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."
Proud Hungarians Struggling with Role of Beggars on EU Stage
Orbán himself says that in the "fight for a better future," Hungary must stand united to "conquer evil" -- preferably under his leadership. The trained lawyer has left little room for doubt in the past two decades that any year without him as prime minister is a lost one for the country.
Since his ousting as prime minister in 2002, Orbán has skipped parliamentary sessions again and again, or sat and observed them in silence. Outside parliament, however, he forged alliances in preparation for his return to power -- especially after an internal speech by Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány to fellow party members was made public in fall 2006. The speech was a document of relentless self-incrimination: "It nearly killed me," Gyurcsány said, "having to pretend for a year and half that we were governing. Instead we lied morning, noon and night."
In the wake of the leaked speech, Orbán talked about the Socialists' "government of lies" and took advantage of the public rage, which exploded into weeks of rioting, the way a surfer might ride a wave.
The Fidesz leader is again enjoying the best possible public esteem, while the standing of Hungarian politics in general is disastrous. Just 15 percent of Hungarians trust their parliamentary representatives. Little more than half still favor a multi-party system. Resentment toward the EU has also reached a record high for a member state. Chronically in deep debt under socialism and, since 2008, financially strapped by the global economic crisis, the proud Magyars are struggling with their role of having to beg on the European stage.
A Society Derailed
It was only through a €20 billion ($27 billion) loan from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the EU that Hungary was able to avert national bankruptcy. And even after the country eliminated its practice of paying workers yearly bonuses equivalent to a month's salary, raised the retirement age by three years and increased its value-added tax by 5 percent, real wages still rose. Now there is little money left for any future benefits, and Orbán's latest speech concerning the state of the country was correspondingly non-committal, scoffed Pester Lloyd, a German-language daily newspaper based in Budapest. "He didn't give away any details," the paper wrote, because there's "nothing" in the state coffers anyway.
Just steps from Budapest's Ferenc Deák Square, where Jobbik speakers are riling up the public, looms an urban jungle of tenement houses from the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The symptoms of a society derailed by political system change and globalization emerge more strongly here, like rays of sunlight concentrated under a magnifying glass.
Between the decorative stucco facades, one-bedroom apartments with shared toilets in the stairwell are squeezed in next to vacant luxury apartments. Laptop-toting, post-Communism success stories rub shoulders with alcoholics in early retirement, Roma picking through furniture left out on the streets as trash and Orthodox Jews in their wide-brimmed hats hurrying to Kazinczy Synagogue.
It's a scene of both a flourishing multicultural milieu and the melancholy of Hungarian daily life -- corruption at the top and the impoverishment of the bottom third of society. Indeed, the same factors drawing voters across the country to the right-wing and extremist parties can all be seen here in Erzsébetváros, Budapest's poorest district.
The former district mayor of Erzsébetváros, a member of the Socialist Party, has been in jail for months on suspicion of corruption, along with the district mayor and 13 council members from the adjacent Terézváros district. The spokesman for the Roma, bent over his catfish goulash in one of the area's best restaurants, complains of a catastrophe -- "at most 10 percent" of his people still have work. Meanwhile, Jobbik's parliamentary candidate is scoring points with the voters. "We're something like the common people's last hope," he says.
'Barking Dogs Seldom Bite'
Robert Fröhlich -- Rabbi Robbi to friends -- is chief rabbi at Europe's largest synagogue on Dohány Street, just a few buildings away. With a yarmulke on his head, a Marlboro in his mouth, and a Blackberry in hand, Fröhlich describes the extremists' advance as a danger, and not just for the nearly 100,000 Jews living in the country. It's also a threat "to all of Hungarian society," the rabbi says, because it makes clear that civil resistance is lacking, as well as a justice system willing to protect the foundation of democracy.
On the other hand, Fröhlich comments, there's no need to hand too much glory to malicious racists and anti-Semites by paying them too much attention. "Barking dogs seldom bite," he says.
Holocaust survivors see the matter differently. The rooster feathers Jobbik extremists have taken to wearing in their caps look familiar to György Konrád -- the gendarmes who came to deport his parents to Auschwitz in 1944 wore similarly feathered caps. Konrád's family survived the concentration camp, but more than half a million Hungarian Jews didn't share their fate.
Konrád himself was able to hide in Budapest. At 77, sitting in his Budapest apartment, the prizewinning author and essayist makes bitter jokes about the return of these ghosts from the past, coming after the country shook free of socialism. "Freedom includes the freedom not to want to learn," he says. Former young liberal Orbán is only now noticing, Konrád adds, that "his migration from the far left to the far right" of the political spectrum has ended up creating "a small monster" in the form of Jobbik. "He conjured up the neo-Fascists," Konrád says, "and now they're going to show him and his party what he himself once showed his opponents -- how old they look."
'Chimneysweeps Wear Black, Too'
Orbán long held an undisputed role as the country's most talented tightrope walker. In his younger years, he was courageous in demanding the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. Later, he worked to have the role of Miklós Horthy, Hungary's regent through most of World War II and a supporter of Hitler, cast in a gentler light by historians.
Budapest's "House of Terror" museum, opened while Orbán was in office, devotes most of its exhibition space to the socialist dictatorship. As a result of such policies, today only 4 percent of eligible voters under 30 understand the term "Holocaust." At the same time, a collective yearning is growing for Hungary's former days of greatness and the thousand-year rule of the Kingdom of Hungary.
"Viktor Orbán is our favorite politician and we're his favorite paper," says András Bencsik, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Magyar Demokrata. Bencsik stands to become one of the most powerful journalists in the country under the future government.
Bencsik is one of the founding fathers of the paramilitary Hungarian Guard, which was legally banned in 2008 -- and then reformed as the New Hungarian Guard Movement. When asked whether the black uniforms worn by this Jobbik-backed entity evoke those of the SS or even the Arrow Cross Party, he responds: "That's a joke. Chimney sweeps wear black, too." The fact that Orbán, a vice president of the Christian Democratic-oriented European People's Party, doesn't shy away from contact with people like Bencsik is disorienting even for conservative Hungarians.
'We Saw Ourselves as the Immaculate Generation'
Magyar Hirlap, a newspaper affiliated with Orbán's party, printed an appeal in 2008 that Jewish journalists should no longer be "allowed to piss and blow their noses in the country's pool." Instead the paper called for closing ranks and keeping Jews out.
That text was written by Zsolt Bayer, a 1988 founding member of Fidesz. Bayer's name can be found fifth on the list in the original party membership register and, as he says, he still has the boss' ear. "We saw ourselves as the immaculate generation," Bayer says in retrospect. "We wanted to get rid of the old tensions in society between the capital and the provinces, and between Jews and non-Jews. But we didn't succeed." Now he sees the continuation of the Hungarian nation as the main concern. "Sooner or later," Bayer says quietly, "the patience of the majority of society will run out."
If Viktor Orbán and his party achieve their aim of a two-thirds majority in parliament, then he would have a free hand to make groundbreaking changes to the country's laws. Immunity for members of parliament could be revoked and criminal proceedings initiated. Orbán has said he would issue passports to millions of Hungarians living in neighboring countries and election law reforms would be possible as well.
Orbán says he dreams of Hungarian politics "not being determined by a dual force field in the next 15 to 20 years" -- driven not by endless quarreling between Socialists and Conservatives, but by politics with "constant governance as its goal."
It's a goal that is still familiar to older Hungarians -- from the Communist era.