By Krisztina Than
BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has converted criticism heaped on him from abroad into a reputation at home as a plucky defender of national sovereignty that should help him to win re-election next year.
At the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and multi-national firms, Orban is often viewed as an unpredictable populist whose policies run counter to the behavior expected of a European leader.
Instead of being wounded by such criticism, Orban has used it to appeal to a belief among more conservative Hungarians that their country is struggling to protect its identity and values from foreign oppression.
This stems partly from the past. Over its 1,100 year history, Hungary has been invaded by the Mongols, the Turks, Nazi Germany and the Soviet army. In the international settlement that followed World War One, Hungary lost much of its territory, reducing the nation to a relatively small remnant.
To many Hungarians, international institutions which challenge Budapest over its contemporary policies are a new oppressor. "This is about the recolonisation of the world. We are a small country and they have turned us into a colony," said Gyorgy, a 67-year-old-pensioner, who declined to give his full name.
Mariann Bonnok, a retired teacher, said she would vote for Orban's center-right Fidesz party in next year's parliamentary elections because he is a "great man" who has stood up for Hungary's interests in the European Union.
"He is being attacked ... because this tiny little country dares to stand up to this mammoth," Bonnok said on a Budapest street.
Orban's administration is promoting the idea that Hungary, with its 10 million people, is in conflict with big institutions abroad. This month, at a cost of 756 million forints ($3.38 million), the government sent letters to citizens saying Hungary "won an important battle" when Brussels removed it from a list of EU members with excessive budget deficits.
The government also took out full-page advertisements in national newspapers that declared Hungary's exit from the EU's Excessive Deficit Procedure a victory of all Hungarians "over those who wanted our failure at home and abroad".
Next month Hungary plans to repay, ahead of schedule, the outstanding amount of a 20 billion euro ($27 billion) rescue loan it was forced to take from the IMF and EU during the financial crisis of 2008. Central bank Governor Gyorgy Matolcsy, a close Orban ally, has symbolically also asked the IMF to close its Budapest office.
Orban says he is defending Hungary's national sovereignty and takes up conflicts with the EU to keep taxes on big foreign firms in order to reduce the burden on ordinary Hungarians.
"We don't do conflicts for conflict's sake," he said in a speech on Saturday.
Orban has many critics at home as well as abroad. However, his message strikes a chord with voters, especially core supporters of Fidesz.
"If you look at the heroes of Hungarian history, freedom fighters are in abundance. He is reviving an archetype in public thinking which could influence many people," said Peter Kreko, an analyst at think tank Political Capital.
"TROOPS OF BUREAUCRATS"
Orban, who learned his political skills as a young dissident under Communism, has had no shortage of conflicts.
Since 2010, his government has clashed with Brussels over laws that his critics say would curb the independence of the media, the central bank and the courts. Hefty taxes on firms, many foreign-owned, caused further conflict.
His critics say he is eroding democratic checks and balances and has an autocratic style. However, the government has a more than two-thirds majority in parliament; Orban says he has a massive mandate from voters to fix an economic mess left by previous Socialist governments and to shake off a hangover of Communism, almost a quarter of a century after it collapsed.
Earlier this month, after the European parliament adopted a resolution condemning Hungary, Orban accused Europe of using Soviet-style methods to curb Hungarian sovereignty and mobilizing "troops of bureaucrats" to subdue the nation.
He found himself in a diplomatic row with Germany in May. Chancellor Angela Merkel had said, when asked about contentious legislation adopted by Hungary, that it was not necessary for Europe to "send in the cavalry" immediately.
Orban responded by evoking Nazi Germany's occupation of Hungary in 1944, an allusion that angered Berlin.
"The Germans had already sent cavalry to Hungary. They came in the form of tanks. Our request is to them not to send any; it was not a good idea, it did not work," he said on public radio.
Opinion polls show that Orban's party has a firm lead over the divided opposition, but he cannot sit back since almost half of voters are undecided.
His battles with Brussels don't please all voters. Some Hungarians find them shameful, although these people would not vote for Orban anyway. Others are more interested in how much money they have in their wallets.
The conflicts are useful, say political analysts, because they help to secure support for Fidesz from people for whom defending national sovereignty and identity is important.
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(Additional reporting by Gergely Szakacs and Sandor Peto; Editing by Christian Lowe and David Stamp)