Polling stations have opened as Hungarians vote in a parliamentary election that will test the strength of rightwing Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Orban’s ruling nationalist Fidesz party looks set to win about 50 percent of the vote in the April 8 vote, according to preelection polls, setting the anti-Europe, anti-immigrant leader up for his third consecutive term as prime minister.
The surveys forecast that Fidesz will far surpass the totals the radical nationalist Jobbik (SAY: YOH-beek) party, the Socialists, and several smaller left-leaning and green groups.
However, the polls and a recent setback for Fidesz in a key municipal election indicate the ruling party may not claim margins as big as those recorded in 2010 and 2014.
That puts in doubt whether Orban can capture a two-thirds majority, as he did eight years ago, giving him the power to change the country’s constitution.
Some 8.3 million residents in Hungary are eligible to vote. They will cast two ballots — one for a candidate in their district and one for a party list, with 199 parliamentary seats up for election. Hungarians outside the country voting by mail choose only party lists.
The 54-year-old Orban, who also served as prime minister from 1998-2002, campaigned on a strong anti-immigrant platform and on April 6 called this vote an "election of fate" and a chance for Hungarians to reclaim their country.
"They want to take away our homeland again," he said at Fidesz party rally in a town about 70 kilometers outside of the capital, Budapest.
"Parties that serve foreign interests and politicians who take foreign pay want to govern and turn Hungary into an immigrant country," he added.
Orban began his political career as a liberal activist in the late 1980s, but he has been accused by critics of abandoning Hungary's postcommunist democratic path for an increasingly authoritarian direction.
Over the past eight years, Orban's government has expanded control over the media and, through allies in the business sector, gained influence over the banking, energy, construction, and tourism sectors.
Some critics also accuse Orban of being too accommodating to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Orban was once a critic of Putin. But after his party's 2010 election victory, he called for transforming Hungary into an "illiberal state," citing Russia and Turkey as templates for success.
Orban has also repeatedly criticized U.S.-Hungarian billionaire philanthropist George Soros, whom he accuses of meddling in Hungarian politics and leading the liberal opposition.
EU leaders will be closely watching the results, with a big victory by Orban’s party likely to boost to similar rightwing nationalists in other Central European countries, particularly Poland and Austria, and increase concerns about EU cohesion.
Jobbik was formerly one of Europe’s most far-right, anti-Semitic, and anti-EU parties, but it has attempted to rebrand itself as a more-centrist entity.
Party founder Gabor Vona, who was a student when he set up Jobbik in 2003, has asked the country's Romany minority for forgiveness for previous attacks and has sent Hanukkah greeting cards to Hungary's Jewish population.
"I am ready to say sorry again if needed to the Romany or Jewish community," Vona recently told AFP.
Socialist-led parties ruled Hungary and defeated Orban in the 2002 and 2006 general elections before falling to Fidesz in 2010.
The Socialists are backing 42-year-old Gergely Karacsony -- who heads Dialogue, a small liberal and green party -- for the prime minister post.