The odds are slightly in favour of Hungary's nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, one of Europe's longest-serving leaders, extending his 12-year rule in an election on Sunday, helped by his government's firm control over state media.

The war in Ukraine has upset Orban's plans and forced him into uncomfortable manoeuvring at home after more than a decade of close ties with Moscow. It has also changed the conversation in Hungary in the final stretch to the ballot.

The six-party opposition alliance is now within striking distance of Orban's Fidesz party in the polls. According to the latest poll by Zavecz Research, Fidesz leads with 39% support against 36% for the opposition, while one-fifth of voters have yet to decide who to back in the race.

The leader of the opposition, 49-year-old conservative Peter Marki-Zay, has framed the election as a choice for Hungarians between East and West. Orban has turned Hungary towards Russia, he says, eroding democratic rights and directing the Central European country away from the European Union where it belongs.

"A Hungarian Putin or Europe?", opposition billboards say, showing a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin together with Orban.

Orban, 58, has portrayed himself as a defender of Hungarian interests by rejecting EU sanctions on Russian oil and gas.

He has also accused his opponents of trying to drag Hungary into the Ukraine war, a charge they deny.

"The left has signed a pact with the Ukrainians. If they win, weapons shipments will start (to Ukraine), they will close the gas taps and ruin the economy," Orban posted on his Facebook page on Friday.

Orban has not vetoed any EU sanctions against Russia, even though he said he did not agree with them. His government has also allowed NATO troops to be deployed in Hungary, where public support for NATO membership stood at 80% in a 2021 GLOBSEC survey.

He supported an EU decision to send arms to Ukraine but has banned weapons shipments from Hungarian territory, saying such a move could pose a security risk.

His tactical gambit has helped cement his support among core Fidesz voters. But it has led to criticism from some allies including Poland, whose ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said he was not pleased with Orban's cautious stance on Russia.

"If you asked me if I'm happy, then no, but I will wait for the election. We will see after the election," Kaczynski said.

Laszlo Korona, long a fan of Orban, said his support was unwavering when asked about his voting preference in Budapest.

"I really liked him when he stood in front of more than 100,000 people and told the Russians to go home (in 1989)," he said, recalling a well-known Orban speech from the time.

"We have to put politics aside in order to have energy. This is what Orban is doing now, but it is not betrayal."

Polls open at 0400 GMT on Sunday and close at 1700 GMT.

 

SURGING PRICES

Despite the Ukraine war taking centre-stage, many Hungarians are troubled by surging consumer prices, with inflation at an almost 15-year high of 8.3% in February even as Orban imposed caps on retail fuel prices, basic foodstuffs and mortgage rates.

Think tank GKI said its consumer confidence survey showed an 11-point plunge in March even after Orban's pre-election spending spree to support households.

The opposition alliance, which includes parties the leftist Democratic Coalition, the liberal Momentum and far-right-turned-moderate Jobbik, has tapped popular discontent, criticising what they said was systemic corruption that has enriched oligarchs close to Fidesz.

"I cannot stand that they have dismantled democracy and ... they have stolen our country from us, they have stolen the wealth of our country and channelled it into private ownership," said Annamaria Varnai, an opposition supporter in Budapest where the alliance looks likely to score a sweeping victory based on a poll by Median this week.

After years of clashes with Brussels over media freedoms, the rule of law and immigration, a part of Orban's current campaign is based on defending conservative Christian family values against what he calls "gender madness" in Western Europe.

On Sunday, Hungarians will also vote in a referendum on sexual orientation workshops in schools - a vote rights groups have condemned, saying it fuels prejudice against LGBTQ people.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Additional reporting by Krisztina Fenyo; Editing by Hugh Lawson)