Hungary's far right on verge of election gains

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A far-right party in Hungary is on the verge of winning second place in Sunday's parliamentary elections, appealing to those hard hit by the economic crisis and angry about the presence of Gypsies in the country.

If Jobbik becomes the main opposition party, it would mirror gains made by the far right across Europe in recent years.

A Gallup poll released Thursday showed Jobbik edging ahead of the Socialists by 17 percent to 16 percent, with the center-right Fidesz expected to get 59 percent of the votes.

"There are no doubts about a landslide victory for Fidesz, and Jobbik has the better chance to come in second," Gallup said in an analysis of the poll data.

Fidesz, led by former Prime Minister Viktor Orban, could get its own two-thirds majority in parliament, which it says it needs because "an ample victory" would allow them to immediately start repairing the damage caused by the eight years of the Socialist government.

Hungary has been led by a "crisis management government" since the resignation in March 2009 of Ferenc Gyurcsany, who guided the Socialists to victory in 2006 but lost credibility after the broadcast that year of a secret speech in which he admitted lying about the economy to win the elections.

Several other polls published in Hungary over the past few weeks are predicting similar results. A second round of elections, runoffs in districts where no candidate received at least half the votes, will be held April 25.

"A close victory would make it slower and more difficult to lead the country out of the crisis," said Peter Szijjarto, a Fidesz spokesman.

In late 2008, Hungary was able to avoid a financial meltdown because of a standby loan of euro20 billion ($27.5 billion) from the International Monetary Fund and other institutions.

Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai has been able to stabilize the state budget through cutbacks and austerity measures, but the earlier government's missteps and the effects of the global economic crisis have caused a deep recession, resulting in a record unemployment rate of 11.4 percent in March.

Jobbik, formed in 2003, became an important factor in Hungarian politics after last year's elections for the European Parliament, when it managed to get nearly 15 percent of the votes and three of Hungary's 22 seats.

Jobbik is not in the Hungarian parliament, which has 386 seats. The party, in alliance with another far-right group, got just 2 percent of the votes in the 2006 elections, below the 5 percent minimum needed to get in.

Analysts said that Jobbik, besides relying on the traditional far-right voters based mostly in Budapest, had also attracted many voters from the country's northeast, where towns have some of Hungary's highest unemployment rates and some of the highest populations of Roma — as Gypsies sometimes prefer to be called.

"The huge support for Jobbik does not mean Hungary has gone to the extreme right," said Csaba Toth, director of the Republikon Institute think tank. "This a protest vote fueled by anti-Roma sentiment, by the law and order message, by the anti-politician message and the very populist message."

Speaking at a rally in a working class Budapest neighborhood, Jobbik president and prime ministerial candidate Gabor Vona received some of the loudest applause when promising to tighten conditions for welfare and child benefits, in theory making it harder for Roma to qualify for payments.

"A significant part of the Gypsy minority are stowaways on the social safety net," Vona said. "They have no idea what it means to work."

Jobbik's rise also has been aided by the popularity of the Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, an extremist group whose uniforms are reminiscent of those worn in the 1940s by the Arrow Cross, a Hungarian pro-Nazi group.