Viktor Orban looks set to win the election
BUDAPEST - 8 April 2018: Most polling stations closed and the vote count began in Hungary's election on Sunday, after a very high turnout that could threaten Viktor Orban's parliamentary majority.
Following an acrimonious campaign in which the rightwing nationalist prime minister projected himself as a saviour of Hungary's Christian culture against Muslim migration into Europe, all opinion polls had put his Fidesz party well ahead.
A strong victory could embolden him to put more muscle into a Central European alliance against the European Union's migration policies. Orban, Hungary's longest-serving post-communist premier, opposes deeper integration of the bloc.
Interim data at 1630 GMT showed voter turnout at 68.13 percent, exceeding final turnout in the past three elections.
A high turnout in a 2002 vote consigned Orban to eight years of opposition. In contrast, the turnout was only 61.7 percent in the last election, in 2014, which gave him a massive victory.
Orban's opponents were cheered by the enthusiasm of Hungarians to vote.
"We are convinced that high turnout definitely reflects ... that people want a change in government," Socialist spokeswoman Bernadett Budai was quoted as saying by national news agency MTI.
Fidesz lawmaker Gergely Gulyas told private broadcaster ATV his party was unlikely to retain its two-thirds parliamentary majority.
"A two-thirds victory is possible if neither side loses more than 10 districts and there is a difference of at least 20 percent between the winner and the runner-up," Gulyas said.
"I consider this unlikely. I think this is outside the category of reality."
Voters were no longer allowed to join queues at polling stations from 1700 GMT, but those already in line were being allowed to cast their ballots, meaning voting could continue for hours more at the busiest stations.
In central London, emigre Hungarians queued for hundreds of metres in the rain to vote, some waiting for more than two hours.
Some pollsters said voter turnout above 70 percent could signal that the opposition was mobilising supporters efficiently, and might even deprive Fidesz of its parliamentary majority.
"High turnout means, most probably, less mandates for Fidesz than in the previous term," said Peter Kreko, director of think tank Political Capital.
But he added that since all parties, including Fidesz, had mobilised intensively, it did not necessarily mean Orban was threatened with defeat.
Orban has far-right admirers across Europe who like his tough line on migrants and a landslide win would show that his single-issue campaign, arguing that migration poses a security threat, had paid off.
MIGRATION "LIKE RUST"
Critics say Orban has put Hungary on an increasingly authoritarian path and his stance on immigration has fuelled xenophobia.
After casting his vote in a wealthy district of Budapest, he said: "From here I will go and take part in mobilising voters ... I am asking everyone to take part in the election."
Asked by journalists if he was fighting the European Union, Orban said: "The EU is not in Brussels. The EU is in Berlin, in Budapest, in Prague and in Bucharest."
He reiterated he would stand up for Hungary's interests and said Hungary was a loyal member of international organisations.
"We love our country and we are fighting for our country," he said.
A strong win for Orban would boost other right-wing nationalists in Central Europe, in Poland and in neighbouring Austria, and expose cracks in the 28-nation EU.
While Fidesz led all opinion polls before the vote, there is a small chance that the fragmented opposition could strip Fidesz of its parliamentary majority if voters frustrated with Orban's policies choose tactical voting in the 106 constituencies.
The strongest opposition party is the formerly far-right Jobbik, which has recast its image as a more moderate nationalist force. It has been campaigning on an anti-corruption agenda and urged higher wages to lure back hundreds of thousands of Hungarians who have left Hungary for western Europe.
Clad in a green jacket and white shirt, Jobbik leader Gabor Vona, 39, arrived to vote in the eastern city of Gyongyos, his home town and the district where he is likely to win a seat.
"Everyone should go to vote because this election determines Hungary's course not for four years but for two generations at least," he told reporters. "Emigration may or may not define Hungary, and I would prefer that it does not."
The EU has struggled to respond as Orban's government has, in the view of its critics, used its two landslide victories in 2010 and 2014 to erode democratic checks and balances. It has curbed the powers of the constitutional court, increased control of the media and appointed loyalists to key positions.
Orban is credited with keeping the budget deficit under control, reducing unemployment and some of Hungary's debt, and putting its economy on a growth track.
On Friday, at his closing campaign rally, he vowed to protect his nation from Muslim migrants, saying: "Migration is like rust that slowly but surely would consume Hungary."
OUTSIDE CHANCE OF SURPRISE
The anti-immigrant campaign has gone down well with many of the roughly two million core voters of Fidesz.
"My little daughter must be my primary concern, to make her future safe. Safety is first," said Julia Scharle, 27, holding her child outside the polling station where Orban cast his vote. She would not reveal her voting preference.
In March the government gave pre-election handouts to millions of families and pensioners.
A poll by Zavecz research institute published on Friday showed Fidesz had 46 percent support among decided voters, while Jobbik had 19 percent. The Socialists came in third with 14 percent. Voter turnout was estimated between 64 and 68 percent.
However, one-third of voters were undecided.
In 2014, Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in the 199-seat parliament with 133 seats.
If Orban wins again, he is expected to continue his economic policies, with income tax cuts and incentives to boost growth.
His business allies are expected to expand their economic domains. Businessmen close to Fidesz have acquired stakes in major industries like banking, energy, construction and tourism, profiting from EU funds.
"Only a dramatic outcome of the election would force a significant shift in the direction of policymaking," Barclays said in a note.