Hungarian leader with close ties to Putin is leading the war ahead of the election

BUDAPEST, Hungary – Five days before the Hungarian election, Péter Márki-Zay, a candidate who has helped make Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s re-election campaign the hardest in a decade, acknowledged that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had changed things.

Standing behind an outdoor stage in Budapest’s buzzing Széll Kálmán Square, Márki-Zay said Orbán’s tight control of the media and his ability to spread “false news and false allegations” about Russia’s war against Ukraine had created a huge disadvantage for the opposition’s search for to oust the conservative nationalist leader, who has been accused of running away from the country’s democratic institutions.

“He claims the opposition would send untrained children to die in Ukraine,” Márki-Zay said as he waited to be presented at one of his last campaign events ahead of Sunday’s election.

“Now hundreds of thousands of Hungarians are afraid that if Orbán loses and the opposition wins, we will send their children to die in Ukraine,” he said. “Such is this fake news machine from Orbán.”

After six political parties spanning the political spectrum managed to form a united front in October to oust the anti-immigrant, right-wing extremist prime minister for the first time in over a decade, it appeared that Orbán, 58, and his Fidesz party could stay on the ropes.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has complicated the last month of the election campaign, with opinion polls showing that Orbán, who has been embraced by influential American conservatives such as Tucker Carlson, is moving forward to lead the opposition by an average of 5 percentage points.

In its last push to give energy to voters, the united opposition has seized Orbán’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hungarian opposition candidate Peter Márki-Zay, who was spotted here in Budapest on Tuesday, says it has been difficult to get Orbán to pay a political price for his kindness to Moscow.
Hungarian opposition candidate Peter Márki-Zay, who was spotted here in Budapest on Tuesday, says it has been difficult to get Orbán to pay a political price for his kindness to Moscow.Lauren Egan / NBC News

Opposition candidates have portrayed Orbán as Putin’s piece, pointing to the dozens of meetings the two leaders have had over the years, including as late as February 1, a few days before the invasion.

They have criticized Orbán for concluding agreements with Russia, including awarding a Kremlin-owned company a contract to expand Hungary’s sole nuclear power plant, and allowing the International Investment Bank, a Moscow-backed financial institution which, according to critics, is a cover for Russian intelligence operations. . , to locate its headquarters in Budapest.

And Orbán’s insistence that Hungary remain “neutral” in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, they claim, has only further isolated Budapest from its European allies.

But getting Orbán to pay a political price for his kindness to Moscow has proved difficult for the opposition, although the prime minister has stood out from other EU and NATO members for refusing to strongly condemn Putin’s actions, a attitude that received direct criticism from the Ukrainian side. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank, said that while Orbán’s focus on neutrality was “bizarre” given Hungary’s status as a member of the EU and NATO, his message struck a chord with a nation. worried that it might tip on the brink of conflict.

“There is a certain rally-around-the-flag effect in the sense that many voters think a more experienced government can be best to avoid the worst,” he said.

Fidesz supporters are counting on Orbán’s message of stability to keep him in power for a fourth consecutive term.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will speak in March before the election
An Orban supporter wears traditional Hungarian attire during a Fidesz march in Budapest. Older voters are often dependent on pro-government radio for information and are not as fluent on social media, with some independent Hungarian news organizations still active. Akos Stiller / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sitting over a bowl of halászlé, a traditional Hungarian fish stew, at a lunch place on the Danube river frequented by members of parliament, Zsolt Németh, who founded the Fidesz party with Orbán in the 1980s as a student and has served in parliament since 1990 , claimed that the war reformulated the election in favor of Fidesz.

Many voters identify with the estimated 140,000 ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, most of whom live in the Transcarpathia region of the western part of the country, Németh said, making Orbán’s message of peace and neutrality particularly appealing.

And many voters fear that the conflict could spill over into Hungary, which borders Ukraine – a fear driven by memories of 1956, when the then Soviet Union Red Army brutally crushed Hungary’s revolt against Moscow. Bullet holes from the failed uprising can still be seen in buildings around Budapest.

Now a Russian invasion next door could be what saves Orbán, who famously launched his political career in a speech in 1989 at a ceremony in honor of one of the leaders of the 1956 uprising who had been executed by the Soviets. , with a courageous call for time for free elections and demand that Soviet troops leave Hungary.

“You have to choose between Putin and Europe, that is the approach of the Hungarian opposition. And our communication is that we have to choose between war and peace, ”said Németh.

“The Hungarian public is now scared. And I think they will choose peace and security,” he said.

The opposition has said it is challenging to compete with Fidesz ‘portrayal of them as warriors who want to put Hungary’s peace at stake, given the control of the media that Orbán has built over the last 10 years, making it very difficult and at times impossible. , for Hungarians to access independent news.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban will speak in March before the election
Many voters identify with ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, making Orbán’s message of peace and neutrality appealing.Akos Stiller / Bloomberg via Getty Images

That challenge is especially difficult in more rural areas of the country. These regions have a high concentration of older voters who rely on pro-government radio for information and are not as fluent on social media, with some independent Hungarian news organizations still active.

But that does not mean that the opposition is not making an effort to break through.

The Monday before the election, united opposition leaders stood in the central square of Mezőkövesd, a small country town, run by a mayor accused of being one of Orbán’s cronies, for urging voters to support Márki-Zay on April 3.

“The chance of winning areas like this is almost impossible, but of course we will try,” lamented Zsolt Gréczy, a Member of Parliament from the Democratic Coalition, pointing to the mayor’s office across the street from the town square where a camera looked out. behind. the curtains in a window on the first floor. Gréczy said the mayor recorded who in the city attended the opposition event.

“This is a small town and everyone knows everyone. And everyone present here will be marked by name as the traitors who vote for the opponents,” he said.

András Fekete-Győr, a founding member of the Liberal Momentum party, part of the United Opposition, said the Hungarian media community has forced the opposition to travel to cities like Mezőkövesd to speak to undecided voters who would not otherwise encounter on their campaign. message.

The biggest challenge in the last days of the race, Fekete-Győr said, is to convince “the undecided voters that in a time of war in the neighborhood … it’s worth voting for change.”

“Change is always stressful for the people. Even though they hate the system, they have learned to live within the system,” he said.

That’s how it was, Sandor Balog, 54, a voter from Mezőkövesd, looked at his upcoming decision in the election.

“Everyone is scared,” Balog said. “But Orbán keeps Hungary safe, it is good that he is keeping Hungary out of the war. We must vote for him.”

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