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

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The odds are slightly in favor of Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders, extending his 12-year rule in an election on Sunday, helped by his government’s firm control over state media.

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Hungarians started voting at 0400 GMT with the war in neighboring Ukraine dominating the campaign. The six-party opposition alliance is within striking distance of Orban’s Fidesz party in the polls, making the outcome of the ballot uncertain for the first time since Orban swept to power in 2010.

Casting his vote in snowy Budapest, Orban told reporters he expected a “great victory” and portrayed the ballot as a choice between “peace or war”, accusing his opponents again of trying to drag Hungary into the Ukraine conflict, a charge they deny.

When asked repeatedly about his close ties with Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Orban said:

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

The war in Ukraine has upset Orban’s plans and forced him into uncomfortable manoeuvring at home after more than a decade of close political and business relations with Moscow.

According to the latest poll by Zavecz Research, Fidesz leads with 39 percent support against 36 percent for the opposition, while one-fifth of voters have yet to decide who to back.

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, eroding democratic rights and directing the Central European country away from the European Union where it belongs.

“A Hungarian Putin or Europe?”, opposition billboards say, showing a photo of Putin together with Orban.

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

He has not vetoed any EU sanctions against Russia, even though he said he did not agree with them. His government has also allowed NATO troops to be deployed in Hungary, where public support for NATO membership stood at 80 percent in a 2021 GLOBSEC survey.

He supported an EU decision to send arms to Ukraine but has banned weapons shipments from Hungarian territory, saying such a move could pose a security risk.

His tactical gambit has helped cement his support among core Fidesz voters. But it has led to criticism from some allies including Poland, whose ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said he was not pleased with Orban’s cautious stance on Russia.

Polls close at 1700 GMT.

Surging prices

Despite the Ukraine war taking center-stage, many Hungarians are troubled by surging consumer prices, with inflation at an almost 15-year high of 8.3 percent in February even as Orban imposed caps on retail fuel prices, basic foodstuffs and mortgage rates.

Think tank GKI said its consumer confidence survey showed an 11-point plunge in March even after Orban’s pre-election spending spree to support households.

The opposition alliance, which includes the leftist Democratic Coalition, the liberal Momentum and far-right-turned-moderate Jobbik parties, has tapped popular discontent, criticizing what they said was systemic corruption that has enriched oligarchs close to Fidesz.

“I cannot stand that they have dismantled democracy and ... they have stolen our country from us, they have stolen the wealth of our country and channeled it into private ownership,” said Annamaria Varnai, an opposition supporter in Budapest where the alliance looks likely to score a sweeping victory based on a poll by Median this week.

After years of clashes with Brussels over media freedoms, the rule of law and immigration, a 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 vote rights groups have condemned, saying it fuels prejudice against LGBTQ people.

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