ERCSI, Hungary (Reuters) - Supporters of Hungary’s right-wing Fidesz party in Ercsi may not have met a refugee but there’s one thing they know for sure: they don’t want them in their town.
Three years after hundreds of thousands of refugees crossed into Hungary en route from the Middle East and Africa to western Europe, residents of this sleepy town south of Budapest say concerns about a migrant “invasion” will be a decisive factor when they vote in national elections on April 8.
That suits Fidesz and its leader Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has appealed to the anxieties of his core supporters with talk about the importance of “ethnic homogeneity”.
“Europe is now under invasion,” Orban told a rally in Budapest on March 15. “Their (the opposition’s) task is to win power and implement the grand plan: to break Hungary, which stands in the path of immigrants.”
Orban’s pledge to preserve Hungary’s sovereignty and uphold Christian values, delivered in his trademark bruising, combative manner, has delivered landslide victories in the past two parliamentary elections and is likely to do the same in April.
Orban is seen as one of Europe’s most divisive leaders, however. U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein recently accused him of being a racist and xenophobe after he said he did not want his country to be “multi-coloured”.
Hungary’s foreign minister responded that the comments were “outrageous” and called on Zeid to resign.
Most of the voters interviewed by Reuters in Ercsi said they had never met a refugee, but that did not stop them identifying immigrants as a danger.
“We are enough as we are. We don’t need any migrants,” said Maria Pulai, 69, who has been an Orban supporter for more than two decades and now actively campaigns for Fidesz.
She proudly showed a photo with the Hungarian leader taken on her mobile phone when he visited Ercsi to support the local party candidate.
“I have never met (any refugees),” Pulai said with the trace of a smile. “But I watch television all the time so I’ve learnt a lot. We do not need them here.”
Orban has been hitting the country’s anti-immigration nerve ever since migrants fleeing war and economic hardship started crossing Hungary’s southern border with Serbia in 2015, leading Budapest to shut off the route with a border fence.
The flow slowed to a trickle in 2016 but Orban has kept up the rhetoric and it is now the backbone of his election agenda.
With his firm grip on state media and his business allies in control of regional newspapers, Orban’s message gets amplified in places like Ercsi, where many people only watch the state news channel showing immigrants causing trouble in western European cities night after night.
Orban’s original vision was that Fidesz would aim to dominate Hungarian politics over the next two decades by standing up for national interests.
He appealed to conservative Hungarians who believe their country is struggling to protect its identity, a strategy which has worked partly due to a fragmented opposition.
Now he appears to be also seeking to occupy some of the far-right territory abandoned by the radical nationalist opposition party Jobbik, which has toned down its message in an attempt to move towards the centre.
The shift further to the right and to radicalisation could be risky for Orban because it’s a “one-way street”, said Peter Kreko, director of liberal Hungarian thinktank Political Capital.
“Fidesz has closed itself into a cage with this campaign which is targeted at its core voters,” Kreko said.
In February Jobbik teamed up with the Socialists and the small liberal party LMP to back an independent candidate in a by-election in southern Hungary and unexpectedly beat Fidesz. But it is reluctant to form alliance with the left for the parliamentary elections.
If Jobbik and the left manage to coordinate and field joint candidates then Fidesz could be in trouble, Kreko said.
“The big test ... will come in April,” he said.
Fidesz’s voter base has changed in recent years, with some educated conservative voters disappointed by the emphasis on populist anti-migrant messages at the expense of measures to improve healthcare and education.
The party has gained ground with the less educated and pensioners instead, analysts said. To court them, Orban recently announced a one-off handout and state refunds of heating bills.
Orban also plays up the idea that “external forces and international powers” like the European Union and the United Nations want to meddle in Hungary’s internal affairs and force the country to accept migrants.
Scores gathered in Ercsi’s theatre in early March to hear a Fidesz lawmaker speak and watch a slideshow about the threats of migration and how Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros is using his network of foundations to foster multicultural societies all over the world.
Orban and Soros, allies in dismantling communism during the 1980s, are now frequently at loggerheads. Orban accuses Soros of interfering in Hungarian politics by supporting opposition groups. Soros has described Orban as a dangerous autocrat.
Fidesz won the last parliamentary election in 2014 comfortably with 2.26 million votes, or 45 percent of all votes cast. Political analysts estimate the party’s core supporters this time at between 1.8 to 2.2 million.
According to Hungarian thinktank Policy Agenda, Fidesz’s support in 2014 was strongest in small towns and villages, where jobs are scarce and many people are employed in public works programmes, and it has probably managed to retain this support.
On a sunny Sunday in nearby Dunaujvaros, opposite the huge concrete gates of the former communist steelworks, locals flock to a market where they can buy cheap clothes, food and home appliances. Fidesz is campaigning actively on the ground.
Pal Balonyi, a 68-year-old pensioner going to the market with his granddaughter, said he has always been a conservative voter and will vote for Fidesz again in April even if he does not agree with all of the government’s policies.
Balonyi, who worked in Germany for three years as a house painter, said Orban had put the economy on the right track and had a clear national vision.
“And he has put Western politicians right, this is also an factor I consider. I have worked abroad, and we are treated like second-class citizens everywhere.”
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall