BUDAPEST: Hungary’s divisive Prime Minister Viktor Orban is tipped to waltz into another term in elections on Sunday, thanks to an improving economy, a weak opposition and according to critics, underhand tactics.
After four bumpy years that saw the charismatic right-winger labelled an autocrat by some and a saviour by others, his Fidesz party may even retain its two-thirds majority in parliament, polls show.
After sweeping to power in 2010, Orban, a former student leader in 1989 anti-communist demonstrations, says he is cleaning up the mess left by eight years of Socialist rule that followed his first term (1998-2002).
“We have turned an old banger with punctured wheels into a race car, even though half the world has attacked us,” Orban, 50, told a massive rally of supporters on Saturday.
The patriotic father-of-five and former semi-professional footballer, keen on conservative values like family and the Church, has pushed through swathes of new legislation as well as a new constitution.
This has included measures that critics at home and abroad say have neutered key democratic institutions such as the media and the judiciary in the European Union member state.
In addition, Orban has been accused of cosying up to Russia, pandering to the far-right with nationalist rhetoric, re-writing history and failing to tackle a rise in anti-Semitism.
And while trumpeting Hungary’s exit from recession, experts say Orban has done little to fix underlying economic problems, despite the impression given by a popular 20-percent cut in utility prices.
But nevertheless, and despite protests earlier in his term, the Oxford-educated lawyer remains popular, while the divided opposition has struggled to be seen as a credible alternative in voters’ eyes. The three main centre-left parties only agreed in January to unite for the election, with the head of the Socialists, Attila Mesterhazy, 39, joint candidate for prime minister.
Orban’s campaign has successfully targeted Mesterhazy and the alliance’s other leaders — former prime ministers Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsany — as tainted by past failures. Few have forgotten how Gyurcsany, prime minister from 2004 to 2009, was caught on tape in 2006 saying his government had “been lying morning, noon and night”. “Viktor Orban has been adept at being on the same wavelength as a large part of Hungarian society,” Zsolt Bayer, a co-founder of Fidesz and a close friend of Orban, told AFP.
Polls give Fidesz an apparently unassailable lead of 48-49 percent of decided voters, compared to 30-31 percent for the leftist opposition, with some 20 percent undecided.
The far-right Jobbik party, the anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party that is the third largest in parliament, is on 15-18 percent, with one recent survey suggesting it may be neck-and-neck for second place.
Just to make sure of victory, however, Orban has revamped the electoral system, giving 500,000 Hungarians abroad voting rights, redrawing constituencies and introducing a first-past-the-post system.
Think-tank Budapest Political Capital says that these changes mean that the vote will be “free but not fair”, making it easier for Orban to secure two-thirds majority with a smaller share of the vote.
In addition to much of the media being either pro-Orban or devoid of politics, Fidesz has also bent campaign rules, using a nominally independent group to plaster the country with election posters.
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