Orban holds mass 'peace' rally as EU elections near

Supporters of Hungary's ruling Fidesz and the KDNP Christian Democrats marched in Budapest, calling for peace in Ukraine (GERGELY BESENYEI)
Supporters of Hungary's ruling Fidesz and the KDNP Christian Democrats marched in Budapest, calling for peace in Ukraine (GERGELY BESENYEI)

Tens of thousands of Hungarians rallied at a "peace march" Saturday called by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who is increasingly stoking fears of a war between the West and Russia he blames on Brussels and NATO, ahead of EU elections next week.

Mass rallies in support of Orban's ruling Fidesz party -- dubbed "peace marches" even before Russia's war in Ukraine -- have been routinely organised before important elections since the nationalist leader's return to power in 2010.

Orban has styled himself as "fighting for peace alone" in the EU, characterising the upcoming European Parliament elections as a referendum on the conflict.

"We have the largest electoral army... we are Europe's largest peace-keeping force," he told a huge crowd in Budapest waving Hungarian flags, predicting a "great victory" in next week's EU and local elections.

For the mass rally, a huge banner reading "No war" was installed on the banks of the Danube river in central Budapest.

As Moscow's closest EU ally despite its invasion of Ukraine, Orban has refused to send weapons to Kyiv while blocking European military aid.

He has repeatedly said Ukraine "cannot win", claiming that "most people want" a ceasefire and peace negotiations.

In recent weeks, Orban has ramped up his rhetoric, accusing Brussels and NATO of fuelling the war in Ukraine by providing support.

On Friday, Orban accused the defence alliance of "dragging" Hungary into war over Ukraine, comparing it to how Adolf Hitler had pressured the country into joining World War II.

- 'Broken a taboo' -

Orban recently also suggested that he would like to "redefine" the position of Hungary in the alliance to prevent any participation in operations "outside NATO territory", claiming that his lawyers were already working on it.

According to political analyst Zsuzsanna Vegh, Orban's attacks on NATO claiming that the alliance was dragging Hungary "into a world war" have reached a new stage.

"Even though Orban's government has come into conflict with NATO before... it has always regarded the alliance as the cornerstone of Hungarian security," she told AFP.

His remarks "broke a taboo", propelling the government's "whole war discourse into a new dimension", Vegh explained.

According to the polls, Orban's strategy of hammering home his "anti-war" talking points seem to be working.

"I am convinced the prime minister is right. It's easy for Western Europe, they're 1,500 kilometres from the Ukrainian border, but we're very close," said Margit Kovacsne, a 67-year-old retired teacher who joined Saturday's rally.

"If the flow of arms continues, it's an escalation... I don't even want to think about it," she told AFP.

Earlier this year rare public anger erupted in Hungary, notably from rising opposition leader Peter Magyar, who has amassed thousands of supporters and is posing the most serious challenge in Orban's 14 years in power.

But Orban was bullish on Saturday, saying that "in a week's time, we will receive reinforcements from every country in Europe", and with the re-election of Donald Trump as US president, forming a "transatlantic peace coalition" would even be possible.