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Ultra-Nationalist Party Surges In Hungary


And the far right is poised to do well in Hungary's EU election tomorrow. Candidates blame the EU for many of that country's problems. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Budapest.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: To many Hungarians, a half-finished World War II monument next to a popular fountain in downtown Budapest highlights the extremist tenor of politics in this former East Bloc country.

The plan centerpieces a 25-foot statue of the German Imperial Eagle attacking the Archangel Gabriel. It's supposed to symbolize the Nazi occupation of Hungary 70 years ago. Jewish leaders complained the statue whitewashes history by portraying Hungary as a victim rather than a collaborator with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust.

MIRCEA CHERNOV: It's a very simplistic way to approach this very complex and historic time.

NELSON: That's Mircea Chernov, who heads the Haver Foundation, a Jewish group that tries to combat prejudice in Hungary.

CHERNOV: Actually everything that happened in Hungary after the World War I, it's denied.

NELSON: A dozen or so stern-looking policeman guard the shrouded construction site. They film visitors who stop to look at faded Holocaust Era photos and letters left in front of the monument in silent protest. The intimidating police presence irks Chernov.

CHERNOV: There are a number of questions raised with this approach, especially nowadays when there is a raising for the radical right.

NELSON: Other civic leaders, as well as analysts and politicians NPR interviewed, say that growing shift to the right is being driven by politicians who have convinced Hungarians that their travails are the fault of the European Union. Staunch nationalism in conflict with Brussels and foreign business interests play well with fed up voters. Their support, coupled with controversial changes to Hungary's voting system, strengthened the ruling Fidesz party's iron grip here following elections last month.

Those elections also boosted Hungary's ultranationalist Jobbik party, which was founded in 2003 and is widely criticized for anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric. The roughly 20 percent in votes they got last time is what they are expected to get tomorrow in European Parliament elections. Szabolcs Pogonyi is an assistant professor in nationalism studies at Central European University in Budapest. He says Jobbik is more frightening than other Eurosceptic parties accused of being racist.

SZABOLCS POGONYI: It's more dangerous because the Jobbik targets the deprived minorities within the country - the Roma, first and foremost, whereas their Western European counterparts are targeting the immigrants.

NELSON: The professor adds Jobbik's success has radicalized even mainstream political dialogue in Hungary. One of the party's key spokesmen is Marton Gyongyosi, who is vice-chairman of the Hungarian Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

He was criticized some years back when he demanded Jewish government officials in Hungary disclose whether they had Israeli citizenship. He defends his party's often inflammatory approach as a way of countering the, quote, "washing away of traditional values."

MARTON GYONGYOSI: If we continue to sweep all these problems and issues under the carpet, then we can forget about the future of Europe.

NELSON: But Jobbik has nevertheless cut down on its verbal attacks on Jews and other minorities, a strategy which some analysts believe is aimed at attracting more support from Hungary's middle and upper class. The spokesman, Gyongyosi, a multilingual 37-year-old with gelled hair who wears jeans and fashionable eyewear is clearly part of the makeover. He says there's no contradiction in his party running for the European Parliament while pushing for Hungary to leave the European Union.

GYONGYOSI: It's a legitimate question, but I think you have to sit there at the table to express your ideas and to contribute to a change. I mean, we represent those people who want to see the European Union go into a different direction.

NELSON: He adds his party is determined to show Hungarians how being part of the European Union over the past decade has hurt their country. Professor Pogonyi agrees that Hungarians had high expectations when they joined the EU and that many of those expectations haven't been met. Wages here are still very low compared to Western Europe, and benefits from an integrated European economy are slow in coming.

Pogonyi says Jobbik inflames Hungarian anger by loudly accusing the EU of robbing their country of its national identity and distracting them with insignificant issues, for example, the rules governing the making of Hungary's famous brandy, called Palinka.

POGONYI: People from Brussels coming here and telling Hungarian rural people how much Palinka they can through a year without paying taxes. Is this really such a big issue?

NELSON: As a result, analysts predict tomorrow's polls will be more of a protest vote, with a low turnout favoring the ruling party and Jobbik. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.