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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 won a victory so big that you can see it from the moon, and you can certainly see it from Brussels,” Orbán said in a speech in front of the Danube river on election night.

“The whole world has seen tonight in Budapest that Christian democratic politics, conservative civic politics and patriotic politics have won. We are telling Europe that this is not the past, this is the future,” he continued.

With 75 percent of votes tallied, Orbán’s Fidesz-led coalition had won 54 percent while the opposition coalition, United for Hungary, had 34 percent, according to the National Election Office.

The victory allows 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 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

Speaking to reports at the opposition’s election night event at Budapest’s outdoor skating rink, Márki-Zay said that the election was “not free and fair.”

“The results show that after five years of brainwashing, Orbán can always win any election in this country,” he said.

Orbán, who has been embraced by influential American conservatives such as Tucker Carlson for championing culture war issues, began his re-election campaign stoking 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 argued 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 rushed 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 accused Fidesz of committing voter fraud on Thursday after a local 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 eligible to participate 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 sent a full observation mission to Hungary, only the second time it has done so in a E.U. country.

Freedom House, a U.S.-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 face 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 E.U. has threatened to withhold funds that Hungary relies on heavily due to Orbán’s assaults against democratic norms.

Orbán on Sunday won his fifth term overall. He first governed in 1998-2002 before returning to 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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