Hungary's Viktor Orban: populist fanning EU tensions

Budapest (AFP) –


Hungary's all-powerful premier Viktor Orban is the self-styled defender of Christian Europe against the "poison" of immigration, an admirer of "illiberal democracy" and a thorn in the European Union's side.

In his latest term in office, Orban has clashed repeatedly with the EU and his centre-right allies in the European Parliament, recently calling them "useful idiots" playing into the hands of the group's leftwing and liberal opponents.

He has since apologised for that remark but Orban's Fidesz party could be suspended or expelled from the European People's Party (EPP), which is to discuss its future on Wednesday in a possible shake-up before May European Parliament elections.

Orban himself has already said Fidesz could seek to join up with Poland's ruling right-wing PiS party, currently a member of the eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists group.

"We are preparing for another kind of future... Together (with Poland) we are preparing a spectacular renaissance of Central Europe," the 55-year-old politician said during a national day speech last week attended by Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

While his disdain for the "globalist elite" has made Orban a poster boy for "patriots" everywhere, detractors see him as a xenophobic demagogue aping Russian President Vladimir Putin by eroding democracy in the EU member state, allowing corruption to flourish and public services to rot.

- Soviets go home -

At 26 as a law student in Budapest in 1989, the country boy became a household name in the dying days of communism with a stirring speech demanding democracy and that Soviet troops go home.

Co-founding the Alliance of Young Democrats party (Fidesz), Orban was one of "new" Europe's brightest stars, becoming an MP in newly democratic and optimistic Hungary in 1990.

Soon, however, he shed his image as a radical youth and began moulding Fidesz into a new force of the centre-right keen on family and Christian values.

It paid off handsomely, and with Orban developing a rare knack for connecting with ordinary voters, he duly became prime minister in 1998 at just 35.

- Tearing it up -

His first period in office was rocky, however, and Orban lost to the Socialists in 2002 and again in 2006 before bouncing back in 2010 with a vengeance.

This time, armed with a two-thirds majority in parliament, Orban implemented a root-and-branch reform of Hungarian state institutions and introduced a new constitution steeped in conservative values.

Critics at home and abroad worried that the sweeping changes undermined the independence of the judiciary, muzzled the press and rigged the electoral system.

Orban maintains that he was repairing years of left-wing mess, while his unorthodox economic policies like special "crisis" taxes on foreign companies helped Hungary balance the books.

He was re-elected in 2014, again with a super-majority.

- Border fence -

Europe's migrant crisis the following year saw Orban morph into a lightning rod for opposition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open-door" refugee policy.

As hundreds of thousands of people streamed toward western Europe, and with Budapest train stations resembling squalid refugee camps, Orban erected a fence on Hungary's border with Serbia that he said "stopped the migrant invasion".

Orban's strident stance has turned Hungary, along with Poland's like-minded government which has also raised concerns with its own reforms, into a headache for Brussels and the rest of the EU.

But Orban is now also the darling of nationalists, from France's Marine Le Pen to Geert Wilders of the Netherlands. White supremacists say they want to settle in "racially pure" Hungary.

He won a fourth term in office last year with Fidesz scoring its third consecutive two-thirds majority, granting it legislative carte blanche to amend the constitution and fast-track new laws.

- Soros in his sights -

One of Orban's targets meanwhile is George Soros, the Jewish, Hungarian-born US financier and philanthropist who helped Fidesz get off the ground and whose scholarship funded Orban's time at Oxford in 1989.

In December, the Central European University (CEU), founded by the liberal billionaire, announced it was moving most of its programmes out of Budapest to Vienna after it said it was targeted by government legislation steamrolled through parliament in 2017.

Manfred Weber -- who is the EPP's lead candidate to replace European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker later this year -- has asked Fidesz to clarify "pending legal issues" over the CEU.

Adding to the strain with Brussels and the EPP was a nationwide poster campaign in Hungary targeting Juncker, also of the EPP, accusing him and Soros of backing illegal migration.

The posters disappeared this week, replaced by messages on Orban's family policy.