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

Polls opened across Hungary early on Sunday as voters in the central European country were faced with a choice: try their luck with a diverse coalition of Western-looking opposition parties or grant the nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban a renewed term with a fourth consecutive term.

The contest is expected to be the tightest since 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.

Opposition parties and international observers pointed to structural obstacles to defeating Orban by electoral means, pointing to pervasive pro-government bias in state-run media, the dominance of commercial media by Orban’s 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 renewed 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.

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 Orban’s hardline approach to immigration and the barbed wire fence he erected along from the southern border of Hungary.

In a leafy neighborhood in the Buda Hills of Budapest, the Hungarian capital, Orban and his wife arrived at a polling station on Sunday morning to cast their ballots.

After dropping his ballot, Orban said he viewed his opponents as “dangerous” and repeated a campaign theme that has become his main call in recent weeks: that only he and his party can protect the interests of the Hungary as war rages in neighboring Ukraine.

“We ask everyone to vote for the parties that are able to guarantee peace and security,” Orban said. “What I’m waiting for is a big win, that’s what the country needs.”

A supporter of what he calls “illiberal democracy”, Orban has taken many Hungarian democratic institutions under his control and portrayed 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 Orban had previously campaigned on divisive social and cultural issues, the tone of the campaign was radically altered by Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February.

While the opposition called on Hungary to support its beleaguered neighbor and act closely with its EU and NATO partners, Orban, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, insisted on the that Hungary should 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 head to the polls in an election that is expected to hand Orban’s ally and fellow populist Aleksandar Vucic another five-year term.

Opinion polls ahead of the vote predicted that Vucic and his right-wing Serbian Progressive Party will once again dominate Serbia’s 250-member assembly. Like Orban, Vucic has maintained 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 arms to Ukraine – something Hungary, alone among Ukraine’s EU neighbors, has refused to do – would do. the country a military target, and that sanctioning Russian energy imports cripple the economy.

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

Yet Marki-Zay, the opposition leader, accused Orban of siding with Putin in the dispute and said the warlord’s approach had “left him alone” in the 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 gave this struggle a special meaning.”

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