BUDAPEST, Hungary — Tourists and well-heeled locals sip espresso at a cafe near this city’s majestic 19th-century Nyugati train station as a dark-complexioned elderly man in a shabby suit shuffles past, apparently faking a limp while trying to bum a cigarette. Near the station entrance, a woman with a basket hawks cooking spices.
That's the stereotypical image of the Roma, an ethnic minority also known by the more pejorative term “Gypsy.”
Although many Hungarians celebrated the end of communism in 1989, the transition to democracy hasn’t been good to the minority group.
Closures of overstaffed communist factories left as many as nine out of ten Roma unemployed in some regions. Despite making up a tenth of the population, the community has never played a significant role in politics except in the racist rhetoric of the far right.
Now its members are warily awaiting new changes in their political status as the country prepares to vote in parliamentary elections on Sunday.
As part of controversial changes to the electoral system, the Roma and other ethnic minorities will be allowed to vote as a special category whose creation the government has trumpeted as a victory in the fight for equal rights.
But Roma are worried the policy is just as likely to isolate the persecuted community even more.
Among them is Bela Racz, an ethnic Roma activist who works for George Soros’s Open Society Institute in Budapest.
“The change forces us into a choice,” he says. “Do you want to be Hungarian or do you want to be Roma?”
Under the new rules pushed through parliament by the center-right Fidesz Party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, each of the country’s 13 formally acknowledged ethnic minorities will be able to elect a member of parliament with only a quarter of the votes required for mainstream candidates.
Although registering as a minority voter is optional, it may be the only way for other minorities less numerous than the Roma to get a voice in parliament.
But critics argue the policy will reinforce a sense that Roma aren’t normal Hungarian citizens while discouraging the general Hungarian electorate from supporting the new independent Hungarian Gypsy Party.
That would impede Roma integration, Racz says.
“It's saying that Roma who are living in Hungary aren’t part of this society,” he says, adding that his opinions don’t necessarily reflect his employer's. “That they should have different rights, different decisions, different systems.”
The stakes are high for Roma.
During the past five years, Hungary has seen a growth of anti-Roma vigilante groups, as well as hate crimes and racist public statements by state officials and members of mainstream political parties.
Although Hungary has adopted European Union laws against discrimination, the far-right Jobbik Party is becoming more influential at a time that violence is becoming an everyday reality, Rasz says.
In his office around the corner from Budapest's breathtaking St. Istvan's cathedral, the tall, articulate activist dressed in a khaki shirt and grey pants looks more like a marketing executive than a street fighter. But he blithely recalls youthful battles with skinheads and organizing villagers blocking far-right vigilantes from entering his hometown.
Still, there are some signs that the authorities are responding.
The government's spokesman points out that the Fidesz Party stopped uniformed vigilantes from a far-right group called the Hungarian Guard from patrolling villages for what they called “gypsy crime.” That followed years of hand-wringing from the rival Socialist Party.
In August, a Hungarian court sentenced three right-wing extremists to life in prison for the serial murders of six Roma.
Still, despite evidence that the killers belonged to neo-Nazi networks and their admission they were searching for a “solution to the Gypsy problem,” the crimes were categorized as simple murder — belying what human rights groups describe as accelerating patterns of anti-Roma violence.
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Critics of the new voting regulations say rather than the result of high-minded principles, the privileges they give to minorities look suspiciously like an attempt to stack the deck for Fidesz — because the minority candidate must first be selected by another elected body, the national minority self-government, whose current leadership is allied with Fidesz.
Although only around 22,000 Roma voters have registered to vote in the minority category, those votes won't go to the new Hungarian Gypsy Party and will probably be enough to elect a fully empowered MP who's allied with Orban.
What appears to be official bungling hasn’t helped calm nerves.
The authorities described the new voting rules by distributing a confusing letter that left many Roma believing registering for the minority vote is mandatory, partly because they weren’t described as optional until the second page.
Although minority voters can change their minds after registering, they must do so at least two days before the election.
Whatever happens on Sunday, even if the new regulations do nothing to isolate the Roma, few believe they’ll do anything to change society’s image of them anytime soon.