BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Sat in a student cafe in Budapest, Laura Balazs says she will think carefully before voting in a national election on Sunday as, for her and many other in her age group, the outcome may determine if she stays in Hungary or moves abroad.
She already knows she will not vote for the likely winner, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose campaign for a third consecutive term has been underpinned by a strong anti-migration message - in his case preventing certain categories of foreigner from moving in.
Aged 20, Balazs is studying film and media science at Budapest’s Eotvos University (ELTE), the country’s oldest and also Orban’s alma mater, but has ambitions to acquire a master’s degree abroad.
ELTE was a hotbed of activism at the end of the 1980s, and many of its current students also hold firm political views.
Balazs is still undecided between the Socialists and the leftist LMP party.
“(But) I won’t vote for the governing parties as ...they don’t give enough freedom and even sufficient room for thinking any more, and I cannot see my future in this kind of environment,” she said.
Orban established his ruling Fidesz party after graduating from ELTE in 1987, starting out as a liberal before over the past eight years using a strong political mandate to engineer a shift towards anti-Muslim sentiment and a broader nationalism that critics argue has frayed Hungary’s democratic fabric.
“I am not satisfied with the direction the education system is going right now, and also this nationalist feeling they express now,” said another ELTE alumnus, Eszter Jakab, who is studying Southeast Asian art history and considering continuing her studies in the Netherlands.
Orban, speaking on Wednesday at Budapest’s National Public Service University, said the election would decide if Hungary was flooded with immigrants, and that students were “important bastions” of the country’s future.
But according to a survey published last month by liberal think tank Republikon Institute, Hungarians’ wish to emigrate is highest among those aged 18 to 24, of whom 40 percent say they or someone in their family plan to move abroad.
Much of that is down to economic factors. “They mostly want to emigrate due to financial reasons,” said Republikon analyst Andrea Virag.
That chimes in with a 2016 poll by the Uj Nemzedek (New Generation) institute showing 33 percent of Hungarians aged 15 to 29 planned to work or study abroad, most with the aim of making a better living.
Wages have risen substantially in Hungary during Orban’s current term.
But they still lag those in the West, as a group of young beer drinkers in a pub in the northeastern town of Miskolc - an industrial heartland during the Communist era - are keenly aware.
“I think I will work abroad for about five years after graduating and then perhaps come back,” said Zsolt Beliczky, 21, an engineering student at the local university.
“Of course (I would go) because of the ...higher salary and better conditions for living.”
He wants to see a change of government but has also not yet decided who to vote for.
Sitting nearby, Mark Schon - who declined to say how he would vote - said his job with German auto supplier Bosch offered him good opportunities inside Hungary.
“I am not considering moving abroad but I don’t say no to possibilities,” he said.
“I would be happiest if industry and Hungarian companies got support (from the state) as thereby the profits that Hungarian workers generate ...would stay in the country.”
Reporting by Krisztina Than; Additional reporting by Krisztina Fenyo; editing by John Stonestreet