Hungary’s pro-Putin Prime Minister Orban gains a strong lead

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) – Early results of Hungary’s general election on Sunday showed a strong lead for the right-wing party of pro-Putin nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is seeking a fourth straight term.

With 43% of the votes counted, Orban’s Fidesz-led coalition had garnered 57% of the vote, while a pro-European opposition coalition, United for Hungary, garnered 31% of the vote, according to the National Elections Office.

Although the vote count was still ongoing, all signs pointed to a clear endorsement of Orban’s populist style of government.

The contest was expected to be the closest since Orban came to power in 2010, thanks to Hungary’s six main opposition parties putting aside their ideological differences to form a united front against Fidesz. Voters elected lawmakers to the country’s 199-seat parliament.

But even in his home district, opposition leader Peter Marki-Zay is more than eleven points behind long-time Fidesz incumbent Janos Lazar with 74 percent of the votes counted there. It was a disheartening sign for the prime ministerial candidate, who had promised to end allegedly rampant government corruption and raise living standards by increasing funding for Hungary’s ailing health care system and schools.

In a surprising performance, the far-right Our Home Movement party had won more than 6% of the vote, surpassing the 5% hurdle needed to win seats in Parliament.

Opposition parties and international observers have taken note structural obstacles to defeating Orbanhighlighting the pervasive pro-government bias in the public media, the dominance of commercial news outlets by Orban allies, and a heavily rigged electoral map.

Edit Zgut, a political scientist at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, predicted that this seemingly clear victory for Orban would allow him to move further in an autocratic direction, sideline dissidents and conquer new sectors of the economy.

“Hungary seems to have reached a point of no return,” she said. “The most important lesson is that the playing field has tilted in such a way that it has become almost impossible to replace Fidesz in elections.”

The opposition coalition United for Hungary urged voters to support a new political culture based on pluralist governance and enhanced alliances with the European Union and the country’s NATO allies.

While Orban used to campaign on divisive social and cultural issues, he dramatically changed the tone of his campaign after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and has since portrayed the election as a choice between peace and stability or war and chaos.

While the opposition has urged Hungary to support its embattled neighbor and act in lockstep with its EU and NATO partners, Orban, a long-time ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has insisted Hungary remain neutral and maintain close economic ties with the country Moscow maintains, including continuing to import Russian gas and oil on favorable terms.

At his latest campaign rally on Friday, Orban claimed that supplying arms to Ukraine – something Hungary is the only one of Ukraine’s EU neighbors to have opposed – would make the country a military target and that sanctioning Russian energy imports would damage Hungary’s own economy would paralyze.

“This is not our war, we have to stay out of it,” Orban said.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday portrayed the Hungarian leader as being out of touch with the rest of Europe, which has banded together to condemn Putin, support sanctions against Russia and send aid, including arms, to Ukraine.

“He is practically the only one in Europe who openly supports Mr. Putin,” said Zelenskyy.

After voting in his hometown of Hodmezovasarhely, where he is mayor, Marki-Zay described Sunday’s election as a “tough battle” due to Fidesz’s superior economic resources and media advantage.

“We are fighting for decency, we are fighting for judicial independence and the rule of law in Hungary,” said Marki-Zay. “We want to show that this model that Orban has introduced here in Hungary is not acceptable for any decent, honest man.”

Marki-Zay later wrote on social media to thank all Hungarians who cast a vote and the more than 20,000 volunteer tellers assigned to opposition parties at polling stations across the country.

“I thank the civilians who have spent all day checking the cleanliness of the polls and are now beginning the count,” wrote Marki-Zay.

Orban – a harsh critic of immigration, LGBTQ rights and “EU bureaucrats” – has attracted the admiration of right-wing nationalists across Europe and North America. He has seized control of many of Hungary’s democratic institutions and portrayed himself as a defender of European Christianity against Muslim migrants, progressives and the “LGBTQ lobby”.

In addition to the general election, a referendum on LGBTQ issues was held on Sunday. The questions concerned sex education programs in schools and the availability of information about sex reassignment surgery for children.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has dispatched a full observation mission to Hungary for only the second time in a European Union country to monitor Sunday’s elections.

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