By Walter Mayr
The state authorities have their backs up against the wall in front of St. Stephen's Basilica in Budapest. Three police officers, positioned in the shadow of an Art Nouveau palace, watch motionlessly as Hungary's National Front marches before their eyes.
Members of citizens' militias and neo-Nazi groups have taken over patrolling the streets on this day. In combat boots, camouflage or black military uniforms, they form human chains and divide the crowd.
Fifty thousand people have gathered in front of a speaker's platform. An easterly wind rattles the flags -- red and white striped, much like the armbands worn by members of Hungary's fascist Arrow Cross Party during World War II. The sound of speakers preaching nationalist beliefs reverberates from the loudspeakers.
"Hungary belongs to the Hungarians," the crowd hears. One speaker claims that Israeli investors and their local agents are in the process of buying up the country with its 10 million inhabitants. The speaker argues that the government doesn't care where the money comes from and that they're letting these people "buy Hungary up." The currently governing Socialists, another speaker warns, will be "obliterated from the face of the Earth" and Roma will be encouraged to emigrate.
"They should leave," the crowd chants in unison. "They should leave."
It's election campaign time in Budapest, the peak of the political hunting season, and members of Jobbik, the "Movement for a Better Hungary" founded in 2003, aren't pulling any punches. The party won nearly 15 percent of votes in elections for the European Parliament last year, and is gearing up for the first round of voting in Hungary's next national parliamentary elections on Sunday. The first round will determine party lists, and Jobbik wants to make gains.
'Commotion over the Holocaust'
Polls show the far right-wing party, led by Gábor Vona, almost neck and neck with the left-leaning Socialist Party. Young and nationalistic Jobbik wants Hungary, a European Union member, to abolish its Foreign Ministry, tackle "Gypsy crime" and replace all the vexing "commotion over the Holocaust" with more contemporary topics such as overdue battles against the criminal political caste, international high finance and the disgraceful 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which spelled the end of Greater Hungary. "On April 11, we must bang on the table," Vona says. "And the world will tremble."
Jobbik's rowdies make the late Jörg Haider and his Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) sound like a harmless bunch of choirboys in retrospect. The FPÖ's entrance into a coalition government in 2000 brought Austria months of diplomatic ostracism from most other EU countries. It remains to be seen whether Hungary's political parties learned anything from the Austrian lesson.
"The monster at our door" is threatening to demolish the inner workings of Hungarian democracy, warns Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, who is asking the country's moderate parties to close ranks against the extremists. But Bajnai and the Hungarian Socialist Party, the country's strongest political force since the fall of Communism, are as good as invisible in this election. The same goes for conservatives from the Fidesz party under former Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, 46.
Orbán, today leader of the opposition, looks likely to achieve a two-thirds majority in parliament. To keep from putting that election victory at risk, Orbán has avoided making any clear statements to the people, instead playing the role of a statesman in waiting and leaving the stage to the right-wing extremists.
The spectacle being put on by the extremists is visible everywhere -- even in broad daylight. But what is most striking is that it is happening in the middle of the capital of a country once known as the "happiest barracks in the camp" of the Eastern bloc, a place that produced reformist politicians who shook Europe's post-war order with the opening of the Iron Curtain in 1989 -- a first big step toward a reunited, democratic Europe.
'This Is Not What We Fought For'
Chants of "Jewish pig, Jewish pig" now sound from the bank of the Danube River, directed toward a monument to poet Sándor Petöfi, an icon of Hungarian freedom, where Budapest Mayor Gábor Demszky has positioned himself with the intention of giving a speech. Police are having to protect Demszky from Jobbik supporters and passersby, who shout: "Into the Danube with you!" Two young men raise their right arms in a Nazi salute and a shout goes up, first tentatively, then louder: "To the concentration camp, to the concentration camp."
Demszky has been mayor of Budapest for 20 years. He's a former dissident and a dyed-in-the-wool liberal. Now he stands between the Chain Bridge and the Parliament building, not far from the place where members of the Arrow Cross Party shot thousands of Jews and dumped their bodies into the Danube in the last winter of World War II. Demszky struggles for words: "This is not what we fought for," he calls out to the mob, "just to have a socialist dictatorship replaced by a National Socialist one!"
Things haven't gone quite that far yet -- even if the Hungarian capital has lately heard open murmurings again about "Jewdapest" being controlled by non-Christian liberals, media and profit-seekers. And even if the magazine Barikád was allowed to print a photomontage on its cover showing Benedictine monk and local patron St. Gellért atop the Budapest hill named after him, brandishing a seven-branched, menorah-like candelabra over the city instead of a cross.
All it will take is a couple of slaps in the face, Orbán has said, for the specter of right-wing extremism to disappear again. The former prime minister, whose party looks set to take up to 60 percent of the vote, bears the hopes as well as doubts of a democratic Hungary. Is the opposition leader serious about his promise to transform himself from a fire-starter to a fireman?
No other than Orbán himself is responsible for the country's radicalization, says his biographer József Debreczeni, who explains that Orbán, voted out as prime minister in 2002, subsequently shifted the political opposition's platform from parliament into the street. "It happened like gang warfare," the writer says. "And suddenly a gang emerged that was far more brutal" -- Jobbik. Orbán's tacit collusion with the far right, Debreczeni adds, is now backfiring: "The genie is out of the bottle and there's no getting it back in."
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