BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Polls have closed in Hungary’s national election on Sunday in which pro-Putin nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban was seeking a fourth consecutive term.
The contest is 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 his right-wing Fidesz party. Voters were electing lawmakers to the 199-seat parliament.
There were no exit polls but the first results are expected later in the evening. Opinion polls in the last days of the race gave Orban’s Fidesz a slight advantage over the Western-looking coalition of opposition parties.
Opposition parties and international observers have pointed out structural impediments to defeating Orban, highlighting pervasive pro-government bias in the public media, the domination of commercial news outlets by Orban allies and a heavily gerrymandered electoral map.
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.
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. It’s fine, I’m happy with that. But I don’t really believe (the election) will be clean enough. Even the campaign was not clean enough,” Somogyi said.
Yet despite what it called an uneven playing field, the six-party opposition coalition, United For Hungary, asked voters to support its efforts to introduce a new political culture in Hungary based on pluralistic governance and mended alliances with the EU and NATO.
While Orban had earlier campaigned on divisive social and cultural issues, he dramatically shifted the tone of his campaign after Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine in February, and has portrayed the election since then as a choice between peace and stability or war and chaos.
While the opposition called for Hungary to support its embattled neighbor and act in lockstep with its EU and NATO partners, Orban, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has insisted that Hungary remain neutral and maintain its close economic ties with Moscow, including continuing to import Russian gas and oil at favorable terms.
At his final campaign rally Friday, Orban told supporters 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.
The president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on Saturday depicted the Hungarian leader as out of touch with the rest of Europe, which has united to condemn Putin, support sanctions against Russia and send aid including weapons to Ukraine.
“He is virtually the only one in Europe to openly support Mr. Putin,” Zelenskyy said.
The opposition coalition's candidate for prime minister, Peter Marki-Zay, has promised to end to what he alleges is rampant government corruption, and to 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. But he said he knows "there are more people that want change in Hungary.”
“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 are fighting for the whole world. 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. Fox News host Tucker Carlson broadcast from Budapest for a week last summer, where he extolled Orban's hard-line approach to immigration and his razor-wire border fence.
Orban 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.”
Peter Sandor, 78, said after voting on Sunday that the stakes of the election were whether Orban could continue to uphold Christian conservatism in Hungary and maintain its national pride.
“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.”