BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Only weeks ago, Hungary’s nationalist prime minister was proclaiming that Sunday’s parliamentary election would determine whether his small Central European country could be defended from the “gender madness” overtaking the West.
But, as war rages in neighboring Ukraine, Viktor Orban’s strategy for winning a fourth consecutive term has shifted away from enflaming passions around divisive cultural issues like LGBTQ content in media and anxiety over migration. It’s now about what Orban — cautiously balancing his Western alliances against his close economic ties with Russia — describes as an existential choice: the peace and security embodied by him and his Fidesz party or the threat of war and chaos should his decidedly anti-Kremlin opponents carry the vote.
“If we want peace, we must vote for Fidesz,” Orban said at a campaign rally on Wednesday. “If we want to risk our peace, we can vote for the left.”
After 12 years of autocratic rule, Orban — the longest serving head of government in the European Union — will on Sunday face the most serious challenge yet to his power. Opinion polls forecast a close race, with a small lead for Fidesz.
United for Hungary, a diverse coalition of six opposition parties, has put aside ideological differences to create a united front against Orban and his political and economic system, which they say is rife with corruption, graft and a pervasive erosion of democratic freedoms.
“We don’t want to be a country of no consequences anymore,” said Peter Marki-Zay, a 49-year-old economist and mayor of a small Hungarian city that the coalition has nominated to face Orban as its candidate for prime minister.
Speaking at a rally in the capital Budapest on Tuesday, Marki-Zay, a self-described conservative Christian, said Orban had created a “single-party state” which had turned its back on its Western allies and become “militantly anti-Europe and pro-Putin.”
The election, Marki-Zay said, is about Hungary’s future as a Western-style democracy.
“We strongly belong to the West, belong to NATO, and belong to the EU,” he said.
Orban, 58, has long been accused by critics both in the EU and in Hungary of overseeing the dismantling of democratic institutions, exerting undue control over the media and judiciary and facilitating corruption.
His policies have made Hungary the subject of numerous European court proceedings, and led the bloc to withhold billions in funding over concerns that his government was flouting the rule of law.
Yet Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has “completely transformed the Hungarian campaign,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, an analyst and director of the Budapest-based think tank Policy Solutions.
“(The election) is essentially a referendum on Hungary belonging to the West or belonging to the East,” Biro-Nagy said.
Orban — who for more than a decade nurtured close political and economic ties with Russia under President Vladimir Putin, giving him a reputation as the Kremlin’s closest ally in the EU — has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but declared his country’s neutrality in the conflict while never mentioning Putin by name.
“Hungarian policy is neither Ukrainian-friendly nor Russian-friendly: it’s Hungarian-friendly,” Orban said in a radio interview on March 27.
While he has voted for most EU sanctions against Russia and allowed the deployment of NATO troops into Hungary, Orban’s government has refused to supply Ukraine with weapons or allow their transit across the Hungarian-Ukrainian border, and has antagonized Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
But the opposition parties, analyst Biro-Nagy said, have “tried to show to the Hungarian population what the cost of Russian friendship is” by pointing out Orban’s policies that have drawn Hungary — a Soviet satellite during the Cold War — further into Russia’s orbit.
Hungary’s government has lobbied heavily against sanctioning Russian energy imports, arguing such a move would destroy the country’s economy. It has used both party and state resources to campaign on the unsubstantiated claim that the opposition coalition, if it wins on Sunday, would deploy weapons and soldiers into the conflict in Ukraine and draw Hungary into war.
Recent polling shows that the vote is likely to be the closest in recent years, though Fidesz maintains a slim lead in most measurements.
A survey by Zavecz Research conducted between March 23 and 25 showed support for Orban’s government at 44% compared to 42% for the opposition. The poll’s margin of error was 3.5%.
Yet even if Orban secures a new term, his reputation among the country’s partners — especially regional allies like Poland, which deeply distrusts Moscow — could suffer lasting damage from how his government has approached the war in Ukraine, Biro-Nagy said.
“In the last years, we have not seen the Orban government isolated this much internationally. If they don’t change their position on Russia, I see it as very, very difficult to recover from this position,” he said.
As election day approaches, Marki-Zay continues to make campaign stops around the country, bringing United For Hungary’s message to voters in the face of what he calls a media blackout on the opposition.
Eszter Medey, an 82-year-old retired French teacher, said from a rally in Budapest that while she sees Marki-Zay as relatively inexperienced on the national stage, she planned to vote for him to “sweep out this current government.”
“He’s right-wing, he’s a man of faith, he’s said that,” Medey said of Marki-Zay. “I’m a left-winger and an atheist, but … it’s completely irrelevant because it’s not only the left who want a change of government, but a lot of right-wingers and people on all sides.”