Orban seeks big election win to keep building ‘illiberal’ Hungary

Opponents struggle for coherent plan to oust ruling Fidesz party

Prime minister Victor Orban: his anti-immigration and Eurosceptic rhetoric is popular in 10-million-strong Hungary. Photograph: Aris Oikonomou/AFP/Getty Images

Prime minister Victor Orban: his anti-immigration and Eurosceptic rhetoric is popular in 10-million-strong Hungary. Photograph: Aris Oikonomou/AFP/Getty Images

 

Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party hopes this week’s final campaign push will secure it a crushing “supermajority” in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, as disputes between fractious opposition groups damage their bid to oust controversial prime minister Viktor Orban.

Three decades after making his name as a liberal, anti-communist campaigner, Mr Orban is accused of stoking hatred, overseeing massive corruption and undermining Hungary’s democracy as he seeks to turn it into “illiberal” state.

His government built border fences to block refugees and migrants in 2015, and has spent millions of taxpayer euros promoting his claims that the EU and billionaire philanthropist George Soros want to force European states to take in vast numbers of people from Africa and the Middle East.

“In Hungary there are around 2,000 paid people working during the election campaign to topple the government and install a new pro-immigration cabinet acceptable to George Soros,” Mr Orban told national radio in a Good Friday interview.

“We know precisely who these people are, we know names, we know by and large who, how and why they are working to transform Hungary into an immigrant country.”

State control

The EU is suing Hungary for rejecting a quota of less than 1,300 refugees, for tightening state control over NGOs and making changes to education law that could force the Soros-funded Central European University to leave Budapest.

Yet Mr Orban’s anti-immigration and Eurosceptic rhetoric is popular in 10-million-strong Hungary, where foreigners are rare in the provinces and his depiction of a brave nation defending Christian Europe chimes with many people’s sense of their country’s history and identity.

After winning supermajorities in elections in 2010 and 2014, Fidesz now presides over a period of solid growth and falling unemployment, and it has introduced a flat tax scheme and cut Hungarians’ utility bills.

If voters rejected Fidesz then Hungary’s economy would suffer, Mr Orban said, warning that “we won’t be able to raise pensions, support young people and home construction and create jobs all while building an immigrant country”.

Polls suggest about 50 per cent of decided voters intend to back Mr Orban’s party. Under a Fidesz-designed system that many analysts say skews elections in its favour, such a result could give it supermajority of two-thirds of the seats in parliament, and power to pass legislation at will and change the constitution that it introduced in 2012.

Public anger

The ballot seemed like foregone conclusion until a February byelection in the Fidesz stronghold of Hodmezovasarhely, where an independent candidate backed by all opposition parties soundly beat the ruling party incumbent.

The winning challenger tapped into public anger over alleged corruption among close allies and even relatives of Mr Orban, and more lurid allegations – denied by those implicated – continue to emerge as election day approaches.

The byelection surprise prompted calls for opposition parties to co-operate in Sunday’s national election, by uniting behind the leading anti-Fidesz candidate in every constituency.

Opponents of Fidesz range across the political spectrum, however, from the Socialists and the green “Politics Can Be Different” group to the right-wing Jobbik, which wants to move away from its ultranationalist origins and take the increasingly radical Fidesz’s place as a mainstream conservative party.

Elusive

Some limited co-operation is likely, but a nationwide anti-Fidesz front has proved elusive, due not only to parties’ political differences but their competition for funding that is linked to the number of candidates they field and seats they take.

Without agreement on single candidates, opposition leaders are calling for the kind of massive turnout that they believe would dilute the loyal Fidesz vote, and mobilise Hungarians long disillusioned by their country’s divisive political scene.