Refugee crisis: Why Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban sticks to his anti-Muslim script

While most Europeans have been moved by the crisis, Mr Orban defies the mood

Leo Cendrowicz
Friday 04 September 2015 19:40 BST

The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been much on display this week as he raged against the hordes who “are threatening Europe’s Christian culture”. His crude language is matched by even cruder policies, as the stand-offs between police and refugees in Budapest show.

While most Europeans have been moved by the crisis, Mr Orban defies the mood: the recentanti-migrant fence on his country’s 110-mile border with Serbia is a symbol of his hostility towards outsiders. But his brutish bluster has been a familiar sight for Hungarians for over a quarter century. Riding waves of populist sentiment while stifling opposition, his moniker – “Viktator” – seems apt.

His diatribes about refugees reflect the nationalist, intolerant tone of his autocratic administration. In Brussels on 3 September, Mr Orban was unrepentant, insisting his government’s treatment of refugees was merely complying with EU regulations. EU officials could barely contain their indignation: Mr Orban’s actions have so regularly run foul of Brussels rules.

Mr Orban is a wily operator, who knows that EU rebukes will only serve his strongman repuation at home. And it ties in with his narrative as Hungary’s saviour, a tale that goes back to his role in helping to topple the communist regime during the Cold War. In June 1989, five months before the Berlin Wall fell, Mr Orban, then 25, a law graduate, fired up a crowd with his call for free elections and for 80,000 Soviet troops to go.

A founder of the Federation of Young Democrats (Fidesz), he became party leader in 1993, and in 1998, prime minister at 35. His government took Hungary into Nato, cut inflation while maintaining economic growth, but was voted out four years later. Mr Orban returned in 2010 with a two-thirds majority, enabling him to change the constitution. By then he had moved the party to the right, towards classical conservatism, with an emphasis on family, church and nation. He rewrote electoral laws, curbed press freedom, and appointed party loyalists to nominally independent institutions, including the central bank and office of the chief prosecutor.

Although the constitutional court overturned some initiatives – laws which criminalised sleeping on the street, banned gay marriage and restricted political advertising – he used his majority to limit the court’s authority, then wrote the laws directly into the constitution.

His anti-immigrant rhetoric plays into Hungary’s nationalist streak, a resentment over its treatment after the First World War, when it was stripped of two-thirds of its territory. He courted president Putin just after Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.

Under Mr Orban, Hungary has moved further from EU values. In May, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker teased Mr Orban over his reputation: “Hello, dictator,” he was heard to say at a summit. But European Council President Donald Tusk took him to task on 3 September in Brussels for his remarks on Europe’s Christian heritage. “For a Christian it shouldn’t matter what race, religion and nationality the person in need represents.”

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