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Hungary's Anti-Migrant Prime Minister Leads Polls Before Elections


Hungarians are voting on Sunday. National elections will determine whether Prime Minister Viktor Orban gets a third term to pursue his campaigns against migrants and against what's known as civil society - you know, journalists, activists, people outside his control. Opinion polls show the prime minister to be ahead, although not by the margin that Hungarian voters gave his party during the last election. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in a small Hungarian town which recently sent a message of sorts to the prime minister. And, Soraya, what's this town?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: This town is called Hodmezovasarhely, and that translates to beaver field marketplace. And what's significant here is that the town is a - very much a Fidesz stronghold. Fidesz, of course, is the party that Viktor Orban is in charge of. And what happened was that the mayoral candidate of Fidesz lost to an independent candidate in February.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So we have a sort of preliminary election in a way or a local election, and the party in power lost. How'd that happen?

NELSON: Well, the opposition parties here did something that's pretty unusual for Hungary. They agreed to not field their own candidates and instead unite behind a conservative independent by the name of Peter Marki-Zay.

PETER MARKI-ZAY: People are actually fed up with corruption and intimidation. Everybody in Hungary, including my town specifically, just imagine that if somebody is working for the municipality or any state institutions, then they could be threatened with losing their job if they put a like to my - an opposition candidate's Facebook page.

NELSON: But this kind of cooperation that we saw here in this town is rare because the Hungarian opposition is just too fractured across the country. Plus, there's the other issue of Orban and Fidesz controlling most of Hungarian media, which means that if you're an opposition candidate, you're not going to get on air or in the papers. In fact, only five minutes was allotted to each opposition candidate during this whole campaign season and, frankly, during the whole four years.

INSKEEP: Just to remind you, we've got a democratic country that's becoming less and less democratic. There are still elections, but everything else about democracy seems to be under threat. And then there are migrants, who, of course, have come into Europe in great numbers and have come through Hungary in some numbers. What role has that played in the election?

NELSON: Well, if you listen to Viktor Orban, you'd think that this was a - the greatest threat facing Europe that will bring with it colonization and terrorism basically. But there is one thing that we should note here, and that is that only two migrants are getting in through the controlled border crossings at the moment each day, people who are seeking asylum. So he's playing...

INSKEEP: Can I just stop you there, Soraya?

NELSON: Yeah, sure.

INSKEEP: Did you say two - two migrants per day?



NELSON: Yes, I discovered this on a recent reporting trip, which was just astounding. But even so, xenophobia plays well here in Hungary. This is a problem across Central Europe at the moment. And Viktor Orban has added a new layer by making the American billionaire - Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros sort of the vehicle for which these migrants are coming. Basically, Orban accuses him of - and his - the NGOs that his organizations have helped fund of being - like trying to basically overthrow Hungary and his government.

INSKEEP: OK. And just a sentence or so. What if Orban should win?

NELSON: Well, then it's pretty clear that the attacks on democratic institutions that he and his government have been carrying out will continue. His spokesman confirmed that they're going to clamp down on NGOs as they've been doing.

INSKEEP: Soraya, thanks as always.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.