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Tuesday, 30 March 2010


The scenario is classic. Hungary's economy is in crisis, its large Roma minority is an easy scapegoat, and a far-right party blaming "Gypsy crooks" and "welfare spongers" is set to be the big winner.

If opinion polls are right, the nationalist Jobbik party has a chance of becoming the second biggest party in parliament after an election on April 11 and 25, denying the center-right favorites Fidesz a possible two-thirds majority. "With its extreme populist rhetoric, Jobbik could put the next government's policy moves under pressure," said political analyst Andras Giro-Szasz. "Jobbik can limit the popular mandate of the next government." The Roma make up between 5 and 7 percent of Hungary's population and vilifying them has proved Jobbik's most successful tactic as an economic slump of more than 6 percent last year has left more than one in 10 Hungarians unemployed. Its biggest gains will be in places such as Ozd in Hungary's poor northeast, a steel town fallen on hard times, where it looks set to defeat the Socialists who have held the seat for 16 years.

Unemployment has grown
Unemployment has been above 20 percent in Ozd for years, and one-third of the population is Roma. Jobbik (Movement For a Better Hungary) nearly beat Fidesz there in the 2009 European Parliament election, and its popularity has only grown since. "Many of us are sick of the way Gypsies think of welfare as a way of life," said Andras Kemacs, a 27-year-old mechanic in Ozd. "Jobbik impresses me with its openness about that." Jobbik has also capitalized on popular resentment toward the political elite, including Fidesz, which it calls corrupt. It has demonized the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, which insisted on painful spending cuts as a condition of bailing out Hungary's public finances. And it is media savvy, using the Internet so effectively that its appeal among young people, including college students, surpasses that of any other party except Fidesz. Polls show national support for Jobbik nearing 20 percent among all decided voters. That puts it neck-and-neck with the ruling Socialists, while Fidesz has about 60 percent of the projected vote. Those gains, splitting the right-wing vote as well as stealing votes from the left, have eroded Fidesz's chances of winning the two-thirds majority that would be a platform for the broad reforms that economists say Hungary needs. Hungary has struggled for years to streamline its bloated government sector and trim public expenditure. The spending cuts have brought the budget deficit under control, but most public sector structural reform has lagged behind. The key reform requiring a two-thirds majority is a rationalization of Hungary's 3,200 local governments, which run hospitals and schools and are major drag on the state budget. Fidesz could also attempt a reform of notoriously corrupt party financing.

Decay and despair
In Ozd, the problems besetting Hungary, and especially its Roma, are painfully evident. The collapse of communism after 1989 led to the closure of Ozd's steel plant, the town's number one employer, throwing 14,000 people out of work. Unskilled Roma were laid off first; most have not worked in the 20 years since. Decay and despair in nearby villages drove thousands more to Ozd. Today, one-third of the 39,000 residents are Roma, says Lajos Berki, leader of the Gypsy Community Council. "About 1,000 of us have more or less regular work," Berki said. "The rest live on welfare. There are problems, there is no denying that. A few thousand Gypsies have caused real problems." The Roma shantytown on the outskirts of Ozd, known as Hetes, bustles with activity, but not paid work. Boys play soccer in the dirt outside the dilapidated homes, while adults chop illegally collected firewood or mill about idly. "I'm not fixated on welfare," said Gyula Budai, standing near the only working tap that 500 Roma share. "Take it away, give us work, then you'll see who wants to work and who doesn't."

Prolonged tension
Ozd's Fidesz candidate, Gabor Riz, acknowledged problems in an interview, but refrained from calling them Roma issues. "There are no grounds to fear a Roma-Hungarian ethnic conflict," he said. "But there could be prolonged tension between wage earners and welfare beneficiaries." However, Ozd's Socialist member of parliament, Istvan Toth, says the politicians have been avoiding the issues. "We have sensed the problems, but pretended that they might go away if we don't talk about them," he told Reuters. "We just tried to divide (Roma) along party lines, and now we suddenly realize that ... Jobbik played the Gypsy card." Ozd's Jobbik candidate, Andras Kisgergely, had no problem filling the region's largest theater to capacity with a rally. "For 500 years, Gypsies have not been able to adopt the cultural norms to live in peace with the majority," he told his audience. "Nine out of 10 criminals are Gypsies ... We need to end that. We need to improve public safety, and create jobs. Make them work. We need to tie welfare to community work." The 800 supporters in the room cheered each point wildly. Peter Borbas, a 40 year-old office clerk, was one of them. "We need to talk about Gypsy crime at long last," he said. "People have had enough. No method is too radical to end Gypsy crime."