The war in Ukraine plays a major role in the Hungarian elections

By Justin Spike | Associated Press

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Two mass rallies organized by opposing political forces filled the streets of the Hungarian capital on Tuesday in mutual shows of strength ahead of the April 3 election, a contest that will determine whether populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban wins a fourth consecutive term.

Campaign rallies, held by supporters of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party and a coalition of six opposition parties aiming to topple the autocratic leader, have been dominated by anxiety over Russia’s war against neighboring Ukraine and the future of Hungary’s position in a changing geopolitical landscape.

Several hundred thousand of Orban’s supporters gathered on the west bank of the Danube on Tuesday before crossing the city’s Margaret Bridge towards the Hungarian Parliament, where Orban spoke at length about Hungary’s need to remain in the away from the war in Ukraine.

“It’s in our interest not to be a sacrificial pawn in someone else’s war. We can’t win anything in this war, but we have everything to lose,” said Orban, who has led Hungary since 2010. “There can no longer be a single Hungarian left between the Ukrainian anvil and the Russian hammer.

Orban’s election campaign – previously focused on issues of social division such as his opposition to immigration and his hostility to the LGBTQ community – was turned upside down by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, Orban has carefully sought to balance Hungary’s strained relations with its allies in the European Union and the NATO military alliance with its close ties to Russia under President Vladimir Putin.

Widely seen as Putin’s closest ally in the EU, Orban has in recent weeks agreed to back sanctions imposed on Russia by the 27-nation bloc and condemned Moscow’s violent assault on Ukraine, but without ever mentioning Putin by name.

Yet as Russian forces strike Ukrainian towns and more than 250,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled the violence in Hungary, Orban has insisted that his country stay out of the war. He has refused to provide military aid to Ukraine or allow shipments of lethal weapons to enter Ukraine from Hungary.

Orban sought to portray himself and his government as the guarantors of Hungary’s security, and made dubious claims that opposition parties would send arms and troops to Ukraine.

“The left wants to send weapons and Hungarian soldiers to the front,” Orban told his supporters. “We will not allow the left to drag Hungary into this war. ”

Fidesz supporter Erzsebet Labady, a 79-year-old pensioner from Budapest, said she believed the prime minister and his government were working to restore peace in Ukraine and that Orban’s close relationship with Moscow had economically benefited Hungary.

“If Orban was ever on good terms with Putin, he only did it for the good of Hungary so that we would get raw materials,” she said.

This is not the opinion of United for Hungary, a coalition of six opposition parties which have joined forces to counter the ruling Fidesz party. He presented the April elections as a historic choice between Western democracy and Eastern autocracy symbolized by Putin’s Russia, and sought to hold Orban’s government to account for its close ties to Russia.

At another rally of thousands on the Danube, opposition coalition leader independent conservative Peter Marki-Zay said voter choice this year has “never been easier … Instead of the East, we choose Europe”.

“Because of selfishness and our own lust for power…we chose the backward East over the developing West,” Marki-Zay said. “We voluntarily returned to the wrong side of history, but in 20 days there will be elections in Hungary.”

Opposition parties, which according to polls are closely tracking Fidesz less than three weeks before the election, criticized Orban for increasing Hungary’s energy dependence on Russia and for pushing for close diplomatic relations with Moscow which they say have betrayed Hungary’s commitments to its Western allies.

Opposition supporter Gyorgy Hortobagyi, 54, said while he considered himself a conservative, he feared “we were drifting back into the Soviet sphere of interest”.

“The Russian Empire has never brought us anything good for hundreds of years, and now, unfortunately, Orban has taken this line,” Hortobagyi said. “I am terribly sad because I see that my children could again live in such a sphere of Russian influence if we do not act.”

Former Polish Prime Minister and EU official Donald Tusk also spoke at the opposition rally, who said an ‘authoritarian, censorious and corrupt state’ had developed in Budapest under Orban, a state that took an ambiguous position on the war in Ukraine.

“No decent and honest man should doubt which side he is on in this fight,” Tusk said, adding that the results of the Hungarian elections were important not only for Hungary, but for all of Europe, including Europe. Ukraine.

Yet Orban’s balancing act between the West and Russia resonates with his supporters. After his speech, Istvan Voros, 74, said Orban’s policies ensured peace in Hungary.

“It’s a double game and Orban is good at it,” he said. “I’m not a politician, just a voter who wants to stay on good terms with the Russians.”

Laura T. Thrasher