04/08/2018 12:01 pm ET

Hungary Votes In An Election Set To Test Far-Right Leader Viktor Orban's Grip On Power

The vote also has huge implications beyond Hungary's borders.

BUDAPEST ― Hungarians gathered across the country to vote in national elections Sunday, bringing to close a campaign filled with anti-migrant rhetoric and nationalist fervor. Far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is likely to win a third consecutive term in power, aided by what observers say is a strong influence over the country’s media and an electoral system engineered to benefit his party.

At polling stations in the more liberal capital of Budapest, long lines of voters waited in the sun to cast their ballots while some expressed their disdain at the government’s overwhelmingly negative campaign. 

“They don’t promise anything, they don’t have a program, they cannot give us anything,” said Eszter Imrényi, a 25-year-old student. “All they can give us is fear.” 

Orbán and his Fidesz party-controlled government made migration the central focus of the campaign, plastering ads around the country showing a crowd of migrants with a large red “stop” sign overlayed on top. In speeches, Orbán railed against “foreign interests” that wanted to bring massive numbers of migrants into the country and ruin Hungary’s ethnic homogeneity.

The Fidesz campaign also focused its vitriol on 86-year-old Hungarian-American George Soros, with Orbán constantly accusing the Jewish billionaire of trying to overthrow the government by employing thousands of agents to do his bidding. Critics and Jewish groups condemned the anti-Soros campaign for promoting age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes.

“I have a sister, she’s turning seven this summer, she’s in kindergarten,” Imrényi said. “She was asking me: ‘Soros ... what kind of witch is he?’”

“How come my sister even knows this guy’s name? It’s terrible.” 

Bernadett Szabo / Reuters
Current Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán leaves a polling booth.

Hungary’s vote has drawn international attention not only for its spiteful rhetoric and the implications for the country itself, but because critics fear Orbán’s rule threatens to create immense rifts in the European Union and provides a model of illiberalism that could spread to other states.

If Orbán’s Fidesz party retains a two-thirds majority in parliament, opponents say it will have free rein to move ahead with its plans to impose restrictive laws against NGOs, oppose the EU’s refugee programs and undermine democratic institutions.

“They don’t promise anything, they don’t have a program, they cannot give us anything. All they can give us is fear.”

Opposing Orban’s rule is a field of parties that range from a largely fractured group of left-liberal parties to Jobbik, a party with a far-right history that in recent years has tried to moderate its messaging and disavow its anti-Semitic, anti-Roma past. Although liberal parties attempted to increase their cooperation in the lead up to the vote, neither the left nor Jobbik are expected to be able to beat Fidesz.

But the campaign has been more competitive than expected. Turnout in the election on Sunday was also exceedingly high, reaching around 42 percent as of midday alone, according to the National Election Office.

“I’m really happy it’s over and now we can vote.” said Máté Linka, a 27-year-old lawyer. “It was a really disgusting campaign.”

After seeing friends and family members leave the country in recent years to find opportunities elsewhere in the EU, Linka and other young voters who spoke with HuffPost hoped that a shift in government could offer solutions.

Bernadett Szabo / Reuters
People wait in line to vote during Hungarian parliamentary elections at a polling station in Budapest, Hungary, on April 8, 2018.

This is Hungary’s second general election since Orbán’s government changed the election law to switch from two rounds of voting to just one, making it more difficult for voters who oppose Fidesz to rally around a single opposition candidate.  

Orban relies on strong support in rural areas and on the votes of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries, whom he granted voting rights following his election win in 2010. 

“This was the first government that gave us the same rights as the natives,” said Orsolya Laura Peterfy, a 35-year-old English teacher who was born in Romania and gained the right to vote under Orban. “This government helped us with money and support.”

Even among voters who oppose Orban, few believe this is a vote he could lose. Instead, they hope that this vote will perhaps limit his power and send a message that many in the country don’t support his rule.

“This election is not about to win over Fidesz, because we don’t have a chance,” said Gabor Bone, a 45-year-old chef.

“It’s just to make sure in four years time we have the chance to vote again, and that time we’re gonna win.”