BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A diverse coalition of opposition parties made their final appeal to Hungarian voters on Saturday ahead of the country’s fiercely fought election that will decide whether nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban continues his autocratic rule for a fourth consecutive term.
Several hundred supporters of the six-party coalition, United For Hungary, gathered in the rain in central Budapest one day before the vote on Sunday. The movement’s leader, Peter Marki-Zay, said this national election was about bringing an end to “the most corrupt government in our 1,000-year history,” and ushering in a new era of inclusive democracy in the Central European and European Union nation.
“We welcome everyone, right or left, Christian, Jewish or atheist, of any origin or sexual orientation. Because we believe that what’s important is not what divides us, but what unites us,” Marki-Zay said.
A small-town mayor and self-proclaimed conservative Christian, Marki-Zay, 49, became the figurehead of the six-party coalition after he was selected by an opposition primary in October to challenge Orban for the post of prime minister.
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The six parties, which include the liberal Democratic Coalition, the centrist Momentum and the right-wing Jobbik, as well as smaller green parties and Socialists, are for the first time running against Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party as a united bloc.
That hard-fought strategy of total unity, they say, is the only way to overcome structural impediments to defeating Orban, including what they call a media environment dominated by Fidesz allies and unfairly gerrymandered electoral districts that give Orban’s party significantly more parliamentary seats than its portion of the popular vote.
Recent polls suggest the race will be the closest in more than a decade, but give Fidesz a small lead. Some analysts suggest that due to Hungary’s electoral map, the opposition bloc will need to defeat Fidesz by 3 to 4 points nationally to gain a majority in parliament.
United For Hungary has campaigned on restoring Hungary’s alliances with partners in the EU and NATO, which they say have suffered under the last 12 years of Orban’s leadership.
At the Saturday rally, 18 opposition candidates running in Budapest districts enumerated elements of their program, including ending what they call widespread corruption under Orban. They also want Hungary to secure billions in EU financial support that has been withheld from Orban’s government over concerns about democratic backsliding and violations of the rule of law.
Marki-Zay also spoke at length about Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, a war that has transformed the election campaigns of both Fidesz and the opposition.
Orban, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has refused to supply Ukraine with weapons or allow their transfer across the Hungarian-Ukrainian border. Orban has also insisted on maintaining economic ties with Moscow, including importing Russian fossil fuels.
That ambiguous approach to the war in Ukraine, Marki-Zay said, has made Sunday’s election about whether Hungary would belong to the democratic West or among the autocracies of the East.
“This struggle is now bigger than us. The war in Ukraine gave this struggle special meaning,” Marki-Zay said, adding that “Viktor Orban has been left alone” among European leaders.
Ahead of the rally, Ukrainian mothers and their children who fled Ukraine as refugees marched in central Budapest to protest Russia’s war on their home country. Some held up signs asking Orban to “stop supporting murderers.”
One protester, Margaretha, left Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv for Budapest two weeks after the start of the war. The 25-year-old graphic designer said since she was unable to stay in Ukraine “I have to at least contribute from the outside.”
“I feel it is also very important to grab the attention of Hungarians to historical connections that they also had to Russia, so they can rethink their attitude,” she said, pointing out that Hungary was under Soviet domination for more than 40 years.
Closing the rally, Marki-Zay said his coalition was “standing at the gate of victory,” and called on Hungarian youths to convince their parents and grandparents to vote for change.
“Tomorrow, together, we can win back our national pride. Let us be proud once again to say that we are Hungarians,” he said.