BUDAPEST, Hungary – BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A far-right party backed by black-clad paramilitary extremists was poised to make dramatic gains in Hungary on Sunday in national elections mirroring recent advances by anti-immigrant parties across Europe.
Fidesz, the mainstream center-right party led by former Prime Minister Viktor Orban, was widely expected to gain a commanding lead in the first round of the vote — as much as 57 percent, according to polls released after voting stations closed Sunday evening.
That left the real contest for second place. With Hungary among European nations hardest hit by the world recession, the far-right Jobbik party has capitalized on rising nationalism and a resurgence of anti-Semitism and anti-Gypsy sentiment linked to the downturn.
Exit polls showed Jobbik at 15 to 17 percent, just behind the 19 to 20 percent obtained by the governing Socialists overwhelmingly blamed for the economic hardships.
Jobbik's predicted result would be at least three times better than the 5 percent achieved in 1998 by the Justice and Life Party, the only other far-right group in Hungary to reach parliament.
For the Socialists, it would be a stunning setback from the 43 percent support they received in 2006.
By 1530 GMT (9:30 a.m. EDT), voter turnout was 59.3 percent, down from 61.7 percent at the same hour in the 2006 elections.
Analysts said a lower turnout would likely favor Fidesz and smaller groups like the green Politics Can Be Different, the only other party seen getting at least 5 percent of the votes and a place in parliament.
"Jobbik is the only party which can put the country in order," university student Tamas Vardai said outside a Budapest polling station.
"This is the first time I voted and I'm confident Hungary will have a brighter future," Vardai said, using a Jobbik slogan.
While Fidesz and the Socialists have been around since the first democratic elections in 1990, Jobbik is a relative newcomer, bursting onto the scene during last year's elections for the European Parliament, winning nearly 15 percent of the votes — nearly three times as much as any other far-right party in Hungary since the end of communism.
To varying degrees, Jews and Gypsies have traditionally served as scapegoats in Eastern Europe for resident majorities during hard times. Jobbik has been able to inflate the traditional, relatively small base of extreme nationalist and anti-Semitic supporters with voters from Hungary's struggling country villages where the lack of jobs and poverty-related thievery has exacerbated tensions with Gypsies, or Roma, as they are also called.
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, Hungary's infamous wartime Nazi party.
The Garda was co-founded by Jobbik leader Gabor Vona, although he is no longer an active member. It was disbanded last year by the courts for breaking laws governing the operation of groups and associations, but it continues to exist under a new name.
"I will keep my promise to go into parliament on the first day in a Garda vest," Vona said at Jobbik's campaign closer in Budapest.
The Garda's most confrontational actions have been a series of marches through small countryside towns and villages meant to intimidate their large Gypsy populations and stop what Jobbik calls "Gypsy crimes" — mostly petty thefts too numerous and considered too minor for police to deal with.
An unprecedented series of Roma killings in 2008 and 2009 claimed six lives in several villages.
Speakers at party rallies also often cater to anti-Semitic feelings among their supporters.
A law criminalizing Holocaust denial was passed by parliament in February on behalf of "our nation's colonizer, Israel," according to Lorant Hegedus Jr., a Calvinist minister who campaigns for Jobbik.
A recent copy of the Jobbik weekly shows a statue of St. Gellert — a national icon — holding a menorah, a ceremonial Jewish candelabra, instead of the cross. The subtitle reads: "Is this what you want?"
Still, even if the party does well in elections, it could struggle to repeat its success, as its countryside support — those deeply affected by the economic crisis and by the conflicts with Roma — dries up with the improving economy.
Pollsters say Fidesz may get a two-thirds majority in the 386-seat legislature, which would allow it to modify the Constitution and other laws needed to implement oft-postponed reforms in local governments and the electoral system.
The new government's biggest challenge, however, will be to lead Hungary's recovery from a deep recession, which saw the economy shrink by 6.3 percent in 2009 and the unemployment rate rise to a historic high of 11.4 percent last month.
The country received a standby loan of €20 billion ($27.5 billion) from the International Monetary Fund and other institutions in late 2008, allowing it to defend its currency and avert a financial meltdown, but has been forced to implement a series of cutbacks and austerity measures to keep the budget deficit under control.
Hungary has been steered by Gordon Bajnai's "crisis management government" since the resignation last March of Ferenc Gyurcsany. He led the Socialists to victory in 2006 but quickly lost credibility as Budapest was engulfed by violent street protests after it was revealed that he had lied about the economy to win the elections.
Runoffs will be held April 25 in districts where no candidate has obtained at least half of the ballots.
Associated Press writer George Jahn contributed to this report from Vienna.