SZEKESFEHERVAR, Hungary — Viktor Orbán on Friday told Hungarians not to experiment with new leadership at a time of crisis as he held his final campaign rally ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary election.
The longtime prime minister’s message resonated with a large crowd who filled a square in Székesfehérvár, a city in central Hungary where Orbán went to high school.
Yet while Orbán’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 out the Hungarian leader for not offering stronger support to his beleaguered country.
Orbán, who has been in power since 2010, told supporters that only his government can safeguard Hungary’s security — arguing that the opposition would drag the country into war.
“The war changed everything, it also changed our campaign,” Orbán said. The question for Hungarian voters now, he declared, is “war or peace.”
Orbán has nurtured a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent years, while maintaining an uneasy relationship with neighboring Ukraine. But when Russia invaded Ukraine weeks ahead of Hungary’s election, the prime minister pivoted, sending a message to voters that Budapest’s best interest is to be neither pro-Ukrainian nor pro-Russian.
Hungary’s opposition, the prime minister claimed, has made a deal with the Ukrainian government — and will provide Kyiv with weapons and support sanctions on Russian energy imports if it comes to office. The opposition, however, has rejected these claims as “propaganda.”
“The Ukrainians can’t ask us to help in such a way that in the meantime we ruin ourselves,” the prime minister said, adding: “Our heart is with them, but Hungary has to stand by its interests and has to stay out of this war.”
In his campaign address, Orbán presented himself as a safe pair of hands in a dangerous time for the region.
“We’ve already seen several crises,” Orbán said. “I suggest to the Hungarians that we don’t experiment now,” he said, adding that people are better off with “experience, predictability” and representatives who have already been tested.
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.
“We also have to say clearly on Sunday: the mother is a woman, the father is a man — and leave our children alone,” Orbán said, adding that “gender madness” should be stopped.
The prime minister’s messaging received an enthusiastic welcome in the square in Székesfehérvár.
One 81-year-old woman in the crowd — who said she is known locally as Aunt Teca — said “it is very important that there will be no war — that’s very important, that’s also why I came.”
“What I like is that there is someone who doesn’t allow that the West dictate and that others say how Hungary should live, how things should be here,” she said.
While Zelenskyy has called out Hungary’s leadership over its approach to the war, among Orbán’s core supporters, the Ukrainian leader’s message has not resonated.
Asked about Zelenskyy’s critique of Orbán, the elderly resident — who said she hails from a small village but has been living in Székesfehérvár since the 1950s — said she is “very upset” with Zelenskyy.
“Our sons should not bleed over there — not to mention that they are always rather hostile to the Hungarians, and now they will bring us into war? No thank you.”
Another local resident, who identified herself just as Viktória, said it was “uplifting” to see Orbán in her hometown. “We were here four years ago, and we will be here four years from now,” she said.
“We are always with him,” she said, adding that she supports Fidesz because “they are authentic, they are trustworthy, and I see that only they can make the future secure for us.”
Standing next to her, another local, Róza, added: “He is one of Europe’s greatest politicians — we can thank him a lot.”
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.
Ahead of the election, both sides have accused each other of cheating, with Orbán’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.
Péter Márki-Zay, the opposition’s candidate for prime minister, described the race on Friday as a battle between David and Goliath, pointing to gerrymandering, “an army of paid trolls,” a “propaganda machine” and “unlimited financial resources.”
But, he wrote in a Facebook post, “let’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 Orbán and his system.”