SZEKESFEHERVAR, Hungary â€” Viktor OrbÃ¡n on Friday told Hungarians not to experiment with new leadership at a time of crisis as he held his final campaign rally ahead of Sundayâ€™s parliamentary election.
The longtime prime ministerâ€™s message resonated with a large crowd who filled a square in SzÃ©kesfehÃ©rvÃ¡r, a city in central Hungary where OrbÃ¡n went to high school.Â
Yet while OrbÃ¡nâ€™s Fidesz party is ahead in the polls, the opposition says the electoral system is unfair and he has faced criticism from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who called outÂ the Hungarian leader for not offering stronger support to his beleaguered country.
OrbÃ¡n, who has been in power since 2010, told supporters that only his government can safeguard Hungaryâ€™s security â€” arguing that the opposition would drag the country into war.Â
â€œThe war changed everything, it also changed our campaign,â€ OrbÃ¡n said. The question for Hungarian voters now, he declared, is â€œwar or peace.â€
OrbÃ¡n has nurtured a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent years, while maintaining an uneasy relationship with neighboring Ukraine.Â But when Russia invaded Ukraine weeks ahead of Hungaryâ€™s election, the prime minister pivoted, sending a message to voters that Budapestâ€™s best interest is to be neither pro-Ukrainian nor pro-Russian.
Hungaryâ€™s opposition, the prime minister claimed, has made a deal with the Ukrainian government â€” and will provide Kyiv with weapons and support sanctions on Russian energy imports if it comes to office.Â The opposition, however, has rejected these claims as â€œpropaganda.â€
â€œThe Ukrainians canâ€™t ask us to help in such a way that in the meantime we ruin ourselves,â€ the prime minister said, adding: â€œOur heart is with them, but Hungary has to stand by its interests and has to stay out of this war.â€Â
In his campaign address, OrbÃ¡n presented himself as a safe pair of hands in a dangerous time for the region.Â
â€œWeâ€™ve already seen several crises,â€ OrbÃ¡n said. â€œI suggest to the Hungarians that we donâ€™t experiment now,â€ he said, adding that people are better off with â€œexperience, predictabilityâ€ and representatives who have already been tested.Â Â
The prime minister also touched upon a referendum set to take place alongside the election, which the government has promoted as designed to help protect children but which critics say is fanning the flames of homophobia in the country.Â
â€œWe also have to say clearly on Sunday: the mother is a woman, the father is a man â€” and leave our children alone,â€ OrbÃ¡n said, adding that â€œgender madnessâ€ should be stopped.Â
The prime ministerâ€™s messaging received an enthusiastic welcome in the square in SzÃ©kesfehÃ©rvÃ¡r.Â
One 81-year-old woman in the crowd â€” who said sheÂ isÂ knownÂ locallyÂ as Aunt Teca â€” said â€œit is very important that there will be no war â€” thatâ€™s very important, thatâ€™s also why I came.â€
â€œWhat I like is that there is someone who doesnâ€™t allow that the West dictate and that others say how Hungary should live, how things should be here,â€ she said.Â
While Zelenskyy has called out Hungaryâ€™s leadership over its approach to the war, among OrbÃ¡nâ€™s core supporters, the Ukrainian leaderâ€™s message has not resonated.Â
Asked about Zelenskyyâ€™s critique of OrbÃ¡n, the elderly resident â€” who said she hails from a small village but has been living in SzÃ©kesfehÃ©rvÃ¡r since the 1950s â€” said she is â€œvery upsetâ€ with Zelenskyy.Â
â€œOur sons should not bleed over there â€” not to mention that they are always rather hostile to the Hungarians, and now they will bring us into war? No thank you.â€Â
Another local resident, who identified herself just as ViktÃ³ria, said it was â€œupliftingâ€ to see OrbÃ¡n in her hometown. â€œWe were here four years ago, and we will be here four years from now,â€ she said.Â
â€œWe are always with him,â€ she said, adding that she supports Fidesz because â€œthey are authentic, they are trustworthy, and I see that only they can make the future secure for us.â€Â
Standing next to her, another local, RÃ³za, added: â€œHe is one of Europeâ€™s greatest politicians â€” we can thank him a lot.â€
Meanwhile, in the opposition camp, politicians on Friday were urging their supporters not to lose hope despite what they describe as an uneven playing field.Â
Ahead of the election, both sides have accused each other of cheating, with OrbÃ¡nâ€™s opponents raising concerns in particular about a report that said some ballots filled out by Hungarian speakers in Romania were found dumped in landfill.
PÃ©ter MÃ¡rki-Zay, the oppositionâ€™s candidate for prime minister, described the race on FridayÂ as a battle between David and Goliath, pointing to gerrymandering, â€œan army of paid trolls,â€ a â€œpropaganda machineâ€ and â€œunlimited financial resources.â€Â
But, he wrote in a Facebook post, â€œletâ€™s not forget: in the battle between David and Goliath, David triumphed. Now, after 12 years, after 12 years of brainwashing, we have a real chance to replace Viktor OrbÃ¡n and his system.â€Â