Hungarian PM pushes anti-migrant message as polls near

54-year-old, set to remain in power, rides right-wing populism wave sweeping Europe

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has launched his country's general election campaign with promises to lead the fight against immigration, which he claims poses a "grave danger" to his nation's identity and may lead to an "Islamic takeover" of Europe.

His uncompromising electoral platform confirms his status as Europe's most controversial leader.

He does not regard the coming election as being merely about who should rule the 10 million-strong nation nestled in the heart of Europe. He wants it to become a crusade for a different kind of European continent - one that puts up walls against incoming migrants and returns to its traditional, supposedly exclusively Christian roots.

The 54-year-old is a unique example of a mainstream politician who, instead of confronting the wave of right-wing populism now sweeping Europe, chooses to ride the wave instead.

Mr Orban rose to prominence in 1989 as the communist rulers whom the Soviet Union installed in Eastern Europe at the end of World War II were being toppled. Video footage of him as a young student standing in the main square of the Hungarian capital of Budapest, demanding free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops, is among the most enduring images of that period.

Still, the man who was expected to remodel Hungary as an exact replica of a Western European country took his nation in a different direction.

Mr Orban's journey from the centre to the right of the political spectrum has come partly as a reaction to the collapse of centre-left parties in Hungary, which stood accused of gross economic mismanagement during the 1990s.

But Orban-style politics also resonate with a large majority of ordinary Hungarians, who have kept him in power since 2010 and are set to grant him another four-year term in office when voting takes place on April 8.

His economic performance is, at best, mediocre. Hungary is now over three times richer than it was when communism fell, but its gross domestic product of only around US$15,000 (S$19,700) per citizen is still well below European Union levels, and only about a third the average wealth of Germany.

Economic growth has been accelerating recently, but the 3.8 per cent expansion projected for this year is still insufficient. Gone are the days when Hungary was the destination of choice for Western capital.

Yet Mr Orban seems unperturbed and often says nothing about the economy. Instead, he is a master of politics and the only leader able to understand and harness ordinary Hungarians' perceived vulnerabilities about mass migration and a EU that threatens Hungary's traditional lifestyle.

"Our worst nightmares can come true," Mr Orban told supporters earlier this week, in a direct reference to immigration pressure from North Africa and the Middle East.

"The West falls as it fails to see Europe being overrun," he said, before blaming EU politicians for "opening the way to the decline of Christian culture and the advance of Islam".

"Christianity is Europe's last hope," he said to applause from the crowds gathered in front of Buda Castle, the historic seat of the Hungarian government in Budapest.

Mr Orban, who also restricted the powers of the judiciary in his country to challenge his decisions and often mocks the rest of Europe for its social policies, is a source of considerable annoyance for leaders in the rest of the continent.

Hungary is also being sued by the European Commission for failing to abide by EU agreements to accept its allocated share of refugees from other member states.

But there is little else the EU can do, for Hungary has the support of Poland, which shares Mr Orban's views, and is also backed by other neighbours, all of whom can veto any anti-Hungarian measure.

And the more unpopular he is abroad, the more popular he is at home. Opinion polls indicate his Fidesz party is slated to win 53 per cent of all votes cast and an absolute parliamentary majority. His only serious competitor is an anti-immigrant movement that is even further to the right of the political spectrum.

"We have created a resistance movement, and we are winning", shouted Mr Orban to his cheering supporters this week.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 21, 2018, with the headline 'Hungarian PM pushes anti-migrant message as polls near'. Print Edition | Subscribe