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Extremist party in Hungary poised to enter next Parliament

BUDAPEST, May 18 (JTA) — An electoral showing of 5.55 percent may seem insignificant. But the number has created a buzz in Budapest — among Jews and non-Jews alike. Because that isthe vote that the extreme-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party garnered in the first round of Hungarian elections May 10 — just surpassing the 5 percent minimum needed to enter Parliament. The stunning result for an overtly anti-Semitic party has sent tremors of fear throughout the Jewish community. It is particularly ominous to Hungary’s approximately 20,000 Holocaust survivors. “If they play the Jewish card in Parliament, once again it becomes a public issue — who is Jewish, who is not,” said Edit Salamon, 62, a retired social work teacher. The idea that one’s Jewishness might become a public issue is especially sensitive for her: When she was an 8-year-old in 1944, Salamon and her family were herded into the Budapest Ghetto. Of course, it is still unclear how much influence the Justice and Life Party will wield. The composition of the future government — whether it will be tilted to the left or right — is still up in the air, pending Sunday’s second and final round of voting. It is now a two-horse race, between the ruling Socialists and the right-of-center Young Democrats, who captured 32 and 28 percent of the vote, respectively, in the first round. It is unlikely that either will snare a clear majority in the next round, which will force them to seek coalition partners. Despite the uncertainties regarding next week’s voting, two things are already certain. The first: No matter who leads the country, Hungary will remain among the Central European front-runners to join NATO and the European Union. The abundance of foreign investors and a national consensus for Western integration will insure that. And second: The Hungarian Justice and Life Party’s hatemongering leader, Istvan Csurka, will get more prime-time exposure than ever before. Csurka, who has made numerous anti-Semitic speeches in the past, will be aided, paradoxically, by a left-leaning Hungarian media that insists on granting full coverage to all parliamentary factions, regardless of size. Csurka and other populists shrewdly capitalized on popular disillusionment with the country’s transition to a free-market economy. Overall, the economy looks strong as a result of that transition. But just the same, the standard of living continues to decline for the vast majority of Hungarians. Many of those now impoverished feel betrayed by the ruling Socialists and their junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats. The Socialists cleverly pinned most blame on the liberal Free Democrats. That party — comprised of intellectuals, including a number of high-profile Jews — failed to spotlight their achievements and made a poor showing in the first round of voting. With the traditional conservative parties in disarray, much of the public lent its support to the Young Democrats and the right-wing Smallholders Party, which garnered 14 percent of the vote. But last week, officials from both the British and German embassies reportedly warned the Young Democrats not to ally themselves with the Smallholders, who are seen as not much better than Csurka’s Justice and Life Party. In separate sessions last Friday, representatives of the Socialists and Young Democrats met with Jewish leaders. The Young Democrats, in particular, assured the Jewish leadership that they would not cooperate with extremists. The Socialists are now on the offensive, warning the public of the dangers of a right-wing government that depends on the parliamentary deputies controlled by Csurka. Indeed, the key question now is how desperate the dashing, 35-year-old leader of the Young Democrats, Viktor Orban, is to grab power. Eight years ago, his party started out on the left of the political spectrum. It hen swung right; most recently, it has inched toward the center. Some even speak of a “grand coalition” between the Young Democrats and the Socialists. As for the 100,000-strong Hungarian Jews, expect them to be pulling for the status quo — the Socialists. “I’ve got my fingers crossed,” said 66-year-old Zsuzsa Kepecs, another Holocaust survivor. “Here absolutely anything can happen.”

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