Orban’s candidacy for a fourth consecutive term comes down to a knife vote

Hungarians began voting on Sunday in the tightest election in at least a decade, with veteran prime minister Viktor Orban seeking a fourth consecutive term after a bitter campaign that ended on charges of alleged voter fraud.

Orban, a nationalist conservative, has been in power for 12 years, becoming the EU’s longest-serving leader, but this time faces united opposition. A survey published on Saturday put Orban’s Fidesz party and the opposition neck and neck with 47% each among those who would be certain to vote.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has deployed a full monitoring team for Sunday’s parliamentary vote. The OSCE found that previous Hungarian elections were free but unfair due to Fidesz’s dominant presence in media and advertising spaces and due to a heavily Gerrymander voting system.

A citizens’ initiative called 20K also organized election observers for each electoral district 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, spokesperson for the activists. “We will not allow poll workers to interfere in the voting or counting process in any way.”

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

Recent polls have on average given Orban a slim lead. But Hungary’s electoral system, which can turn a percentage advantage in votes into a big advantage in seats, makes the outcome difficult to predict.

Polls also indicate turnout will hit record highs due to voter resentment over Orban’s perceived erosion of democratic rights, wartime angst and economic hardship.

Gabor Torok, an independent analyst, told the Financial Times the result would be tighter than at any time since 2010, while the war has 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 difference in reality,” Torok said. “Fidesz has a lot more resources and a deeper political knowledge, which tips the balance in its favour.”

The election pits 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 fall, beating more established rivals.

Marki-Zay called Orban “the Hungarian Putin” in an attempt to capitalize on Orban’s long-standing Russian ties. The Prime Minister argued that Ukraine is waging a war that has nothing to do with Hungary and that Russian energy remains indispensable for Budapest.

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

The referendum is linked to a long-running row between Orban and Brussels over LGBTQ rights. Hungary says this is why the EU continues to block billions of euros in pandemic recovery aid. Brussels says it is suspending aid until Hungary puts in place better safeguards against corruption.

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