Right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban seeks reelection

Photo: Gergely Botár / kormany.huBUDAPEST —Right-wing Prime Minister Victor Orban seems poised for a third consecutive term in office after elections April 8 after having run a campaign geared toward stoking fears about mass migration in the country.

It's a testament to the success of the culture war he has waged in Hungary since 2015's refugee crisis in Europe that's moved the nation increasingly into authoritarian territory and provided Europe with an populist figurehead against the backdrop of the Western European coalition led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, analysts said.

"Viktor Orban has managed to reshape the country in his own image," said Florian Hartleb, a German political scientist specializing in European populism and right-wing extremism. "He's creating an illiberal status quo that's based on systems in China or Russia."

Since some 400,000 people made their way through Hungary en route to Western European countries like Germany and Sweden in 2015, Mr. Orban has unwaveringly focused on stoking fears that Hungary is becoming an "immigrant country" like France, Belgium or the United Kingdom.

"Countries that don't stop immigration will be lost," Orban told crowds at a rally last month outside the Hungarian parliament. The premier dedicated almost his entire 25-minute speech to addressing the ills of immigration, although the country has settled very few refugees and the flood of newcomers crossing through Hungary has decreased to a trickle in recent years.

"Africa wants to kick down our door, and Brussels is not defending us – Europe is under invasion already, and they are watching with their hands in the air," he said.

It's a far cry from his Fidesz party's origins, which began as an anti-Soviet youth movement and Christian Democratic alliance in the 1980s.

But since coming to power for the first time in 1998, and then again in 2010 and 2014, Fidesz has gerrymandered districts and reformed election laws for its own gain, said analysts. It's also cracked down on civil society, opposition groups and the nation's judiciary, as well as independent media.

Even so, Fidesz's landslide victories in 2010 and 2014, which delivered it an absolute majority in parliament, seem to be a thing of the past amid increasing allegations of corruption within its ranks – most polls indicate that the party will at best secure a simple majority.

Though Hungary's left-wing opposition parties are increasingly fractured, they've made gains in smaller elections in Fidesz strongholds in recent months and have attempted to mobilize direct mandate districts, which constitute 106 of the parliament's 199 seats. The remaining seats are determined through proportional representation of a separate party vote.

Should Fidesz lose its absolute majority, it would have no choice but to rule in a minority government, or else band together with the nation's second-largest party, Jobbik, currently polling around 17 percent, which Hartleb describes as a "paramilitary right-wing extremist party."

"When one calculates how many votes Fidesz and Jobbik have been able to gain, then it's certainly cause for concern how nationalist Hungary has become," he said.

Orban and Fidesz likely won't enter a coalition with Jobbik due to political fighting between the parties, which has forced Orban to double down on anti-immigrant rhetoric in order to play to an increasingly nationalist electorate and win votes, said Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute, a policy research and consultancy firm in Budapest.

"Fidesz is responding to declining poll numbers and increased corruption revelations with hysterical war rhetoric," he said. "It's enclosing itself in a cage of its own conspiracy theories: They talk about the threat of immigrants over and over again, although there are hardly any here."

Fidesz has even gone so far as to widely distribute posters of liberal Hungarian philanthropist and conservative boogeyman George Soros with opposition leaders holding wire cutters, an homage to the razor wire fence Orban erected shortly after 2015's refugee crisis began.

It's only galvanized the opposition, said Hungarian Socialist Party candidate for prime minister Gergely Karácsony.

"Fidesz is weaker than we assumed," he said. "Generous favors for its own clientele and intimidation of political opponents has had the opposite effect – with his threats he unintentionally mobilizes opposition voters."
Even so, left-wing opposition groups are still very much splintered – Karacsony's Socialists are the largest among them, and are only poling with about 12 percent of the vote.

After having developed a hyper-nationalist culture in Hungary over the past decades that's presented a conservative front against Brussels and a banded together largely homogenous, Eastern European states like Poland and Bulgaria, it's unlikely that Orban will lose his mandate, said Hartleb.

Even slightly weakened, as Europe's second-longest serving leader and a stalwart of conservative nationalism within the European bloc, he'll continue to serve as a counterweight to Germany's Angela Merkel, Hartleb added.

"He's one of the most well-known politicians in Europe and therefore can swing his weight around," he said. "As this election has shown, it'll mostly be seen by playing cards against a multicultural society and what he calls Islamization."
And four more years of Orban and Fidesz could mean even further slips toward authoritarianism, said Kreko.

"Only one thing is certain: if Fidesz wins, Orban will go even harder against civil rights groups and the opposition," he said. "Because for him there's no going back on this path toward an illiberal state."

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times. 

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