Hungarians voted on Sunday in the highest numbers for 20 years in yesterday’s parliamentary elections as the country’s controversialist leader, Viktor Orban, sought to secure a third consecutive term as prime minister.
Polling stations were forced to stay open for an extra two-and-a-half hours in some districts of Budapest to accommodate long lines of voters at the culmination of a bitterly fought campaign that saw Mr Orban demonising immigrants, Brussels, and foreign-funded NGOs.
The campaign highlighted the gap between Mr Orban and Brussels over migration issues and raised questions about his increasingly autocratic approach to government that has seen his party, Fidesz, monopolise the media and other apparatus of state.
As the vote got underway, the Fidesz party was facing calls for an enquiry into alleged electoral irregularities after The Telegraph revealed how the country’s diplomatic corps was being pressed into finding “negative” immigration stories to boost Mr Orban’s re-election campaign.
The Swedish ambassador to Hungary, leading opposition figures from both the Left and Right as well as senior figures in Brussels, all accused Fidesz of misusing state power for propaganda purposes.
As independent television channels alleged other irregularities, including vote buying and transport of voters in the southwestern city of Pécs, opposition supporters began to gather in Budapest where extra police were being deployed as night fell.
However Zoltan Kovacs, a senior government spokesman said the high voter turnout was proof that Hungarian democracy was “alive and kicking”.
In one Budapest district the voting line was reported to be nearly a mile long with turnout at 68 per cent at the official close of polling at 7pm local time.
Opposition parties had been hopeful that a turnout approaching 70 per cent could see a repeat of the shock defeat that was handed to Mr Orban’s ruling Fidesz party in 2002, although the majority of analysts remained cautious about the chances of an upset.
Eve-of-vote polls had suggested Mr Orban was comfortably on track to win another term, with two leading pollsters showing his party winning 40 per cent of the vote – enough to secure a majority in Hungary’s 199-seat national assembly.
Mr Orban and his wife voted early in the morning at a school in the Zugliget suburb of Budapest. "This is a country which has always stepped up for itself, so we can trust in the people, I will accept their decision," he said.
Meanwhile Gabor Vona, the leader of the nationalist Jobbik party, cast his ballot in the northeastern town of Gyongyos, urging voters to turn out, saying that the result would "determine the fate of Hungary not just for four years but… for two generations".
Mr Orban has been accused of increasingly monopolising Hungary’s media, with Fidesz-friendly oligarchs buying up large numbers of local newspaper and radio stations since 2010, sending Hungary sliding down international media transparency rankings.
The government influence on the media was palpable in Sunday’s broadcast by state television M1 news channel, where reports highlighting the negative effects of migration dominated the programming.
On Origo.hu, a formerly independent website now owned by government allies, focused on migration with headlines like "Migrant gangs fought in England," "They can’t stand it anymore in Sweden: They’ve had enough of migrants," and "A migrant in underpants beat a German retiree half to death."
The use of Hungary’s diplomatic corps to collect such “negative” stories, as revealed in an email leaked to The Telegraph on Saturday, led to a chorus of complaints. Hungarian government spokesmen continued to refuse to comment.
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Niclas Trouvé, Sweden’s Ambassador to Hungary, said the leaked email must be “thoroughly looked into”, while Marton Gyongyosi, a Jobbik MP, said the the request for such stories was reminiscent of 1950s Communist era.
Ferenc Gyurcsány, a former Hungarian prime minister and leader of the Democratic Coalition condemned the use of Hungary’s embassies for “propaganda” purposes when asked about the email at a press conference.
The EU’s election monitoring group, the OSCE, will make a preliminary statement on the conduct of the election on Monday.