Hungarians head to polls in the shadow of war in Ukraine

Polls opened across Hungary early Sunday as voters in the Central European country faced a choice: take a chance on a diverse, Western-looking coalition of opposition parties, or grant nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban a renewed mandate with a fourth consecutive term in office.

The contest is expected to be the closest since Orban took 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 tight race but give Fidesz a slight lead, making it likely that undecided voters will determine the victor in Sunday’s vote.

Opposition parties and international observers have pointed out structural impediments to defeating Orban by electoral means, highlighting pervasive pro-government bias in the public media, domination of commercial news outlets by Orban allies and a heavily gerrymandered electoral map.

Yet 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 Hungary based on pluralistic governance and mended alliances with the EU and NATO.

The coalition’s candidate for prime minister, Peter Marki-Zay, has promised to bring an end to what he alleges is rampant government corruption, and to raise living standards by increasing funding to Hungary’s ailing health care and education systems.

Orban — a fierce critic of immigration, LGBTQ rights and “EU bureaucrats” — has garnered 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 extolled Orban’s hard-line approach to immigration and the razor wire fence he erected along Hungary’s southern border.

In a leafy district in the Buda hills of Hungary’s capital Budapest, Orban and his wife arrived at a polling place Sunday morning to cast their votes.

After dropping his ballot, Orban said he saw his opponents as “dangerous,” and repeated a campaign theme that has become his driving appeal in recent weeks: that only he and his party can protect Hungary’s interests as war rages in neighboring Ukraine.

“We ask everyone to vote for those parties who are able to guarantee peace and security,” Orban said. “What I expect is a great victory, that’s what the country needs.”

A proponent of what he calls “illiberal democracy,” Orban has taken many of Hungary’s democratic institutions under his control, and depicted himself as a defender of European Christendom against Muslim migrants, progressivism and the “LGBTQ lobby.”

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

Those policies, including what critics view as violations of the rights of LGBTQ people, misuse of EU funds and exerting undue control over Hungary’s media, have put him at odds with Brussels and resulted in billions of euros in EU funding being withheld from his government.

While Orban had earlier campaigned on divisive social and cultural issues, the tone of the campaign was dramatically shifted by Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February.

While the opposition called for Hungary to support its embattled neighbor and act in lockstep with its EU and NATO partners, Orban, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has insisted that Hungary must remain neutral and maintain its close economic ties with Moscow, including continuing to import Russian gas and oil.

Also on Sunday, voters in neighboring Serbia will go to the polls in an election expected to hand a new five-year term to Orban ally and fellow populist Aleksandar Vucic.

Opinion surveys ahead of the vote have predicted that Vucic and his right-wing Serbian Progressive Party will yet again dominate Serbia’s 250-member assembly. Like Orban, Vucic has pursued close ties with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and has sought to portray himself as a guarantor of Serbia’s stability amid the turmoil raging in Europe.

At his final campaign rally on Friday, Orban told a crowd of supporters that supplying Ukraine with weapons — something that 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.

“This isn’t our war, we have to stay out of it,” Orban said.

Yet Marki-Zay, the opposition leader, has charged Orban with taking Putin’s side in the conflict, and said that the leader’s approach to the war had “left him alone” in the European community.

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

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