Zsusanna Toth recognises the face grinning at her from billboards and bus stops across the city. George Soros, billionaire investor, liberal philanthropist and bête noire of the Hungarian government, is suddenly everywhere.
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s appetite for lavish media campaigns attacking his political opponents has led to allegations of anti-Semitism after a nationwide poster blitz featuring the Hungarian-American investor.
The government campaign casts Budapest-born Mr Soros, a critic of the country’s hardline refugee policies, as an advocate of mass illegal immigration. It features an enormous black and white picture of the 86-year-old Holocaust survivor and urges Hungarians not to let him “have the last laugh”.
Critics say the posters evoke lurid anti-Semitic imagery of the 1930s that portrayed Jews as political manipulators. Hungary’s largest Jewish group this week demanded the Fidesz-led government “immediately shut down” the state-funded campaign.
“How should I explain a message like this to my children?” Ms Toth asks.
The billboards contain “toxic messages” that have provoked reactions recalling a dark period, says Andras Heisler, president of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities.
“While not openly anti-Semitic, this campaign can still unleash uncontrolled, anti-Semitic passions and other feelings,” Mr Heisler wrote in an open letter to the government.
Some of the images have been defaced with anti-Semitic slurs.
An earlier campaign by the youth wing of Fidesz portrayed Mr Soros as the puppet master of opposition politicians. Mr Soros has not commented on the campaigns.
Janos Lazar, a senior government minister, dismissed the criticism. “This is not about George Soros’ origins and identity, but about his actions,” he told reporters.
Mr Orban, who has declared a zero-tolerance policy towards anti-Semitism, is already under fire for describing Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s wartime leader and an ally of Nazi Germany, as an “exceptional statesman” in a June speech. Mr Horthy oversaw the introduction of anti-Jewish laws and eventually the deportation to death camps of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews.
Both rows come ahead of a planned visit to Budapest by Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel, on July 18, an event the government hopes will burnish its relations with Israel and the Jewish community.
Peter Szijjarto, Hungary’s foreign minister, has since qualified Mr Orban’s remarks, describing Mr Horthy’s treatment of the Jews as a “historical sin” but noting that his term included “both positive and extremely negative periods”.
Analysts view Mr Orban’s billboards and his public musings on contentious figures such as Horthy as exercises in political positioning ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.
Mr Orban is trying to undercut Jobbik, the radical rightwing party that has become the largest rival to Fidesz, by appealing to ultra-nationalist voters, says Peter Kreko of Political Capital, a think-tank. He says Mr Soros makes a convenient enemy.
“It demonstrates the government’s need to import enemies from the outside so it can continue a perpetual war against foreign forces. First it was the IMF, then Brussels, now Soros — all are enemies with no natural constituency in Hungary,” he says.
“They need a strong enemy and that’s why the diabolical portrayal of Soros is being used.”
A July opinion poll showed Jobbik is supported by 21 per cent of decided voters, compared with 53 per cent for Fidesz. Jobbik’s increasing popularity followed its own striking billboard campaign targeting alleged government corruption.
“You work — they steal,” one Jobbik campaign told voters, above mugshots of favoured Orban lieutenants. The campaign struck a nerve among voters and rattled Mr Orban, say observers.
Jobbik’s campaign launch spurred the government to rush through legal changes banning political advertisements outside the election campaign season. The restriction will not apply to the government’s “public information campaigns” — including its message featuring Mr Soros.
In a separate dispute, the EU is investigating a law adopted by government MPs which Budapest’s Central European University says could force it to close. CEU was founded by Mr Soros in 1991 and is known as “Soros University” by government ministers.
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