By Krisztina Than
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - With an anti-immigrant campaign and razor-wire border fence Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has reversed a slide in his party's popularity, emerging at home as a winner in the crisis that has divided Europe.
Personal approval ratings have also jumped for the man who closed down a major transit route through Hungary for hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing war and poverty.
Voters are less willing to give Orban the benefit of the doubt on creating jobs. But while Hungarians often helped migrants stranded in appalling conditions last summer, many voters are ignoring criticism that rights groups and foreign governments have directed at their leader over migration.
Despite accusations of xenophobia, Orban shows no sign of moderating his language as he attacks the European Union's failure to solve the migrant crisis, and tries to undermine support for the far-right at home.
Speaking on state radio, he said Hungary was now in a "different time zone" from the rest of Europe as it has fended off the "invasion" by sealing its southern borders.
This goes down well with many Hungarians, including the young who are often more conservative than their peers in western Europe.
Not far from Budapest's eastern railway station, where thousands of migrants slept rough in September, 21-year-old student Mate Sebok gave his whole-hearted support to Orban's stand. Hungary needed a strong leader who spoke up for the country's interests in the EU, Sebok told Reuters.
"There was no common European solution, and I believe Hungary needs to protect its own borders," he said. "A few months ago the eastern railway station was still teeming with migrants and now the country is nice and empty, luckily, so I think the border fence was a good measure."
Huge numbers of people, many escaping the Syrian civil war, tried to get through Hungary in the late summer on their way to seeking asylum in countries to the north, notably Germany and Sweden. Orban finally halted that flow with the border fence.
Wrapped in a striped scarf against the autumn chill, Sebok said he voted for Orban's right-wing Fidesz party when it won re-election last year, and would do the same now.
An opinion poll by Ipsos put support for Fidesz on 37 percent right after the 2014 vote but its popularity started to slide due to perceived corruption and some unpopular measures, dropping to 20 percent in June this year.
The fence on the Serbian border was completed this September, and backing for Fidesz rose to 24 percent, according to Ipsos. The party solidified its core support and attracted around 300,000 swing voters, mostly aged 30-40.
Fidesz was the most popular party in all age groups except the under-30s where it fell behind Jobbik, Ipsos said.
The ratings rose further in October after the fence was extended along the Croatian border, sealing the southern frontier and forcing migrants to seek different routes north.
Orban accompanied the fence building with rhetoric, saying Hungary did not want Muslims in large numbers, and people were not coming to Europe to live in safety but rather because they wanted "a German or perhaps a Swedish life".
Austria likened his policies to those of the Nazis, an allegation Hungary rejected, while the U.S. ambassador to Budapest warned against "xenophobic characterization of refugees".
Many Hungarians appear unworried by such criticism. "The measures tackling the migration crisis were very positive," said Margit Tamas, 62, a retired intensive care nurse.
With Germany and Sweden struggling to cope with the asylum seekers, the European Commission wants EU member states to take in a share of the new arrivals.
But this has split the bloc, with Orban rejecting quotas and accusing governments which had welcomed asylum seekers of encouraging the influx. "Who commissioned European leaders ... (to) not only let in but ship into Europe by the hundreds of thousands groups that are culturally different from European culture?" he asked in a speech last week.
With the opposition divided and weak, rights groups have been largely left to question his arguments at home.
Zsuzsanna Zsohar, a spokeswoman for Migration Aid, accepted Hungary had the right to decide who could come in. "At the same time, as a U.N. member state it is obliged to help people who were stuck in conflict zones," she said. "With its current behavior, Hungary has lost its right to claim solidarity."
KEEPING UP THE MOMENTUM
Despite the gains, support for Fidesz remains well below where it was after Orban was reelected for another four years.
"He won the migration issue, that is clear, but I think it's too early to speculate on what we will see in the next years," said Csaba Toth, strategic director of the liberal think tank Republikon. Orban would seek new issues to maintain the political momentum he gained from the migrant crisis, he added.
One of these is likely to be the economy. Growth is expected at a healthy rate of about 3 percent this year, with public finances on a solid footing and inflation sub zero.
However, growth is predicted to slow next year and dissatisfaction with Orban's record on jobs is common. Unemployment has fallen sharply but many Hungarians have had to leave the country to find work and better pay.
"I'm deeply disappointed with the way the government handles joblessness," said Tamas, the retired nurse. With two of her three graduate children already working abroad, she says the government must do more to stem the mass emigration.
"My third child, a young doctor, is now preparing (to leave)," she said, adding that it is too early to say how she will vote in 2018 when the next elections are due.
The National Bank of Hungary (NBH) launched a massive program this week to boost corporate lending, and extended an existing funding-for-growth scheme into 2016, pumping hundreds of billions of forints into the economy.
But domestic banks, squeezed with huge taxes for years, remain reluctant to lend and investments are dominated by EU-funded projects.
"The National Bank is fighting a war it cannot win unless investment is directed in productivity-boosting ventures and a spark is ignited for banks to lend without NBH incentives," Nomura analyst Peter Attard Montalto said in a note.
(editing by David Stamp)