BUDAPEST, Hungary -- Two mass rallies held by opposing political forces filled the streets of Hungary's capital on Tuesday in mutual displays of strength before the country's April 3 election, a contest that will determine whether populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban wins a fourth consecutive term.
The campaign rallies, organized by supporters of Orban's ruling Fidesz party and a coalition of six opposition parties aiming to unseat the autocratic leader, were dominated by anxiety over Russia's war on neighboring Ukraine and the future of Hungary's position in a changing geopolitical landscape.
Several hundred thousand Orban supporters gathered Tuesday on the west bank of the Danube River before surging across the city's Margaret Bridge toward the Hungarian Parliament, where Orban spoke at length about the need for Hungary to keep out of the war in Ukraine.
“It is in our interests to not be a sacrificial pawn in someone else’s war. We can’t win anything in this war, but we have everything to lose," said Orban, who has led Hungary since 2010. "Not a single Hungarian can be left between the Ukrainian anvil and the Russian hammer.”
Orban's election campaign — previously focused on socially divisive issues like his opposition to immigration and hostility toward the LGBTQ community — was upended by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Orban since has carefully sought to balance Hungary's fraught relationship with its allies in the European Union and the NATO military alliance with its close ties to Russia under President Vladimir Putin.
Widely considered Putin's closest ally in the EU, Orban has in recent weeks agreed to back the sanctions imposed on Russia by the 27-nation bloc and condemned Moscow's violent assault on Ukraine, though without ever mentioning Putin by name.
Yet as Russian forces batter Ukrainian cities and more than 250,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled the violence into Hungary, Orban insisted that his country stay out of the war. He has refused to supply Ukraine with military aid or allow shipments of lethal weapons to cross into Ukraine from Hungary.
Orban has sought to portray himself and his government as the guarantors of Hungary’s security, and leveled dubious claims that the opposition parties would send arms and troops to Ukraine.
“The left wants to send Hungarian weapons and soldiers to the front lines," Orban told his supporters. "We won’t allow the left to draw Hungary into this war. ”
Fidesz supporter Erzsebet Labady, a 79-year-old retiree from Budapest, said she believed the prime minister and his government were working to restore peace in Ukraine, and that Orban’s close relations with Moscow had economically benefited Hungary.
“If Orban was ever on good terms with Putin, he only did it for the good of Hungary so that we get raw materials,” she said.
That's not the view of United for Hungary, a coalition of six opposition parties that have joined forces to counter the ruling Fidesz party. It has framed the April election as a historic choice between Western democracy and Eastern autocracy symbolized by Putin’s Russia, and sought to exact accountability on Orban's government for its close Russian ties.
At a separate rally of thousands on the Danube River, the leader of the opposition coalition, independent conservative Peter Marki-Zay, said the election choice for voters this year has “never been so easy... Instead of the East, we choose Europe.”
“Because of the selfishness and lust for power of our own leader ... we have chosen the backward East over the developing West,” Marki-Zay said. “We have voluntarily gone back to the wrong side of history, but in 20 days there will be elections in Hungary.”
The opposition parties, which polls show narrowly trail Fidesz less than three weeks before the election, have criticized Orban for increasing Hungary's energy dependence on Russia and for pushing for close diplomatic ties with Moscow that they say have betrayed Hungary's commitments to its Western allies.
Opposition supporter Gyorgy Hortobagyi, 54, said while he considered himself a conservative, he feared that “we are again drifting into the Soviet sphere of interest."
“The Russian empire has never brought us any good for hundreds of years, and now, unfortunately, Orban has taken that line," Hortobagyi said. “I’m terribly sad because I see that my children might live in such a Russian sphere of influence again if we don’t act.”
Also speaking at the opposition rally was former Polish prime minister and EU official Donald Tusk, who said that an “authoritarian, censorious, corrupt state” had developed in Budapest under Orban, one that has taken an ambiguous position on the war in Ukraine.
“No decent, honest man should have any doubt whatsoever which side he is on in this struggle,” Tusk said, adding that the results of Hungary's election were important not only for Hungary, but for all of Europe, including Ukraine.
Yet Orban's balancing act between the West and Russia resonates with his supporters. After his speech, Istvan Voros, 74, said Orban's policies were ensuring peace for Hungary.
“This is a double game and Orban is good at it,” he said. “I’m not a politician, just a voter who wants to stay on good terms with the Russians.”