Eastern European voters frustrated with the economic crisis are willing to take chances with extremists, with Slovakian villagers electing as their regional governor a man who calls his Roma compatriots “parasites” and who admires a wartime figure who collaborated with the Nazis.
The trend has been echoed across the region in countries such as Bulgaria, where the nationalist Attack party, which has seats in parliament, wear swastikas on their shirts and make Nazi salutes at rallies.
In the Slovakian village of Balog, at the foot of the Slovak mountains, residents vented their anger by electing as their regional governor the far-Right’s Marian Kotleba, exposing pent-up frustration over unemployment and neglect by mainstream parties, together with a deep-seated animosity towards the Roma.
These factors have built support for extremist politicians in Slovakia and elsewhere in central Europe.
However, many remained shocked when Mr Kotleba came from nowhere to win 77 per cent of the vote in Balog, 160 miles north-east of Bratislava, the capital.
Overall, in the central Slovak region of Banska Bystrica, he won 55 per cent, enough to become regional governor and a further sign that some European voters frustrated with the economic crisis were willing to take chances with extremists.
Nationalist sentiment is increasingly directed against Slovakia’s Roma, a minority of 400,000 in the country of 5.4 million who live on the fringes of society, suffering from poverty, poor education and limited job prospects.
With European Union expansion opening borders, deprived regions have seen waves of departures, including some of Europe’s ten million Roma, to countries such as Canada and Britain, where immigration has again become a hot issue.
Mr Kotleba ran on a platform that derided “Gypsy parasites”. Some Roma, whose forebears arrived in central Europe from India in the Middle Ages, see Gypsy as a derogatory term.
Mr Kotleba once ran a party that was disbanded for racial hatred. The 36-year-old has organised marches in military-style uniforms and praised Jozef Tiso, the wartime leader of Nazi-allied Slovakia.
His party’s newsletters talk about “desperate villages and towns suffering from crime and terror from Gypsy extremists”.
“We voted for him out of desperation,” said Martina Strorcova, a pub owner in Cierny Balog.
The pub in the village centre only has two customers at lunchtime, and Ms Strorcova says business is tough. People who work at the local iron- works bring home just 430 euros (£356) a month.
Cierny Balog’s 5,000 inhabitants include about 700 out of work during the winter, said social worker Lubomira Pancikova.
“The problem is unemployment, not only among the Roma but overall. Young people run away, men and women in their most productive years,” she said.
The official jobless rate in the region is 18.1 per cent, although in some areas it tops 30 per cent. It is the second worst in the country and far above the national average of 13.7 per cent.
Mr Kotleba promises to create jobs through public works schemes, setting up public companies and farms.
“He wants to give normal people, and the Roma, a pickaxe in their hands and make them work,” said Ivana Galusova, who voted for Mr Kotleba.
In fact, he may not be able to do much. He will be isolated in a regional assembly dominated by Smer, the leftist party of prime minister Robert Fico.
In some places, tension has been high between the Roma and the rest of the population.
The European Commissioner for education, Androulla Vassiliou, called on authorities in Kosice in August to tear down a wall separating a Roma neighbourhood from the rest of the eastern Slovak city – a means of segregation used by local authorities in several places in eastern Europe.
In Hungary, a court jailed four neo-Nazis for killing members of Roma families in a spree of racist violence in 2008 and 2009.
Around the region, anti-Roma sentiment has helped the far-Right to win votes. In Hungary, the Jobbik party has vilified the Roma, in addition to employing anti-Semitic language.
In Romania, mayor Catalin Chereches of the northern town of Baia Mare scored more than 86 per cent in local elections in 2012 after relocating Roma families.
Some members of Bulgaria’s nationalist Attack party, which has seats in parliament, wear swastikas on their shirts and make Nazi salutes at rallies.
In Balog, where several hundred Roma live in impoverished settlements around the village, there are no open clashes.
But Jozef Bartos, a 20-year-old Roma, fears Mr Kotleba’s victory might lead to trouble.
“We do not have problems here ... but we have to be ready to protect ourselves, be prepared if someone comes at us,” said Bartos.
He said he can make 17 euros a day, but he only finds work a few days a month.