BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary's fiery leader Viktor Orban has always relished a fight, be it with foreign bankers, international lenders or the European Union over policy towards Russia.
But he now faces the biggest and most bruising battle of his career, trying to manage a migration crisis that has already tarnished Hungary's image and strained ties with western Europe, especially its most important economic partner Germany.
Tens of thousands of migrants, many of them refugees from Syria's civil war, have been pouring into Hungary, an eastern outpost of Europe's passport-free 'Schengen area', seeing it as a springboard to wealthier western Europe, above all Germany.
Prime Minister Orban, a conservative populist always keen to undercut his main political rival, the far-right Jobbik party, has vowed to seal Hungary's southern border with Serbia from Sept. 15, imposing tougher penalties for illegal entry and setting up transit zones. But success is far from assured.
Scenes of migrants getting through a razor-wire fence Orban is having built along the Serbian border, of them disrupting traffic on Hungary's main highways as they walk towards Austria and of exhausted policemen chasing refugees leave an overall impression of a situation spinning out of control.
"They are not really handling the situation, just pretending to handle it," said Laszlo, a pensioner, speaking near the eastern railway terminus which has become a magnet for migrants trying to board westward-bound trains.
No opinion polls have been published since the migrant crisis erupted in Hungary two weeks ago. A Tarki poll in July put Orban's Fidesz party on 22 percent, with Jobbik on 13 percent and a huge 45 percent undecided.
"Orban’s government had high hopes the migration issue would help to stabilise their public support ratings," said Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest-based think-tank Political Capital.
"But instead, what we can see is that the myth that the government had a grip over the situation has collapsed domestically," he said.
Orban's combative, no-nonsense style has served him well since he swept back to power in 2010 with a large majority and he won a second four-year term in 2014.
He has levied special taxes on banks, forced them to convert loans in Swiss francs into forints, he has defied the International Monetary Fund over policy and nurtured warm ties with Vladimir Putin at a time when most of the rest of Europe is trying to isolate the Russian president over the war in Ukraine.
Even before the arrival of large numbers of migrants in Budapest this summer, Orban had started to play the anti-immigrant card in an attempt to boost his party's ratings.
Orban now sees himself as a "hero" trying to protect Europe from mass immigration, said one Hungarian politician who has worked with the prime minister and knows his way of thinking. The politician declined to be named.
Tsveta Petrova, a senior analyst at Eurasia Group, saw in Orban’s tactics an “extreme bid” to win more EU funds to deal with the migrants and to forge support for the creation of 'safe zones' in countries other than Hungary.
"(Orban has) masterfully seized the political opportunity provided to him by the migrant crisis - his radical anti-immigration stance has reversed the slide in his ruling party’s popularity by distracting voters from government corruption and arresting the rise of the extreme-right Jobbik," she said.
Orban says his government is merely trying to uphold EU rules by insisting that all migrants register in Hungary, doing a job he says Greece - the first EU state many of them enter - has failed to do by letting them head north across the Balkans.
He has also invoked Europe's historic Christian heritage, suggesting it is under threat from the mainly Muslim migrants who are anyway only coming - he argues - in search of a higher material standard of living.
"We like to have kebab kiosks, to buy lamb from the Syrian butcher at Easter, but we don't want to see the numbers (of Muslims) suddenly radically rise,” Orban told Hungarian ambassadors on Monday, in characteristically colourful language.
His stance has drawn broad support from other leaders in the EU's former communist wing, who share his opposition to Brussels' proposal to impose quotas on the bloc's 28 member states for taking in the migrants.
But Orban’s hard line has put him at odds with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful leader, who in a grand moral gesture at the weekend threw open Germany’s borders to the migrants.
Hungarians appear polarised by the crisis. While some are ashamed by the strong anti-immigration rhetoric and the fence, and have tried to help the migrants, others back Orban's approach, saying it is the only way to maintain order.
"In my view, (the government) has done what it had to do; it tries to manoeuvre, to meet the EU rules,” said Andras, a 61-year-old economist who voted for the Fidesz party last year.
In a possible sign of nervousness within the government, Defence Minister Csaba Hende resigned on Monday after Orban criticised him over the pace at which the army is helping to build the 175-km (108 mile) fence along the border with Serbia.
Shrugging off Cold War echoes of razor wire and watchtowers along a European border, Orban has asked parliament to approve sending in the army, equipped with tear gas, nets and rubber bullets, to help police protect the border. Parliament has not yet voted on the ruling party's proposal.
"It’s a bad omen, that for the past one and a half to two weeks the government's rhetoric has been that migrants are increasingly aggressive," said Kreko. "The question is whether this is setting the stage for a much stronger clampdown."
The police have so far tried to avoid physical confrontation. But it may become unavoidable if the government’s policy of zero-tolerance from Sept. 15 is to be enforced, raising the prospect of even more desperate scenes that risk further isolating Hungary in Europe.
"His excessive measures are absolutely isolated," said one EU diplomat who declined to be named. "I don't think he has any friends in Europe to be very honest; he is his own man."
Editing by Matt Robinson and Gareth Jones