Hungary PM Orban a strong favourite in parliamentary elections

BUDAPEST (AFP) - Hungarians voted on Sunday in elections that looked set to see political bruiser Prime Minister Victor Orban coast to victory after four turbulent years that have seen him labelled both saviour and autocrat.

Opinion polls indicate that the only questions were whether Mr Orban, 50, can retain his two-thirds parliamentary majority and if the far-right Jobbik might beat a wobbly centre-left opposition alliance into second place.

"I hope we will see a strong turnout today because that will facilitate having a strong government in place," Mr Orban said as he voted in an overcast Budapest on Sunday morning.

Surveys in 10 million-strong Hungary put the Fidesz party, created by Mr Orban and other like-minded young student liberals in the dying days of Communism in the late 1980s, on a commanding 46 to 51 per cent.

The centre-left were trailing badly on 21 to 31 per cent, with the anti-Roma and anti-Semitic far-right Jobbik snapping at their heels on 15 to 21 per cent.

The opposition, however, has been fighting to the last, saying the voter surveys are wrong.

"I believe I will be prime minister in a few days," the alliance's joint candidate for premier Attila Mesterhazy told AFP.

Mr Orban has made the most of the super-majority he won in 2010, with a legislative onslaught shaking up the media, the judiciary and the central bank.

Critics, including Brussels and Washington, have expressed concerns about vital checks and balances on key democratic institutions in the European Union member state.

The fate of the media has sparked particular alarm, with state outlets merged into one tame entity and independent publications starved of advertising. All are under the close eye of a new watchdog run by Orban lieutenants.

"The Internet is where you to go to find out what is really happening in Hungary," Mr Aranka Szavuly, a freelance journalist fired from state media in 2011, told AFP.

Many of these reforms have been written into a new Constitution, meaning that even if the opposition were to win, it would need a two-thirds majority to change them.

The father-of-five, keen on conservative values like family and the Church, has also been accused of cosying up to Moscow, re-writing history and failing to stop a rise in anti-Semitism.

Mr Orban says his changes are aimed at turning Hungary into a "race car" after eight years of economic and political Socialist mismanagement from 2002-2010 had reduced it to an "old banger".

But despite some rosy economic data, Mr Orban's nationalist rhetoric and unorthodox economic policies have scared away much-needed foreign investors, economists say.

Mr Orban has trumpeted a 20 per cent cut in utility prices but value-added tax (VAT) is the highest in the EU. Poverty rates are high and a harsh "workfare" scheme forces the unemployed to perform menial work in return for benefits.

The fractious opposition alliance has struggled however to make much headway, however, due in part to a new electoral law, problems getting favourable media coverage and a corruption scandal.

It was only formed in January, and Mr Orban's campaign machine has had success depicting its hapless leaders - Mesterhazy and former prime ministers Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsany - as proven failures.

"I am voting for Orban. Four years isn't enough for a party to put its plans into practice," shop assistant Belane Kovacs, 34, told AFP as she voted in Budaors outside Budapest.

"I am going to vote for the leftist alliance because I hate what (Fidesz) has done to democracy," an 83-year-old woman who didn't want to give her name told AFP in the capital.

Exit polls were expected around 7pm local time, when voting stations close.