Anti-Roma rhetoric pays off for far right in Hungary
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.
Opinion polls suggest the nationalist Jobbik party has a chance of becoming the second biggest party in parliament after today's election, denying centre-right favourites 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.
The Roma form 5-7 per cent of Hungary's population and vilifying them has proved Jobbik's most successful tactic as an economic slump of over 6 per cent last year left more than one in ten Hungarians jobless.
Its biggest gains will be in places such as Ozd, in Hungary's poor north-east, a steel town fallen on hard times, where Jobbik looks set to defeat the Socialists who have held the seat for 16 years.
Unemployment has been above 20 per cent in Ozd for years, and a 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 capitalised on popular resentment toward the political elite, branding Fidesz "corrupt". It has demonised 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 per cent among all decided voters, while Fidesz has about 60 per cent of the projected vote.
But 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 been led by a "crisis management government" since the resignation, in March 2009, of Ferenc Gyurcsany, who guided the Socialists to victory in 2006 but lost credibility after the broadcast of a secret speech in which he admitted lying about the economy to win the elections.
The country's government has struggled for years to streamline its bloated government sector and trim public expenditure. But although spending cuts have brought the budget deficit under control, most public sector structural reform has lagged behind.
The key reform requiring a two-thirds majority is a rationalisation of Hungary's 3,200 local governments, which run hospitals and schools and are a major drain on the state budget.
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, a 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 shanty town on the outskirts of Ozd, known as Hetes, bustles with activity, but not paid work.
"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."
Ozd's Fidesz candidate, Gabor Riz, acknowledged the problems 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."
Ozd's Jobbik candidate, Andras Kisgergely, had no problem filling the region's largest theatre 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 ten 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."
Polls last week showed Jobbik still edging ahead of the left-wing socialist party but there is still no doubt that Fidesz, led by the 46-year-old Viktor Orban, will have an overall majority.
"What's at stake is whether, after 20 years, the country will be set on a path that would make more of the Hungarian population feel that democracy … is also good economically," said political analyst Zoltan Kiszelly.
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