HEJOSZALONTA, Hungary – Hungary's far-right Jobbik party is losing support. To fight the trend, it is doing what far-right parties often do in Europe: pick on the Gypsies.
Exploiting anti-Gypsy fears and enduring unemployment in villages hit hard by the economic crisis, Jobbik entered parliament for the first time in 2010 with nearly 17 percent of the vote. Recent polls, however, show its support has slipped to 13 percent among likely voters.
So after months of focusing its political energy in the legislature, Jobbik has renewed its campaign against Gypsies, also know as Roma, with rallies in villages across the country.
Jobbik lawmakers and some 600 supporters, including 50 in camouflage gear and military boots, demonstrated Saturday evening against "Gypsy terror," in Hejoszalonta, a small village 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Budapest, the capital.
The protest was sparked by the March 22 murder of a local woman. Two of her Roma tenants and a third suspect have been apprehended by police.
Hungary's Roma make up around 6-to-8 percent of the country's population of 10 million and are among its poorest and least-educated residents, facing discrimination at all levels, from education to employment to health care.
Jobbik's rise was aided by the Hungarian Guard, a uniformed group with several thousand members that held several marches in rural towns to "protect" the non-Roma and intimidate Romas. The Guard was disbanded by the courts in 2009 and Prime Minister Viktor Orban vowed before the 2010 April election to enforce the ban, famously saying he would deal with them with "two slaps in the face."
While the Hungarian Guard's Internet page has been inactive for nearly a year, groups with similar names — and many of the same members — have taken their place: the New Hungarian Guard, the Hungarian National Guard, the Guard Motorcyclists and the National Garrison, among others.
Amnesty International and other rights groups have called on police to protect Hungary's Roma minority and to prevent the self-appointed vigilantes from carrying out similar marches. But Jobbik held a rally in another eastern village last month and uniformed extremist groups patrolled its streets for weeks.
On Saturday, dozens of police in riot gear secured the rally in Hejoszalonta and set up metal barriers to keep the Jobbik supporters away from a counter-rally by human rights groups.
Jobbik speakers at the rally spoke about the supposed criminal activities of the Roma, in addition to criticizing the governing Fidesz party's economic policies and bemoaning the employment struggles of Hungary's northeast.
Jobbik politician Zsolt Egyed said public security had deteriorated in the 10 months since Fidesz came into power.
"Police need to be given a free hand for two months and they'll know what to do," Egyed said.
"Fidesz has become the party of the rich," added Jobbik parliamentary deputy Marton Szegedi. "They absolutely don't care about what happens to us, the average rural resident."
In contrast, rights groups called for an end to discrimination.
"We are often the poorest because we were born Gypsy," Roma educator and activist Agnes Daroczi told about 150 people protesting the Jobbik rally. "We need colorblind development that reaches even those at the very end of the line."
Ilonka Balogh, a Roma from Hejoszalonta, was upset that police prevented her family from confronting the Jobbik rally, which was held near their home.
Hejoszalonta mayor Jozsef Anderko and several residents acknowledged petty thefts in the village — what the far-right calls "Gypsy crime" — but said relations between the 850 villagers, including 350 Roma, were generally good. Anderko said he grudgingly gave Jobbik the necessary permits to hold the rally only after long negotiations.
"I told them it would do more good if they gave jobs to a couple of the Gypsy women in the village or if they raised money for the victim's family," Anderko said.
The plight of the Roma has also been highlighted by the start of a trial of four men accused of violent attacks against Roma in 2008 and 2009 in several villages similar to Hejoszalonta. The men allegedly used firebombs, shotguns and rifles in nine attacks that killed six Roma, including a young father and his 5-year-old son.
Jobbik's march over the weekend did achieve one result — it drove a new wedge among neighbors. Roma women in Hejoszalonta said they would start a petition seeking the dismissal of a non-Roma local kindergarten teacher who took part in the torch-lit march.
"Ninety percent of the children in the kindergarten are Gypsies and after this she simply isn't fit to take care of them," said Balogh.