BUDAPEST, Hungary — Early partial results in Hungary’s national election on Sunday showed a strong lead for the right-wing party of pro-Putin nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban as he seeks a fourth consecutive term.
Many of the votes were cast from rural areas, where Orban is popular and the strength of his vote was unclear. With 23% of votes tallied, Orban’s Fidesz-led coalition had won 60% of the vote while a pro-European opposition coalition, United for Hungary, had 29%.
The contest was expected to be the closest since Orban took power in 2010, thanks to Hungary’s six main opposition parties putting aside their ideological differences to form a united front against Fidesz. Voters were electing lawmakers to the country’s 199-seat parliament.
International observers as well as opposition parties noted that Orban is facing structural challenges. They highlighted Orban’s pro-government bias, pervasive commercial media dominance by Orban ally, and heavily gerrymandered electoral maps.
The opposition coalition’s candidate for prime minister, Peter Marki-Zay, wrote on his social media page to thank all Hungarians who cast a vote and the more than 20,000 volunteer ballot counters who opposition parties assigned to polling places across the country.
“I express my gratitude to the civilians who spent the whole day checking the cleanliness of the election and are now starting the count,” Marki-Zay wrote.
The Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe sent a full observation mission to Hungary to monitor Sunday’s election, only the second time it has done so in a European Union country.
The six-party opposition coalition, United For Hungary, asked voters to support a new political culture based on pluralistic governance and mended alliances with the country’s European Union and NATO allies.
While Orban had earlier campaigned on divisive social and cultural issues, he dramatically shifted the tone of his campaign after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, and has portrayed the election since then as a choice between peace and stability or war and chaos.
While opposition calls for Hungary’s support of its troubled neighbour and to act in accordance with EU and NATO partners alike, Orban, who is a long-standing ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, insists that Hungary be neutral and keep its close economic relations with Moscow. This includes continuing to import Russian oil and gas on favorable terms.
At his final campaign rally Friday, Orban claimed that supplying Ukraine with weapons — something that Hungary, alone among Ukraine’s EU neighbors, has refused to do — would make the country a military target, and that sanctioning Russian energy imports would cripple Hungary’s own economy.
“This isn’t our war, we have to stay out of it,” Orban said.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy the president of Ukraine on Saturday called the Hungarian leader out of touch. Europe has unified to condemn Putin and support sanctions against Russia, as well as send weapons and aid to Ukraine.
“He is virtually the only one in Europe to openly support Mr. Putin,” Zelenskyy said.
Marki-Zay, the opposition candidate, has promised to end to what he alleges is rampant government corruption and raise living standards by increasing funding to Hungary’s ailing health care and education systems. After voting in his hometown of Hodmezovasarhely, where he serves as mayor, Marki-Zay called Sunday’s election an “uphill battle” due to Fidesz’s superior economic resources and advantage in the media.
“We are fighting for decency, we are fighting for the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in Hungary,” Marki-Zay said. “We want to show that this model that Orban has … introduced here in Hungary is not acceptable for any decent, honest man.”
Orban — a fierce critic of immigration, LGBTQ rights and “EU bureaucrats” — has garnered the admiration of right-wing nationalists across Europe and North America. He has taken many of Hungary’s democratic institutions under his control and depicted himself as a defender of European Christendom against Muslim migrants, progressives and the “LGBTQ lobby.”
A referendum was held on Sunday regarding LGBTQ issues, along with the election of parliament. Questions were asked about the accessibility of information and sex education in schools.
Gabor Somogyi, a 58-year-old marketing professional, said after voting that he believes Hungary’s media favors Orban and Fidesz and has made the election unfair.
“I really count on the monitoring,” he said. “But I don’t really believe (the election) will be clean enough. Even the campaign was not clean enough.”
Peter Sandor (78) said that after Sunday’s vote, it was crucial that Orban maintain Christian conservatism within Hungary.
“The importance of this election is to continue with what we have been building up for the last 12 years. Fantastic results,” he said. “If Fidesz doesn’t win, it’s going to go down the drain again like it did between 2002 and 2010.”
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