Peter Marki-Zay, the man challenging Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in national elections on April 3 on behalf of a united opposition, has warned of worsening isolation under Orban's "illiberal" model and likened him to a "traitor" putting Hungarians at risk.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of neighboring Ukraine five weeks ago, Marki-Zay suggested "Orban's betrayal" of EU and NATO interests had brought about "international exile and exclusion" and could even lead to sanctions being imposed on Hungary.
"I continue to say that we have to stop Putin, not Brussels. Let's for once be on the right side of history, for once on the winning side," Marki-Zay told RFE/RL's Hungarian Service in a wide-ranging interview this week.
Polls have given Orban's Fidesz alliance a narrow lead over the six-party opposition ahead of voting by Hungary's 8 million registered voters, but a significant segment of the electorate was said to be undecided in the final days of campaigning.
Fidesz has governed for the past 12 years with a so-called supermajority of at least two-thirds of parliament, allowing it to enact deep changes while bypassing the opposition.
Hungarians are also voting on April 3 in a referendum on discussion of sexual orientation in schools in a move that experts say Fidesz planned in part to help whip up its traditional-values voter base.
Marki-Zay, 49, won a united opposition primary last year after shooting to national attention by defeating a ruling Fidesz party candidate for mayor in the southeastern city of Hodmezovasarhely in 2018.
He is co-founder of the Everyone's Hungary Movement (MMM) whose Catholic faith and conservatism could lure away the national-populist Fidesz's center-right voters in what are likely to be the closest elections since 2010.
Orban has condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine but avoided directly blaming Moscow. He has agreed to join unprecedented Western sanctions against Russia while also saying Hungary will not directly help arm Ukrainian defenders.
Marki-Zay faulted Orban not only for his policies with respect to Moscow but also Beijing. "Even if it would mean a huge market and strategic opportunity, over the past 12 years Orban has failed to show that he has secured any sort of market, whether in China or in Russia," he said. "It is not at all visible that Orban has developed the Hungarian economy."
In a speech on National Day on March 15 alongside a slogan of "peace and security," Orban said Hungary was "on the border between worlds: between East and West, North and South" and that whoever won wars in the region, "we would come out losers."
"Central Europe is simply a chessboard for the world’s great powers, and Hungary is simply a piece in their game," he said.
An estimated 150,000 or so Ukrainians described themselves as ethnic Hungarians in the 2001 census, one of the world's largest diasporas and a source of bilateral irritation, as Budapest has accused Kyiv of seeking to deprive that minority of language and other rights.
"The [politician]...who, like Orban, puts the Hungarians of Transcarpathia at great risk and does not support them even when the Russians are bombing and shooting them, is a traitor," Marki-Zay told RFE/RL.
Marki-Zay and his opposition allies have portrayed the race as a contest over Eastern or Western orientation, and an opportunity to root out entrenched political interests and corruption.
Orban, whose perceived backsliding on democratic norms and courting of Moscow and Beijing in recent years has irked Brussels, added in his March 15 speech that "we will fight" elements including "the bureaucrats in Brussels."
Orban's government is embroiled in a major dispute with the European Union over the bloc's withholding of billions of euros in pandemic relief due to perceived rule-of-law failings in Budapest. The European Court of Justice in February upheld the EU's conditioning of the funds on democratic standards, saying the bloc "must be able to defend those values."
Marki-Zay also took aim at Orban's political vision and tactics since taking power in 2010. The opposition challenger told RFE/RL that Orban had "lost fights" against state debt, COVID-19, and inflation, adding: "He is going to lose the fight against Brussels. Orban has again governed Hungary to the wrong side."
Marki-Zay cited a "bad Hungarian tradition" of winks and nods while feinting left and right, and suggested even fellow national populists governing Poland had lost patience with Orban.
Orban once famously described his own political maneuverings as a "peacock dance" in which he seeks to wrongfoot challengers before retreating slightly to achieve broader aims.
"'Illiberalism' is no longer a joint interest, at most with Poland," Marki-Zay said, quoting from a famous speech of Orban's in 2014. "But the Poles got so angry at Orban because of his Putin-friendly betrayal that they don't even speak to the Hungarians [any more]."
Marki-Zay attributed Hungary's failure so far to participate in the European Public Prosecutor's Office (EPPO) to fears of potential prosecutions of "family and friends" of Orban. He did not elaborate.
Twenty-two of the EU's 27 member states cooperate fully with the EPPO, and two more have so-called opt-outs based on freedom, security, and justice. Only EU members Poland, Sweden, and Hungary have declined outright to be part of the EPPO but could join at any time.
Marki-Zay has pledged to join the EPPO if his opposition alliance forms a government, saying the move could help free up more than $8 billion in the COVID-19 relief funds that Brussels suspended.
The opposition candidate also talked about Hungary's energy policies, including its reliance on Russia for some 90 percent of its natural gas.
Marki-Zay said any new coalition would "have to acknowledge some of the steps of the Fidesz government" to further energy independence, despite accusing it of "voluntarily serving up Hungary to dependency on Russian gas."
He cited progress on interconnectivity and the terms of transit for gas and electricity with neighboring countries, and said liquefied natural gas (LNG) could be imported from Croatia or Poland.
But more can be done, he said. "If Bulgaria, which within the EU was even more dependent on Russian gas than us, declared that it can solve its energy purchases even without Russian gas, then Hungary can already do this, too," Marki-Zay said.
Marki-Zay said that if his coalition wins, it will "immediately" extradite fugitive former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who was convicted of corruption and fled to Hungary with Hungarian government assistance in 2018.