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Here lies danger. Hungary is on the verge of full-blown autocracy

A poster featuring Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán hangs on a tram station
‘Viktor Orbán has control of all civil institutions and has already succeeded in having the main paper of opposition, Népszabadság, closed down.’ Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty Images

Having bussed tens of thousands of supporters into Budapest for a pre-election “peace march” on 15 March, prime minister Viktor Orbán addressed them, promising that after his victory on 8 April he will deal with those who oppose him by “moral, political and legal means”.

But who are his opponents? Is it the ragbag of small parties who cannot unite in opposition and who have, in any case, been deprived of the platforms required to reach the electorate? Is it the NGOs and other human rights associations who have been looking after those most badly affected by his policies? Is it perhaps the Central European University, Hungary’s most highly ranked university, which produces ideas that might be critical of him? Is it perhaps the refugees he depicts as a tide of migrants ready to drown the country with their alien, menacing ways? And if it is all these, at whose door does he lay the blame?

Surely it is George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who funded Orbán’s own time at Oxford as well as the underground presses of pre-1989 Hungary and Warsaw Pact Europe, and who now funds some of those troublesome NGOs and the Central European University. It must be him because it is Soros’s grinning face that is on countless billboards and posters around the country in the past year. It must be Soros, he who controls so many other governments and whose idea of an open society is a none-too-well disguised invitation to dangerous Islamist forces to take over Europe – don’t let Soros have the last laugh, declared the posters and billboards, invoking every antisemitic trope in the book. Don’t let this ex-Hungarian, rootless cosmopolitan foist his “sinister vision” of society on us, they echoed.

And what could be more sinister than an independent candidate, one Péter Márki-Zay, beating Zoltán Hegedüs of Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party, to the mayoralty of Hódmezővásárhely, right in the Fidesz heartlands? It was a shock result for all involved, a potentially dangerous sign of things to come for Orbán at the election and beyond. This tendency must be stamped on. But how? Soros is the answer, of course. He is the ever-available scapegoat.

“Their task, should they get to power,” says Orbán of those who oppose him, “is to execute ‘the grand plan’.” Europe, he claims, is about to be invaded by tens of millions of people from Africa and the Middle East and “if Europe does nothing, they will kick down our doors. The history of the conquered nations will be rewritten by others, and those who are still young will see how they become minorities in their own country.”

Forget the fact that Hungary has practically zero immigration from those regions, and that the EU request that they should take in 1,300 was fiercely resisted, resulting in the erection of two rows of barbed-wire fence at the border with Serbia and Croatia, and the deployment of a civil militia – which could always be used for other purposes – to patrol it. More importantly for now, he tells his hard-core supporters that all who oppose him under the “independent” banner are in fact undeclared Soros candidates ready and willing to carry out the wicked financier’s orders. “Our strength lies in unity: one camp, one flag. We need everyone working together,” he declares, adding that he understands that people may be frightened by the prospect.

If they are frightened, of course, it will have been because of Orbán’s own version of “project fear”, the only thing that could shield him from the mounting charges of financial and social corruption. It is because he has instilled fear into those who oppose him, chiefly through loss of employment. He has control of all civil institutions and has already succeeded in having the main paper of opposition, Népszabadság, closed down.

Hungary is a country wounded by history: defeat in wars, invasion and occupation; revolutions; betrayals by allies; and, above all, the catastrophic treaty of Trianon in 1920 which carved up both country and population. Only a strong leader can protect us, says the national instinct.

Hungary today is on the verge of full-blown autocracy. And now, with Viktor Orbán’s threat of “moral, political and legal” vengeance to come after 8 April vote, the country is, as the rest of Europe cannot fail to see, in the act of stepping over the threshold.

George Szirtes is a poet and translator

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