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Monday, 3 May 2010


As the sun sets in a tulip-lined square in south-east Hungary, three young men are posing next to their gleaming motorbikes. Krisztian Patkos, a 24-year old welder and David Albert, 23, a fireman, bought their beloved racing machines with Swiss-franc denominated loans that they complain became difficult to repay when the forint weakened during the global financial crisis. “Foreign banks have come here and are screwing us,” Mr Patkos insists. “We can barely afford petrol to fill up the tank,” says Viktor Varga, 23, a student. Good-natured and articulate, all three voted for Jobbik, a radical nationalist party, in this month’s general election. So did a quarter of the town’s residents. “My classmate said, ‘We’ve tried [the centre-right] Fidesz and the Socialists and it didn’t work. They sold the country out’. So it’s time to try something else,” Mr Varga says. Fidesz won the poll with an unprecedented two-thirds parliamentary majority. However, abroad the most striking trend in the election was seen as the rise of Hungary’s far-right. With 47 seats, Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary) is set to become the third largest party in parliament. “We will have an uncompromising opposition role. We are going to work to try to ensure our will is fulfilled by the government,” Gábor Vona, the party’s 31-year old leader tells the Financial Times. Mr Vona’s priorities include tackling corruption, restoring law and order, cutting taxes and stopping the eviction of people who fall behind on their mortgages. But it is Jobbik’s other facets, including its alleged anti-Semitic rhetoric (which it fiercely denies), hostility towards gypsy crime and a closely linked jackboot-wearing militia, that have prompted concern abroad. Some commentators portray Hungary as a recession-hit, indebted country veering towards fascism. But Jobbik’s rise is more complicated than the 1930s-redux narrative.

Founded in 2003, Jobbik initially struggled on the political fringes. But in 2006 Ferenc Gyurcsány, prime minister, was taped admitting that the Socialists had lied “morning, noon and night” about the state of the economy to get re-elected, leading to violence on the streets of Budapest. Jobbik has since capitalised on disillusion with Hungary’s political elite, after a succession of high-level corruption scandals. “Their political credo is strongly anti-establishment,” says András Lánczi, a political scientist at Corvinus University in Budapest. The economic crisis adds tinder to the flames, swelling nationalist opposition to foreign investors and banks. Jobbik’s stronghold remains the deprived, north-east of Hungary where social tensions between ethnic Hungarians and the Roma are rife. Jobbik’s political breakthrough came last year in elections to the European parliament when it won 15 per cent of the vote. And an extensive grass-roots campaign, involving hundreds of rallies and an extensive online presence has helped Jobbik mount a nationwide challenge, garnering support particularly among the young. Gabriella Kristó worked in senior financial roles for General Motors and Italy’s UniCredit before standing as Jobbik’s candidate in Hódmezovásárhely. “I’d never been involved in politics before,” she says. “But I saw Jobbik as a party that is not corrupt, a young party, that wants something different.” “When I told friends in Spain that I was standing, they said, are you crazy? They said Jobbik were Nazis and fascists, but I replied, ‘Am I a fascist? Am I a Nazi?’” Many Hungarians insist Jobbik is simply a protest movement that will run its course. But analysts say it embodies a pan-eastern European strain of xenophobic, anti-establishment radical nationalism that shows little sign of weakening. “Demand for rightwing extremism is deeply rooted in society,” says Krisztian Szabados at the Political Capital think-tank. Much will depend on whether Viktor Orban, Hungary’s new prime minister, can tackle graft and set Hungary on surer economic footing. In the meantime Jobbik’s ambitions are clear: “Jobbik will win the next election,” says Mr Vona, with not a hint of self-doubt.

Financial Times