As the youthful leader of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party arrived for an election rally, his followers gave him a welcome that had disturbing echoes of Europe in the 1940s.
Two ranks of Hungarian Guards, in paramilitary-style uniforms, snapped to attention as Gabor Vona marched past them. Party leaders saluted, and a red and white banner was raised–one that looked suspiciously similar to Hungary’s old fascist emblem.
The rally in a school hall in the normally sleepy town of Dunakeszi was packed with hundreds of supporters. They cheered as Mr Vona promised to rid Hungary of corruption and crack down on foreign interests.
He spoke about stopping Roma, the country’s biggest ethnic minority, from sponging off the state–forcing anyone claiming benefits to perform public service in return. He promised to “give back Hungary’s national pride and identity”.
The enthusiasm showed that Mr Vona has come a long way since Jobbik launched seven years ago. Its fierce nationalistic agenda and far-right rhetoric were soundly rejected by the electorate then. In national elections in 2006 it polled a miserable 2.2 per cent, failing to get a single member of parliament elected.
But now as Hungary prepares for crucial new elections the tide has turned, and it is flowing strongly Jobbik’s way. To the horror of democrats who thought Hungary had shaken itself free of political extremism in 1989 with the fall of communism, Jobbik is on course to become the second biggest party in parliament.
With one week to go before the country goes to the polls for the first of two rounds of voting, Jobbik has reaped the benefit of the spectacular demise of Hungary’s left-wing MSZP government. Accused of rampant corruption and castigated from all sides for mismanagement of the worst recession since 1989, the government faces a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Right.
Most polls suggest that the centre-right Fidesz party, headed by former prime minister Viktor Orban, will wipe out the MSZP, and perhaps even scoop up more than half the vote. The beleaguered socialists are also in dire danger of being pushed into third place by Jobbik. Polls predict Mr Vona’s party could win as many as one vote in five.
Yet while the failings of the Left have helped, Jobbik has also gained from disillusionment with the economy. Hungarians expected more growth, and better government, after the fall of communism.
Heavy industry has collapsed, the privatisation bonanza that brought both revenue and foreign investors has run its course, and the global recession has hit hard. Unemployment has soared to a 16-year high of 11.2 per cent, and in late 2008 the country was forced to go cap in hand to the IMF for $25 billion in emergency funding.
The old political class is blamed for economic failures, and for endemic corruption. Jobbik’s messages of opposing corruption and standing up for the little man have struck a chord.
“The other parties serve foreign interests and foster corruption. They are anti-Hungarian,” said Laszlo Soos, who runs a small home-security business. Last time he voted Fidesz but on April 11 he will back Jobbik. “This is the only party that is prepared to stand up for Hungarian interests and not for foreign ones.”
But Jobbik’s growing support has revived disturbing memories of the bloody wartime past, when Hungarian fascists grabbed power and enthusiastically shipped off Jews and gypsies–as Roma are commonly known–to Hitler’s death camps.
The new party is eager to solve what it calls the “Roma problem”, though it emphasises that this should be through social measures and it does not espouse violence. Some members have made comments portrayed as anti-Jewish, despite the party leadership’s efforts to look modern and European as well as tough.
Its acceptable face is Krisztina Morvai, a blonde working mother of three and former lawyer who was last year elected as an Member of the European Parliament. She has complained bitterly that the rest of Europe sees her as a Nazi.
That is in part because of the Hungarian Guard who are allies of the party, and also Jobbik’s red and white-striped banner. This bears an unnerving similarity to the emblem of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, which seized power for a brutal few months in 1944.
For those old enough to remember the suffering of the war, the rise of Jobbik feels like a frightening case of deja vu. “Though I was only six years old in 1944 when the Arrow Cross came to power, I remember the reign of terror that followed,” said Maria Juhasz, a Budapest pensioner. “I remember when they took away the Jews, including our village doctor, and the young men they hanged at the side of the road with placards round their necks saying ‘This is the fate of deserters’. The Hungarian Guard and Jobbik, the uniforms, the language and rhetoric all remind me of the Arrow Cross and that era.”
Accusations of racism or anti-Semitism are dismissed by Jobbik’s leaders, who argue that radical policies are needed to lift Hungary’s 500,000 Roma out of poverty.
Mr Vona, a surprisingly bland and modest-looking leader for such an extreme party, was a founding member of Jobbik in 2003. His youth appeals to Hungarian voters who are sick of the old political class. His quietly spoken personality seems to reassure voters, although in July last year he was arrested at a demonstration in central Budapest.
He trumpeted his Roma policies at the rally in Dunakeszi.
“We are accused of racism when we talk about the Roma problem honestly,” he said. “We might hurt each other’s feelings when we are honest, but we have to be frank.”
Party officials defend themselves by insisting that even Hungarians who have little time for Jobbik voice frequent frustration about the Roma’s apparent failure to become part of Hungarian society, and complain often about “Roma crime”.
Jobbik defends the controversial Hungarian Guard too, praising them for filling a security void in poorly policed rural areas. None of its members, the party claims, have been in trouble with the law.
The surge of support for Jobbik has forced leaders of Fidesz, the centre-right party that is expected to be Hungary’s biggest after the election, to deny that that Jobbik might be asked to join a coalition.
“We make it very clear that we have no intention to have any contact with Jobbik: not now nor any time in the future,” said Zsolt Nemeth, a Fidesz MP and one of the party’s founding fathers. “We think they are a challenge to democracy.”
Many voters are horrified at what may lie ahead. Gabor Ronai, who helps run his family pawn-broking business, said: “If Jobbik gets anywhere near the government it would be a disaster for Hungary. We would be ostracised from the rest of Europe.”