Hungary’s hard-line leader declares victory in election as war rages in neighboring Ukraine

Hungary's hard-line leader declares victory in election as war rages in neighboring Ukraine

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Viktor Orbán claimed victory in Hungary’s general election on Sunday, as his Fidesz party appears on track to deliver the prime minister a fourth consecutive term amid a raging war in neighboring Ukraine.

“We have won because we have a common interest and that’s called Hungary,” Orbán said in a speech in front of the Danube river.

With 43 percent of votes tallied, Orbán’s Fidesz-led coalition had won 57 percent of the vote while the opposition coalition, United for Hungary, had 31 percent, according to the National Election Office.

A victory would allow Orbán to continue to be a thorn in the European Union and NATO alliances during a time of international crisis, as he attempts to balance Hungary’s Western partnerships with his close personal and economic relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And it would give Orbán another four-year term to continue chipping away at Hungary’s weakening democratic norms.

The election was expected to be the most contested race since Orbán took power in 2010, after six opposition parties — ranging from socialists to the former far right — unexpectedly put aside their ideological differences to unite behind a joint candidate for prime minister, Peter Márki- Zay.

Márki-Zay, the 49-year-old Catholic father of seven, was viewed as a compelling conservative alternative to Orbán. After getting elected mayor in an upset victory in 2018 of the small southern town of Hódmezővásárhely, a Fidesz stronghold, Márki-Zay appeared poised to lose his own district on Sunday.

Women in traditional Hungarian dresses cast their ballots at a polling station in a school in Veresegyhaz, around 20 miles east of Budapest, on Sunday.PETER KOHALMI / AFP – Getty Images

Orbán, who has been embraced by influential American conservatives such as Tucker Carlson for championing culture war issues, began his re-election campaign stockpiling anti-immigrant sentiments and running against “LGBT ideology.”

But as the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out, Orbán reframed the election as a choice between peace that he said could only be delivered by his Fidesz party, or war that he defended Hungary would be dragged into if the opposition won.

The opposition had attempted to make Orbán pay a political price for his cozy relationship with Putin, but his tight control over the news media made it difficult to get their message across.

In the days leading up to the election, Márki-Zay lamented that Orbán had successfully been able to use “his fake news machine” to convince Hungarians that the opposition would “send their kids to die in Ukraine” if they win.

Orbán’s warnings appeared effective. András Nemenyi, a 63-year-old voter, said he hit to cast his ballot for Orbán just moments before the polls closed on Sunday, in large part due to the prime minister’s handling of the war.

“It’s only in peace that you can bring up your kids properly,” Nemenyi said, as he left a polling location in central Budapest with his 6-year-old son.

Márki-Zay local voter eligible Fidesz of committing fraud on Thursday after a news outlet reported that completed mail-in ballots filled with votes for the opposition had been burned and dumped in neighboring Romania, home to a large ethnic Hungarian community that is participating in elections.

Hungarian election officials reported the suspected case of voter fraud to the police and Romanian police have also opened an investigation.

Hungary’s democratic backsliding under Orbán prompted a number of international organizations to send teams to independently monitor the election. The Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe feels a full observation mission to Hungary, only the second time it has done so in a European Union country.

Freedom House, a US-based rights group, released a report in 2020 saying that Hungary could no longer be considered a democracy due to Orbán’s continued efforts to chip away at democratic institutions, including his takeover of independent media organizations and the adoption of an emergency law implemented when Covid hit that allows the government to rule by decree indefinitely.

Orbán and his Fidesz party in the face of a number of significant challenges. Thousands of Ukrainian refugees have arrived in the country since the war broke out, stressing Hungary’s already crunched social services.

Although the war was top-of-mind for many Hungarians leading up to the election, the country is also grappling with skyrocketing inflation and sagging wages. And the EU has threatened to withhold funds that Hungary relies heavily on due to Orbán’s assaults against democratic norms.

Orbán first returned to 19982002 before power in 2010.

Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in 2010 and 2014. They lost that ‘supermajority’ in 2015 before regaining it in 2018.

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