Hungarian PM Orban and opposition await results after hard-fought vote
Hungarians turned out in high numbers to vote Sunday with nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban seeking a fourth term in a hard-fought general election overshadowed by the war in neighbouring Ukraine.
The 58-year-old faces a stiff challenge from six united opposition parties determined to roll back the "illiberal" revolution Orban's Fidesz party has pursued during 12 consecutive years in office.
His administration has presided over repeated confrontations with the European Union, including over the neutering of the press and judiciary, and measures targeting the LGBTQ community.
Polls closed at 7pm and shortly beforehand turnout stood at 67.8 percent, almost matching the record participation seen at the last national elections in 2018.
Government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs has said a definitive picture of results will likely emerge between 11:00 pm and midnight (2100 to 2200 GMT).
Most pre-election surveys put Fidesz ahead but pollsters have emphasised the unpredictability of the race.
Orban, dressed in a black suit and wearing a determined expression, told reporters he was expecting a "great victory" as he voted at a school in a leafy Budapest suburb.
Peter Marki-Zay, 49, the conservative uniting the opposition, characterised the election as a battle against "unfair and impossible circumstances".
The father of seven cast his ballot after attending mass with his family in the city of Hodmezovasarhely, where he won a shock election to become mayor in 2018, defeating the ruling Fidesz party.
"Regardless of the result, this election is not free," he said.
The opposition has been all but absent from state media.
Orban dismissed such complaints and insisted the vote was "fair".
More than 200 international observers are monitoring an election in Hungary, an EU member, for the first time, along with thousands of domestic volunteers from both camps.
- 'Ruined the country' -
Budapest resident Agnes Kunyik, 56, told AFP she backed the opposition.
"They have ruined our country, destroyed it," she said of Fidesz, becoming visibly emotional.
Flora Arpad, a 19-year-old student and first-time voter also said she had "voted for change", but added: "I don't think we can win, the media power of the government is simply too strong."
While the capital is fertile territory for the opposition, however, the election will be decided in around 30 small-town swing seats out of 106 directly elected constituencies.
Marki-Zay has criss-crossed these areas to reach voters directly in a bid to break through government "propaganda".
By contrast, Andras Pulai of the opposition leaning Publicus polling institute pointed out Orban had not held any open campaign events apart from a final rally on Friday.
Instead, Orban preferred "closed events where he talked to his most loyal supporters", said Pulai.
Retired engineer Lajos Rebay, 78, said he was voting Fidesz because "lots of positive things have happened in the last 12 years," adding: "We must continue."
Given the advantage Fidesz enjoys under the electoral system, "the opposition needs to have a three-to-four-point lead to win a majority" in the 199-seat chamber, Pulai said.
- 'War changed everything' -
Russia's February 24 invasion of Ukraine has cast a long shadow over the campaign. Orban told supporters on Friday that "the war changed everything".
Diplomatically, Orban fell into line with EU support for Kyiv despite his long-standing closeness to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But at home, Orban has struck a neutral and even anti-Ukrainian tone at times, refusing to let weapons for Ukraine cross Hungarian territory.
He has cast himself as the protector of stability and accuses the opposition of "warmongering," alleging that they would boycott vital Russian energy imports -- a charge that Marki-Zay denies.
Marki-Zay has tried to frame the vote as "a clear choice: Putin or Europe?"
Budapest resident Regina, 25 -- who refused to give her surname -- told AFP she had spoiled her ballot in the "twisted" referendum which she said had portrayed LGBTQ Hungarians as an "enemy".