Central Europe's rightward slide

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BUDAPEST, Hungary — In the quirky political landscapes of central Europe, Hungary isn’t the first post-communist country to lurch dramatically to the right. Across the region, from the Baltics to the Balkans, national populists with questionable democratic credentials have proven adept at dominating discourse and even winning elections.

But Hungarian voters are in the process of distinguishing their country in more ways than one. Hungary was the one model transitional democracy in the region. Now ongoing nationwide elections have both catapulted right-wing populists to power and handed 17 percent of the vote to an upstart neo-fascist party. If the second round ballot later this month mirrors the polls as closely as Sunday's did, a single party — Fidesz — will amass a super majority, giving it the two-thirds majority necessary to pass legislation at will and even alter the constitution.

Like other successful populists in central Europe, Fidesz revolves around a single personality, namely the 46-year-old Victor Orban. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Orban and a group of fresh-faced law students banded together to form Fidesz, a stridently anti-communist but thoroughly liberal party intent on modernizing Hungary at record tempo. Over the years Orban shaped Fidesz into his own vehicle, straying from a liberal path as the political winds dictated. Orban reinvented Fidesz as he went along: from free-market liberal to agrarian folk party to national conservative.

Although Orban likens Fidesz to western Europe’s Christian Democrats, his disrespect for parliament and his nationalist rhetoric — above all directed at neighbors Slovakia and Romania — better place him in the company of Austria’s right-wing wunderkind, the late Joerg Haider. But while Haider’s party never broached 30 percent of vote at its height, Fidesz is poised to come away with nearly 70 percent of the seats in parliament.

Fidesz’s extraordinary showing would never had been possible were it not for the ruling Socialists’ toleration of ubiquitous corruption and eight years of financial mismanagement, which sent unemployment soaring to 11 percent. Transparency International ranks Hungary’s graft on a par with Bahrain and Cape Verde, worse than Costa Rica and the United Arab Emirates. Scandals involving Hungary’s political class sent trust in democratic governance tumbling, a classic scenario for savvy populists to capitalize on. The socialists plummeted from scoring 43 percent in the last elections to just 19 percent in the first round of this one, only a hair ahead of the extreme right.

But the Socialists at least made it back into parliament, unlike the handful of middle-of-the-road liberal and conservative parties that had vied for power in the post-communist decades. These elections are in the process of both upending and thinning out the party spectrum as Hungarian knew it for the last two decades. Now even more blatantly than elsewhere in central Europe, where politics tends to be fought between populists and former communist, now-Socialist, parties, Hungary is left with a razor-thin liberal democratic middle. The vote’s one surprise: This middle ground is held by a newcomer, a green-oriented civic group that captured 7 percent of the vote.

The country’s third force is now the ultranationalist Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary), which preaches a greater Hungary (to its pre-World War I boundaries) and hate against Gypsies, Jews, gays and other supposedly “non-Hungarian” elements in the country.

“This is an outright Nazi party and they’re very well organized,” the constitutional law professor Andras Pap said. “Some of their leaders are at the level of soccer hooligans, others are very well educated."

The party’s top figures include many historians, who have dressed up old-school nationalism in a highly modern garb. Their flashy website is translated into five foreign languages and their branding is state-of-the-art.

Jobbik even boasts its own paramilitary arm, the Magyar Guard, which marched around Budapest in World War II fascist uniforms until the constitutional court banned it. Jobbik scored particularly well in the hard-hit parts of northern and eastern Hungary where unemployment often tops 20 percent and large Gypsy, or Roma, populations live.

“Jobbik appeals directly to racist cliches about the Gypsies, like that they are ultimately responsible for crime and the joblessness of the worst-off regions. They appeal to a racism that has a lot of currency in Hungary,” said Jeno Kaltenbach of the European Center for Roma Rights. “This is why it works so well.”

The implications of Hungary’s rightist landslide goes beyond the blow it delivers to the country’s young democracy. Orban’s overtures to the large Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia are certain to fan the flames of nationalism in those countries, stiffening already considerable national populist forces. Relations between Budapest and Bratislava are at a 20-year low. Orban’s promise to give Hungarian Slovaks dual citizenship will certainly infuriate the Slovaks and, if successful, provide Fidesz with a new constituency that could keep it in power for years to come.

The right's rise in central Europe has implications for the European Union, where an array of far-right parties, Jobbik among them, now have seats in the European Parliament. As happened when Haider’s party joined in Austria’s ruling coalition in 2000, the EU and its member states can do little to counter this trend other than express indignation and regret. The EU's legendary soft power to inspire countries to do its bidding loses its clout once these states join its privileged ranks. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine EU member states sanctioning their leader — in 2011 Hungary is scheduled to take over the presidency of the EU Council.