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Hungarian opposition parties aim to oust longtime prime minister in major election

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On Sunday, voters in Hungary will go to the polls in what's being called the most important election there in a generation. For the past 12 years, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has steadily chipped away at his country's democratic institutions. This time, the opposition has unified around a religious conservative candidate in the hopes of finally defeating Orban. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: It's an afternoon mass at Budapest's Mother Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, just days before Sunday's election, and Father Zoltan Osztie holds out his arms and asks his congregation to pray for a good outcome.

ZOLTAN OSZTIE: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: "We cannot elect a representative who is unworthy of us," he says, "only someone who protects the hierarchy of God, homeland and family." This is a Catholic church, and it's not clear whether he's talking about three-term prime minister Viktor Orban - who used to be an atheist, but converted to Christianity after he became a politician - or opposition candidate Peter Marki-Zay, a lifelong Catholic who has joined with left-wing parties to try and defeat Orban. But then, Father Osztie makes it clear.

OSZTIE: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: "The candidate who has formed an alliance with the devil just to topple the current government is not," he says, "a true Christian."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

SCHMITZ: In his 12 years leading Hungary, Viktor Orban has not only gained the support of conservative Christians through his campaign against the LGBTQ community, he's also managed to consolidate the public forum that debates these issues by ensuring that nearly all media in the country is under his party's influence. Despite this, polls suggest Orban and his party are facing the biggest threat to their grip on power, and the face of that threat is Peter Marki-Zay. Speaking in Berlin last month, he called beating Orban mission impossible, but that he remains hopeful.

PETER MARKI-ZAY: It is a miracle in itself. It's a sign of the resilience of the Hungarian people that, after 12 years of brainwashing, there are still about 50% of the people in Hungary who want a regime change. It's a fantastic starting point already.

SCHMITZ: For the first time, a coalition of Hungary's six major opposition parties from the left and right have united behind this mayor of a small city in southeastern Hungary, hopeful his conservative credentials are enough to oust Orban. Something else giving them hope is that Orban's troubling foreign policy is now in the spotlight since Russia invaded Ukraine. For years, Orban has built ties with autocrats, like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while rejecting liberal democratic principles of the West. Analyst Gabor Gyori says Sunday's election is also a test of Orban's worldview.

GABOR GYORI: The kind of Western liberal model is failing - with its multiculturalism, with its openness - and that the nationalist and the culturally conservative societies in the East are much more coherent. They are much more united, and they are more focused on the issues that matter for the future. They're better at managing their economies, their societies. They are better at suppressing the kind of dissent that disintegrates society.

SCHMITZ: But Orban's view that Hungary needs to follow what he believes is a political and cultural model that's winning doesn't ring true for many young Hungarians, like Anna Ats, who works as a translator in Budapest.

ANNA ATS: I don't like the attitude. I don't like the program. I don't like how they handle social issues. The politics is not really inclusive, which would be very important for me. I'd like to see something more Western.

SCHMITZ: Ats says she's also sick of the corruption. There are allegations that Orban's friends have benefited from big government contracts for construction projects like soccer stadiums and railways.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELL RINGING)

SCHMITZ: But churchgoer Gabor Lenkei (ph) says these accusations amount to what he calls fake news.

GABOR LENKEI: (Through translator) If Orban's stealing so much, why is there construction all over Budapest - all these churches, museums, sports stadiums? He's also handing out family subsidies. If his party manages to do all that and steal some on the side, let them steal it.

SCHMITZ: Lenkei, Ats, and millions of other Hungarian voters will weigh in on all of this on Sunday.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Budapest.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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