- Orban seeks re-election for fourth term in a row
- Fidesz has a small lead over the opposition alliance in opinion polls
- War in Ukraine has disrupted the campaign, unresolved voters in focus
- Hungarians are voting as inflation rises, the economy is slowing
- The turnout of 52.75% at 13.00 GMT, voting closes at 17.00 GMT
BUDAPEST, April 3 (Reuters) – Odds were slightly in favor of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders, extending his 12-year rule in a Sunday election in which his close ties to Moscow have been put under the magnifying glass.
With the war in neighboring Ukraine dominating the campaign, the six-party opposition alliance has been within striking distance of Orban’s Fidesz party in the polls, making the outcome of the vote uncertain for the first time since Orban came to power in 2010.
As turnout rose to 52.75% at 1300 GMT after a slow start hampered by appallingly cold weather and snow in Budapest, both sides took to social media to urge their supporters to go and vote.
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The war has made life awkward for Orban after more than a decade of close Hungarian political and business ties with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, but he has maintained the lead in the polls.
The opposition leader, 49-year-old Conservative Peter Marki-Zay, has shaped the election as an election between East and West. He says Orban has undermined democratic rights and turned Hungary against Russia and away from the EU, where it belongs.
Marki-Zay, who stood in line to vote with his wife and children in Hodmezovasarhely, the southern city where he is mayor, said he hoped the election would “change the course of Hungarian history”.
‘FIGHTING FOR DEMOCRACY’
“We are fighting for democracy, we are fighting for decency,” Marki-Zay told reporters. “In an uphill battle, under almost impossible circumstances – we can still win,” he said, referring to the government’s control over public media and changes in electoral rules that critics say favor Fidesz.
One of the changes gives ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries the right to vote on party lists by mail, unlike hundreds of thousands of Hungarians working abroad who can only vote by personally going to embassies or consulates.
Orban, who cast his vote in snow-covered Budapest with his wife by his side, told reporters he expected a “big victory” and presented the ballot paper as a choice between “peace or war” and again accused his opponents of trying to pull Hungary into Ukraine. conflict, an accusation they deny.
Asked repeatedly about his close ties to Putin, Orban, who had previously described relations with Russia as fair and balanced, said:
“Vladimir Putin is not running in the Hungarian elections, so fortunately I will not have to deal with this issue today.”
“I stand on the background of Hungarian national interests, I am pro-Hungarian.”
Polls were to close at 17.00 GMT with preliminary indications of the result is expected within a few hours.
Orban, 58, has portrayed himself as a defender of Hungarian interests by rejecting EU sanctions against Russian oil and gas.
However, he has condemned the Russian invasion and has not vetoed any EU sanctions against Moscow, although he said he did not agree with them. His government has also allowed NATO troops to be stationed in Hungary, where public support for alliance membership was 80% in a 2021 GLOBSEC survey.
He supported an EU decision to send weapons to Ukraine, but has banned arms shipments from Hungarian territory, saying this could pose a security risk. His tactical commitment has helped cement his support among Fidesz’s core voters, but has led to criticism from some allies, including Poland.
In a constituency in Budapest, 76-year-old Rudolf Groo criticized Orban’s attempt to place himself between Russia and the EU, of which Hungary is a member.
“Orban has been swinging from this side to the other for so long that he is now unable to take a clear stance on the war.”
With the coronavirus pandemic ebbing out, many Hungarians are now worried about rising consumer prices.
Inflation peaked at nearly 15 years in 8.3% in February, even as Orban introduced retail price caps on fuel and basic foodstuffs, capped mortgage rates and conducted a pre-election consumer campaign to support households.
The opposition alliance, which includes the left-wing Democratic Coalition, the Liberal Momentum and the far-right-moderate Jobbik parties, has intervened in popular discontent and accuses Fidesz of using systemic corruption to enrich business people close to the party.
After several years of clashes with Brussels over media freedom, the rule of law and immigration, Orban’s current campaign is based, among other things, on defending conservative Christian family values against what he calls “gender madness” in Western Europe.
In parallel with the election, the Hungarians voted in a referendum on workshops on sexual orientation in schools – a vote that rights groups say feeds prejudice against LGBTQ people. Read more
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Reporting by Krisztina Than; Additional reporting by Krisztina Fenyo; Edited by Hugh Lawson, Kirsten Donovan and Kevin Liffey
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