Hungarians openly defied the authoritarian regime during the election campaign, but can they overthrow the prime minister?

One weeknight, in a large room above the Koleves café in Budapest’s historic center, Judit Békés sits with six dozen volunteers huddled around long wooden tables on which are stacked copies of the independent publication Nyomtass te is!, or Print It Yourself!, fold them for delivery.

The clinical psychologist, 69, joined the media activist group three years ago to help distribute the weekly, modeled on communist-era Samizdat publications to counter Soviet propaganda.

“I was tired of being passive in the face of the current political situation,” she said, referring to the 12-year rule of Viktor Orbán’s far-right Fidesz party and the virtual monopoly on the media . “Participating in protest marches was not enough for me. I wanted to do something more efficient.

On Saturdays, she and others board buses and trains that take them from Hungary’s cosmopolitan capital to small, mostly pro-Orbán communities where internet usage is low and the source of predominant information is the sources of information managed by the State.

“Sometimes people tell us to leave, that it’s a right-wing city,” Békés said. “But lately people are saying, ‘Oh, I’m glad it’s not a Fidesz newspaper!’ It’s a marked change, people are saying it out loud…within earshot of their neighbours.”

Judit Békés, left, is a clinical psychologist and volunteer with a media activist group in Hungary. It helps distribute copies of the independent publication Nyomtass te is!, or Print It Yourself!, to small communities with limited internet access and whose only source of information is state-run information. . (Agnes Bihari / CBC)

The one-party system in the European Union

The change, observers say, reflects the most serious challenge ever to Orbán’s grip on Hungary as he seeks a fourth consecutive term as prime minister in national elections on Sunday.

The main issues are the economy, corruption and mismanagement, and a referendum on LGBTQ rights.

Polls show Fidesz several points ahead of a unified but politically disparate six-party opposition coalition led by Péter Márki-Zay, a conservative provincial mayor.

Hungary’s joint opposition candidate for Prime Minister Péter Márki-Zay speaks during a campaign event in the Hungarian capital Budapest on March 29. Polls show the ruling Fidesz party several points ahead of the unified but politically disparate six-party opposition coalition. (Anna Szilagyi/Associated Press)

Beating Orbán will not be easy.

Over the past 12 years, the former Golden Boy of anti-communism turned self-proclaimed illiberal has cemented a new kind of one-party rule in the European Union, experts say – one that, by restricting civil liberties and cracking down on freedom of the press, has been able to suck up resources from the public, siphon off megaprojects, siphon off EU funds and pile government institutions with cronies.

“There are people running ministries and national agencies who are totally incompetent,” said Boldizsár Nagy, associate professor in the department of international relations at Central European University. Founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, a prime target of Orbán’s crusade against international liberalism, it moved from Hungary to Vienna in 2019 to avoid political repression.

Nagy cites the government’s disastrous handling of the COVID-19 crisis, collapsing health and education systems and questionable investment in a Russian-funded nuclear power plant as results of corruption and incompetence .

WATCH | Hungary is divided as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seeks a 4th term:

Division in Hungary as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán seeks 4th term

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who ruled the country with the far-right Fidesz party for 12 years, is seeking a fourth term in national elections on Sunday. 2:15

“He’s a country guy whose world is that of the 1960s,” he said of Orbán. “He has no idea about alternative energy, and he still believes that [gross domestic product] is produced by physical labor. He does not understand that 70% of GDP is produced by services. He wants to dig the earth.”

What is most at stake in this election, Nagy said, is whether Hungary will remain an EU-oriented state or become a vessel for Russia.

Citizens mobilized to oppose Orbán

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, other far-right politicians who once touted a friendly relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin have found themselves swallowing their words. But not Orban.

Instead, he has used the war to tirelessly paint the opposition as irresponsible hawks who will send Hungarians to be slaughtered in Ukraine – despite the opposition saying they have no plans to deploy troops . “Let’s preserve the peace and security of Hungary!” read tax-funded posters with Orbán’s picture plastered all over the country.

