Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Hungary's ruling party courting extreme right-wing faction Goal is to isolate Socialist opponents in 2002 election

San Francisco Chronicle  Saturday, May 5, 2001

Budapest, Hungary -- Hungary's ruling party ascended to power in 1998 by learning from and adopting the sophisticated methods of U.S. political parties, tailoring its platform to the polls and co-opting the policies of its rivals.

But the strategy has recently taken a dangerous twist with the ruling Federation of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Party (Fidesz) increasingly embracing an extreme-right party that espouses nationalism and anti-Semitism. With an election scheduled for 2002, many observers believe that the Fidesz is seeking to turn Hungary's multiparty parliamentary democracy into a twoparty system by consolidating the entire right wing of the political spectrum.

The goal is to isolate on the left wing the Fidesz's Socialist Party archrivals. The two are currently running about even in opinion polls, each favored by about one-fourth of the electorate.

Recent scandals involving the Fidesz's current coalition partner, the Smallholders, have led many to think that the party will try to absorb the membership of the Hungarian Truth and Life Party (MIEP), an ultranationalist, anti-Semitic movement whose percentage of voter support, while still small, is showing signs of moving into the double digits.

Hungarian newspapers have quoted Fidesz president Laszlo Kover as saying there are many similarities between his party's beliefs and those of the MIEP, and the two parties acknowledge that they have held talks with each other. Kover has said the two will not enter into a formal coalition because the European Union would frown on it. Hungary's admission to the EU is high on the Fidesz's priority list.

A March 15 MIEP rally in Budapest drew a turnout that surprised many observers, not only for its numbers, which the Associated Press put at as many as 50,000, but for its composition -- a mix of old pensioners who remember Hungary's pre-communist past, young urban students and professionals, and dozens of skinheads, some of them wearing neo-Nazi insignia.

The Fidesz's courting of some of Hungary's most extreme and intolerant elements is a clear case of political opportunism, said liberal commentator Miklos Haraszti, who calls the Fidesz "the party of marketing."

Today's Fidesz bears little resemblance to the Young Democrats' beginnings in the 1980s as liberal, jean-jacketed students resisting Hungary's communist rulers.

Over the course of the past decade, it traded in its liberal ideals for a carefully charted rightward course that has former supporters scornfully referring to it as an unholy union of nationalists and "yuppies from hell." Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in particular, is often cited by critics as a cunning pragmatist.

The Young Democrats' journey to the right has been influenced by their contacts with the U.S. Republican Party. As recently as the end of last year, former Reagan and Bush administration officials were traveling to Budapest to advise Fidesz leaders on political strategy.

Those leaders see opportunity in the MIEP's growing appeal, which is fostered by the economic hardship many Hungarians face after the collapse of former Soviet Bloc markets.

The transition to capitalism has left everyone from pensioners to middleincome families struggling after losing long-held social benefits. The inflation rate is almost 10 percent, and only last year did the standard of living regain 1990 levels.

For the MIEP, the new bogeyman is globalization -- a peculiar mix of fears of the European Union, a comeback by communists and domination by international Jewish capital.

Those sentiments are an obstacle to cooperation with the Fidesz. They and the Socialists desperately want Hungary to be admitted to the EU as soon as possible.

Nonetheless, the Fidesz continues to edge closer to the MIEP in rhetoric. Fidesz parliamentary deputy Mihaly Balla declared recently: "In Hungary, the Christian religion is very important."

He also asserted that "there is no racism and no anti-Semitism" there -- a claim not supported by international observers.

The U.S. State Department's most recent human rights report cited many cases of discrimination against Roma, or Gypsies, including residential and educational segregation and police brutality.

"The Romani minority community and dark-skinned foreigners are the most common victims of police abuse," according to the report, released in February. "Societal discrimination against Roma remains a serious problem."

Orban himself has made remarks that seemingly reflect such bias, criticizing Roma for trashing their own homes and warning that their success in society depends on hard work and education -- thereby implying that Gypsies do not value those virtues.

The European Union's human rights committee cited "latent anti-Semitism" in elements of the Hungarian media, the government and in society in general. The MIEP, for example, is trying to rehabilitate the image of World War II Prime Minister Laszlo Bardossy, who was executed in 1946 for his role in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews.

"Hungary is for Hungarians," throngs of MIEP supporters chanted at the March 15 rally, held in Heroes Square, one of the primary centers for Hungary's democracy movement in 1989.

The key speaker was MIEP founder Istvan Csurka, a playwright with the build of a retired wrestler, who has spoken about a New York-Tel Aviv-Budapest conspiracy that threatens "real Magyar interests."

Csurka avoided overt anti-Semitic rhetoric at the rally, instead warning the crowd about the threat of global capital, saying it put Hungarians in the same position as Palestinians "when the Jewish settlers arrived." "We'll be reduced to becoming stone-throwing Palestinian youths," he told his supporters.

"We have no problems with Jews. The only problem is their big-time money. The money goes to them, and we have nothing," said 21-year-old college student Gabor Fotanyi.

Ildiko Lang, a 26-year-old woman from Budapest, described another political party, the Free Democrats, as a "Jewish" party. "MIEP is against Israel and the Free Democrats," she said.

Another young woman, who declined to give her name, said Hungary was being overrun by foreigners: "In Hungary, I don't feel myself to be Hungarian." Given Hungary's long history of anti-Semitism and nationalism, for Fidesz leaders not to openly condemn the MIEP's rhetoric is nearly the same as endorsing it, said a Hungarian political analyst.

What Fidesz leaders say "doesn't matter as much as what they don't say," he said. "It gives voice to the prejudice of the people that has been here for centuries and centuries."

By Sam Loewenberg