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Election billboards of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are seen in Baja, Hungary March 31, 2018. Picture taken March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

(reuters_tickers)

By Krisztina Than

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Viktor Orban, Europe's hard-liner on immigration, is set to win a third straight term in elections on Sunday after a campaign in which he has positioned himself as a saviour of Hungary's Christian values and culture from a flood of Muslim migrants.

An emphatic victory could embolden Orban, Hungary's longest serving post-communist prime minister, to solidify a Central European alliance against the European Union's migration policies, and against a deeper integration of the bloc which he opposes.

It would also give a boost to other rightwing nationalists in Central Europe, in Poland and in neighbouring Austria, and expose cracks in the EU bloc.

Orban's Fidesz party leads all opinion polls and, with a firm grip on the media, dominates the public agenda. All polls predict a win for him on Sunday though something short of the landslides of the 2010 and 2014 elections. (Graphics on 'Hungarian election' - https://tmsnrt.rs/2GZHvcB)

There is also a slight chance that the fragmented opposition, with former far-right Jobbik as the main challenger, could upset a smooth victory and strip Fidesz of its parliament majority.

"It will be a big fight, a tough game and we will fight to the last minute," Orban told daily tabloid Ripost on Friday.

Orban, 54, who started out as a young liberal activist in the late 1980s, has transformed Hungary's democratic fabric in the past eight years with what his critics see as an increasingly authoritarian style.

His government has expanded control over the state media, and via business allies, also large chunks of the private media.

Businessmen close to Fidesz and Orban have acquired stakes in major industries like banking, energy, construction, and tourism, enriching themselves on EU funds.

At the same time, Orban has clashed with Brussels over his policies and ruled out taking part in any EU-wide mechanism to settle migrants from the Middle East in Hungary, saying the Christian country, which has no history of large-scale immigration, should preserve its "ethnic homogeneity."

"Forces are appearing, the likes of which the world has not seen for a long time. In Africa there will be ten times as many young people as in Europe. If Europe does nothing they will kick down the door on us," Orban said in a speech on March 15.

"Brussels ... wants to dilute the population of Europe and to replace it, to cast aside our culture, our way of life."

"INVASION" THREAT

In 2015, even before the peak of the migration crisis, Orban realised that the threat from what he called "an invasion" by Muslim immigrants struck a chord with a large part of the Hungarian electorate.

His government built a fence on the southern border with Serbia to keep out migrants, when hundreds of thousands walked though Hungary on their way to richer western Europe.

The pre-election campaign has vilified U.S. financier George Soros whose philanthropy aims to bolster liberal and open-border values in eastern Europe, and runs against Orban's concept of an "illiberal democracy".

The fierce anti-immigrant campaign has gone down well with around 2 million core voters of Fidesz. According to a poll and estimates by Republikon institute on Thursday Fidesz could win 113 seats in Hungary's 199-seat parliament.

However, the polls could be unreliable as one-third of voters are uncertain and many hide their voting preference.

Sitting on a bench in Budapest, enjoying the sun with a cup of coffee in his hand, Istvan Nagy, a 50-year old plumber says he will vote for Orban whom he sees as a guarantor of security.

"Of course, Fidesz, Viktor Orban! Why? Because he is the only one who makes me feel secure in this country, this is what I have got used to and I want this to remain," he said.

"We have a job, and money and also girls are pretty here."

Professor Hendrik Hansen, an expert on international and European politics at Budapest's Andrassy University said if Orban wins a strong mandate that "would give strength to the Visegrad countries with respect to any alliance concerning migration policy."

"Orban will have more strength ... in this whole concept of national sovereignty versus European integration," Hansen said.

While Orban has gradually become a nationalist admired by far-right politicians across Europe, he is credited with keeping the budget deficit under control, reducing unemployment, and cutting some of Hungary's debt pile.

His income tax cuts have put the economy on a growth track, with the economy expanding by 4 percent in 2017 and consumption and lending on the rise.

Financial markets have been pricing in a new term for Orban, and have mostly cast aside the chances of a Fidesz defeat.

That could trigger a fall in the forint and government bonds in the event of an upset, traders have said.

"The ... tail risk of government losing a simple majority would likely lead to prolonged political uncertainty: right radicals (the strongest opposition party) and smaller leftist parties may struggle to form a functioning coalition and a Fidesz-dominated coalition or early elections may also be on the table," Citibank said in a note on Friday.

(Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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Reuters