The odds are slightly in favor of Hungary’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe’s longest-serving leaders, extending his 12-year rule in an election on Sunday, helped by his government’s firm control over state media.
With the war in neighboring Ukraine dominating the campaign, the six-party opposition alliance is within striking distance from Mr Orban’s Fidesz party in the polls, making the outcome of the ballot uncertain for the first time since he swept to power in 2010.
The leader of the opposition, 49-year-old conservative Peter Marki-Zay, who queued to cast his vote with his wife and children in his southern hometown Hodmezovasarhely where he is mayor, said he was hopeful the vote “will change the course of Hungarian history”.
He said Hungarians were now deciding on Mr Orban’s corrupt right-wing populist system which he said neglected democratic rule and curbed press freedom in the past 12 years.
“Now we are fighting for democracy, we are fighting for decency,” Mr Marki-Zay told reporters.
Earlier in the day, casting his vote in snowy Budapest with his wife by his side, Mr Orban told reporters he expected a “great victory” and portrayed the ballot as a choice between “peace or war”, accusing his opponents again of trying to drag Hungary into the Ukraine conflict, charge them deny.
When asked repeatedly about his close ties with Moscow and Russian President Putin, Mr Orban said:
“Vladimir Putin is not running in the Hungarian elections therefore I do not have to deal with this question today, luckily.
“I am standing on the basis of the Hungarian national interests, I am pro-Hungarian.”
The war in Ukraine has upset Mr Orban’s plans and forced him into uncomfortable manoeuvring at home after more than a decade of close political and business relations with Moscow.
According to the latest poll by Zavecz Research, Fidesz leads with 39 per cent support against 36 per cent for the opposition, while one-fifth of voters have yet to decide who to back.
Mr Marki-Zay has framed the election as a choice between East and West. Mr Orban has turned Hungary towards Russia, he says, eroding democratic rights and directing the Central European country away from the EU where it belongs.
“A Hungarian Putin or Europe?”, opposition billboards say, showing a photo of Putin together with Mr Orban.
Mr Orban, 58, has portrayed himself as a defender of Hungarian interests by rejecting EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas.
He has not vetoed any EU sanctions against Russia, even though he said he did not agree with them. His government of him has also allowed NATO troops to be deployed in Hungary, where public support for NATO membership stood at 80 per cent in a 2021 GLOBSEC survey.
He supported an EU decision to send arms to Ukraine but has banned weapons shipments from Hungarian territory, saying such a move could pose a security risk.
His tactical gambit has helped cement his support among core Fidesz voters. But it has led to criticism from some allies including Poland.
Polls close at 5pm GMT.
Despite the Ukraine war taking centre-stage, many Hungarians are troubled by surging consumer prices, with inflation at an almost 15-year high of 8.3 per cent in February even as Mr Orban imposed caps on retail fuel prices, basic foodstuffs and mortgage rates.
Think tank GKI said its consumer confidence survey showed an 11-point plunge in March even after Mr Orban’s pre-election spending spree to support households.
The opposition alliance, which includes the leftist Democratic Coalition, the liberal Momentum and far-right-turned-moderate Jobbik parties, has tapped popular discontent, criticizing what they said was systemic corruption that has enriched oligarchs close to Fidesz.
“It is not a healthy thing if one political group is in power for more than a decade,” voter Peter Adam said in a Budapest constituency. In the Hungarian capital the alliance looks likely to score a victory based on a poll by Median this week, while Fidesz has strong support in rural areas.
After years of clashes with Brussels over media freedoms, the rule of law and immigration, a part of Mr Orban’s current campaign is based on defending conservative Christian family values against what he calls “gender madness” in Western Europe.
On Sunday, Hungarians will also vote in a referendum on sexual orientation workshops in schools – a vote rights groups have condemned, saying it fuels prejudice against LGBTQ people.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.