The tactic could give Orbán the edge he needs to win. Still, opposition supporters in Hungary say there is cause for optimism.

Unlike the previous two elections, this one energized a wide range of citizens to action. It takes many forms — independent media such as Nyomtass te is! and website and YouTube channel partisanto the creative defacement of the ubiquitous Fidesz election posters and to the more than 20,000 Hungarians who volunteered to monitor the elections.

Volunteers fold copies of Nyomtass te is! in Budapest ahead of Sunday’s elections. Unlike the country’s two previous elections, this one spurred a wide range of citizens into action. (Agnes Bihari / CBC)

“The major change in this election is that political parties have realized over the past four years that without cooperation and joint actions, there is no chance of winning against the ruling party’s hegemony in parliament,” he said. said Ada Ámon, Chief Advisor. to the Mayor of Budapest who, for the first time, will volunteer as an election observer in a small town south of the capital.

“This new constellation gives people hope…and they are much more willing to participate in political action and grassroots work.”

Ada Ámon is senior adviser to the mayor of Budapest who, for the first time, will volunteer as an election observer in a small town south of the capital. She says people “are much more willing to participate in political action and grassroots work.” (Agnes Bihari / CBC)

In the last two elections in Hungary, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe concluded that votes were free but not fair, with extreme overlap in government and Fidesz communications and media dominance. favorable to the government.

This contamination between the government and Fidesz continues, but the high number of volunteer observers reflects a new national vigilance, says András Kádár, co-president of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, one of the oldest and largest Hungarian NGOs in human rights and criminal justice monitoring.

“It’s unprecedented,” Kádár said. “In past elections, this kind of interest was not present. It is a very good thing, this kind of awakening of the Hungarian political community and civil society with fair elections as our common meta.”

A van belonging to the Hungarian opposition, with a photo of Orbán on the side, reads: “He is lying, that’s what he refuses to discuss”. (Agnes Bihari / CBC)

Referendum on LGBTQ rights

As well as voting for their next government, Hungarians will also decide in a four-question referendum which, if backed by a majority, will further limit LGBTQ rights.

“The idea is that there are these Brussels-funded activists who are trying to bribe children and seduce them into becoming gay and transgender,” said Dorottya Redai, an academic researcher and LGBTQ educator from the referendum.

At the end of 2020, Labrisz, the Hungarian lesbian NGO to which she belongs, published a collection of fairy tales, A fairy tale for everyoneWhere A fairy tale for everyonewhich became an overnight bestseller after a far-right politician went viral putting the book in a paper shredder and denouncing it as “gay propaganda”.

Academic researcher and LGBTQ activist Dorottya Redai, featured in October 2021, educates the public on a referendum that, if supported by a majority of Hungarian voters, will further limit LGBTQ rights. (Bela Szandelszky/Associated Press)

But Orbán’s government has increasingly eroded LGBTQ rights, passing laws banning education and advertising, erecting barriers to providing services to trans and gender-diverse youth, and limiting the adoption to married couples.

Some blame the book for triggering the referendum, which asks biased questions such as “Lean in promoting gender-change treatment for children.” But Redai says that misses the big picture.

“It’s part of a global movement with the alternative worldview of women back in the kitchen as baby-making machines and straight white men in charge,” she said. “But what makes it a very big problem in Hungary is that this movement is within the government and affects policies and education.”

The opposition mounted its own campaign to try to derail the referendum, urging Hungarians to destroy ballot papers so the referendum would not pass the required threshold. Two million people will have to join – a challenge given the inflammatory language of the questions and the fact that the referendum is associated with an election with an expected high turnout.

A sticker depicts Orbán with a Pinocchio nose. Opposition activists have creatively defaced Fidesz election posters in Hungary. (Agnes Bihari / CBC)

While the number of ordinary Hungarians politically active for the first time has increased for this election, experts say for LGBTQ people the experience is more exhausting than energizing.

“As an LGBTQ person, you’re totally politicized now. You can’t just be a lesbian leading a normal life,” Redai said. “You are at the center of politics now and that is a burden.”