BERLIN — Call him Europe’s Donald Trump.
Hungary’s maverick Prime Minister Viktor Orban is emerging as the straight-talking voice of right-wing Europe, vowing to block a wave of desperate refugees from seeking sanctuary in the region. Continuing a string of blunt statements of a sort rarely heard from heads of state on this side of the Atlantic, he warned Friday that Europeans now stand to become “a minority in our own continent” if the floodgates are not immediately closed.
Trump dreams of building a wall to keep migrants out. But Orban, 52, has actually done it — erecting 109 miles of razor wire to stop them. Authorities in Hungary, a key transit nation for asylum-seekers aiming for generous European nations offering shelter, including Germany and Sweden, have been preventing them from moving on and shuttling them to camps, in part to dissuade more from coming. Under international pressure Friday, Hungary agreed to bus some of the blockaded asylum-seekers to Austria. But it remained unclear whether the Austrians would accept them and what would happen to the thousands of refugees stuck in Hungarian camps.
Orban’s political party, meanwhile, has put up billboards in the Art Nouveau streets of Budapest warning migrants — almost none of whom want to stay in Hungary — not to “take our jobs.” On Friday, Hungary’s parliament passed emergency anti-migration laws in response to the crisis, slapping on three-year jail terms for crossing the new fence and authorizing the army to help process migrants in registration camps.
Calling the mostly Muslim refugees a threat to Europe’s “Christian roots,” Orban has given voice to the fears of other European conservatives too shy to say such things aloud themselves.
It is just another day for a man known by his critics as the Viktator — an authoritarian nationalist who has menaced his enemies and enraptured supporters with a polarizing panache. A right-wing firebrand who once tried to tax the Internet and whose government has launched a high-profile assault on nonprofit organizations, Orban, like Trump, has rarely shied away from a fight.
But he has picked this one, observers say, because it is a political no-brainer. As the number of asylum-seekers flocking through Hungary has grown, the country’s population has turned decidedly anti-refugee. A recent poll in Hungary by the Republikon Institute found that 66 percent of respondents believed that “refugees pose a danger” and should not be allowed in. Just 19 percent said it was Hungary’s “duty” to help.
“Xenophobic sentiments are running quite high,” said Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank. “And he is trying to consolidate his power by playing the crusader against the Muslim hordes.”
And just like that, Orban is standing as the counterweight to those leaders in Europe he sees as too soft-hearted to tell it like it is. He has warned them that efforts to aid the migrants — many of whom he claims are not fleeing war but are merely looking for better opportunities — will only turn the hundreds of thousands coming now into “millions.”
In Hungary, Orban’s bigger political threat is not from his center-left opposition but from the Jobbik party, which won 20 percent of the vote in national elections last year and has staked out a position even more extreme than Orban’s. In the radically anti-gay and anti-Semitic party, one top Jobbik member of parliament openly called in 2012 for a registry of Jews living in Hungary because they posed a “national security risk.”
And with the Hungarian economy faltering again, the immigrant crisis — and Orban’s populist stance — has served as a useful distraction, analysts say.
“Orban is worried that he will be overtaken on the right lane by the Jobbik party,” said Dusan Reljic, head of the Institute for International and Security Affairs in Brussels. “Many Hungarians are frustrated, because they expected to achieve a Western living standard within one generation. This did not work out. It makes some of them, much in the same manner as in other new E.U. members, susceptible to populist rhetoric.”
The rise of Hungary as a defiant protector of European borders is particularly ironic because of its Soviet-era role in dismantling the Iron Curtain — an action in which Orban and his allies took part.
In 1989, Hungarians cut through their border fence with Austria — the same border that the asylum-seekers are trying to reach now — to allow East German dissidents to flee the Eastern Bloc. The efforts helped spark a wave of protests across Eastern Europe, eventually leading to the opening of the Berlin Wall later that year.
Long before he picked up the mantle of Europe’s leading anti-immigrant critic, Orban was known for making bold statements.
As a shaggy-haired dissident, Orban electrified the nation at a historic 1989 protest where he took the stage and called for the pullout of Soviet troops. Those events would help precipitate the fall of the Iron Curtain, setting up a new democratic system in Hungary that was bestowed with Europe’s highest honor in May 2004: membership in the European Union.
Even during its days as a Soviet satellite, Hungary had practiced “goulash communism” — mixing free-market policies with state ownership. But the country was hit hard by the financial crisis that swept the globe in the late 2000s, and the devastated population began to lose faith in the new system of governance. One 2009 poll found 3 in 4 Hungarians dissatisfied with the way their new democracy was working.
Enter Orban, who was elected to his first term as prime minister at age 35 in 1998. Yet his move to change Hungary, critics say, began in earnest only after his reelection in 2010. It has continued steadily since his Fidesz party won elections last year, propelling him to a third term.
Orban has promoted an increased role for the state in industry and closer ties with Russia. He also took on the powerful Constitutional Court, adding at least three party loyalists while limiting its ability to overrule his mandates.
He used his supermajority to change the constitution to legally define a “family” as a married heterosexual couple with children and to restrict free speech if it harmed “human dignity” — both measures the court had previously rejected.
At the same time, critics say, the government has sought to infringe on press freedoms and free speech, exposing it to sharp criticism from the E.U. New advertising taxes, critics say, have reinforced government power over the media. Orban strengthened partisan control of Hungary’s Media Authority, which regulates competition as well as content, giving it the power to sanction outlets for reporting considered a danger to “public morality.”
Such rules, media experts say, have not been widely applied. But the threat, along with fears that the government may withdraw all-important official advertising from private outlets, has forced what critics call a new sense of self-censorship in the Hungarian media.
Now, with his staunch anti-
migrant stance, said Josef Janning, co-director and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, “Orban is playing the strong man and at the same time is trying to mobilize the power of xenophobia.”
Michael Birnbaum in Brussels and Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin contributed to this report.
Donald Trump and the shadow of Europe’s far-right