Orban Hit by Fresh Controversy After Ex-Insider Leaks Tape

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(Bloomberg) -- Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s administration was forced to respond after an ex-cabinet minister was caught on tape alleging that the government’s most powerful minister had meddled in a graft probe.

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On the recording released Tuesday, former Justice Minister Judit Varga could be heard saying that aides of Antal Rogan, Orban’s chief of staff, had asked prosecutors to remove his name from records of an investigation into high-level state corruption.

The audio was published on the social media accounts of Peter Magyar, Varga’s ex-husband and a political upstart for Hungary’s beleaguered opposition. He also presented the recording as evidence to prosecutors in Budapest.

Thousands attended a demonstration Tuesday evening in Budapest where Magyar called for the chief prosecutor’s resignation. He also called for another protest on April 6 to keep up pressure on the government, which he compared to a “mafia.”

Varga said in a Facebook post on Tuesday she had been “terrorized” in her marriage and had told her then husband “what he wanted to hear,” though she didn’t dispute the tape’s authenticity.

Magyar said on Monday that he made the recording in January 2023 at home, without Varga’s knowledge, when they were still married and she was serving as minister. The audio hadn’t been edited, he said.

Cabinet Minister Gergely Gulyas sought to downplay the recording, saying it “has nothing to do with public affairs.” The remarks were from an “intimidated wife” and were “much ado about nothing,” he said in a video posted by the government after the tape’s publication. Rogan’s office said those comments reflected its views.

The prosecutor’s office, in a statement, said it was “physically impossible” to manipulate its files. Investigators are assessing all claims from the tape as well as the witness statement given by Magyar, it added.

Graft Probe

The tape concerns a high-profile corruption case from late 2021, in which Varga’s former deputy at the time was charged on suspicion that he took bribes in exchange for using his office’s powers to illegally influence cases relating to judicial enforcement.

On the tape, Varga is also heard saying that her deputy at the time, Pal Volner, had been tipped off by Rogan’s office about the undercover probe.

Under Orban, Hungary has plummeted to last place among European Union member states, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The EU continues to withhold two-thirds of the €30 billion ($33 billion) of Hungary’s funding it had suspended in 2022 over corruption and rule of law concerns.

The leak comes as Orban emerges from the worst political crisis of his 14-year rule. A presidential pardon in a child sex-abuse scandal toppled key allies last month, including then-President Katalin Novak and Varga, who had certified the clemency.

It also diverts Orban’s attention just as he started campaigning for local and EU elections Hungary holds simultaneously in June. Varga had been tapped to run the ruling Fidesz party’s EU campaign before she was replaced.

Regime Insider

Magyar, a 43-year-old lawyer and former diplomat, burst onto the Hungarian political scene by seizing on the child-sex abuse scandal as evidence of deeper corruption around Orban. Since coming to power in 2010, the prime minister has dismantled checks and balances and extended his influence over media, business, culture and parts of the judiciary.

Orban’s officials have said Magyar was a beneficiary of that system as a former executive of a state company. He also held board seats in several other companies with state ownership until he resigned to launch his political career.

Magyar has presented himself as a regime insider turned whistleblower who’s seeking to shake up Hungarians from years of what he’s described as political apathy that had set in after Orban’s four consecutive landslide election victories.

His debut interview, on the Partizan Youtube channel last month, has been watched by more than 2.4 million people, a significant viewership in a nation of almost 10 million.

His first political rally in Budapest on March 15 attracted thousands and was followed by 66,000 on Facebook. He pledged there to establish a centrist, pro-European party to oust Orban, end crony capitalism and repair relations with the EU and the NATO military alliance.

--With assistance from Andras Gergely.

(Updates with rally called by Magyar in fourth paragraph.)

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