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Hungary election: Who's running? What are the key issues? Will Viktor Orban be waving goodbye?

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By Rita Palfi
Viktor Orban
Viktor Orban   -   Copyright  Credit: AP   -  

Hungary's longtime prime minister Viktor Orban will face his toughest challenge yet when the country heads to the polls on Sunday (3 April).

Orban -- who has served in the post since 2010, as well as from 1998 to 2002 -- is seeking his fifth term in office and fourth in a row.

He will go up against Peter Marki-Zay, who heads up an opposition coalition that has united in its desire to oust him.

But the election is not the only matter on voters' minds. They will also be asked their views on a controversial LGBT rights referendum.

Why should the rest of Europe care about the election?

Orban has long been at odds with the European Commission. His critics say he has moved the country away from key EU values, including radically overhauling Hungary's legal system, undermining rule of law and initiating anti-migration policies.

One of his latest battles with Brussels has been over moves to withhold EU funds from countries that don't adhere to the bloc's core principles.

The Hungarian opposition coalition says Hungary belongs in the EU and they pledge to improve cooperation with the West.

When Brussels criticised a new law in Hungary that prohibits the "display or promotion" of homosexuality or gender reassignment in television programmes, films, and sexual education programmes in schools, Orban accused European leaders of acting like "colonialists".

What's different about this election?

In an unprecedented move, six opposition parties teamed up to try and oust Orban by choosing one candidate to represent them all: Péter Márki-Zay.

He will go head-to-head with Orban to be Hungary's next prime minister.

Beyond the opposition coalition, two smaller parties might get into parliament by beating the 5% vote share threshold.

Mi Hazánk Mozgalom is a right-wing party that took politicians from Jobbik, which used to be on that side of the political spectrum before moving more mainstream. Support for Mi Hazánk Mozgalom grew during the COVID pandemic as it was the only party against vaccines.

The other is a joke movement, called the Hungarian Two-Tailed Dog Party.

Who is Viktor Orban?

To his supporters, Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban represents true European values: Christianity; the predominance of the nation-state; government for the masses, not the elites.

To his critics, he’s an opportunistic populist who cares only about his own power and has made Hungary a pariah within Europe.

He first came to power in May 1998, after Fidesz won the most seats in parliament at the general election. Orban was the youngest head of government in Europe at the time. After losing the elections in 2002, he spent eight years in opposition and came back to power in 2010.

During the last 12 years, Orban’s politics and alliances have changed a lot. While he has been having more and more disputes with the EU, he has established strong ties with authoritarian leaders like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping.

Who is Orban's challenger Peter Marki-Zay?

Peter Marki-Zay, barely known outside the country, was the surprise winner of Hungary's first-ever opposition primary, which saw several parties come together to choose one candidate.

He triumphed after Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony withdrew and support him instead.

Marki-Zay had also been a somewhat surprise package in 2018 when he won a mayoral election against a candidate from the ruling Fidesz party in the southeastern town of Hódmezővásárhely. The town is considered a Fidesz stronghold.

The 49-year-old is a father of seven with strong Christian and conservative values. He even voted for Fidesz in 2010 but said he was disappointed by their politics. When he ran for mayor in Hódmezővásárhely as an independent he was backed by all the opposition parties.

Credit: AP
Hungary's joint opposition candidate for prime minister, Peter Marki-Zay speaks at one of his campaign event, in Budapest, Hungary, Tuesday, March 29, 2022Credit: AP

How does Hungary's election work?

One vote goes to the party list and one to a constituency candidate. Of the 199 seats in Hungary's parliament, 106 are single-member constituencies decided by the first-past-the-post system. The remaining 93 seats are decided proportionally by votes from national lists.

Who can vote?

Everyone who has Hungarian citizenship is eligible to vote – 8.2 million people in total.

But Hungarians who live abroad and do not have a permanent address in the country can only vote by post and on the national list. They are not able to vote at the constituency level.

Hungarians living abroad or abroad on the day of the election can vote at one of the 146 Hungarian missions abroad if they register their interest at least eight days before the election. They get both their votes for the individual candidates and the national list but they cannot vote by post.

What are the key issues driving the election?

The election campaign was totally changed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It put Orban, a long-time ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a delicate position.

Even his allies in the region -- the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland -- have attacked him for not taking a stronger stance against Moscow.

But Orban may not care: the conflict in a neighbouring country could incite a "rally round the flag effect", which tends to favour the incumbent.

The opposition coalition’s key campaign issue has been alleged corruption in Hungary. Transparency International ranks Hungary as one of the worst in the EU on its corruption perceptions index.

Meanwhile, both sides have talked of their economic plans and accused each other of wanting to introduce austerity. Regardless, urgent steps are likely to be needed to avoid a crisis as the impact of the Ukraine war, high energy prices and a lack of COVID recovery funds from Brussels begin to bite.

What do the opinion polls say?

Most of the opinion polls suggest that Orban's Fidesz-KDNP alliance will narrowly win the election.

One of the latest polls, conducted by the think tank IDEA Institute between March 22 and 28, put support for Orban's Fidesz party at 41% of the electorate, up from 40% in early March, while the six-party opposition alliance stood at 39%, gaining two points from the previous survey.

Credit: AP
Participants pose during a gay pride parade in Budapest, Hungary, Saturday, July 24, 2021Credit: AP

LGBT rights referendum

As well as the election, voters will also be asked for their views on legislation that limits schools' teaching about homosexuality and transgender issues.

Critics say the law, passed last year, was discriminatory, contravened European values and equates homosexuality with paedophilia.

The government responded by offering a referendum, asking the following four questions:

  • Do you support the teaching of sexual orientation to underage children in public education institutions without parental consent?
  • Do you support the promotion of sex reassignment therapy for underage children?
  • Do you support the unrestricted exposure of underage children to sexually explicit media content that may affect their development?
  • Do you support the showing of sex-change media content to minors?