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In Hungary election voters face choice of nightmares

Hungarians are being asked to pick between competing apocalyptic visions in Sunday's election: A country and culture devastated by foreign invasion versus a corrupt dictatorship. Tim Gosling reports from Budapest.

Smiling politicians line Budapest's grand avenues canvassing support ahead of April 8 elections. However, few are from Fidesz, Hungary's ruling party since 2010.

Instead, Fidesz billboards star the challengers to Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Photoshopped around an image of George Soros, they wield bolt cutters. The message is simple: The opposition is conspiring with the Jewish billionaire — vilified by Orban and his party — to cut down the border fences the government built to halt a flood of illegal migrants from the Middle East intent on annihilating Hungarian and European culture.

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Hungary prepares to go to the polls

Orban has amplified a vicious three-year campaign against immigration, the EU and liberal democracy in the run-up to the vote. Polls suggest the fear-mongering is working, and he'll win a third successive term.

Read more: Can Hungary's opposition unite to defeat Viktor Orban

"We're not selling an untested product," says Zoltan Kovacs. The suave government spokesman accuses Soros of using "close to illegal methods" to overturn national sovereignty to import cheap labor into the EU.

Focus on mirgrants

In response, critics, including Hungary's liberal-leaning urban population as well as the EU and UN, accuse Orban of xenophobia and racism. A phantom migrant menace is being used, they say, to distract from chronic problems in health and education and a government-run network of corruption and cronyism. They also denounce Fidesz for clamping down on civil society, doctoring the election system and grabbing control of the judiciary and media.

A Fidesz campaign poster shows George Soros surrounded by opposition candidates

US billionaire George Soros (middle) is a favorite target of vitriol for Viktor Orban and his party

A recent Ipsos Mori survey shows that health care, poverty and social injustice and corruption are Hungarians biggest worries, while immigration and terrorism rank low. Three quarters think the country is on the wrong track, and many are leaving in search of opportunity abroad. Hungary's population has shrunk by around 220,000 — to 9.8 million — in the eight years that Fidesz has been in power.

Read more: Viktor Orban's favorite mayor goes on a shopping spree

Kovacs, however, insists Hungarians express "no anger regarding social services." Fidesz clearly believes it can get by on the votes of those seeking a strong and populist leader.

"The opposition talk about policy more than Fidesz," says Mariann Ory of pro-government daily Magyar Hirlap. "But I'm not sure people are listening. Fidesz broadcasts a very successful simplistic message."

Orban is taking no chances of allowing the agenda to slip from his grasp. Even a strong economy and record low unemployment are barely mentioned by the governing party.

Read more: Satire one of few remaining bastions in Orban's Hungary

"The focus on migrants is not an accident," explains Kovacs. "The campaign must suit the times; the language and style we use reflects that."

Icon for the far right

The rhetoric doesn't just work at home. Orban's claim that he represents Europe's last hope for preserving "Judeo-Christian culture" has helped him cement a role as an international icon for the far-right and made him a scourge for liberal governments seeking to suppress populist and nativist challengers. Far-right French leader Marine Le Pen recently spoke of watching Hungary with envy. Donald Trump's former advisor Steve Bannon has called Orban a "hero."

"What Orban is doing is the same as the far-right across Western Europe," says Attila Mesterhazy, a parliamentarian and former leader of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MZSP). Hungarians well understand there's an anti-Semitic message behind the persecution of Soros, he adds.

Kovacs rejects the label of far-right, pointing out that the word "white" is never mentioned, even as Orban calls for "ethnic homogeneity." However, the governing party's focus on stoking fears of invading migrant hordes has caused the leading opposition party, Jobbik — which has been accused of retaining its neo-Nazi roots — to move toward the center in recent years.

Jobbik deputy leader Marton Gyongyosi

Jobbik leaders like Gyongyosi have shifted toward the center-right to gain support as Fidesz has encroached on their positions

"The government's job is not to spread hysteria. There are no migrants or Islam in Hungary," said Jobbik deputy leader Marton Gyongyosi. His office, sitting on the banks of the Danube, features Christian icons and children's drawings. That reflects Jobbik's efforts to rebrand itself as a conservative and patriotic people's party. While it remains opposed to immigration, Jobbik has sought during the campaign to put the focus on the many Hungarians who have left the country.

Fidesz stokes fear, opposition feels dread

Analysts suspect Orban's crusade is increasingly driven by ambition to stride a larger stage than Hungary. He enjoys controversial and high-profile meetings with the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping. Some say he has bolstered national pride.

"Maybe it's personal ambition," suggested Ory. "Or maybe he realizes that to protect Hungary he needs to change things at a higher level."

For the moment Orban's international influence is indirect, but his plans to tighten his grip at home have spread alarm. The prime minister told a huge crowd gathered in front of the giant neo-Gothic parliament at a rainy National Day celebration in March that he will seek "revenge" on his opponents.

Viktor Orban at a celebration on Hungary's national day

Orban campaigned on Hungary's national day, which also commemorates the 1848 revolution against Habsburg rule

Fidesz has a "Stop Soros" law ready to roll out, which would restrict the work of NGOs and "the danger we face … from the West," the Orban told supporters.

Kovacs dismissed concerns, saying the speech simply means the government plans to "react to the lies."

However, opponents such as former Socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, leader of the left-leaning Democratic Coalition, are increasingly worried about what could come next, should Fidesz win a large majority. The governing party continues to build structures to support a soft dictatorship, he claims.

Read more: Budapest: New life in old ruins

While Orban warns voters of a nightmare in which Europe is engulfed by fundamental Islam, critics dread a different future: one in which more and more young, educated Hungarians flee an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian regime.

A journalist at one of several small independent media outlets that have sprung up in recent years in reaction to increasing government control of the media said fear is rising. Many donors to his organization insist their identities are kept secret. Another term for Orban could seal a sense of hopelessness, added the journalist, who asked that to remain anonymous and suggested he too could join the hundreds of thousands of his countrymen and women who have already left Hungary.

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