Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, describing itself as the EU’s “most successful radical nationalist party”, was celebrating gains in weekend elections on Monday after a campaign that sought to curb its nastiest rhetoric.
Ahead of European elections next month that are also expected to see strong results for anti-immigration, anti-EU parties, Jobbik increased its support base across many parts of Hungary to come third with 20.5 per cent of the national vote.
European Jewish Congress president Moshe Kantor said the “neo-Nazi” Jobbik’s performance was a “dark day” for Hungary that gives Europe’s far-right a “strong tailwind” ahead of May’s vote.
“It is the duty of both European leaders and voters to ensure that a strong message is delivered by supporters of democracy throughout Europe to show these racists and xenophobes that hate has no place on our continent,” he said.
Jobbik’s success was due in part to it seeking to shed its “nasty” anti-Roma and anti-Semitic rhetoric, focusing instead on law and order as well as fighting corruption and “political correctness”, experts said.
“It is now not in doubt that Jobbik is a major party in the whole of the country with the exception of Budapest and some urban districts outside Budapest,” Zoltan Miklosi from the Central European University told AFP.
Jobbik’s anti-establishment, anti-capitalist image, coupled with a savvy internet strategy, has gone down well with young voters in particular.
“People are fed up with political correctness, and want radical solutions,” Jobbik’s Gergely Farkas, the youngest lawmaker in the outgoing parliament, told AFP in December.
On Sunday night party leader Gabor Vona, himself only 35 and a co-founder of the party in 2003, said the election result “confirms that honest politics bears fruit”.
For Miklosi, the “big question is whether the “nice” campaign was purely strategic or not. Is their move to the centre a tactical one only?”
Previous comments by its MPs, who already formed the third-largest bloc in the outgoing parliament, indicate it has a long way to go before convincing people it is respectable.
Even other far-right parties in Europe, including Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the Freedom Party in Austria, have shunned Jobbik’s extremist attitude.
In November 2012, Jobbik lawmaker Marton Gyongyosi sparked protests in Hungary and outrage abroad by calling in parliament for a list of people “of Jewish origin [who] present a national security risk to Hungary”.
Other Jobbik members have referred to the “so-called Holocaust” and have strongly supported the rehabilitation of figures sympathetic to the Nazis as well as Hungary’s wartime leader and Hitler ally Miklos Horthy.
Another deputy, Sandor Porzse, told a French website in a 2012 interview that Hungarians “are victims of a Jewish conspiracy to colonise our land and rob our resources”.
But Jobbik’s main target is Hungary’s Roma or Gypsy minority, who account for around eight to nine per cent of Hungary’s 10-million population.
Like elsewhere in eastern and central Europe, they have disproportionately higher rates of unemployment and poverty and face discrimination in the labour market and education.
Jobbik says it wants to top “Gypsy crime”, create ghettoes for Roma “deviants” and create a rural “gendarmerie” of the sort last seen in Hungary before World War II.
According to its manifesto, the “question of Hungarian-Gypsy coexistence” is a “taboo swept under the carpet” since Hungary dumped Communism in 1989.
In 2007, Vona set up the Hungarian Guard, a vigilante organisation, banned two years later for “fuelling hatred” due to its intimidating marches in Roma neighbourhoods.
Its slightly toned-down successor, the New Hungarian Guard, continues to occasionally organise marches however.
Its head Istvan Meszaros said earlier this month that “respectable Gypsies” have nothing to fear.