IN 1988 a dissident Hungarian university graduate wrote a letter to George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist, asking for help obtaining a scholarship to Oxford University. In the letter, which has recently resurfaced, the young Viktor Orban said he wanted to study the “rebirth of civil society”. He got the scholarship. Thirty years on, Mr Orban, now prime minister, looks likely to win his third election in a row on April 8th. But he is busy throttling the independent civil society he once championed.

Mr Orban’s right-wing populist party, Fidesz, is far ahead in the polls. The divided opposition is bickering over whose candidates should step down in local constituencies, in order to unite behind one anti-Fidesz candidate per district. (That tactic led to an opposition win in a former Fidesz stronghold in a mayoral by-election in February.) Nationally, no one is capable of taking on Mr Orban. The nationalist Jobbik party, which has tacked towards the centre, will probably take second place. The best hope of one despairing opposition grandee is that Fidesz fails to win an overall majority, allowing liberals and left-wingers to form a minority government with the tacit support of Jobbik. Even that is a very long shot.

After eight years in power, and in his third stint as prime minister (he also governed from 1998 to 2002), Mr Orban seems a long way from his youthful dissident past. Critics accuse him of presiding over a centralisation of political and economic power unparalleled since the collapse of communism. Civic groups and NGOs say they are under siege, harassed by the authorities, subjected to mysterious dirty tricks and attacked by government politicians and loyalist media. State television is little more than a propaganda arm of Fidesz. Party allies have been placed in charge of independent institutions.

The funds Hungary gets from the European Union, say opposition politicians, are often channelled to Mr Orban’s cronies, including his son-in-law and the mayor of his home village, nurturing a new class of oligarchs. (They deny it.) The health-care and education systems are in decline, especially outside the capital. Hungary has the fifth-lowest life expectancy in the EU, at 76.2 years—lower than Albania’s 78.5. Education has been centralised with an old-fashioned syllabus that emphasises rote-learning over analytical skills. International test results show declines in science, mathematics and reading.

A stream of news stories, all furiously contested, allege high-level corruption in government circles. Mr Soros, now Mr Orban’s bitterest enemy, has accused his former beneficiary of running a “mafia state”. Mr Orban is “on an illiberal train and he cannot stop it”, says Viktor Szigetvari, of the progressive Together party. Another Fidesz victory, he says, will mean more attacks on civil liberties, the judiciary, the opposition and civic organisations.

Yet for many voters, none of this seems to matter. Mr Orban and Fidesz have focused on a single message: the need to stop migration and defend Hungary from outsiders such as Mr Soros, the UN, NGOs and the European Commission. The government accuses Mr Soros and his allies of planning to flood Hungary with Muslim migrants. (In 2015 he called for the EU to accept 1m asylum seekers a year; he later lowered the figure to 300,000.) For Mr Orban, this has been a political godsend. Speaking on March 15th, a holiday that commemorates the 1848 revolution, Mr Orban told an adoring crowd that Christian Europe and Hungary were waging a “civilisational struggle” against a wave of mass migration, organised by a network of activists, troublemakers and “NGOs paid by international speculators”.

Even if such a network existed, it would be hard-pressed to flood Hungary with migrants. The fortified fence on Hungary’s southern border has proved effective, and asylum claims have been reduced to a slow trickle. Yet Mr Orban’s bombast resonates with collective memory. The revolution of 1848 and the 1956 anti-communist uprising (crushed, respectively, by the Habsburgs and the Soviets) are central to Hungarians’ view of their own history, leaving them suspicious of foreign interference. The focus on migration is really about national security and independence, and who decides the fate of Hungary, says Agoston Samuel Mraz, of the Nezopont Institute, a think-tank close to the government. “This motivates not only Fidesz voters but also between a third and a half of opposition voters.”

Mr Orban’s supporters say that he has simply delivered on his promises, including his pledge in 2014 to turn Hungary into an “illiberal”, if democratic, state. “The opposition deny the validity and relevance of everything we do,” says Zoltan Kovacs, a government spokesman. In his view, the state media and institutions remain free of political control; concerns about the new constitution and centralisation of power have long been settled with the European Commission and other bodies. Claims of cronyism, he says, are “political”, and there are no rules barring politicians’ friends or relatives from public procurement, if they provide high-quality work. Besides, “nobody has elected NGOs,” Mr Kovacs continues; “this is elitist activism.”

More relevant to many voters, however, is the strong economy. Hungary still has plenty of poverty, especially among the Roma. But its middle class is doing well. Residential-property prices are rising in Budapest, driven up in part by an influx of foreign investors. GDP grew 4% in 2017, and unemployment is down from 11.6% in 2010 to 3.8%. The average monthly gross wage rose by 13% in the year to November, to 323,000 forints (€1,040). For many Hungarians, this is reason enough to vote for Fidesz. For the rest, Mr Orban can fall back on his familiar bogeymen: Mr Soros and an assortment of nefarious foreigners.