Darko Vojinovic/AP
A man walks by an anti-immigration billboard from the Hungarian government, on a street in Budapest, Hungary in April 2018. With a campaign centered on stopping immigration, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party is expected to continue its dominance in the European Parliament election at the end of May.

Ahead of EU vote, Hungary hammers home: 'Stop immigration!'

In this month's European Parliament election, no issue rings louder in Hungary than migration. But only around two dozen migrants currently enter the country per day – compared with more than 9,000 a day in September 2015. 

Hundreds of migrants a day streamed through the Hungarian village of Ásotthalom on their way to Western Europe in 2015. Today there are almost none. So one might think the political discourse has moved on.

Think again.

In this month's European Parliament election, no issue rings louder in Hungary than migration. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz party have campaigned almost exclusively on anti-immigration policies and it remains a hot topic in this formerly beleaguered village as well.

Ásotthalom's mayor has left the nationalist Jobbik party to form a new movement with an even harder anti-migrant stance.

"Migrants still get through, but they are caught in Ásotthalom," gloated László Toroczkai, the mayor who is also his party's leading candidate in the European election. "This region, which suffered terribly from massive, uncontrolled immigration, has absolutely recovered its security and tranquility."

Mr. Orbán won a third term last year after a campaign that linked migration to rape and terrorism and warned that a mostly Muslim "migrant invasion" was putting Europe's "Christian culture" at risk.

His Fidesz party is using the same message in this month's European election and is expected to win as many as 14 of Hungary's 21 seats in the 751-seat European Parliament. No other Hungarian party is expected to get more than three seats in the May 26 vote.

Nowhere is the focus on migration more acute than in Ásotthalom, a village of 4,000 that borders Serbia, a non-European Union nation.

In 2015, when nearly 1 million asylum-seekers and migrants moved through the region seeking better lives in Western Europe, Hungary built a razor-wire fence at the edge of Ásotthalom's farms and fruit trees. Two years later, it added a second fence with cameras along with heat and motion detectors.

From a peak of more than 9,000 migrants a day entering Hungary in September 2015, the country now catches about two dozen migrants a day.

Hundreds of students from around the country attend Ásotthalom's forestry vocational high school and the village has a Sándor Rózsa museum, dedicated to a 19th-century outlaw celebrated as a Hungarian Robin Hood.

One Ásotthalom resident, who harvests potatoes from her home vegetable patch, said she felt sorry for the migrants who used to walk past her house but complained about the garbage they left behind and how they climbed over the fence into the public swimming pool to cool off.

Anna, who like other villagers refused to give her last name, said even though she knew the migrants were only passing through "it was scary" to see so many people in desperate need walking past her house.

Mr. Toroczkai and more radical politicians left Jobbik last year to form the Our Homeland Movement. The group has brought back issues that Jobbik had mostly abandoned as it tried to distance itself from accusations of racism, like referring to petty crimes as "Gypsy crimes," or other racial slurs.

Our Homeland is critical of government corruption and wants to subsidize Hungarian companies instead of multinationals. On immigration, it hopes to push Mr. Orbán's hard-line policies even further to the right, proposing to eliminate scholarships for thousands of foreign students, one of Mr. Orbán's outreach programs.

"If Fidesz wants to protect European and Christian culture, then [these students] should not be allowed in either," Mr. Toroczkai said. "But on this we agree – migration must be stopped."

The fence, criticized at first as a "new Iron Curtain," stretches more than 100 miles along the border with Serbia and parts of the border with Croatia. While other factors helped to stem the migrant surge through Hungary – especially a 2016 deal between the EU and Turkey that returns people arriving on Greek islands to Turkey – Mr. Orbán has been unapologetic about its success.

"The people in Austria and Germany can sleep tight because the Hungarians will protect Europe's external borders here," Mr. Orbán said when the fence was reinforced.

When hard-line Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini visited Hungary earlier this month, he immediately toured the southern border area with Mr. Orbán, congratulating his government on its effectiveness in stopping illegal immigration.

Fidesz's EU election campaign includes the slogan "Let's stop immigration!"; calls for leaders who oppose immigration to lead major EU institutions; and demands measures guaranteeing that Christians won't suffer discrimination in Europe.

"The matter we will be voting on is an essential one – at stake is the existence of our Christian civilization," Mr. Orbán said at the April launch of the Fidesz EU campaign.

Mr. Orbán has used his opposition to migration to fuel other conservative policies, too. In February, he announced measures to boost Hungary's birthrate, offering a lifetime income tax exemption for mothers of at least four children.

While Western Europe is resorting to immigration to increase its population "we do not need numbers, but Hungarian children," Mr. Orbán declared. "In our minds, immigration means surrender."

May's EU election could determine Mr. Orbán's future in Europe for some time.

In March, the Fidesz party was suspended from the center-right bloc in the European Parliament, the European People's Party, because of long-standing concerns over democracy in Hungary. For his part, Mr. Orbán wants the bloc, the biggest in the EU parliament, to forge closer ties with Mr. Salvini and other anti-immigration forces even further to the right.

It's not clear yet whether Fidesz stays with the EPP or shifts over to join Mr. Salvini's new populist, far-right bloc that has vowed to shake up the European Parliament and the EU.

"We will look for cooperation with Salvini in a spectacular, avowed and open manner," Mr. Orbán said during his visit.

As long as Hungarians continued to respond to the migration issue, even when hardly any migrants come to Hungary, it will dominate Mr. Orban's message, said Gábor Győri, a senior analyst at Policy Solutions, a political research institute in Budapest.

"Changes may come ... if migration is no longer effective in covering up potentially more important issues, like education, corruption and health care," Mr. Győri said.

He noted that Orbán's focus on migration had made him a role model for Europe's populist or far-right parties.

"Orbán's biggest political success is tying his anti-democratic policies to migration, always suggesting that the two are inseparable," Mr. Győri said. "In reality, there is no connection between the two."

He said Mr. Orbán has convinced voters that "the external checks and balances limiting the government's power" have to be weakened or "otherwise, migration will come [back] to Hungary." He said Mr. Orbán's reasoning was "very attractive to many politicians with authoritarian ambitions."

In Ásotthalom, Janos, who lives on a farm with his partner Ilona, also complained about the migrants' litter but said he was moved by the sight of exhausted families walking across Europe from as far away as Afghanistan or Syria.

"What was spiritually draining was to see them in the winter, in the snow, with little children," the farmer said. "I don't blame them. Somewhere, this got really messed up."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Andras Nagy contributed to this report.

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