Voters wait in long lines as Hungary chooses next government

Voters wait in long lines as Hungary chooses next government
The Associated Press

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Long lines of Hungarian voters stretched for blocks Sunday outside polling stations in Budapest, with some waiting for two to three hours to cast their ballots as Prime Minister Viktor Orban sought a fourth term on a platform that demonized migrants.

Polls agree on the eventual triumph of Orban’s right-wing nationalist Fidesz party and its allied Christian Democrats in Sunday’s national vote but opposition leaders were encouraged by a high early turnout. A splintered opposition and Hungary’s complex electoral system make it hard to predict the expected margin of victory for Fidesz.

In all, 199 seats in parliament were up for grabs Sunday. Opposition parties are keen to make sure that Orban’s bloc does not sweep to a super-majority in which the autocratic leader could easily push through more constitutional changes.

The autocratic Orban has campaigned heavily on his unyielding anti-migration policies, though voters say they are more concerned with poverty, growing government corruption and the country’s underfunded health care system.

Long lines of voters were reported also at the Hungarian embassies in London and Paris. The opposition Socialist Party urged authorities to “at least distribute water” in districts where voters were waiting in line for hours.

According to the National Election Office, over 4.22 million voters had cast ballots by 3 p.m. (1300 GMT), or 53.6 percent of those eligible. That was the highest turnout figure for that hour since at least 1998.

“We are celebrating democracy and it seems like this feast will be beautiful because many of us are taking part,” said Gergely Karacsony, the leading candidate of the left-wing Socialist and Dialogue parties.

Analysts, however, were more cautious about the significance of the turnout.

“Voter turnout is at record high,” tweeted Tamas Boros, co-director of the Policy Solutions think-tank. “This means either an overwhelming support for Orban or the end of Fidesz as (the) omnipotent political party in Hungary. The Hungarian political landscape will dramatically change today.”

Gabor Vona of the nationalist Jobbik party urged his supporters not to become complacent.

“Figures show that it will be an election with a high voter turnout. But this is not the time to sit back,” Vona said after voting his home city of Gyonygyos in northern Hungary. “This is when all those who want a change of government … ask all those who have yet to vote to by all means go and vote.”

Orban claims that the opposition — collaborating with the United Nations, the European Union and wealthy philanthropist George Soros — wants to turn Hungary into an “immigrant country,” threatening its security and Christian identity.

Government influence on the media was palpable in Sunday’s broadcast by state television M1 news channel, where reports highlighting the negative effects of migration dominated the programming.

On Origo.hu, a formerly independent website now owned by government allies, stories promoted Orban while also focusing on migration with headlines like “Migrant gangs fought in England,” ”They can’t stand it anymore in Sweden: They’ve had enough of migrants,” and “A migrant in underpants beat a German retiree half to death.”

The opposition denies Orban’s claims on migration. Vona said the question was not about migration into Hungary but about the large number of Hungarians who were leaving the country and heading to Western Europe in search of higher wages and better prospects.

“Today will decide whether Hungary becomes an emigrant country or not — and I wouldn’t like Hungary to be an emigrant country,” Vona said.

Uncertainties about Orban’s expected margin of victory are caused by Hungary’s complex electoral system in which voters cast two ballots, one for an individual candidate in their region and another for a party list.

Opposition parties have urged Hungarians to vote tactically for the opposition candidate with the best chance to defeat the Fidesz candidate in the 106 individual districts — but it’s not clear how much impact that will have. Another 93 seats will be distributed based on votes for entire party lists.

Some 8.3 million Hungarians are eligible to vote, with preliminary results expected Sunday night.

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Andras Nagy contributed to this report.

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