Polls opened across Hungary early Sunday as voters in the central European country were faced with a choice: risk a diverse, Western-leaning coalition of opposition parties or extend nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban to a fourth straight term to grant office.
The contest is expected to be the closest since Orban came to power in 2010 as Hungary’s six main opposition parties put 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 edge, making it likely undecided voters will pick the winner in Sunday’s vote.
However, opposition parties and international observers have pointed to structural obstacles to an electoral victory over Orban, highlighting pervasive pro-government bias in the public media, the dominance of commercial news outlets by Orban allies, and a heavily rigged electoral map.
But despite what it describes as an uneven playing field, the six-party opposition coalition United for Hungary has asked voters to back up their efforts to introduce a new political culture in Hungary, based on pluralist governance and improved alliances with the EU and to support NATO.
Coalition candidate for prime minister Peter Marki-Zay has vowed to end allegedly rampant government corruption and raise living standards by increasing funding for Hungary’s ailing health and education systems.
Orban – a harsh critic of immigration, LGBTQ rights and “EU bureaucrats” – has attracted the admiration of right-wing nationalists across Europe and North America. Fox News host Tucker Carlson broadcast for a week last summer from Budapest, where he praised Orban’s hardline access to immigration and the barbed-wire fence he’s erecting along Hungary’s southern border.
A proponent of what he calls “illiberal democracy,” Orban has seized control of many of Hungary’s democratic institutions and portrayed himself as a defender of European Christianity against Muslim migrants, progressivism, and the “LGBTQ lobby.”
In his frequent struggles with the EU, of which Hungary is a part, he has portrayed the 27-strong bloc as an oppressive regime reminiscent of the Soviet occupiers who ruled Hungary for more than 40 years in the 20th century and resisting all attempts align some of its policies with EU rules.
These policies, including what critics see as violating LGBTQ rights, misusing EU funds and exercising improper control over the Hungarian media, have put him at odds with Brussels and led his government to pay billions of euros of EU funds were withheld.
While Orban had previously campaigned on divisive social and cultural issues, the tone of the campaign was dramatically changed by February’s Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
While the opposition has urged 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 Hungary remain neutral and maintain its close economic ties Moscow must maintain, including continuing to import Russian gas and oil.
At his latest campaign rally on Friday, Orban told a crowd of supporters that supplying arms to Ukraine – something Hungary alone has opposed among Ukraine’s EU neighbors – would make the country a military target, and that sanctioning Russian energy imports would paralyze the economy.
“This is not our war, we have to stay out of it,” Orban said.
But Marki-Zay, the leader of the opposition, has accused Orban of siding with Putin in the conflict and said the leader’s approach to the war has “left him alone” in the European community.
“This fight is bigger than us now,” Marki-Zay said at a campaign event in Budapest on Saturday. “The war in Ukraine gave special meaning to this fight.”