PRAGUE (JTA) — The radical far-right Jobbik party is poised to emerge in next month’s elections in Hungary as a potent force in Parliament, and the prospect is ringing alarm bells in Central Europe’s largest Jewish community.
"It’s scary," said Vera Szekeres-Varsa, a Holocaust survivor and former chair of the Hungarian branch of Amnesty International. "It’s not like 60 or 70 years ago, but it’s still scary."
Jobbik, whose formal name is the Movement for a Better Hungary, campaigns with fiercely populist rhetoric that capitalizes on seething voter resentment and foments fear and hatred of the mainly impoverished population of Roma, or Gypsies. Targeting what it calls "Gypsy criminality," Jobbik also warns against "foreign speculators," including Israel, it says want to control the country.
"Hungary belongs to the Hungarians" is a party slogan.
"Jobbik frequently uses anti-Semitic rhetoric, not directly but through code words and references, as well as symbols and appearances," said Andras Kovacs, a sociologist at the Central European University who long has tracked nationalist and anti-Semitic trends. "This is frightening for the Jewish population."
While the conservative Fidesz party is expected to score an overwhelming victory in the April 11 first-round Parliamentary vote — ousting the widely unpopular Socialists, who have been in power since 2002 — Jobbik is expected to make a strong showing and enter the Hungarian Parliament for the first time. Jobbik surged out of the far-right fringe to grab 15 percent of the vote in European Parliament elections last June.
Aside from Jobbik’s growing strength, Hungarian Jews are concerned that Fidesz may compete with Jobbik for votes by shifting some of its own positions more to the right.
For Hungary’s Jews, who overwhelmingly vote for the center-left parties, including the Socialists, the rise of the conservative right is concerning.
"I think they will have to make gestures to the far right," Adam Schonberger, 30, an activist with the Conservative Jewish youth organization Marom, said of Fidesz. "What really worries me is that in the upcoming parliament there could be no real representative of liberal or minority values.”
A poll of decided voters published March 18 in the HVG weekly showed Fidesz with 57 percent support, the Socialists with 21 percent and 18 percent for Jobbik.
"It is possible that Jobbik will get close to or even more votes than the Socialists," Kovacs said. "Fidesz for sure will have a majority, and may get a two-thirds majority. This will represent a substantial change in the electoral landscape."
A two-thirds majority would enable Fidesz, led by the charismatic Viktor Orban, to amend the constitution and push through changes affecting the electoral law, the size of parliament, presidential powers, local governments, and other issues.
No single party has held that concentration of power since the fall of communism — or before that, since the Nazi-allied regime of Miklos Horthy.
Fidesz enjoys some Jewish support and is not considered to be anti-Semitic. It was a Fidesz-led government that instituted Hungary’s Holocaust Memorial Day in 2001. Yet some Jobbik officials and Fidesz have collaborated on the local level.
While Fidesz has ruled out a coalition with Jobbik if Fidesz does not achieve a two-thirds majority on its own, a poll last December indicated that some 300,000 right-wing Fidesz supporters might be ready to shift their backing to Jobbik. Fidesz may attempt to forestall such defections by hardening some of its own positions.
Support for Hungary’s center-left parties has plummeted due to the economic downturn and a recent spate of high-profile corruption scandals. In one case, several Socialist politicians were implicated in a racketeering scandal involving the Budapest public transport agency. In another, the Socialist mayor of Budapest’s old Jewish quarter, the Seventh District, was arrested on bribery and other charges relating to real estate deals.
"The collapse of the liberal and center-left parties is of particular concern to Hungary’s Roma and Jews, who are targeted verbally — and in the case of the Roma, also sometimes physically — by right-wing sympathizers," said historian Michael Miller, who teaches in the Jewish Studies department at the Central European University.
Last year a landmark court ruling banned the Hungarian Guard, Jobbik’s uniformed paramilitary wing, whose black-clad members marched through Roma villages bearing red-and-white striped flags and other symbols reminiscent of the World War II Arrow Cross, Hungary’s homegrown Nazi-allied fascists.
A little more than a year ago Krisztina Morvai, who later was elected one of Jobbik’s three European Parliament members, lashed out at Israel for its offensive in Gaza.
"The only way to talk to people like you is by assuming the style of Hamas," she was quoted as writing on a closed e-mail list. "I wish all of you lice-infested, dirty murderers will receive Hamas’ ‘kisses.’ "
At a party rally March 15, Jobbik’s 31-year-old leader, Gabor Vona, told thousands of followers that Hungary must seek independence from "Washington, Brussels," — that is, the European Union — "Tel Aviv" and other powers.
Web sites and publications linked to Jobbik are much more explicit, bashing Israel and employing vicious anti-Semitic invective that evokes Nazi-era propaganda.
"Hungary is a Jewish colony" was the headline of an interview on one such Web site with the brother of one of Jobbik’s vice presidents.
Kovacs says he believes Jews are fearful of Jobbik’s gains but are less worried that they will translate into anti-Jewish policies. About 100,000 Jews live in Hungary, most of them in Budapest.
"With Jews, there is no practical social tension," Kovacs said. "The anti-Jewish discourse is rhetorical — but there are no anti-Jewish political demands. There are, however, radical anti-Roma demands, like cutting social benefits or segregation in school."
Still, he said, "Loud verbal anti-Semitism can lead to a very polarized and intense atmosphere, which in turn could facilitate, for example, anti-Jewish street violence."
Szekeres-Varsa said the cumulative impact was very unsettling.
"I don’t see a direct threat, but there is an appalling atmosphere," she said. "The air is stinking, and there is great uncertainty."
Schonberger called Jobbik "a very aggressive, radical, arrogant party."
"If they are able to make other people stupid and soulless, that is the worst," he said. "We have to maintain our consciousness and keep our two feet on the ground.”
Schonberger, who organizes a youth-oriented Jewish music festival each summer, said he already was looking ahead at ways to promote civic activism to bolster liberal values. This year’s festival, he said, will include programs aimed at encouraging dialogue and cooperation with Roma and other minorities.
"We have to start something, we have to help each other," he said. "We need to help make a better Hungary."