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Hungarian leader with close ties to Putin toes the line on the war ahead of election

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

Standing behind an outdoor stage in Budapest’s buzzing Széll Kálmán Square, Márki-Zay said that Orbán’s tight control of the media and his ability to spread “fake news and false allegations” about Russia’s war on Ukraine had created an enormous disadvantage for the opposition’s quest to unseat the conservative nationalist leader, who has been accused of chipping away at the country’s democratic institutions.

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

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

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

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has complicated the last month of the election campaign, with polls showing Orbán, who has been embraced by influential American conservatives, such as Tucker Carlson, pulling ahead to lead the opposition by an average of 5 percentage points.

In its final push to energize voters, the united opposition has seized on Orbán’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hungarian opposition candidate Peter Márki-Zay, seen here in Budapest on Tuesday, says it has been difficult to get Orbán to pay a political price for his friendliness toward Moscow.
Hungarian opposition candidate Peter Márki-Zay, seen here in Budapest on Tuesday, says it has been difficult to get Orbán to pay a political price for his friendliness toward Moscow.Lauren Egan / NBC News

Opposition candidates have portrayed Orbán as Putin’s 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 have criticized Orbán for striking deals with Russia, including awarding a Kremlin-owned company a contract to expand Hungary’s only nuclear power plant, and allowing the International Investment Bank, a Moscow-backed financial institution that critics say is a cover for Russian intelligence operations, to locate its headquarters in Budapest.

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

But making Orbán pay a political price for his friendliness toward Moscow has proved difficult for the opposition, even as the prime minister has stood out from other European Union and NATO members for refusing to forcefully condemn Putin’s actions, a position that drew direct criticism from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Peter Kreko, the director of the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank, said that while Orbán’s focus on neutrality was “bizarre” given Hungary’s status as a member of the E.U. and NATO, his message was striking a chord with a nation concerned it could be teetering on the edge of conflict.

“There is some rally-around-the-flag effect in the sense that a lot of voters think that a more experienced government might be best in order to avoid the worst,” he said.

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

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban Addresses Pre-Election March
An Orban supporter wears traditional Hungarian attire during a Fidesz march in Budapest. Older voters often rely on pro-government radio for information and are not as fluent in social media, where some independent Hungarian news organizations 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 River frequented by members of Parliament, Zsolt Németh, who founded the Fidesz party with Orbán in the 1980s as a student and has served in Parliament since 1990, argued that the war reframed the election in Fidesz’s favor.

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

And many voters are afraid the conflict could spill over into Hungary, which borders Ukraine — a fear that is stoked by memories from 1956 when the then-Soviet Union’s Red Army brutally quashed 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 famously launched his political career in a speech in 1989 at a ceremony honoring one of the leaders of the 1956 uprising who had been executed by the Soviets, making a bold call at the time for free elections and demanding that Soviet troops leave Hungary.

“You have to choose between Putin and Europe, that 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 has said it is challenging to compete with Fidesz’s portrayal of them as warmongers who will put Hungary’s peace at risk, given the control of the media that Orbán has built up over the past 10 years, making it very difficult, and at times impossible, for Hungarians to access independent news.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban Addresses Pre-Election March
Many voters identify with ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine, making Orbán’s message of peace and neutrality appealing.Akos Stiller / Bloomberg via Getty Images

That challenge is especially difficult in more rural areas of the country. Those regions have a high concentration of older voters who rely on pro-government radio for information and are not as fluent in social media, where some independent Hungarian news organizations are still active.

But that doesn’t mean the opposition isn’t making an effort to break through.

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

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

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“This is a small town and everybody knows everybody. And everybody who is present here will be marked down by name as the traitors who are voting for the opponents,” he said.

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

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

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

That was how Sandor Balog, 54, a voter from Mezőkövesd, viewed his upcoming decision in the election. 

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

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