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Hungarians head to polls in shadow of war in Ukraine

Election posters and the Hungarian flag outside a polling station in Budapest (Petr David Josek/AP)
Election posters and the Hungarian flag outside a polling station in Budapest (Petr David Josek/AP)

Polls opened across Hungary early on Sunday as voters 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 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 tight race but give Fidesz a slight lead, making it likely that undecided voters will determine the winner in Sunday’s vote.

Hungary Election
Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his wife, Aniko Levai, cast their votes in Budapest in Hungary’s general election (/Petr David Josek/AP)

Opposition parties and international observers have pointed out structural impediments to defeating Mr 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.

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.

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.

Mr 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 the premier’s hardline approach to immigration and the razor wire fence he erected along Hungary’s southern border.

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

A proponent of what he calls “illiberal democracy”, Mr 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 Mr Orban had earlier campaigned on divisive social and cultural issues, the tone of the campaign was dramatically shifted by Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine in February.

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

While the opposition called for Hungary to support its embattled neighbour and act with its EU and Nato partners, Mr 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.

At his final campaign rally on Friday, he told a crowd of supporters that supplying Ukraine with weapons – something that Hungary, alone among Ukraine’s EU neighbours, 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,” he said.

Opposition leader Mr Marki-Zay has accused Mr Orban of taking Mr Putin’s side in the conflict, and said the leader’s approach to the war has “left him alone” in the European community.

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