Viktor Orban, Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, appears set to serve a third consecutive term as a result of the country’s upcoming general election, although polls indicate a closer contest than 2010 and 2014.
Most surveys ahead of the April 8 vote indicate Orban's ruling Fidesz party will receive about 50 percent of the vote, far surpassing the radical nationalist Jobbik party, the Socialists, and several smaller left-leaning and green groups.
However, Fidesz suffered an unexpected setback in one of its strongholds on February 25, when its candidate for mayor in the southern city of Hodmezovasarhely was defeated by an independent challenger in a closely watched contest.
Turnout was higher than expected in the municipal vote, indicating potentially increasing opposition to the leader who has taken a hard line against Muslim immigration and has regularly clashed with his European Union counterparts over the issue.
"Forces are appearing, the likes of which the world has not seen for a long time. In Africa, there will be 10 times as many young people as in Europe. If Europe does nothing, they will kick down the door on us," Orban said in a March 15 speech.
The 54-year-old 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. He also served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002 as head of a coalition government.
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.
A solid victory by Orban’s party in his NATO-member country of some 10 million people could give a 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.
Kristin Makszin, a research fellow at the Institute for Political Science at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, told Bloomberg News that Orban’s party appears set for victory.
“It is important to note that the electoral system was reformed in a way that favors large parties,” Makszin said.
“In 2014, Fidesz got just under 45 percent of the popular vote, and that translated into 66 percent of the seats in parliament," Makszin said. "Given that Fidesz support is currently polling at around 40 percent, it seems highly likely that the current government will again be able to govern without a coalition partner.”