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In Hungary, far right is making gains

The radically nationalist Jobbik party won 15% of the vote in elections for EU delegates. The popularity of party leader Gabor Vona, who has started a militia, hinges on hostility toward Gypsies.

October 11, 2009|Megan K. Stack

KOMAROM, HUNGARY — The right-wing demonstrators have gathered here on the fringe of a long-lost empire, near the border with Slovakia, the banks of the Danube, along rusting train tracks that stretch northwest to Vienna.

They wear wraparound sunglasses, leather vests and combat boots; and they knot around their necks the red and white striped flags reminiscent of Hungary's pro-Nazi party of the 1930s and '40s.

"Take your guns in your hands," rasps a singer. "This is the last fight we're going to win. Endurance."

And then: "I may have big boots. You may throw a stone at me. But this is still my country, this is where my cradle lay."

The crowd has gathered in the September sunshine for the main attraction, Gabor Vona, a charismatic young nationalist who heads Hungary's newest, fastest growing and most controversial political party -- and founded its affiliated militia.

Vona steps out of a minivan, a slight young man with a few shoots of gray in a crop of dark hair. A passing driver leans furiously on his car horn, and the young woman in the passenger seat shows Vona her middle finger as they careen past. Vona blinks and turns away with indifference. He's ready to face his fans.

"You should know that Hungarian policy may change in the very near future," he tells them. "Everyone knows that for the past 20 years we kept silent and bowed down, but this will change."

Vona is riding high these days. His radically nationalistic party, Jobbik, picked up nearly 15% of the Hungarian vote in June elections for the European Union parliament. The Hungarian Guard, the paramilitary organization founded by Vona and his party and distinguished by its Nazi-like iconography and menacing marches through Roma, or Gypsy, areas, is locked in conflict with police and courts.

But if anything, the Hungarian Guard's clashes with authorities appear to be feeding Jobbik's popularity among a disgruntled populace.

Jobbik is quickly gathering strength by galvanizing all manner of conservative Hungarians, especially the young and rural. Analysts say its popularity hinges on its antagonism toward the Roma minority, and party leaders' incessant talk of "Gypsy crime."

The party's rhetoric paints a picture of an isolated Hungarian people and a neutered, ineffective police force at the mercy of robbing, violent Roma. The rise to prominence of Jobbik and its Hungarian Guard has come in tandem with a spate of ruthless attacks on Roma, including children. Analysts say this is no coincidence. They also blame Jobbik for spreading thinly coded anti-Semitism and unsubtle hearkening back to Hungary's Nazi past.

Originating as a small student movement in 2002, Jobbik has moved quickly from the extremist fringes into the mainstream -- or perhaps has managed to drag some of mainstream Hungary to the fringes. As the party continued to grow, Vona founded the Hungarian Guard in 2007.

Jobbik is poised to take on even greater power in next year's national parliamentary elections. Analysts attribute its popularity to a mix of factors: rising economic difficulties, growing distaste for the political elite of both the left and right and a widespread sense that the government has failed to deal effectively with crime and ethnic tensions.

"Jobbik intends to change the shy, cowardly Hungarian policy," Vona says, finishing with a salute: "God give us . . ."

". . . a brighter future!" the crowd roars in reply.

This too has the ring of a resurrected Nazi call and response.

For all the retro symbolism, Jobbik is a distinctly modern organization. There are websites, YouTube videos and a vast array of nationalistic merchandise, such as T-shirts depicting clawed hands grabbing at chunks of formerly Hungarian land in a nod to the territory lost at the end of World War I.

"Now in Budapest, you see these young people wearing the Hungarian Guard logo and the Jobbik scarf," said Peter Kreko, an analyst with the Budapest-based Political Capital think tank. "The main threat is that, even those who don't agree with their ideology, they catch them also by creating this fashion trend."

Zoltan Kiszelly, another political scientist in Budapest, agreed.

"Ten years ago teenagers had Che Guevara on their shirts," he said. "Now they have Greater Hungary."

Young people are particularly attracted to nationalism, he said, because their expectations are clashing painfully with the reality of a country hammered by financial crisis.

"It's a generation of disappointed people," Kiszelly said. "Everybody attended university and now they're starting life, and they say, 'I have no connections. I have no chance to enter the system. So I have to blow up the system.' "

Riding a wave of popular discontent, Vona and the other party leaders tell people they are poised between two looming menaces: Gypsies from within, and globalization from the wider world. They keenly sense the shifting demographics as Roma become a larger minority within Hungary.

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