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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

An Election Day Dispatch from Budapest

On the ground from Budapest for the Hungarian elections.
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BUDAPEST—I woke up with a start. I grab my phone to silence the blaring bprrr of the alarm I put on full volume the night before. It’s 6 a.m. on April 3. The polls have just opened for election day in Hungary, the reason I have traveled more than 4,500 miles to Budapest.

It’s still mostly dark outside the window of my hotel room. The sky was slowly changing from black to a deep purple. A light dusting of snow covered the ground in the tiny utility courtyard outside my window, used only by hotel staff for the occasional cigarette, though most choose to smoke on the hotel’s stoop near the end of Váci utca’s pedestrian zone.

I drag my tired body over to the shower and turn it on. The day prior, a group of other journalists and I traveled four or so hours across the Pannonian Basin to the border between Hungary and Ukraine, to talk to local officials and refugees about the current crisis, and didn’t get back until the late hours of the night. By the time I emerge from the bathroom, I’m fully awake. I throw on some flannel-lined blue pants, a shirt, and my brown corduroy jacket. 

One last glance out the window. The purple sky had turned to a luminous, thick gray. A light rain had already melted the snow. I place a journal and a pen in my back pocket, grab my umbrella, and am out the door. I go to the polling place just around the corner lining Fővám tér plaza. It’s still pretty early in the morning, so not much activity yet. That’s alright. I’ve got some time to kill before I head to St. Michael’s Church at 10 a.m for Traditional Latin Mass and then brunch at the invitation of a friend. I’m not a Catholic, and have never been to a Latin Mass before, but who am I to refuse the Gospel.

I grab a coffee at one of the plaza cafes—not the Starbucks—check my email, and scout out a few polling places to visit later in the day, hoping I might have better luck at another location. Then it dawns on me: I’m in Hungary. The whole reason members of the American right have made their respective pilgrimages to Hungary is that it’s a culturally Christian country, with a government unafraid to say as much. People aren’t voting because they’re at church.

I start to make my way to St. Michael’s Church, dodging puddles from the snowmelt and the rain as I walk briskly over the well-kept cobble stones. I get distracted by the ornamentation on a particularly beautiful yellow building. Bloop. My whole shoe, right into a puddle. But I don’t mind much. I’m more preoccupied with trying to remember the last time I was on a well-kept city street lined with beautiful buildings without having to think about the homeless, criminals, or homeless criminals.

A few minutes later, I approach St. Michael’s. The sound of singing pours into the street from the church’s entryway, as if the heavy wooden doors had better sense than to try and contain the power of the hymn. Inside, it’s standing room only. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been inside a church so full—at least two years. Rather than march through the church and scour the pews to find my friend with the hopes of squeezing into a seat, I find a place to stand at the back. I stand and listen, picking up bits and pieces of the Latin here and there. In high school, I studied classical Latin, not its ecclesiastical cousin. The ceiling of St. Michael’s is painted in a blush color that has clearly faded over the years, adorned with various frescoes. Gray light seeps in from the rainy skies as drops lightly tap against the church’s windows and trickle down the side in the grooves of the aged glass, casting a wispy light on the ornate altar in the recess of the apse.

When Mass comes to a close, I walk outside to meet up with my friend before walking to brunch. As I wait, a Hungarian student at Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC) I had befriended emerges from the church. Just yesterday, on the bus ride back from the border between Hungary and Ukraine, he told me he wasn’t personally all that religious. Yet, here he was coming out of Latin Mass on Sunday—I don’t know many Americans who attend Latin Mass that would say they’re not personally all that religious.

After brunch, I head to the polling stations I had scouted out before. It’s about half past one now, and the polling place at Fővám tér plaza has a steady stream of voters. I had previously registered as an international press election observer with the Hungarian government, which supposedly gave me abundant access to any polling place. To my surprise, it was true. Who would have thought it would be easier to access polling places as an observer and a journalist in what President Joe Biden has called a “totalitarian regime” than it would be to access voting centers in Detroit, Philadelphia, or Atlanta?

