Orban’s new challenger targets Hungary’s Roma voters in EU election race

By Thomson Reuters Jun 4, 2024 | 8:00 AM

By Anita Komuves and Krisztina Fenyo

PASZTO (Reuters) – The man hoping to challenge Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s 14-year iron grip over Hungarian politics is actively wooing Roma voters ahead of next weekend’s European Parliament (EP) election – and his message of change seems to be striking a chord.

Peter Magyar, a political novice who has tapped into public discontent with Hungary’s economic woes, took the rare step in May of visiting a notoriously deprived Roma community during a nationwide campaign tour of nearly 200 towns and villages.

“No politician has done this in Hungary before,” said Sandor Botos, a Roma construction worker, referring to Magyar’s visit to the Hetes settlement in the town of Ozd, where hundreds of Roma still live without basic necessities such as running water.

“He showed the world how bad poverty is in these hidden villages, how many children are starving, that they are not in school,” said Botos, 48, while attending a Magyar campaign rally in the town of Paszto in northeast Hungary.

Botos smiled as his young grandson Noel took a selfie with Magyar after the speech.

Magyar’s charm offensive in Ozd may worry Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party, which has long enjoyed the support of Roma and other poorer, often rural-based Hungarians thanks to cash support programmes and its advocacy of traditional values.

The first visit in decades by a mainstream Hungarian politician to a Roma settlement could prove pivotal.

“(Magyar) knows that in the long run, he will not be able to win an election without the Roma,” said Robert Laszlo, election analyst at think-tank Political Capital.

Fidesz, in power since 2010 and helped by its grip over state and also some private media, is comfortably ahead in opinion polls and can expect over 40% of the vote in Sunday’s EP election. But the Tisza party, which Magyar has only led since April, is running second at around 20%.

This is Magyar’s first electoral test. A former government insider, Magyar turned against Fidesz over what he said was the corruption and state propaganda he had witnessed.

His name is the first on the Tisza party list but he does not intend to take up a seat in the EP if elected, preferring to remain in Hungary and lay the groundwork to defeat Orban in the next national election due in 2026.


The Roma have long suffered from poverty, high unemployment and discrimination across eastern Europe.

Official data shows just over 200,000 people identify as Roma in Hungary, but activists and sociologists estimate their numbers to be between half a million and one million in the country of nearly 10 million.

“They are the biggest minority, and nobody has really cared about them for 34 years,” Magyar told Reuters on the sidelines of a campaign stop in the town of Dunakeszi on Sunday, referring to the decades since the fall of communism in 1989.

“There are support programmes to help them, but those only reach a few towns … but nobody has done anything to truly support them,” he said.

Magyar has repeatedly said that education is key in helping Roma communities and that he would also raise monthly cash benefits to families.

A workfare programme launched by the Orban government in 2011 offered employment to tens of thousands who had not held regular jobs for years, and helped many of them transition to the regular job market.

“The most vulnerable (social) groups, which often overlap with the Roma population, are an important voting bloc for Fidesz, as they were able to take a few steps ahead with the government’s help,” Laszlo said.

“However, that coincided with a period of economic growth, and their trust in the government has been shaken by the recent economic downturn.”

Annual food price inflation hit 50% at the end of 2022, pushing some Roma back into extreme poverty, Aladar Horvath, head of the Romani Parliament-Civil Rights Movement said.

Magyar’s outreach to Roma voters “could be significant” in the long run, Horvath said.

“Right now, he is just getting to know our world, and we are also just starting to know him.”

(Reporting by Anita Komuves; Editing by Gareth Jones)