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Hungary's Orbán seeks 4th term as Putin ties test voters


In Hungary, it's election day, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban is facing his toughest challenge yet. Orban's far-right nationalist party, in power for 12 years, is up against a coalition of parties from across the political spectrum that have unified to try to oust him from power. NPR's Rob Schmitz is in Budapest, and he spent the day talking to voters. Hey, Rob.


PARKS: So under Orban's leadership, Hungary's government has chipped away against democratic institutions. They've chipped away against human rights. And the European Union has responded to this by withholding some funding to the country. How are voters there responding?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Orban has made it clear that he wants his government to be more like that of Russia or China and less like the democracies of the West. Orban's political base is in rural Hungary, and the majority of the 2 million people who live here in Budapest, a cosmopolitan city, disagree with his vision, people like Tamara Tegsez. I spoke to her outside her voting precinct this morning. Here's what she said.

TAMARA TEGSEZ: I read the international press, and there were times in the past 8 to 10 years where I felt ashamed to be a Hungarian because of how Orban behaved and the way we behave now in regards to the war in Ukraine.

PARKS: Right. So Hungary does share a border with Ukraine. How much of a shadow is the Russian invasion having over this election?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have come to Hungary to flee the war. And while Orban has condemned the war, he's kept up good relations with his friend, Vladimir Putin, throughout this war. Domestically, this has put him in an awkward position. Orban insists his priority is peace and that the West has pushed Russia to wage this war. Another voter I spoke to, 76-year-old Kahlman Bodeesh, defended Orban.

KAHLMAN BODEESH: (Speaking Hungarian).

SCHMITZ: And, Miles, he's saying here that he voted for Orban to keep Hungary independent. He's saying that the U.S. and Hungary's opposition parties want to drag Hungary into Russia's war and that would devastate Hungary's economy. And what he's saying here really echoes the talking points of Hungary's state propaganda that you see on television and in the newspapers here.

PARKS: So experts think this race is going to be really close. Can you tell us a little bit more about the opposition to Orban?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. The opposition is made up of six parties, from the right and from the left. And they've rallied behind Peter Marki-Zay, a conservative Catholic mayor of a city in rural Hungary. He wants Hungary to be closer to the EU and the U.S., and he wants an end to what he insists is a corrupt government. But last night at his final campaign event here in Budapest, only a few hundred people showed up. It was raining, but, you know, it didn't show this rousing show of support, and it has underlined the challenges of unseating a leader like Orban.

PARKS: Do we have any idea when we'll know the results?

SCHMITZ: Well, we expect to know the results either later this evening on Sunday or Monday morning.

PARKS: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz in Budapest. Thanks so much, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.