VIKTOR ORBAN looks set to win another four years as prime minister of Hungary when his country goes to the polls on Sunday (see article). A recent speech outside Parliament epitomised his approach. On March 15th—a national holiday commemorating the failed 1848 uprising against the Habsburgs who ruled Hungary for centuries—Mr Orban (pictured) issued a rousing battle-cry to defend the Magyar homeland from waves of migrants; militant Islam; plans in Brussels for enforced migrant quotas; and a United States of Europe. In today’s Europe, thundered Mr Orban, “it is forbidden to speak the truth”: that immigration brings crime and terrorism and “endangers our way of life, our culture, our customs and our Christian traditions”. During the campaign there has been little mention of health care, education and the economy. Why have Mr Orban and his ruling Fidesz party been so successful at rallying Hungarians to the nationalist message? 

Ever since the conquest of the Carpathian basin by the Magyar tribes around 1,100 years ago, Hungary’s history has been that of a small, embattled nation, fighting continually for its survival. It has been conquered and occupied by Tatars, Ottoman Turks, Nazis and Russians. The failed uprisings of 1703 and 1848 against the Habsburgs and the 1956 revolution against the Soviets are burned into the national psyche. (The Nazi invasion of 1944, when the Hungarian state mobilised to send hundreds of thousands of Jews and thousands of Roma to their deaths receives less attention.) That embattled theme resonates in the debate about refugees today. Hungarians also like to describe themselves as a Magyar island in a Slav sea. Other countries in the region share a similar history of occupation but speak Slavic tongues that are, to some extent, mutually comprehensible, giving them a sense of having cultural, linguistic allies in their suffering. The Magyars feel like a race apart: their language is unrelated to the Indo-European tongues that surround them, and works as a powerful national glue. 

Fidesz is tapping into a wider European trend: the rise of identity-based politics around national issues. Each year thousands of Poles attend his March 15th rally. Law and Justice, Poland’s ruling party, is a natural ally, sharing a similar socially conservative agenda. As in Poland, Mr Orban’s nationalist campaign has succeeded partly because of the timidity of the opposition. Liberals have shied away from a deeper discussion about national values and the importance of a shared history and culture, for fear of being branded xenophobes or racists. But in doing so they have allowed Mr Orban, who brushes off such accusations, to dominate the political narrative. Appeals to national pride have also helped him to keep the focus off difficult questions about corruption and the poor state of the health system. Opposition parties have also been unable to deal with what has become known as the “Keleti factor”. Hungary sits along the southern border of the Schengen zone, within which free travel is permitted between EU states, and Keleti is one of the main train stations in the capital, Budapest. In the summer of 2015 the station was turned into a giant open-air camp at the epicentre of Europe’s refugee crisis as people flooded in from Syria and beyond. The psychological shock of this period still reverberates. 

In addition, Mr Orban has found a useful bogeyman on whom to focus his campaign. Fidesz politicians and loyalist media relentlessly attack George Soros, a Hungarian-born philanthropist, and the network of NGOs and civic organisations funded by his foundation, portraying them as a threat to Hungary’s very survival. A New York-based financier, Mr Soros represents the globalisation that Mr Orban hates. In 2015 Mr Soros said the EU should accept “at least a million asylum seekers” a year (though he later reduced the number to 300,000). Mr Orban has readied a fresh tranche of laws, labelled the “Stop Soros” package, to further rein in NGOs funded by Mr Soros’s foundation. The virulence of the government campaign against supposed external enemies will probably abate a little once Mr Orban has secured a new majority. But it is unlikely to vanish.