SZEKESFEHERVAR, Hungary — On thousands of billboards and posters, Viktor Orban’s campaign for a fourth term as Hungary’s leader in elections on Sunday uses a photo showing a long line of migrants hiking through the countryside.
On the image is one simple message, a red sign: “STOP.”
It hardly seems to matter that the migration crisis has largely passed and that there are now more posters in Hungary about the danger of immigrants and refugees than actual refugees and immigrants let into the country this past year.
The poster is in keeping with a campaign that has been rife with dirty tricks, false news stories, vicious personal attacks, conspiracy theories and perceived enemies all around.
It is all fear and loathing in this battle for the political soul of this central European country of 10 million people that sits at the crossroads between the East and the West.
The greatest fear is among Mr. Orban’s opponents: That his victory will mean not just their loss, but the loss of Hungary’s democracy.
Mr. Orban is widely thought to be cruising to victory as prime minister — the question seems to be how large his win will be — carried on increasingly apocalyptic language.
A defeat for his party, Fidesz, would spell doom for the whole nation, he argues, and open the door wider to immigrants, the European Union, civic organizations and a favorite target, the billionaire financier George Soros.
On the eve of the election, speaking in Szekesfehervar, the ancient city where he spent his youth and the cradle of the country’s Catholic roots, Mr. Orban portrayed himself as the defender of the nation against both invading immigrants and hostile Western forces.
“European leaders and a speculator billionaire are joining hands to let immigrants in,” he told the crowd. “There are two futures. One is offered by Soros candidates, the other is offered by Fidesz.”
“Massive migration goes together with the increased terrorist threat,” he added. “When there is large migration, women are under threat of violent attacks.”
It is a theme Mr. Orban never seems to tire of. “Africa wants to kick down our door, and Brussels is not defending us,” he told the crowds outside the Hungarian Parliament three weeks ago. “Europe is under invasion already, and they are watching with their hands in the air.”
Such appeals have placed Mr. Orban in the vanguard of populist leaders, building what he calls an “illiberal democracy,” one of majoritarian rule and winner-take-all politics.
It is a style that has found imitators and admirers from Warsaw to the White House.
While more than half the country did not back Fidesz in the last election, those that support Mr. Orban do so with passion and without reservation.
Laslo Palovics, 56, an engineer from Budapest, said that Mr. Orban and Fidesz were the only ones willing to speak politically incorrect truths. “The opposition is weak and not capable of anything,” he said as he handed out lighters and bottle openers at a Fidesz rally Thursday evening.
The memories of tens of thousands of migrants flowing through the country, jamming railway stations and setting off clashes with police, have been kept fresh by constant government warnings. With each terrorist attack in Europe — from Paris to Brussels — the message is reinforced: Islam is dangerous.
He has also created a work program targeting often neglected communities in the countryside, where the promised benefits of capitalism have yet to be fully realized. At the same time, the economy remains strong, with the World Bank projecting the country’s gross domestic product to grow 3.9 percent this year.
For the European Union, which has been unable to stall Mr. Orban’s systematic dismantling of the checks and balances essential to democracy, a sweeping victory for him would present an even graver challenge.
Political opponents and Western critics say it could lead to the end of a state built on the rule of law, a free press, civil society and a vibrant political discourse.
“What is at stake is whether this country will find its way back to the family of democratic nations or whether we will continue on the current path,” said Marton Gyongyosi, a leader in Jobbik, the second-largest opposition party in Parliament. “That path will take us from a soft dictatorship to a full dictatorship.”
He pointed to Mr. Orban’s own words during a March rally, when he promised to take revenge on all those who did not support Fidesz.
“We will seek moral, legal and political recourse after the elections,” Mr. Orban told supporters.
The government dismisses critics. “Democracy has many faces,” said the government spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs.
Although the opposition is badly fragmented, the recent victory of a local mayor in a Fidesz stronghold offered a glimmer of hope for the opposition.
Voters there rallied around a single opposition candidate in order to propel him to victory.
With stiff penalties for parties that withdraw candidates, many opposition party officials have been unwilling the make the kind of sacrifices necessary to repeat the strategy in Sunday’s election.
However, in their place, a robust grass-roots effort has arisen to help voters determined to defeat Fidesz pick the strongest challenger.
At least seven websites have been created to collate all the latest polling, allowing voters to find out who stands the best chance of winning in their electoral district.
The desire to defeat Orban at all costs has made for some strange alliances.
In its early days, much of the lure of Jobbik rested on the party’s xenophobic appeals — the same kind of blood and soil rhetoric now used by Fidesz.
In 2014, as the movement grew into a more mature political party, it tried to purge the most extreme members.
Adam Schonberger, the executive director a Jewish community group, Marom, said he does not trust the party’s transformation, but if he had to, he would vote for Jobbik just to defeat Orban.
“Jobbik is very dangerous,” he said. “But I can support them.”
At the moment, he said, concerns about the rise of the far-right and populist movements were a secondary question.
“The issue is whether we will lose our democracy,” he said.
As the leader of a Jewish organization, he has watched with concern as the ruling party has made George Soros, the American financier and philanthropist, the embodiment of all things evil.
Mr. Orban has tirelessly worked to convince voters that behind every one of the country’s ills, there is some Soros plot.
“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us,” he said in March. “Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”
On bus stops and telephone booths across Budapest, Mr. Soros has been photoshopped into a photo so as to appear to be embracing opposition candidates.
Widely criticized as a thinly veiled anti-Semitic appeal, Mr. Schonberger thought the whole effort was dangerous, helping to create anti-Semites.
“Fidesz is using these things to stir anti-Semitic feelings — the same way they do against gays or lesbians or Islam,” he said.
The ruling party has used every resource at its disposal to drive home its message — including direct mailing paid for by the state under the guise of a national consultation on the immigration issue.
The survey asked questions like whether people “support George Soros influencing Brussels in resettling at least a million immigrants a year from Africa and the Middle East in Europe.” It was widely viewed as a preamble to the campaign.
Csaba Toth, an analyst at Republikon Institute, said that the political calculation is obvious.
“Support for the anti-immigration issue is higher then support for Fidesz itself,” he said. “And you can win an election here purely with the support of your base because of the electoral system and the division of the opposition.”
Voters cast two votes in the election. One is for a national list of candidates, the results of which make up 93 seats in Parliament. They also cast votes in local elections, filling the remaining 106 seats.
Mr. Orban’s party is currently two votes short of the two-thirds majority he needs to push through constitutional changes.
“If he wins a two-thirds majority, it will lead to the complete collapse of the opposition and a very dangerous scenario for the future of Hungary,” Mr. Toth said.
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