Hungarians go to the polls in the shadow of war in Ukraine

Polls opened across Hungary early on Sunday as voters faced a choice: try their luck with a diverse coalition of Western-looking opposition parties or grant nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban a renewed term with a fourth consecutive term.

The contest is expected to be the tightest since Mr Orban came to power in 2010, thanks to Hungary’s six main opposition parties putting aside ideological differences to form a united front against his right-wing Fidesz party.

Recent polls suggest a close race but give Fidesz a slight lead, making it likely that undecided voters will determine the winner in Sunday’s vote.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his wife, Aniko Levai, cast their ballots in Budapest during the Hungarian parliamentary elections (/Petr David Josek/AP)

Opposition parties and international observers pointed to the structural obstacles to defeating Mr. Orban by electoral means, pointing to pervasive pro-government biases in state media, the dominance of commercial media by Orban’s allies and a heavily gerrymandered electoral map.

However, despite what it calls an uneven playing field, the six-party opposition coalition, United For Hungary, has asked voters to support its efforts to introduce a new political culture in the country, based on pluralistic governance and mended alliances with the EU and NATO. .

Coalition candidate for Prime Minister Peter Marki-Zay has promised to end what he says is endemic corruption in government and raise living standards by increasing funding for health and healthcare systems. education in difficulty in Hungary.

Mr Orban – a fierce critic of immigration, LGBTQ rights and “EU bureaucrats” – has won the admiration of right-wing nationalists across Europe and North America.

Fox News host Tucker Carlson broadcast from Budapest for a week last summer, where he touted the prime minister’s hardline approach to immigration and the barbed wire fence he erected along from the southern border of Hungary.

Election in Hungary
Election officials prepare a ballot box at a polling station in Nagykanizsa, Hungary (Gyorgy Varga/MTI/AP)

A supporter of what he calls “illiberal democracy”, Mr Orban has taken many Hungarian democratic institutions under his control and presented himself as a defender of European Christianity against Muslim migrants, progressivism and the “LGBTQ lobby”. “.

In his frequent battles with the EU, of which Hungary is a member, he portrayed the 27-member bloc as an oppressive regime reminiscent of the Soviet occupiers who dominated Hungary for more than 40 years in the 20th century, and resisted attempts to bring some of its policies into line with EU rules.

These policies, including what critics say are violations of LGBTQ rights, the misuse of EU funds and the exercise of undue control over the Hungarian media, have put him at odds with Brussels and resulted in the withholding of billions of euros in EU funding from his government.

While Mr. Orban had previously campaigned on controversial social and cultural issues, the tone of the campaign was radically changed by Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February.

Election in Hungary
Supporters of United for Hungary, the six-party opposition coalition, sing the national anthem during the final election rally in Budapest (Petr David Josek/AP)

As the opposition called on Hungary to support its beleaguered neighbor and act with its EU and NATO partners, Mr Orban, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, insisted that Hungary should remain neutral and maintain close economic ties with Moscow, including continuing to import Russian gas and oil.

At his final campaign rally on Friday, he told a crowd of supporters that Ukraine’s arms supply – something Hungary, alone among Ukraine’s EU neighbors, has refused to do – would make the country a military target, and that sanctioning Russian energy imports would cripple the economy.

“It’s not our war, we have to stay out,” he said.

Opposition leader Mr Marki-Zay accused Mr Orban of taking Mr Putin’s side in the dispute and said the warlord’s approach had ‘left him alone’ in the conflict. European Community.

“This fight is now bigger than us,” Marki-Zay told supporters at a campaign event in Budapest on Saturday. “The war in Ukraine has given this struggle a special meaning.”

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