Orban supporters throng streets ahead of Hungary vote

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Budapest (AFP)

Tens of thousands of supporters of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban took to the streets of Budapest on Thursday in a mass show of force before the elections on April 8.

Another 4,000 people gathered for a counter-demonstration, one of several such rallies planned during the day, an AFP journalist at the scene said.

Polls put the 54-year-old, who has repeatedly clashed with Brussels over immigration and the rule of law, firmly on course to win a third consecutive term.

But a surprise by-election defeat for Orban's ruling Fidesz party last month suggests the race may be tighter than expected.

Critics say the charismatic strongman has eroded democratic institutions like judicial independence and the media, and steered Hungary towards authoritarian one-party rule.

After being elected in 2010, Orban placed loyalists at the head of state institutions, and rewrote both the constitution and election rules, cementing his grip on power.

His second term since 2014 has been dominated by nationalistic and anti-immigration campaigns that detractors say have stoked xenophobia in the central European country of 10 million.

But bolstered by an improving economy and with the opposition divided, the former student leader of demonstrations that brought down communism nearly 30 years ago still enjoys strong support.

His supporters say Orban defends Hungary against meddling by the EU and US billionaire George Soros, and that his reforms are cleaning up a mess left by previous Socialist-led governments.

Numbers at the pro-Orban "Peace March" were swelled by people brought in from outside the capital and also from Poland, which like Hungary has also clashed with Brussels.

At the front was a banner reading "Homeland Before All" while others carried slogans saying: "God protect Hungary and Poland from leftwing ideology!"

"This government supports the Hungarian people by helping them start families," David Magyar, a 23-year-old economics student told AFP.

"We feel safe here," said a 53-year-old business woman, who only gave her name as Gyongyi.

"There isn't a single refugee running around the streets."