There’s been nothing subtle about Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s campaign before Sunday’s nationwide referendum on whether Hungary should agree to accept migrants under the European Union refugee resettlement plan.
Facts have been dispensed with, allege critics, and the government’s language has been so abrasive about asylum-seekers, who have been portrayed as being synonymous with terrorists and criminals, that Luxembourg’s foreign minister suggested earlier this month that Hungary ought to be thrown out of the EU.
Not that criticism is deterring Orbán, a liberal-turned-nationalist conservative who relishes controversy and is surfing a powerful wave of central European populism that may end up reshaping the regional bloc, taking power away from EU institutions in Brussels and placing it back in the hands of national governments.
At a fractious migration crisis summit of European leaders in Vienna a few days ago, Orbán, who along with other central European and Balkan leaders have tightened their borders to asylum-seekers, warned any new massive surge would swamp Europe.
“When the migrants descend on us and trouble arrives, it will be too late to reach for blueprints, for fences, for physical barriers, for new police and soldiers,” he cautioned.
Orbán and his ministers deny allegations of racism and say their referendum campaigning has been strictly factual. They defend posters and leaflets depicting claimed "no go" zones across the continent that the government alleges have become perilous for locals because of violent immigrants.
While insisting the map is based on crime statistics, Orbán spokesman Zoltán Kovács acknowledged recently, “The picture is a bit disproportionate.” That was rare backtracking in a referendum campaign that’s likely to increase divisions among European governments about how to cope with the migration crisis that has been roiling the continent for two years.
Orbán has predicted the referendum will have a domino effect with other European governments and follow Budapest’s example, especially Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Like Hungary, they are in the four-nation Visegrad Group of central European countries which have been the strongest critics of EU migrant policies and are overwhelmingly white and Christian.
An earlier incarnation of an EU refugee-burden sharing plan floundered amid objections with just a few hundred asylum-seekers being resettled; but, Eurocrats in Brussels insist a renewed version will start as soon as December.
There’s little chance that Orbán will be on the losing side in the national ballot he conceived and championed on the EU mandatory relocation plan, which would involve resettling only 1,294 asylum-seekers to Hungary.
According to opinion polls, at least two-thirds of the electorate will vote “no” to resettling any migrants sent their way by the European Union. Turnout is likely to be high as a result of Saturday’s nail bomb explosion in the heart of Budapest, which seriously injured two police officers. It remains unclear, though, whether the bombing was the handiwork of a jihadist or far-right group.
A recent survey found that Hungarian sentiment has hardened dramatically in the past 12 months. Initially, when thousands of war refugees from the Middle East and economic migrants from Africa arrived in Hungary, marching up from the Balkans heading to Germany and other north European countries, Hungarians were welcoming, donating clothes and essentials to the new arrivals at Budapest’s main railway station and in makeshift camps that popped up in the capital.
A year ago, 64 percent of Hungarians, according to a survey, acknowledged a moral obligation to assist asylum-seekers. A survey taken last week showed a dramatic reversal with 63 percent saying there was no obligation.
Orbán critics blame the government for the shift in sentiment, arguing he has been inciting xenophobia and that it is hardly surprising Hungarians have turned against migrants and view them as a threat.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe, said, “against the backdrop of a toxic referendum campaign, poisonous anti-refugee rhetoric is reaching fever pitch.” On Tuesday, Amnesty issued a toughly worded report accusing Hungary of a “flagrant breach” of international law in how it is treating refugees.
Last month, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, compared Orbán to right-wing populists, accusing them of peddling falsehoods. He said they “seek in varying degrees to recover a past, halcyon and so pure in form, where sunlit fields are settled by peoples united by ethnicity or religion, living peacefully in isolation, pilots of their fate, free of crime, foreign influence and war. A past that most certainly, in reality, did not exist anywhere, ever.”
The attacks on Orbán, though, appear to be having as little impact on Hungarians as the warnings foreign leaders issued, including U.S. President Barack Obama, to Britons ahead of their Brexit referendum in June. Some observers say they are in effect playing into Orbán’s hands by building up popular resentment about foreign interference in domestic politics.
A large part of the appeal of Orbán’s campaign rests with his argument that nations should determine their policies and not supra-national organizations. The Hungarian leader doesn’t disguise his eagerness to roll back not only EU immigration policies, but a European Union status quo that he says is out of touch with popular opinion.