BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary’s ruling right-wing Fidesz party has suffered a sharp loss of voter support, an opinion poll showed on Thursday, after a bruising row with the European Union over a university law that triggered large-scale street protests.
The EU has given Prime Minister Viktor Orban a month to amend the law, which it says is incompatible with fundamental European freedoms. The Central European University in Budapest, founded by billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros, says it faces closure under the current law.
In the opinion poll, conducted between April 21 and 26 by pollster Median, support for Fidesz fell to 31 percent from 37 percent in the previous survey in January, though it remains the most popular party due partly to a divided opposition. Those who said they would not vote for Fidesz rose nine percentage points to 46 percent.
Orban, in power since 2010, saw his personal approval rating drop by nine percentage points to 40 percent. Median said this was probably due to the university law.
The poll also showed only 37 percent of Hungarians now wanted the Orban government to continue after an election due in 2018, down from 48 percent in January. The approval rating of Orban’s cabinet fell to 40 percent from 50 percent.
However, a second survey by pollster Tarki conducted on April 13-26, found support for Fidesz holding steady at 33 percent from January to April.
The biggest protests over the university law erupted around the time the law was signed on April 10.
Since coming to power in 2010, Orban, 53, has eliminated checks on his power by taking control of much of Hungary’s media, curbing the powers of the constitutional court and placing loyalists in top positions at public institutions.
But his unorthodox fiscal stabilisation measures have slashed the budget deficit, sent unemployment to record lows and Budapest forecasts economic growth above 4 percent this year and next, which would be the fastest rates since Orban took power.
His strong opposition to taking in migrants and refugees has also proved popular with ordinary Hungarians, though his criticism of the European Union, which Hungary joined in 2004, has prompted anti-government rallies in Budapest.
Opposition parties, which for years have lagged Fidesz by a wide margin, have gained some support, according to the Median poll, especially the radical nationalist Jobbik party.
Support for Jobbik rose to 14 percent from 10 percent in January, and the popularity of its leader Gabor Vona rose by 4 percentage points, the steepest among politicians.
Jobbik, a former far-right group, has softened its ideology, opening towards Jews and softening its rhetoric on the Roma.
Leftist, liberal and other small parties gained a cumulative 4 percentage points and could garner 24 percent of the vote, up from 20 in January, if all of them banded together, Median said.
However, several of the smaller groups have refused to join an alliance or to work closer together.
The Tarki poll showed a modest fall in support for Jobbik, to 11 percent from 13 percent.
Editing by Gareth Jones