Budapest (AFP) – Hungary’s fiercely nationalistic Prime Minister Viktor Orban, 54, is running for a record third consecutive term in elections on Sunday. Polls suggest he will succeed.
The man Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, calls a “hero” has delighted his growing international fan base in recent years — but also unsettled critics at home and abroad, including in Brussels.
– Checks and balances –
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 right-wing Fidesz party.
Vital democratic institutions such as the judiciary and the media were also revamped.
State television became a government mouthpiece, according to journalists, while swathes of the private media sector have been bought by oligarchs.
Even school textbooks have been re-written and many theatre directors replaced.
– Orbanomics –
Orban’s unorthodox economic policies have included special taxes, many of them targeting foreign firms, the nationalisation of private pension funds and forcing utilities to cut prices.
But the economy is doing well — the EU predicts growth of 3.7 percent in 2018, above the EU average although below that of Hungary’s neighbours — while public finances have improved. Audi, Daimler and others have big factories in Hungary.
However, economists say that both poverty and corruption are widespread, public services are in poor shape and emigration — and Orban’s opposition to immigration — has made it hard to find workers.
– Razor wire –
Orban has taken a hard line in Europe’s migrant crisis, excoriating German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open door” policy and refusing to take migrants from elsewhere in the EU.
In 2015 his government erected a fence topped with razor wire along its southern border with Serbia — an outer EU frontier — to stop hundreds of thousands of people trekking up on the so-called Balkan Route into Hungary.
Those migrants who do sneak through into Hungary risk being illegally “pushed back” to Serbia or unlawfully detained, according to Amnesty International. Immigration, Orban says, is “poison” to the culture and security of Christian Europe.
This has made Orban an idol for Europe’s resurgent nationalists, while even centrists, uncomfortable with the methods and the rhetoric, acknowledge that Hungary’s border is also an outer frontier of the European Union that needs protection.
– ‘Stop Soros’ –
With the number of migrants slowing to a trickle, in recent years Orban has turned his ire toward George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier, philanthropist and bete noire of patriots and conspiracy theorists everywhere.
Orban says Soros wants to flood Hungary and Europe with Muslim and African immigrants, while the civil society groups he funds — and even the respected Central European University in Budapest that Soros founded — are just a front for this aim.
Taxpayer-funded billboards went up nationwide warning Hungarians about Soros, accompanied by loaded “questionnaires” sent to all households, while a “Stop Soros” package of new laws is set to make life for NGOs even harder if Orban wins another powerful two-thirds majority.
Fuelling accusations that all this smells of anti-Semitism, Orban says the Jewish Soros is part of the “globalist elite” who “speculate with money. They have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs”.
– Visegrad, Vladimir and Viktor –
Together with Poland’s like-minded government and others in the Visegrad Group — Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — Orban has become a headache for the EU’s institutions, which he accuses of not respecting Hungarian sovereignty.
The European Commission is suing Hungary, among others, for refusing to take part in a scheme sharing refugees around the EU, and separately over laws obliging foreign-funded civil society groups to register with authorities.
Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin visit each other regularly and Moscow is building two new nuclear reactors in Hungary, loaning Budapest 10 billion euros ($12.3 billion) to pay for it.
However, Hungary expelled a Russian diplomat last month over the poisoning in Britain of ex-spy Sergei Skripal, and according to a diplomatic source it was Orban who proposed the bloc should withdraw its ambassador.