The voting process, even for someone who doesn’t know a lick of Hungarian, seemed straightforward. First, each Hungarian voter shows a poll worker a valid government form of identification and proof of residence. They then sign off on a piece of paper verifying that they are who they say they are and have been provided a paper ballot before going behind a curtain to cast their vote. As they leave, they drop their ballots into a box to be counted later.

I ask one of the election observers, a young Hungarian woman, if they have encountered any problems thus far, such as turning away voters because of improper documentation. She says no. I then ask if she has seen any reason to be concerned, or if anything she has seen validates the concerns of the united opposition regarding voter fraud or a rigged election. Again, she says no, that she has “not seen anything that questions the election” during her visits at six different polling places. If the Orbán government was tampering with the election, the opposition stronghold of Budapest is where they’d do it.

For obvious reasons, I can’t speak to voters inside the polling place about who they’re voting for and why. Just like in the United States, there are rules about political messages and campaigning in and around voting centers. So, I wait outside, and approach voters as they emerge from the polling place to ask them some questions about the election and their experience.

The first voter I approach is a woman who appears to be in her sixties. She’s a short and sturdy woman with an olive complexion, heavy lip liner, and features—like her thick dark hair pulled back behind a scarf—that suggest she’s likely part Roma. At first, she is startled when I approach. Understandably so. I’m dressed like a spook and am about twice her size. I tell her I’m a journalist from the United States asking Hungarians about the election. Her English isn’t great, but when I eventually ask her who she voted for, she told me, “I was to vote for Fidesz, or not vote. But, my husband tell me to vote for opposition, because we fight for our freedom.” I thank her for her time and let her get on her way.

As the elderly woman said goodbye and walked away, a couple around a similar age approached me and asked what I was doing. I gave them the same introduction I had just given the woman. They seem more political than the woman prior, though the wife did not speak English. The husband, who told me his name was Attila, said the election “could go either way.”

“It will be close,” he added, “In Budapest, there will be more for the opposition, but the countryside and smaller cities will choose Fidesz.”

Both he and his wife voted for the opposition, and though they badly want the opposition to prevail, Attila remained perfectly calm and relaxed. “We will see how it goes.”

“I hope 70 to 80 percent make vote,” Attila says. I ask if he thinks Fidesz and the Orbán government has rigged the election. “No,” he says. “If my vote won’t count, I would not vote.”

“I understand why many people choose Fidesz,” Attila goes on to say. “Orbán has done some things to help them. To help economy.” But he thinks Orbán’s refusal to go along with some of Brussel’s demands is jeopardizing their political and economic standing in Europe. “We want to be a part of Europe. A part of the community, the market. We want to be a good European country, a good NATO country.”

I interview a few other voters outside the voting center on Fővám tér, most of them for the opposition. Not a single voter told me they thought the election was a fait accompli for Fidesz.

I walk about 10 to 15 minutes to another polling place and repeat the process. Again, no concerns from election observers or voters about any election chicanery. One voter, named Ferenc, told me he was proud to vote for Fidesz. Hungarians, he proclaimed, want “freedom from George Soros and freedom from the situation in Ukraine.” Overhearing our conversation, some younger voters who just emerged from the polling place shoot him death glares and other looks of disgust. I think to myself, maybe everyone isn’t as calm as I thought. But just as that thought enters my mind, Ferenc, seeing their looks, tells me “it is okay.”

“They are still young. Voting for the first or second time. We will have to wait to see what occurs tonight.”

Though dozens of political signs and billboards—some vandalized with mustaches or devil’s horns—line each street, it astonishes me just how relaxed the mood in Budapest is. It’s not like the days leading up to elections in America, where the political tension bubbles up in the weeks leading up to the vote and explodes on election day. Even the most politically connected and invested in a Fidesz victory I met in the week leading up to the election seemed to have muted emotions. I can’t remember a time I’ve been to a pre-election gathering of conservatives in the U.S. and heard a speech that ends with, “we’ll see how it goes,” rather than “four more years!”

