Hungary’s all-powerful premier Viktor Orban, his party victorious in elections Sunday, is the self-styled defender of Christian Europe against the “poison” of immigration, an admirer of “illiberal democracy” and a thorn in the European Union’s side.
Preliminary results from the elections put Orban’s Fidesz party on course to win a thumping 49 percent of the vote, likely giving him a commanding two-thirds majority in parliament once again.
With his disdain for the “globalist elite”, Orban’s fiery, nationalist populism has made him a poster boy for “patriots” everywhere. Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s former strategist, calls him a “hero”.
But to detractors Orban, 54, is a xenophobic demagogue aping Russian President Vladimir Putin by eroding democracy in the EU member state, allowing corruption to flourish and public services to rot.
– Soviets go home –
At 26 as a law student in Budapest in 1989, the country boy became a household name in Hungary in the dying days of communism with a stirring speech demanding democracy and that Soviet troops go home.
Co-founding the Alliance of Young Democrats party (Fidesz), Orban was one of “new” Europe’s brightest stars, becoming an MP in newly democratic and optimistic Hungary in 1990.
Soon, however, he shed his image as a radical youth and began moulding Fidesz into a new force of the centre-right keen on family and Christian values.
It paid off in spades, and with Orban developing a rare knack for connecting with ordinary voters, he duly became prime minister in 1998 at just 35.
– Tearing it up –
His first period in office was rocky, however, and Orban lost to the Socialists in 2002 and again in 2006 before bouncing back, older and wiser, in 2010 — and with a vengeance.
This time, armed with a two-thirds majority in parliament, Orban implemented a root-and-branch reform of Hungarian state institutions and introduced a new constitution steeped in conservative values.
Critics at home and abroad, including in Brussels and Washington, worried that the sweeping changes undermined the independence of the judiciary, muzzled the press and rigged the electoral system.
Orban maintains that he was repairing years of left-wing mess, while his unorthodox economic policies like special “crisis” taxes on foreign companies helped Hungary balance the books.
He was re-elected in 2014, again with a super-majority, and Europe’s migrant crisis the following year saw Orban morph into a lightning rod for opposition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open-door” refugee policy.
– Border fence –
As hundreds of thousands of people streamed through Hungary bound for western Europe, and with Budapest train stations resembling squalid refugee camps, Orban erected a fence on Hungary’s border with Serbia.
Illegal immigration — a “Trojan horse for terrorism” — was made punishable by lengthy jail terms. It was Hungary’s duty to defend the outer frontier of Europe, just like against the Ottomans in the 17th century.
Orban’s strident stance has turned Hungary, along with Poland’s like-minded government which has also raised concerns with its own reforms, into a headache for Brussels and the rest of the EU.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland’s governing party, said the Hungarian election was a decision “about the road to freedom, not only in Hungary but also in Europe and the world.”
But Orban is now the darling of nationalists, from Bannon to France’s Marine Le Pen to Geert Wilders of the Netherlands. White supremacists have wanted to settle in “racially pure” Hungary.
– Soros in his sights –
Orban’s latest target meanwhile is George Soros, the Hungarian-born US financier and philanthropist who helped Fidesz get off the ground and whose scholarship funded Orban’s time at Oxford in 1989.
Orban has plastered Hungary with billboards urging resistance to the alleged “Soros plan” of destroying Europe with immigration and the civil society groups that the 87-year-old funds.
For critics, the imagery and language used in this campaign against the Jewish Soros have more than a whiff of anti-Semitism.
Hungary’s enemies, Orban said in a recent speech “are not national, but international. They do not believe in work, but speculate with money. They have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.”
Whether Orban is an opportunist or a visionary is unclear, Andras Schweitzer, senior lecturer at Eotvos Lorand University, told AFP.
“It’s the million dollar question,” Schweitzer said. “Either way lots of people who have met him, including if they don’t support him, notice his ability to understand things very quickly.”
“Orban is a blessing for this country, and also I think for the whole of Europe,” retired voter Karin, 65, told AFP on Sunday.