BUDAPEST— Hungarians were set to return Prime Minister Viktor Orban to power for another four years in a parliamentary election on Sunday that was also expected to further entrench the far-right Jobbik party as a political force.
Orban, 50, has had repeated rows with the European Union and foreign investors, particularly over heavy taxes imposed on the country's mostly foreign-owned banks, telecoms and energy firms, and increased state control over the energy sector.
But he is popular with many voters for stabilizing public finances and cutting personal income taxes as well as households' electricity and gas bills. Opinion polls show his Fidesz party on course for a landslide victory.
“I would like to see high turnout because that would allow stronger governing,” Orban told Reuters after he cast his vote early at a school in the capital.
“I hope many voters will go to cast their votes, and whatever government is formed, it can start working ...with strong public support,” he said.
Based on opinion polls, two questions remain: whether Orban can retain his two-thirds majority in parliament, which allows him to change the constitution, and whether Jobbik can make a late surge and overtake the leftist opposition to become the country's second biggest political force.
A good result for Jobbik, accused by critics of being anti-Semitic and stoking antipathy toward Hungary's Roma minority, could be a harbinger of how other nationalist right-wing parties perform in European Parliament elections next month.
Public support for Orban's Fidesz stood at 34 percent a week before the vote in a survey by pollster Ipsos, a leftist alliance led by Socialist party chairman Attila Mesterhazy scored 20 percent and Jobbik was third with 14 percent.
The leftist alliance has promised to cut the prices of basic foods, raise pensions and the minimum wage, but its support has faltered ahead of the vote. The Socialists suffered a crushing defeat in the last elections in 2010.
Just east of Budapest in the town of Veresegyhaz, members of the local women's choir voted together, dressed in traditional costumes and headscarves, and some of them expressed dissatisfaction with Fidesz.
“We had a regime change in 1989 so we don't have to put up with a one-party system any longer, and these four years looked a lot like a one-party system,” Agota Guczky said. “It is high time that other parties get their say in this democracy.”
Her son, Csaba Guczky, who was laid off and has not worked in four years, said he would vote for the leftist alliance.
“The leftists can bind together such a wide political spectrum that even if I dislike the Socialists there are others there who may be able to do something to make things better,” he said.
Far right gains
Jobbik leader Gabor Vona told reporters in the eastern Hungarian town of Gyongyos he was certain his party would surprise with its election result.
“Our three main themes of living standards, order and the accountability of politicians has struck a nerve with voters, who are most adamant on those three things,” Vona said after he cast his vote in the town in which he was running for parliament.
The party has pledged to create jobs, be tough on crime, renegotiate state debt and hold a referendum on EU membership.
Pensioner Zoltan Szabo, 67, said even though he liked Jobbik's programme he would vote for Fidesz.
“What Fidesz has done in the past four years, I like it a lot,” Szabo said. “They raised my pension by 20,000 forints ($90)! What did the Socialists do? They took it away.”
Many voters reject Jobbik for its radical ideas.
“My problem with Jobbik is they hate everyone. They hate Jews, they hate Gypsies... And I don't want to vote for hatred,” said Janos Korondi, who just moved back to Hungary from the United States.
Investors in Hungary can expect more unpredictable and, for some, hostile policies if Orban wins the election, according to a Reuters poll and sources with knowledge of his intentions.
Orban has pledged to stick to his policies if reelected, continuing to cut energy prices and getting rid of foreign currency mortgages that are burdening households. Foreign banks fear this could inflict further losses.
More unpredictable policies could weigh on the forint, especially if the central bank - led by a strong ally of Orban's - cuts interest rates further from record lows, against a backdrop of jittery sentiment in global markets.
Critics say Orban has used his mandate to curb democratic checks and balances and the freedom of the media, allegations his government rejects.
Voting at more than 10,000 polling stations began at 0400 GMT and polls close at 1700 GMT. An unofficial result will be announced on Sunday night.
Unlike four years ago, when Hungarians voted in two rounds, Sunday's election will feature a first-past-the-post single round in 106 constituencies, with the number of lawmakers in parliament reduced sharply to 199 from 386.