Orban’s bid for fourth straight term comes down to knife-edge vote

Hungarians began voting on Sunday in the tightest election for at least a decade with veteran premier Viktor Orban seeking a fourth consecutive term after a bitter campaign that ended amid accusations of suspected electoral fraud.

Orban, a nationalist conservative, has held power for 12 years, becoming the EU’s longest serving leader, but this time is facing a united opposition. A poll published on Saturday put Orban’s Fidesz party and the opposition neck and neck on 47 per cent each among those certain to vote.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has deployed a full monitoring team for Sunday’s parliamentary vote. The OSCE deemed previous Hungarian elections free but not fair because of the dominant presence of Fidesz in the media and advertising spaces and because of a heavily gerrymandered voting system.

A citizen initiative called 20K has also organised election observers for each voting precinct to deter voter fraud, which has marred previous elections.

“There are a million ways to defraud the vote and we have prepared our monitors for each one,” said Csilla Ruskal-Klemm, spokeswoman for the activists. “We will not allow voting precinct workers to interfere in the process of the vote, or the count, in any way.”

Orban has had a difficult few years, with Hungary enduring one of the world’s highest per capita death rates in the pandemic, surging inflation and constant conflict with the EU over rule of law issues. More recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has turned Orban’s close ties with the Kremlin into a political liability.

Recent polls on average gave Orban a slender lead. But Hungary’s electoral system, which can turn an edge in percentage of votes into a big advantage in seats, leaves the outcome hard to predict.

Surveys also indicate turnout will be near record levels due to voter resentment with Orban’s perceived erosion of democratic rights, angst over the war and economic difficulties.

Gabor Torok, an independent analyst, told the Financial Times the result would be tighter than any time since 2010, while the war upended campaign plans like never before since the fall of communism.

“Although the two camps are roughly the same size, there is a world of a difference in reality,” Torok said. “Fidesz has far more resources and deeper political knowledge, which tips the balance in their favour.”

The election pitches Orban against Peter Marki-Zay, a 49-year-old Catholic father of seven and mayor of Hodmezovasarhely, a small town in southern Hungary. Marki-Zay was the surprise winner of the country’s first-ever primary election last autumn, beating better-established rivals.

Marki-Zay has called Orban “the Hungarian Putin” in an attempt to capitalise on Orban’s longstanding Russian ties. The premier has argued Ukraine is fighting a war that has nothing to do with Hungary and that Russian energy remains indispensable for Budapest.

Along with the parliamentary election, Hungarians are also voting in a government-initiated referendum on banning the exposure of minors to sex education in schools, including content “promoting sex change”. Rights groups say have called the proposed ban “hate propaganda” and have urged voters to boycott it.

The referendum is connected to a longstanding row between Orban and Brussels over LGBTQ rights. Hungary claims it is why the EU continues to block billions of euros in pandemic recovery aid. Brussels says it is withholding the aid until Hungary implements better safeguards against corruption.

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