SZEKESFEHERVAR, Hungary — The rally was a curious blend of kitsch and gravitas: plastic flags, unwieldy crucifixes and pop lyrics extolling the virtues of blood and soil. But this is Europe in 2018.
Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, mounted the podium to the sound of screams and raucous applause. In the same city where Hungary once crowned some of its kings, he delivered his final pitch to voters before Sunday’s election: a familiar litany against migrants, the European Union and George Soros, his favorite billionaire punching bag — who just happens to be Jewish.
For months now, so much of Orban’s rhetoric has focused on how faraway bureaucrats and boogeymen have subverted Hungary’s national interests to line the coffers of what he couches as an international financial conspiracy, a rhetorical line some see as little more than a modern remake of an anti-Semitic trope. Yet it would be a mistake to cast his victory on Sunday — almost a foregone conclusion — merely as an internal assault on the European consensus, even if that is the result.
In the minds of many of Orban’s supporters, Sunday’s election is less a rally against the European Union than it is a battle of European visions. And to them, the best way to ensure the future of Europe is to support the man who has transformed their country into the single E.U. member state that perhaps least resembles a 21st-century Western democracy.
Despite Orban’s bluster, Hungary is not a particularly Euroskeptic nation. In advance of the Brexit vote in June 2016, polls showed that Hungarian voters, second only to Poles, were the most supportive of Brussels in the entire 28-state bloc. More recent analyses suggest that that support has waned, but they also show that Hungary’s trust in the E.U. as an institution is average, and more than half of the population favors introducing the euro.
“Yes, Hungary is part of Europe,” said Nandor Holl, a 20-year-old business school student who said he hopes to enter politics some day. He was at Friday’s rally here with his friends, proudly sporting a banner for Fidesz, Orban’s right-wing party.
“My country is very important to me, and I choose it first, but I feel it’s important to keep Europe as an entity,” he said. “Honestly, I think the Hungarian government wants the same — but just to save it from migrants.”
Orban’s opponents — including former members of the party he now leads — see his tenure as a troubling turn toward an “Eastern-style” autocracy incompatible with contemporary European values of transparency, tolerance and democracy.
To them, Orban — who in the last eight years in power has overhauled the constitution and cracked down on Hungarian media, among other things — is more in line with Russia’s Vladimir Putin than he is with the continental cohorts of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. And Sunday’s election represents an existential choice.
“The question is which direction we will go in the next four years,” said Peter Akos Bod, who served as trade minister in Hungary’s transition government in 1990 after the fall of communism, and later as the president of Hungary’s central bank.
“The election will determine whether Hungary consolidates itself as a democracy or whether it aligns with Putin and the ascendant authoritarians of the 21st century,” said Michael Ignatieff, the president and rector of Budapest’s Central European University, an institution backed by George Soros that Orban has repeatedly threatened.
But Europe means something different to Orban’s supporters. To them, he incarnates a nostalgic vision of a Hungary, and a Europe, that is culturally homogenous.
“It’s difficult to say, as I cannot speak for everyone,” said Gabor Bodi, 49, a physical therapist who was at the rally, when pressed to define the appeal of Orban’s vision. He was holding a crucifix several meters tall that towered above the crowd. “But as you can see, I am carrying a cross.”
Nostalgia is an Orban specialty, and appeals to a vanished white, Christian past have long been a mainstay of his rhetoric, including at the rally:
“We freed ourselves from bonded slavery.”
“We stopped the first big wave of migration.”
“We proved that the Christian culture and way of life is not part of the past. On the contrary, we can bring it and we must bring it with us into the future.”
But sociologists say the emphasis is deeper than that.
Orban’s line plays on a collective memory of foreign invasion by Turks, Austrians and Russians, said Imre Kovach, an expert on domestic social dynamics at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest.
Much the same is true in Poland, another E.U. member state run by right-wing populists that has sought, through the passage of a widely condemned “Holocaust law,” to end what leaders see as the deliberate attempt to shame the nation on the part of Western critics.
“Hungarian identity is a very European identity, but I do think that it’s really different from, say, a French or German,” Kovach said. “They just don’t have the same image of what ‘Europe’ means.”
The difference, he said, is the experience of postwar history. Hungary, like Poland, experienced nearly 50 years of communist rule after the end of World War II. For many, the end of communism was seen as a moment when the country would be granted a long-denied sense of autonomy — an autonomy that’s not always recognized in the European Union.
“From a historical point of view, when Hungarians had to make a decision about siding with the West or the East, they always chose the West,” Kovach said. “But the 20th century’s events were not for the Hungarians — we lost so much, so many territories, so many people’s lives.”
Orban rarely shies away from this history. When he wades into it, the subtext is often the sacrifice Hungary made in defending a continent that has never properly expressed its gratitude.
“We also know our own history,” he said in an October speech at a Danube regional strategy summit. “Those who wanted to gain a foothold in Europe always came across this route. And Hungary was the last defensive line, if you like, a gate to and for the West.”
Many of his supporters say they have received the message loud and clear.
Rudniczai Janosne, 60, is a retired office worker who braved the crowds to come to the Szekesfehervar rally. She struggled to find the words when asked why she found Orban’s message so captivating.
“When I hear his voice, when I see the Hungarian flag, or when I hear the anthem,” she said, “I get goosebumps. Tears come to my eyes.”
Gergo Saling contributed to this report.