Polls have closed in Hungary in an election to decide the future of autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is facing the biggest challenge yet to his controversial 12 years of rule.
Hungary’s National Election Commission said on April 3 that voters still in line at the 7 p.m. closing time would be allowed to cast their ballots and that first results are scheduled to be announced “at about 9 p.m.”
The election, set against the backdrop of Russia’s war in Ukraine, had a turnout of 62.92 percent as of 5 p.m., the election commission said.
The commission said that in the 2018 election -- which had a record number of voters and a turnout of 70.22 percent -- the 5 p.m. figure was slightly higher at 63.28 percent.
Unlike previous elections, Hungary’s opposition has pulled together in a united coalition aimed at defeating the 58-year-old Orban and his Fidesz party.
Opinion polls have given Fidesz and its partners a narrow lead over the six-party opposition grouping ahead of voting by Hungary's 8 million registered voters. But a significant segment of the electorate was said to be undecided in the final days of campaigning.
The tight race has given rise to concerns that Orban will not play fair in the balloting.
In an unprecedented move for an EU member state, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has deployed a full monitoring mission for the vote amid concerns over potential election fraud and the use of state resources to give the ruling party an unfair advantage.
Meanwhile, domestic issues have been pushed to the side for the most part in the campaign, which has instead been dominated by the war in Ukraine, which borders on Hungary.
Though Orban has supported Ukraine in general, he has also refused to allow NATO weapons to flow into its neighbor, saying Hungary should stay out of the war.
That message, according to opposition leader Peter Marki-Zay has made the vote as a simple one:
“The question is clear: Putin or Europe?”
Marki-Zay, 49, went even further in an interview with RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service this week, calling Orban a “traitor” who is putting Hungarians at risk.
"I continue to say that we have to stop Putin, not Brussels. Let's for once be on the right side of history, for once on the winning side," Marki-Zay said.
For his part, Orban has used the war to stir up the mix of conservatism and nationalism that has allowed him to govern for the past 12 years with a so-called supermajority of at least two-thirds of parliament, allowing Fidesz to enact deep changes while bypassing the opposition.
At a rally on April 1, Orban warned that an opposition victory at the polls would see weapons flow into Ukraine “the next day,” while energy imports from Russia would be cut off, harming Hungarians and the country’s economy.
He has also hit out at Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s criticism of the Hungarian government for its ties to Moscow.
“Elections have always been important, but with the war and the possibility of an economic crisis in Europe, the stakes are higher than ever,” Orban said in an interview on April 1 with Kossuth Radio.
When the campaign has strayed away from the war in Ukraine and toward domestic issues, Orban has trumpeted the country’s economic performance while glossing over issues such as the authoritarian tendencies of his government, which have raised the ire of the European Union and prompted the bloc to withhold billions of euros in pandemic relief funds.
Marki-Zay has chipped away at Fidesz’s power base, center-right voters, with his own blend of Catholic faith and conservatism.
Orban has long been accused by critics both in the EU and in Hungary of overseeing the dismantling of democratic institutions, exerting undue control over the media and judiciary, and facilitating corruption.
Marki-Zay has attacked Orban, who is looking to win a fourth consecutive term, for his policies at home and his close relationships with Moscow and Beijing, saying they have not only hurt Hungary’s international standing, but have had an economic impact as well.
"Even if it would mean a huge market and strategic opportunity, over the past 12 years Orban has failed to show that he has secured any sort of market, whether in China or in Russia," he said.
"It is not at all visible that Orban has developed the Hungarian economy,” he concluded.
The election will be held at the same time as a referendum on LGBT issues amid criticism that a law passed last year was homophobic.
The referendum will include questions on sex education programs in schools and the availability of information for children on gender reassignment.
Hungarian citizens will also be asked whether they support a ban on the publication of LGBT content that "influences the development of underage children.”
Polls opened at 6 a.m. local time and will close at 7 p.m.
Preliminary results are likely to be released later in the evening, unless the count is too close to call.