BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — Thousands of supporters of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing government marched in Budapest on Saturday in a demonstration of unity behind the populist leader’s contentious policies.
The rally was dubbed a “Peace March” and participants gathered along the western bank of the Danube River and departed across Liberty Bridge, winding through downtown Budapest toward the site of a rare public speech to be delivered by Orban later in the day.
The march was organized by nongovernmental organization Civil Unity Forum, an active promoter of the policies of Orban’s Fidesz party, which has dominated Hungary’s parliament with a two-thirds majority since 2010.
The group’s chairman, Laszlo Csizmadia, told The Associated Press before the march departed that the event was meant to demonstrate Hungary’s sovereignty to the European Union, which he said had “undeservedly” attacked Hungary in recent attempts to reign in what the bloc sees as democratic backsliding.
“We think that we have a right to state our opinions in the long term in the European Union,” Csizmadia said.
Organizers said they expected around 400,000 people to attend the march, the eighth such pro-government rally since 2012.
The event mobilized supporters of Orban’s government before next spring’s parliamentary election, in which he faces what is expected to be the most serious challenge to his power since 2010.
Laszlo Csendes came to the march from Veszprem, a city 75 miles (120 kilometers) southwest of Budapest. He said Orban’s performance since 2010 had led to Hungarians “prospering” and an improvement in economic conditions.
“There are new jobs, you’ve just got to look around,” Csendes said. “There’s money for everything, and for everyone.”
Orban’s staunchly anti-immigration government faces increasing pressure both in Hungary and internationally. The European Union, of which Hungary is a member, is considering imposing financial penalties on the country over concerns that Orban has eroded democratic institutions and the rule of law in pursuit of what he calls an “illiberal democracy.”
At home, Hungary’s six largest opposition parties have vowed to put aside ideological differences and form a coalition to challenge Orban’s party in upcoming elections, running a single joint candidate against Fidesz opponents in each of Hungary’s 106 electoral districts.
The parties argue the unity strategy is the only way to overcome a media environment dominated by government-aligned outlets and an electoral system unilaterally authored and passed by Fidesz which they say gives the ruling party an unfair advantage.
Csizmadia, the Civil Unity Forum chairman, told a news conference last week that the route of Saturday’s march would pass through sites of violent police abuses that occurred during civil unrest in 2006 during the leadership of Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany.
Orban’s party has depicted the opposition coalition as a plot by Gyurcsany, one of Hungary’s most divisive and unpopular politicians, to retake power.
The six-party opposition coalition concluded a primary race last week where voters elected independent conservative Peter Marki-Zay to be Orban’s challenger for prime minister on the unity ticket.
Marki-Zay and other opposition politicians announced they would hold their own rally in Budapest on Saturday, an important national holiday marking the 65th anniversary of Hungary’s 1956 anti-Soviet revolution.
But marchers, many holding signs critical of the opposition movement, expressed anger at the coalition’s ambitions to defeat Orban’s government.
“I don’t think they are able to govern, they don’t have any concepts,” said Judit Nemeth, a marcher from Budapest. “They only have one goal, to oust Orban, who I think is Europe’s best politician.”