I make my way to the National Election Office, situated just a few hundred yards from Parliament. Outside the election center, I ask one of the press wranglers if there have been any complaints lodged about the election. The wrangler, a woman with high cheekbones and a golden-brown bob draped in a light brown wool coat and smoking a cigarette, tells me she has not heard of any complaints, but that the office will address any if they arise in a press conference later this evening. After she puts out her cigarette and heads inside, I head to Kossuth Lajos Square in front of the parliament building to see if anything is going on, but it’s incredibly quiet except for a tour or two and a group of school children that appear to be six or seven years old on some kind of trip. I walk across the square to the sound of chirping sparrows darting about to head for a nearby street where it will be easier to call a cab.

It’s about 3:30 in the afternoon as I stand on a corner waiting for the cab when a Frenchman stumbles towards me. His eyes and the skin surrounding them are bright red. He’s got some drool crusted on the corner of his unshaven face that matches the crunch of his frayed hair. “Hello, man,” he says in a slurring French accent, “do you know where the nearest italbolt is.”

“Italbolt?” I reply.

“Ah. An American. A liquor store. You see, I am in need,” the Frenchman says, as he opens a plastic bag to reveal six empty tallboy cans of Dreher pilsener. He’s piss drunk.

“No, I don’t,” I say quickly and look back down at my phone. Still five minutes until my taxi arrives. He’s not deterred by my answer. “So, you are American, yes?”

“Yes,” I respond hesitantly.

“America is a very religious country, like Hungary, yes? Do you like Budapest and Hungary?” he asks.

“Very much.”

“Are you religious? Where in the U.S. are you from?” I choose to answer the second question rather than the first. I know where this inebriated Frenchman wants to go with this conversation. “I’m from the Godless state of California, near Los Angeles.” 

He nods and slurs his approval. “This is good.” It takes all my self control to not burst out laughing. Not with him, but at him. Thankfully, before I have an outburst, he asks about New York City. “How is it? Is it absolute freedom?”

“Yes, and it’s disgusting.”

“New York and Los Angeles are not very religious, yes? Not like the South, or Hungary.” I tell him his assessment is correct.

“This is good because, you know, angels are not real. This is a scientific fact.”

He better hope he’s right.

Finally, my cab arrives and I have to bid the Frenchman adieu. As I get into the cab, I see him sway across the sidewalk, carrying on his quest for more booze, a zombie looking to feed on more brains.

After getting ready for the evening’s festivities, I head to MCC for the election party. At around 9 p.m., results start to trickle in.

The initial returns in both Budapest and the countryside look better for Fidesz than they could have imagined. By 10 p.m., it became increasingly clear that Péter Márki-Zay, the opposition’s candidate for prime minister and Mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, was going to lose his own district and would have to rely on the national party list for a seat in parliament, a move he later rejected to take so he could concentrate on his home town. The biggest reaction from the conservative MCC crowd was a few laughs and a fist pump.

Just before 11 p.m., Prime Minister Viktor Orbán began delivering his victory speech. “This victory was visible from the moon, and especially from Brussels,” the prime minister, set to enter his fourth consecutive term, said. “Christian Democratic politics…have won,” he later added. “This is not the past. This is the future.” Again, Fidesz would have a two-thirds majority in parliament.

After Orbán’s short victory speech, I thought the party was just getting started—like it would be in America, if we were ever able to get election results in a timely fashion. But both attendees of the Orbán victory rally and the MCC election party began to head home. I guess I should have listened to my new Hungarian friends more closely. They said, “we’ll see how it goes.” Now they had, and that was enough for them to rest, confident in the direction of Hungary’s future.

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