Viktor Orbán’s apocalyptic visions have long appalled Brussels. But the Hungarian prime minister’s dystopian warnings of a future dominated by a clash of civilisations appear to have struck a chord with his countrymen.
Addressing a huge crowd at a rally in Budapest ahead of next week’s parliamentary elections, Mr Orbán claimed that his nationalist government was battling against shadowy international forces bent on “breaking” Hungary and swamping its culture beneath a flood of migrants.
“Europe is now under invasion,” he told his supporters this month. “Brussels is not defending Europe and it is not halting immigration . . . It wants to dilute the population of Europe and to replace it, to cast aside our culture, our way of life and everything which separates and distinguishes us Europeans from the other peoples of the world.”
Mr Orbán has clashed with the EU over his attempts to build what he calls an “ illiberal democracy”, and faced accusations from his domestic opponents that corruption has grown during his two terms in power. But when Hungary votes on April 8, polls suggest that a parliamentary majority for Mr Orbán and his nationalist-conservative Fidesz party is the most likely outcome.
This is partly owing to a fragmented opposition. Fidesz unexpectedly lost a municipal election in one of its strongholds in February after rival parties rallied behind a single candidate. But similar deals have been hard to replicate on a national level, meaning that in many constituencies the anti-Fidesz vote will be split between several groups.
Fidesz is also benefiting from favourable economic conditions. Like the rest of central Europe, Hungary is growing fast. Gross domestic product rose by 4 per cent last year and unemployment has fallen to just 3.8 per cent. On top of this, the party has won favour with higher-income groups after introducing a flat tax.
But the most important factor for Mr Orbán’s popularity is his stance on immigration, says Andras Biro-Nagy, from Policy Solutions, a think-tank in Budapest. Since Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, Mr Orbán has seized on the issue, building a razor-wire fence along Hungary’s border and using threats of a foreign influx to portray himself as a guarantor of Hungarian identity.
“Immigration is an issue that goes beyond party politics. This is why [Fidesz] consider it their winning card,” says Mr Biro-Nagy. He points out that 3.3m people voted against EU migrant quotas in a 2016 referendum in Hungary, whereas Mr Orbán has never garnered more than 2.7m votes in a general election.
“[His supporters] . . . consider Orbán a great visionary leader, who is the defender of Christian Hungary, who would make Hungary great again,” he adds.
Mr Orbán’s opponents see him differently. Since Fidesz came to power in 2010, it has used its super-majorities to change Hungary’s constitution. Critics say this has enabled Mr Orbán to weaken the checks and balances on his government’s powers. They claim, too, that corruption has risen on his watch.
“What is at stake . . . is whether after April 8 Hungary will remain a democratic country, or whether it will head towards some sort of banana republic or some sort of dictatorship or some sort of autocracy,” Marton Gyongyosi from the radical rightwing opposition party Jobbik told journalists this week.
“We can say without any degree of exaggeration that there has been a very clear attempt to eliminate the democratic framework . . . Together with these steps what we could see is an extremely worrying acceleration of corruption scandals.”
Zoltan Kovács, Hungary’s government spokesman, says both allegations are baseless. He says Hungary’s judicial system meets European standards and claims that it has undermined the rule of law are “purely political”. As for corruption, Mr Kovács says the EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF has never suggested that the irregular use of European money in Hungary is higher than the European average.
The antagonism looks unlikely to end if Mr Orbán wins another term. In his speech in Budapest, he promised that after the election “we will of course seek amends — moral, political and legal amends” from opponents.
Mr Kovács says the comment was an indication that the government would respond to “lies” it had faced during the campaign, and that it would take further steps to limit the political activities of NGOs.
The comment has provoked consternation among opposition groups. “Whatever still remains outside of Fidesz control, we will see very strong and concentrated attacks on them. That’s really the only way you can interpret the statement,” says Daniel Berg, a candidate for Momentum, a centrist group making its electoral debut in next week’s poll. “This kind of rhetoric in a European democracy is unparalleled and quite troubling really.”
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