BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) – Tens of thousands of supporters of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing government marched through Budapest on Saturday in a demonstration of unity behind the populist leader’s controversial policies that have led to challenges to its power in both Hungary and the European Union.
The rally was dubbed a “Peace March” and participants gathered along the west bank of the Danube and crossed the Freedom Bridge, crossing downtown Budapest to the site of a rare speech public that Orban delivered to his supporters.
Orban painted a grim picture of what Hungarians might expect if defeated in a national election slated for next spring, which is expected to be the most serious challenge to his power since taking office in 2010 .
Orban listed his government’s economic achievements and lambasted Hungary’s previous socialist government which he accused of driving the country into financial ruin.
“It took us years to rectify the destruction of the left wing,” Orban said. âThe Socialists and their leader have remained clinging to our necks. “
The march was organized by the non-governmental organization Civil Unity Forum, an active promoter of the policies of Orban’s Fidesz party, which has dominated the Hungarian parliament with a two-thirds majority since 2010.
Group chairman Laszlo Csizmadia told The Associated Press ahead of the start of the march that the event was intended to demonstrate Hungarian sovereignty to the EU, which he said had “unfairly” attacked Hungary in recent attempts to rule over what the bloc sees as a democratic setback. .
âWe believe that we have the right to express our long-term views in the European Union,â Csizmadia said.
Orban also took aim at the EU, saying Brussels had carried out a sustained attack on Hungary for its economic and immigration policies which put his government at odds with the leaders of the bloc.
âDozens of prime ministers attacked Hungary. We’re still here, but who can even remember their names? ” he said.
Laszlo Csendes came from Veszprem, a town 120 kilometers southwest of Budapest. He said Orban’s performance since 2010 had led Hungarians to âprosperâ and improve economic conditions.
âThere are new jobs, you just have to look around,â Csendes said. âThere is money for everything and for everyone.
Orban’s fiercely anti-immigration government faces increasing pressure both at home and abroad. The EU, of which Hungary is a member, is considering imposing financial sanctions on the country, fearing that Orban has eroded democratic institutions and the rule of law in the pursuit of what he calls “illiberal democracy.” “.
At home, the six largest Hungarian opposition parties have pledged to put aside ideological differences and form a coalition to challenge Orban’s party in the upcoming elections.
The parties argue that the unity strategy is the only way to overcome a media environment dominated by government-aligned media and an electoral system unilaterally created and adopted by Fidesz which they believe gives the ruling party an unfair advantage. .
The coalition of six opposition parties concluded a primary race last week where voters elected independent candidate Peter Marki-Zay to be Orban’s challenger for prime minister on the unity ticket. A self-proclaimed conservative Christian, Marki-Zay argued that he could appeal to both Hungarian liberal voters and disgruntled Fidesz supporters.
At a joint opposition party protest that drew several thousand supporters on Saturday, Marki-Zay told the PA he would lead the coalition to end corruption, media repression and abuse of government institutions. which he said occurred during the Orban regime. .
“Our fundamental goals for all of us, left and right, are for Hungary to be a democracy, to be governed by the rule of law in a market economy and to be part of the European Union”, said declared Marki-Zay.
But some participants in the pro-government peace march, many of whom carried placards criticizing the opposition movement, expressed anger at the coalition’s ambitions to defeat the Orban government.
“I don’t think they are capable of governing, they have no concept,” said Judit Nemeth, a walker from Budapest. “They have only one goal, to oust Orban, who I think is the best politician in Europe.”