Hungarian leader with close ties to Putin follows war line ahead of election

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Five days before the Hungarian elections, Péter Márki-Zay, the candidate who helped make Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s toughest re-election battle in a decade, admitted that the Russian invasion of the Ukraine had changed things.

Standing behind an open-air stage in Budapest’s bustling Széll Kálmán Square, Márki-Zay said Orbán’s tight control over the media and his ability to spread “fake news and false allegations” about the war in Russia versus Ukraine had created a huge disadvantage for the opposition’s quest to overthrow the conservative nationalist leader, who has been accused of undermining the country’s democratic institutions.

“He alleges that the opposition would send untrained children to Ukraine to die,” Márki-Zay said, as he waited to be featured at one of his final campaign events ahead of Sunday’s election.

“Now hundreds of thousands of Hungarians are afraid that if Orbán loses and the opposition wins, we will send their children to Ukraine to die,” he said. “That’s how evil this Orbán fake news machine is.”

After six opposition parties spanning the entire political spectrum managed to form a united front last October to oust the far-right anti-immigrant prime minister for the first time in more than a decade, it seemed that ‘Orbán, 58, and his Fidesz party could be on the ropes.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has complicated the final month of the election, with polls showing Orbán, who has been embraced by influential US conservatives such as Tucker Carlson, ahead of the opposition by 5 percentage points on average. .

In his latest campaign push to energize voters, the united opposition has taken advantage of Orbán’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hungarian opposition candidate like Peter Márki-Zay, seen here in Budapest on Tuesday, said it had been difficult to make Orbán pay the political price for his sympathy with Moscow.
Hungarian opposition candidate like Peter Márki-Zay, seen here in Budapest on Tuesday, said it had been difficult to make Orbán pay the political price for his sympathy with Moscow.Lauren Egan/NBC News

Opposition candidates have portrayed Orbán as a Putin pawn, pointing to the dozens of meetings the two leaders have had over the years, including as recently as Feb. 1, just days before the invasion.

They criticized Orbán for making deals with Russia, including awarding a Kremlin-owned company a contract to expand Hungary’s only nuclear power plant and authorizing the International Investment Bank, a Moscow-backed financial institution that, according to critics, is a cover for Russian intelligence operations. , to set up its headquarters in Budapest.

And Orbán’s insistence that Hungary remain “neutral” in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, they argue, has only further isolated Hungary from its European allies.

But making Orbán pay a political price for his friendship with Moscow has proven difficult for the opposition, even as Orbán stood out from other members of the European Union and NATO for refusing to strongly condemn Putin’s actions, a stance that drew direct criticism from Ukrainian President Volodymyr. Zelensky.

Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank, said that while Orbán’s emphasis on neutrality was “bizarre” given Hungary’s status as an EU member and of NATO, his message struck a chord with a nation. fears that he is on the verge of conflict.

“There is a certain rallying effect around the flag in the sense that many voters think a more experienced government might be better to avoid the worst,” Kreko said.

Fidesz supporters are counting on Orbán’s message of stability to keep him in power for a fourth consecutive term.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses the pre-election march
A supporter of Orban wears a traditional Hungarian outfit during a Fidesz march in Budapest. Older voters often rely on pro-government radio for information and are not as comfortable on social media, where some independent Hungarian news agencies are still active. Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sitting over a bowl of halászlé, a traditional Hungarian fish stew, at a lunch spot on the Danube frequented by MPs, Zsolt Németh, who founded the Fidesz party with Orbán in the 1980s as a student and sits on the Parliament since 1990, maintained that the war had reframed the election in favor of Fidesz.

Many voters identify with the roughly 140,000 ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, most of whom live in the western region of Transcarpathia, Németh said, making Orbán’s message of peace and neutrality particularly attractive.

And many voters fear the conflict could spill over into Hungary, which borders Ukraine – a fear fueled by memories of 1956 when the Soviet Union’s Red Army brutally suppressed Hungary’s revolt against Moscow. Bullet holes from the failed uprising can still be seen in buildings around Budapest.

Now a Russian invasion next door could be what saves Orbán, who launched his political career in a 1989 speech at a ceremony honoring one of the leaders of the 1956 uprising who was executed by the Soviets, making a bold appeal to time for free elections and demanding that Soviet troops leave Hungary.

“We have to choose between Putin and Europe, this is the approach of the Hungarian opposition. And our communication is that we have to choose between war and peace,” Németh said.

“The Hungarian public is now scared. And I think they will choose peace and security,” he said.

The opposition said it was difficult to compete with Fidesz’s portrayal as warmongers who would endanger peace in Hungary, given the media control Orbán has built over the past 10 years. which makes it very difficult and sometimes impossible. , for Hungarians to access independent information.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses the pre-election march
Many voters identify with ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, which makes Orbán’s message of peace and neutrality appealing.Akos Stiller/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This challenge is particularly difficult in the more rural parts of the country. These regions have a high concentration of older voters who depend on pro-government radio for information and are not as comfortable on social media, where some independent Hungarian news agencies are still active.

But that doesn’t mean the opposition isn’t trying to break through.

On the Monday before the election, united opposition leaders stood in the central square of Mezőkövesd, a small country town led by a mayor accused of being one of Orbán’s cronies, to urge voters to support Márki-Zay on April 3.

“The chance that we win areas like this is almost impossible, but of course we will try,” lamented Zsolt Gréczy, a Democratic Coalition MP, pointing to the mayor’s office across from the town square, where a camera peeked behind the curtains of a first-story window. Gréczy said the mayor was recording who in the city attended the opposition event.

“It’s a small town and everyone knows everyone. And everyone present here will be called out by name as traitors who vote for the opponents,” he said.

András Fekete-Győr, a founding member of the liberal Momentum party, which is part of the united opposition, said the media environment in Hungary has forced the opposition to travel to towns like Mezőkövesd to speak with undecided voters who , otherwise, might not meet their campaign. a message.

The biggest challenge in the final days of the race, Fekete-Győr said, is convincing “undecided voters that in a time when there is war in the neighborhood…it is worth voting for change “.

“Change is always stressful for people. Even though they hate the system, they have learned to live within the system,” he said.

This is how Sandor Balog, 54, a voter from Mezőkövesd, envisioned his next move in the election.

“Everyone is scared,” Balog said. “But Orbán keeps Hungary safe, it’s good that he keeps Hungary out of the war. We have to vote for him.

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