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party. He served as a Hungarian diplomat. He held senior positions in state entities. And he was married to Judit Varga, a former justice minister who was slated to lead the Fidesz party list in the June European election. The couple, who have three children, were often portrayed as the perfect, model conservative family.

But one day in February, less than a year after his divorce from Varga was announced, Magyar suddenly burst on to the national political scene, shocking the country by openly criticising the government and calling for change.

“It was a long internal struggle but a quick and sudden decision,” Magyar told the Guardian by text message. “There was no plan from my side to enter politics, I have just found myself obliged to tell the truth publicly about the government and the oligarchs.”

His sudden transformation came as a bombshell, capturing the imaginations of many Hungarians who had lost hope of anything truly shifting ina country long dominated by Orbán. For more than a decade, the Hungarian leader has centralised power at home, increasingly extending his influence into the judiciary, media, universities and cultural institutions – all while cultivating closer ties to Moscow, Beijing and far-right movements across the globe.

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“I have got tens of thousands of messages, encouragement and requests to enter politics and organise a third political power which should be independent from the government and the opposition,” Magyar wrote.

In a country of fewer than 10 million people, Magyar’s first interview garnered more than 2.4m views on YouTube. And his first rally, on 15 March, drew thousands on to the streets of Budapest, with the crowd shouting: “We are not afraid.”

The move came amid an already turbulent political moment: Hungary’s president, Katalin Novák, resigned in February after it emerged that she had pardoned a man convicted of helping cover up a sexual abuse case at a children’s home. Varga, who had signed off on the pardon as justice minister, also left politics.

“Of course [while] my ex-wife was the member of this government it was impossible [for me] to stand up publicly,” Magyar wrote. “For me the last point was the handling of the president’s pardon scandal. At that moment, it became clear for everybody that the ruling party’s messages were totally hypocritical.”

In just a few weeks, Magyar has transformed from a government insider to one of the most talked-about people in Hungary, posting sharply worded Facebook posts taking aim at senior figures within the government, in particular one powerful minister: Antal Rogán, who runs Orbán’s communication machine and oversees the intelligence services.

Magyar has pitched himself as a centrist, focusing on domestic issues – combating corruption, improving healthcare, modernising the education system and aiming to unite Hungary’s highly polarised society.

Last week, he spent hours with Hungarian prosecutors, sharing what he described as evidence of corruption at the highest levels of the government. And he has pledged to soon make evidence public.

“We have more and more supporters day by day, the majority of the younger generation is already with us,” Magyar wrote in his text message.

Analysts and opposition figures say Magyar, who has been relying heavily on social media to get his message out, does appeal to a segment of the population – but they have also raised questions about whether he can succeed in challenging the powerful ruling elite.

“The opposition parties are in a really bad state, and voters are not connecting to them,” said Róbert László, an election expert at the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute. There was an element in Hungarian culture of expecting a “messiah” and looking for a strong leader who can be followed, he said, adding, however, that he was “sceptical” about Magyar’s chances of becoming that leader.

Magyar has long been a well-connected figure in Hungary’s rightwing landscape. While he himself was not a household name before February, he comes from a family that has been active in public life: his mother is a senior figure in the Hungarian judicial system, his grandfather was a famous judge, his brother is a journalist and one of his relatives served as Hungary’s president in the early 2000s.

For years, he was a personal friend of Gergely Gulyás – a minister and Orbán’s current chief of staff – who reportedly introduced him to Varga. The pair went on to get married and spent nearly a decade in Brussels, where Varga worked as an adviser at the European parliament while Magyar served as a diplomat at Hungary’s permanent representation to the EU.

One person who knew him in Brussels, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Magyar “was always a strong character, a strong debater. He had strong opinions, you could tell he was intellectual, well educated.”

Orbán has cast “Brussels” as an enemy, repeatedly campaigning on a narrative that foreign forces are trying to undermine Hungary’s sovereignty. He has clashed repeatedly with EU leaders, and faced significant criticism from western capitals over democratic backsliding and his relationship with the Kremlin.

Magyar, by contrast, has said he is in favour of a foreign policy that protects Hungary’s sovereignty while maintaining a constructive relationship with the EU and Nato.

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“I think he’s pro-Europe. I think he represented a classic centre-right, but definitely not today’s Fidesz … I don’t know how he bore it,” the person who knew him in Brussels said.

Hungary’s government circles have been dismissive of Magyar’s rise. “I think the government doesn’t pay too much attention to him,” said one senior Hungarian official.

A longtime Fidesz insider characterised his time in the limelight as “a three-day thing”.

Asked about the governing circles’ downplaying of his political potential, Magyar said the government had used “propaganda to discredit and to humiliate me … It is obvious for everybody that they are absolutely in shock having seen the polls.”

A recent survey found that 13% of Hungarians who had heard of Magyar said they would definitely or were very likely to vote for him.

As Magyar’s popularity has shot up, allegations have emerged in some media that he mistreated Varga while they were married. Varga has largely avoided the public eye since February, but posted a video on domestic abuse on 17 March, writing on Facebook: “There’s always a way out.” She made no mention of her ex-husband.

Magyar – who continues to share custody of their children with Varga – has vehemently denied the reports.

Asked about the allegations, he told the Guardian: “I have never hurt my ex-wife, the mother of my three kids. Our marriage was … hectic from both sides. Now we have a chance to live a happy life separately with our fantastic three sons.

“This whole story is part of the propaganda campaign but it is totally counter-productive, the people are not stupid, we have more supporters than before,” he said.

Varga did not respond to questions for this article.

Responding to a request for comment sent to Rogán, the government’s information centre said: “Péter Magyar wants to take revenge on the government for the fact that his wife has left him and he has lost his government jobs.”

“His claims are unfounded. Everything he says is mere empty talk,” the government office said.

Despite the intense scrutiny, Magyar says he is upbeat.

“The time is here,” he said. “There is no power and propaganda which will be able to stop the spring and change.”