Hungary expected to grant third term to fiercely nationalistic Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Viktor Orban, standing for a third successive term as Hungary’s prime minister on Sunday, is best known outside the country for being at the forefront of the deepening division between the European Union’s eastern and western members

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2018, 3:37pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2018, 10:39pm

The rally was a curious blend of kitsch and gravitas: plastic flags, unwieldy crucifixes and pop lyrics extolling the virtues of blood and soil. But this is Europe in 2018.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, mounted the podium to the sound of screams and raucous applause.

In the same city where Hungary once crowned some of its kings, he delivered his final pitch to voters before Sunday’s election: a familiar litany against migrants, the European Union and George Soros, his favourite billionaire punchbag.

For months now, so much of Orban’s rhetoric has focused on how faraway bureaucrats and bogeymen have subverted Hungary’s national interests to line the coffers of what he couches as an international financial conspiracy, a rhetorical line some see as little more than a modern remake of an anti-Semitic trope.

Yet it would be a mistake to cast his victory on Sunday – almost a foregone conclusion – merely as an internal assault on the European consensus, even if that is the result.

In the minds of many of Orban’s supporters, Sunday’s election was less a rally against the EU as it was a battle of European visions.

And to them, the best way to ensure the future of Europe is to support the man who has transformed their country into the single EU member state that perhaps least resembles a 21st-century Western democracy.

Despite Orban’s bluster, Hungary is not a particularly Eurosceptic nation. In advance of the Brexit vote in June 2016, polls showed that Hungarian voters, second only to Poles, were the most supportive of Brussels in the entire 28-state bloc.

More recent analyses suggest that support has waned, but they also show that Hungary’s trust in the EU as an institution is average, and more than half of the population favours introducing the euro.

“Yes, Hungary is part of Europe,” said Nandor Holl, a 20-year-old business school student who said he hopes to enter politics some day.

He was at Friday’s rally here with his friends, proudly sporting a banner for Fidesz, Orban’s right-wing party.

“My country is very important to me, and I choose it first, but I feel it’s important to keep Europe as an entity,” he said.

“Honestly, I think the Hungarian government wants the same – but just to save it from migrants.”

Elected with a two-thirds majority in 2010, Orban unleashed a legislative whirlwind, including a new constitution steeped in patriotic and conservative values, while watering down the constitutional court’s powers.

Critics have dubbed Orban the “Viktator” and say new electoral laws have rigged the system in favour of his Fidesz party.

To them, Orban is more in line with Russia’s Vladimir Putin than he is with the continental cohorts of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. And Sunday’s election represents an existential choice.

“The election will determine whether Hungary consolidates itself as a democracy or whether it aligns with Putin and the ascendant authoritarians of the 21st century,” said Michael Ignatieff, the president and rector of Budapest’s Central European University, an institution backed by George Soros that Orban has repeatedly threatened.

The government has been accused by critics of using anti-Semitic stereotypes in its relentless campaign against Soros, who is Jewish.

Orban accuses Soros and the organisations he funds of promoting mass Muslim and African immigration into Europe to undermine its Christian identity.

Orban’s sometimes lurid rhetoric against immigrants resulted in February in a spat between the government and the UN’s top human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who accused Orban of xenophobia and racism.

Although Orban’s actions, including refusing to participate in the EU’s refugee resettlement scheme, have sometimes annoyed other European governments, Fidesz is afforded a measure of protection by virtue of its membership of the main centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament.

Senior EPP leaders have themselves courted controversy by wishing Orban luck ahead of the poll.

On a visit to Budapest Friday, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s governing PiS party, also gave Orban his endorsement.

Poland’s government has had its own run-ins with Brussels over its changes to the judicial system, and sees Hungary as an important ally within the EU.

A strong showing for Orban will be welcomed by admirers on the far-right in Europe, such as France’s Marine Le Pen, and beyond.

Turnout will be a key factor in determining the result, with higher participation thought to benefit the opposition.

At a local mayoral by-election in February, Fidesz suffered a shock defeat after the opposition threw its weight behind a single candidate, prompting a surge in turnout.

Opposition parties have not coordinated this closely on a national level, but tactical voting could nevertheless represent a danger to Fidesz in 30-40 “swing seats”.

The last few weeks of the campaign have been marked by allegations of money laundering and corruption levelled at Orban’s inner circle, often published in media owned by oligarch Lajos Simicska, an erstwhile Orban ally who fell out with him after Fidesz’s 2014 election victory.

Orban has avoided public debates with opponents or speaking to independent media, preferring instead to address supporters at carefully stage-managed events where he has hammered home his anti-immigration message.

The government also points to Hungary’s solid economic growth, which has brought steadily rising wages, and says this would be at risk in the event of an opposition victory.

The Washington Post, Agence France-Presse