Hungarians will head to the polls on Sunday to vote in an election seen as key not only for the future of the European Union and NATO state, but the struggle to protect the democratic order against authoritarian populism.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who openly declares that his Fidesz party has implemented an “illiberal” regime in Hungary and has spent years cultivating close relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, is seeking a fourth consecutive term.
Standing against him is United for Hungary, an awkward alliance formed by six opposition parties including the former far-right, socialists, greens and liberals with the single aim of finally unseating Orban after 12 years in power.
Although the opposition alliance appears likely to make this election the toughest Orban has faced since 2010, the polls suggest that it will struggle to defeat the populist premier. Surveys conducted in the lead-up to the vote showed Fidesz two to five points ahead.
That could prove decisive. Having ruled for much of the past decade with a super-majority allowing him to change fundamental laws, Orban has overhauled the election system to Fidesz’s advantage.
Estimates suggest United for Hungary needs a six-point margin of victory to secure a majority of the 199 seats in the National Assembly.
Analysts also note that control over most of Hungary’s mainstream media allows Fidesz to set the agenda.
There is widespread concern that Orban will not play fair. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has deployed a full monitoring mission to Hungary – an unprecedented event for an EU member state – due to concerns over potential election fraud and the use of state resources.
“Orban’s goal is about consolidating power,” says Gabor Gyori, an analyst at Budapest-based think tank Policy Solutions. “He’s been very open about it. This control is embedded in a larger project to have a long-term dominance of Hungarian society.”
To that end, Fidesz has enthusiastically adopted culture war tropes aimed at migrants and minorities and fought almost constant battles with the EU over the rule of law. As they vote in this election, people will also be asked take part in a referendum on controversial anti-LGBT legislation introduced last year.
Orban has also sought to paint Peter Marki-Zay, the independent conservative that is United for Hungary’s candidate for prime minister, as a puppet of a global liberal elite that seeks to destroy Hungary’s sovereignty and European Christian culture.
United for Hungary claims that Orban has organised a widespread network of corruption to steal EU funds and has rigged the justice and electoral systems to help him get away with it.
The opposition has promised to boost investment in health and education and has criticised Orban’s management of the coronavirus pandemic and policies that have led to strike action by teachers.
However, all of these issues have receded into the background since Russia invaded Hungary’s neighbour Ukraine in late February.
Orban is Putin’s closest EU ally. Although Orban has backed EU sanctions against Moscow, he refuses to allow weapons headed to Ukraine to transit through the country.
He has also ruled out making efforts to reduce Hungary’s heavy dependence on Russian energy, which is key to Fidesz’s flagship policy of lowering household utility bills.
“There are hard physical realities when it comes to energy supply,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs told Al Jazeera. “The world can see that the Hungarian model of capping energy prices to protect the population against inflation is working.”
The West has long been unconvinced by Orban’s ambiguous foreign policy, and United for Hungary has tried to turn the election into a referendum on whether Hungary should be part of the East or West.
“The stake of the election is clear: Europe or Putin,” Marki-Zay said on the eve of the vote.
Fidesz has reacted by promoting Orban as a guarantor of peace and stability and branding the opposition as warmongers for calling for stronger support for Ukraine.
Wrapping up Fidesz’s campaign in the small central town of Szekesfehervar on Friday, Orban warned voters against handing power to the inexperienced opposition in the midst of a crisis.
It is a strategy that appears to be working, with polls suggesting support for Fidesz has risen over the past month.
Meanwhile, United for Hungary has struggled to maintain its unity, a failing that analysts suggest would make life very difficult for the alliance should it win the right to form a government.
The polls will open at 6am local time (04:00 GMT) and run until 7pm (17:00 GMT). Preliminary results are likely to be released later in the evening, unless the count is too close to call.