BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) – Polls are closed in Sunday’s Hungarian general election, in which pro-Putin nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban was seeking a fourth straight term.
The contest is expected to be the closest since Orban came to power in 2010, thanks to Hungary’s six main opposition parties putting aside their ideological differences to form a united front against his right-wing Fidesz party. Voters elected lawmakers to the 199-seat parliament.
There were no exit polls, but the first results are expected later this evening. Opinion polls in the final days of the race gave Orban’s Fidesz a slight advantage over the Western-leaning coalition of opposition parties.
Opposition parties and international observers have pointed to structural obstacles to defeating 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.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has dispatched a full observation mission to Hungary for only the second time in a European Union country to monitor Sunday’s elections.
Gabor Somogyi, a 58-year-old marketing executive, said after the vote that he believed the Hungarian media favored Orban and Fidesz and made the election unfair.
“I’m really counting on surveillance. It’s ok, I’m happy with it. But I don’t really think (the election) will be clean enough. Even the campaign wasn’t clean enough,” said Somogyi.
But despite what it described as an uneven playing field, the six-party opposition coalition United for Hungary called on voters to support their efforts to introduce a new political culture in Hungary, based on pluralistic governance and improved alliances with based in the EU and NATO.
While Orban used to campaign on divisive social and cultural issues, he dramatically changed the tone of his campaign after Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine in February, and has since portrayed the election as a choice between peace and stability or war and chaos.
While the opposition has urged Hungary to support its embattled neighbor and act in lockstep with its EU and NATO partners, Orban, a long-time ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has insisted Hungary remain neutral and maintain close economic ties with the country Moscow maintains, including continuing to import Russian gas and oil on favorable terms.
At his latest campaign rally on Friday, Orban told his supporters that supplying arms to Ukraine – something Hungary is the only one of Ukraine’s EU neighbors to have opposed – would make the country a military target and that sanctioning Hungary’s Russian energy imports own economy would paralyze .
“This is not our war, we have to stay out of it,” Orban said.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday portrayed the Hungarian leader as being out of touch with the rest of Europe, which has banded together to condemn Putin, support sanctions against Russia and send aid, including arms, to Ukraine.
“He is practically the only one in Europe who openly supports Mr. Putin,” said Zelenskyy.
Opposition 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.
After voting in his hometown of Hodmezovasarhely, where he is mayor, Marki-Zay described Sunday’s election as a “tough battle” due to Fidesz’s superior economic resources and media advantage. But he said he knew “there are more people in Hungary who want change”.
“We are fighting for decency, we are fighting for judicial independence and the rule of law in Hungary,” said Marki-Zay. “We fight for the whole world. We want to show that this model that Orban has introduced here in Hungary is not acceptable for any decent, honest man.”
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 from Budapest for a week last summer, praising Orban’s no-compromise approach to immigration and his barbed-wire border fence.
Orban has seized control of many of Hungary’s democratic institutions and portrayed himself as a defender of European Christianity against Muslim migrants, progressives and the “LGBTQ lobby”.
Peter Sandor, 78, said after Sunday’s vote that what matters to the election is whether Orban can continue to uphold Christian conservatism in Hungary and maintain his national pride.
“The significance of this election is to continue with what we have built over the past 12 years. Fantastic results,” he said. “If Fidesz doesn’t win, it goes down the drain like it did between 2002 and 2010.”