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Sunday's election in Hungary is considered the most important in a generation


**** Elsewhere in Europe, voters in Hungary go to the polls tomorrow for an election. It's been called the most important in a generation. Over his 12 years in power, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his party chipped away at the country's democratic institutions and rejected what they dismiss as liberal values. Now, for the first time, six parties from the left and right have formed a united opposition and hope to prevent his reelection. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins us now from Budapest.

Rob, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: Let's begin with what voters are looking at. What can you tell us about Orban's record in office and the opposition that he faces going into this election?

SCHMITZ: Well, in his three terms in office, Viktor Orban has consolidated the country's media so that now more than 90% of traditional news here in Hungary is essentially state propaganda. He's also waged a war against the LGBTQ community. And even though his government receives billions from the European Union, he rails against the EU and its principles any chance he can get. The opposition candidate is Peter Marki-Zay, a mayor of a city in rural southeastern Hungary, a devout Catholic, father of seven and, like Orban, a conservative. And this is intentional. The opposition parties in Hungary's parliament that represent left-wing and right-wing causes have united behind a candidate who will appeal to Orban's base because they believe strongly that this election is do or die and that Orban, should he win a fourth term, could further crack down on civil rights and what's left of the country's democracy.

SIMON: What are the indications so far? Does that plan seem to be working? Where are voters leaning?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I mean, the latest polls show that Orban's Fidesz party is leading opposition parties by 5%, and that's pretty close compared to past elections. Hungary has a population of 10 million. Two million of those people live here in the capital, Budapest. Nearly everyone I talked to here tells me they are voting against Orban - people like Csilla Szabo (ph), who is nine months pregnant and is due to deliver a baby girl just in two weeks. Here's what she said when I asked her why she wants Orban out.

CSILLA SZABO: Because I want a country for my little girl where she can learn whatever she wants, she can become whatever she wants. Yeah.

SIMON: Rob, that's Budapest. What about other parts of the country that are more rural?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. I had a chance to get out of Budapest and visit the town of Dunabogdany, a couple of hours north of Budapest, this week. I spoke to more than a dozen people and all of them said they're voting for Orban's Fidesz party. Everyone I spoke to had the same reason as Marica Varga (ph).

MARICA VARGA: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And Scott, she's saying here that in ten years, Budapest and the countryside have developed faster than she ever remembers. She says we're seeing new sports stadiums, museums, hospitals. We're also seeing new housing for young families and policies that she thinks protects families. This opinion is echoed throughout rural Hungary, the center of Orban's voting base.

SIMON: You've told us what a close election this seems to be shaping up to be. Both sides have already accused the other of election fraud. What do we know?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, it's getting tense. You know, just yesterday we saw a news story out of Romania to the south of Hungary, where a journalist reportedly found dozens of mail-in ballots of people who voted for the opposition, tossed aside and burned. Here in Budapest, I've talked to opposition politicians who have formed a network of volunteers who will be posted at polling sites tomorrow to ensure that this election will be as fair as it can be.

SIMON: NPR's Rob Schmitz in Budapest.

Thanks so much.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. 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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