Hungarians vote on Orban’s 12-year rule in tight vote overshadowed by war in Ukraine

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© Reuters. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban casts his vote as he stands next to his wife Aniko Levai at a polling station during the Hungarian parliamentary election in Budapest, Hungary, April 3, 2022. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

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By Krisztina Than and Anita Komuves

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – The odds are slim in favor of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders, who will extend his 12-year rule in an election on Sunday, where his close ties to Moscow will be scrutinized as Hungarians head to the polls.

With the war in neighboring Ukraine dominating the campaign, the six-party opposition alliance is in the polls striking a distance from Orban’s Fidesz party, making the outcome of the vote uncertain for the first time since Orban came to power in 2010.

The war has forced Orban to maneuver uncomfortably at home after more than a decade of his administration’s close political and business relations with Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

The leader of the opposition, 49-year-old conservative Peter Marki-Zay, has framed the election as a choice between East and West. Orban has turned Hungary towards Russia, he says, by eroding democratic rights and leading the central European country away from the European Union where it belongs.

Marki-Zay, who queued to cast his vote with his wife and children in his southern hometown of Hodmezovasarhely, where he is mayor, said he was hopeful the vote “will change the course of Hungarian history”.

“Now we fight for democracy, we fight for decency,” Marki-Zay told reporters. “Although in an uphill battle, in near-impossible circumstances, we can still win,” he said, referring to the government’s control of state media and changes to election rules that critics say favor Fidesz.

One of these changes was that Orban’s government gave ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries the right to vote by mail on party lists, as opposed to hundreds of thousands of Hungarians working abroad who can only vote in person at embassies or consulates, limiting their capabilities. limited to participate.

Earlier in the day, Orban cast his vote in snowy Budapest with his wife by his side. Hungary involved in the conflict in Ukraine, an allegation they deny.

When 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 luckily I don’t have to deal with this question today.”

“I stand on the basis of Hungarian national interests, I am pro-Hungarian.”

The polls close at 1700 GMT with preliminary indications of the expected outcome in a few hours.

Orban, 58, has portrayed himself as a defender of Hungarian interests by rejecting EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas.

He condemned the Russian invasion and has not vetoed EU sanctions against Moscow, although he said he disagreed. His administration has also allowed NATO troops to be deployed 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 deliveries from Hungarian territory, as such a move could pose a security risk. His tactical move has helped bolster his support among key Fidesz voters. But it has sparked criticism from some allies, including Poland.

In a Budapest constituency, 76-year-old Rudolf Groo criticized Orban’s attempt to position himself between Russia and the European Union, of which Hungary is a member.

“Orban has been swinging from side to side for so long that he can’t take a clear stance on the war now.”

RISING PRICES

As the coronavirus pandemic subsides, many Hungarians are now suffering from rising consumer prices, with inflation reaching 8.3% in February for nearly 15 years, even as Orban imposed caps on retail fuel prices, staple foods and mortgage rates, and a pre-election spending spree to support households.

The opposition alliance, which includes the left-wing Democratic Coalition, liberal Momentum and far-right moderate Jobbik parties, has tapped into popular discontent and criticized what they believe to be systemic corruption that has enriched oligarchs close to Fidesz.

After years of clashes with Brussels over media freedoms, the rule of law and immigration, part of Orban’s current campaign is based on defending conservative Christian family values ​​against what he calls “gender madness” in Western Europe.

On Sunday, Hungarians will also vote in a referendum on sexual orientation workshops in schools – a voting rights groups have condemned it for fueling prejudice against LGBTQ people.