GYONGYOSPATA, Hungary (AFP) — Hungary’s Jobbik used to be one of Europe’s most hardline far-right parties, its members burning EU flags and calling Jewish MPs a national security risk.
But lately it has been charging toward the political center, or so it seems.
And as Hungary readies for an election on April 8, Jobbik, which polls show is the strongest party behind Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz, claims it is ready for government.
But a fearful ethnic-Roma official in the small northern Hungarian town of Gyongyospata cannot forget old grievances.
“I don’t believe Jobbik have changed, no matter what they say now, it’s just a disguise,” Janos Farkas told AFP.
After a local dispute in 2011, vigilante groups then linked to Jobbik invaded the impoverished Roma-populated lanes huddled below the town center, and held intimidating rallies.
“Thousands of them stood over there, some swirling whips over their heads, we were terrorized,” said Farkas, 57, pointing through his kitchen window.
In recent years Gabor Vona, who set up Jobbik in 2003 while a student as a “national radical” party, has asked the Roma for forgiveness and sent Hanukkah greeting cards to Hungary’s Jews.
“I am ready to say sorry again if needed to the Roma or Jewish community,” Vona told AFP this month.
“No one should be afraid if Jobbik comes to power,” he said.
For many, Jobbik’s transformation from its thuggish anti-Semitic and racist roots to what Vona calls a “people’s party” has been suspiciously quick.
But the 39-year-old insists the about-turn is not a tactic to gain power but rather “100 percent conviction.”
“Jobbik knows better than anyone that ‘us and them’ tribalism is a destructive path,” he said.
In fact, Vona argues, the extremist part of society who formerly supported Jobbik now prefers Orban’s Fidesz, in power from 2010.
Since Europe’s migration crisis began in 2015 Orban has said Hungary should protect its “ethnic homogeneity” and defend “Christian Europe” from “invading” immigrants.
During a national day speech this month he railed against the Hungarian-born US billionaire George Soros for allegedly orchestrating migration, remarks heard by some as having anti-Semitic undertones.
An expert on the Hungarian far-right, Peter Kreko, says Orban’s sharpening edge has forced Jobbik, who have criticized his relentless attacks on Soros and civil society groups, toward the center.
“Fidesz are so radical now that Jobbik seems moderate by comparison, although by Western European standards many of their policies are still far-right,” Kreko told AFP.
According to Vona, Fidesz robbed Jobbik’s hardline immigration policies, including erecting an anti-migrant border fence.
“After eight years all Fidesz can show is the fence, all they say is Soros, but Hungarians want more from a government,” he said.
Jobbik’s election manifesto is anchored by a “Clean hands” slogan and measures to recover wealth from business interests around Orban, whom Vona calls a “corrupt tyrant,” as well as modernizing creaking health and education sectors.
Devil you know
Now backed by the oligarch Lajos Simicska, a former friend turned bitter foe of Orban, Jobbik are targeting a swathe of swing seats mostly in the poorer north and east of Hungary.
But down the road from Gyongyospata in Vona’s hometown Gyongyos, where he narrowly lost to a Fidesz candidate in the 2014 election, voters are uncertain about the new Jobbik.
“I preferred the old version, they were tougher with the Gypsies,” said Tamas Sarudi, a shopper wearing a nationalist badge on his jacket.
Another man who requested anonymity said he worried about “extremist remnants” in Jobbik’s membership, including the senior ranks.
“But I cannot see them returning to their old ways, I will vote Vona to get Orban out,” he said.
With Fidesz well over 40 percent in polls among decided voters and Jobbik and the Socialists both under 20%, Orban looks set for a third consecutive term in power.
But a shock landslide defeat for Fidesz in a local by-election last month defied the polls after the entire opposition, including Jobbik, backed a single independent candidate.
Orban’s apparent vulnerability to a united opposition front prompted moves among leftist circles toward joining forces with the formerly pariah Jobbik.
But Vona says wider cooperation with “20th century parties” like the Socialists would lose Jobbik votes, and that a surge in turnout, as happened at the by-election, will suffice.
Back in Gyongyospata, even though Orban recently sparked protests by appearing to call Roma “immigrants,” Janos Farkas says he would rather he wins than Vona.
“Better the devil you know,” he said.