Record turnout as Hungarian voters go to polls
Prime minister Viktor Orban is seeking third-successive two-thirds majority in parliament
Record high turnout by Hungarians voting in parliamentary elections on Sunday was viewed as boosting opposition parties’ chances and potentially reducing the majority of the governing rightwing Fidesz party.
Prime minister Viktor Orban has been seeking a third-successive two-thirds majority in parliament, marking a strong endorsement of his nationalist-populist rule and ensuring his next government will once again have sweeping powers to change the constitution at will.
But while about half of decided voters told pollsters they would vote for the governing party, a higher proportion of undecided voters than in the last two elections has made this one unusually difficult to forecast. A simple Fidesz majority — more than half, but less than two-thirds, of seats — was seen by most pollsters before the polls opened at 6am on Sunday as the most likely scenario.
By a deadline of Saturday, the fragmented opposition parties had agreed that some of them would withdraw candidates in 29 of Hungary’s 106 first-past-the-post constituencies, including 13 in the capital, Budapest.
That could boost opposition chances of winning those seats, potentially reducing the winning margin for Fidesz and the small Christian Democratic party with which it is allied. Another 93 seats in the 199-seat parliament are decided proportionally through voting for party lists.
Some analysts said record high reported turnout of almost 54 per cent by 3pm local time was potentially negative for Fidesz, suggesting opposition parties were more likely to have mobilised the additional votes.
So, too, were reports of long queues of at overseas embassies of Hungarian citizens waiting to vote, among whom support for the governing party is generally weaker.
But high reported voter numbers in rural constituencies, where Fidesz is strong, could also suggest strong success for the incumbent party in getting its voters out on a bright, sunny day across much of the country, with temperatures topping 20C.
In an often rancorous campaign, Fidesz focused overwhelmingly on what it said was the threat to Hungary of mass Muslim immigration, and the need to fight an alleged plan masterminded by George Soros, the liberal Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist, to flood Europe with 1m migrants annually.
Speaking after he cast his vote in Budapest, Mr Orban warned: “What’s at stake is Hungary’s future.”
Though much of the media is controlled by Fidesz or people loyal to it, opposition parties and independent media highlighted alleged government corruption and cronyism.
Regional newspapers across Hungary owned by Lorinc Meszaros, a former gas fitter and school friend of Mr Orban who in recent years has become one of Hungary’s richest men, on Saturday carried identical front pages with an interview and photograph of the premier. Their headline was “Both votes for Fidesz!” — referring to the constituency and national list votes.
The popular TV2 channel, owned by another pro-Fidesz business tycoon close to Mr Orban, former Hollywood producer Andy Vajna, aired a slot in which all its anchors and star presenters endorsed the governing party.
The Fidesz vote was forecast to be similar to the last election in 2014, at about 2.1m out of Hungary’s just over 8m voters. Political experts said the optimal turnout for the governing party would be less than 65 per cent.
“If it is more than 65 per cent, then [Mr Orban] will be in trouble,” said Zsuzsanna Szelenyi, an independent MP in the outgoing parliament. “If more people turn out to vote, they will vote for people other than him.”
Opposition parties, media and civil society fear Fidesz would use another two-thirds majority to clamp down further on critical voices, and to extend its influence in areas it does not yet fully control, such as the judiciary.
Median, a leading pollster, last week projected another Fidesz supermajority, with 142 seats — even more than the 133 it won in 2014. But another pollster, Republikon, projected its total at only 113 seats, with a third, Nezopont Intezet, forecasting between 112 and 123 seats for the incumbent governing party.
Fidesz’s fortunes will also depend in part on how many votes are garnered by the likely second-largest party, Jobbik, long known as a far-right group but which has reinvented itself as a more centrist party in the past two years.
While more voters than in 2014 have been telling pollsters they favour a change of government, support for Mr Orban remains strong among Fidesz’s core voters.
Janos Turbok, a concert promoter, told the FT that recent elections across Europe had seen a “historical defeat of the liberal left”. The most recent polls in Austria, the Czech Republic and Italy, he added, had all seen sharp defeats for “pro-Islamic immigration parties”.
“That’s why I say that Orban has won the day when it comes to immigration, and the parties allied to his ideas have won in Europe,” he said.
Additional reporting by Kester Eddy in Budapest