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Orbán stages a 'peace march' in Hungary in a show of strength before European Parliament election


BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A crowd of tens of thousands gathered in Hungary’s capital on Saturday in a show of strength behind Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a week before the European Parliament election, a contest he has cast as an existential turning point between peace in Europe and a world war.

The demonstration, dubbed by organizers as a “peace march,” brought Orbán’s supporters from all over Hungary and neighboring countries. They marched along the Danube River in Budapest from the city's iconic Chain Bridge onto Margaret Island, waving flags and signs reading “No War.”

Orbán, whose 14 years in power make him the European Union’s longest-serving leader, has focused his campaign for the June 9 ballot on the war in Ukraine, portraying his domestic and international opponents as warmongers who seek to involve Hungary directly in the conflict. Critics say his appeals for an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine would allow Russia to retain territories it has occupied and embolden it further.

On Saturday, he told supporters that it was time for his party to “occupy Brussels” — the EU's de facto capital — and transform the continent's approach to support for Ukraine as it fends off Russia's full-scale invasion.

“We can only stay out of the war if Hungarian voters support the government,” he said during a speech on Margaret Island. "We must win the European elections in such a way that the Brussels bureaucrats in their fear will open the doors of the city to us and leave their offices in a hurry."

Orbán and his Fidesz party have built a reputation as being among the friendliest in the EU to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. Hungary has refused to supply neighboring Ukraine with weapons to assist in its fight against Russia’s invasion, and has threatened to derail EU financial aid to Kyiv and to block sanctions against Moscow.

His party appears set to gain the most seats in the EU legislature in next week's election. But a series of scandals and a deep economic crisis has given room for one political newcomer, Péter Magyar, to seize on Orbán’s moment of weakness and build a major political movement in the last three months that looks poised to take a significant portion of votes.

Magyar, who has risen to prominence through publicly accusing Orbán’s party of corruption and turning Hungary's media into a pro-government propaganda machine, has himself held numerous large protests and called for “the largest political demonstration in Hungary’s history” on the eve of the election.

But the crowd in Budapest on Saturday showed that Orbán's brand of right-wing populism — and threats that military support to Ukraine by the EU and United States is leading toward a new world war — still resonates among large parts of Hungarian society.

“I trust Viktor Orbán. Let our children have a livable country, not a bombed-out country," Budapest resident József Fehér said at the demonstration. "The weapons that Europe has given to the Ukrainians could be turned back against us. And we don’t want that.”

Orbán has condemned his EU and NATO partners that assist Ukraine as being “pro-war,” and advocated for an election victory for former U.S. President Donald Trump.

In his speech, he said that a Trump victory in November would lead to he and the U.S. administration forming a “transatlantic peace coalition” that could bring an end to the fighting in Ukraine.