Despite the bizarre idiosyncrasies of Hungary’s electoral system, the country’s electoral politics tend to follow the same rules governing other democracies. Chief among these is the importance of the “centrist” or “swing” voters who feel no strong attachment to either (or any) of the main parties vying for power. So it’s always important to try to keep on top of what one famous American historian once dubbed “The Vital Center.” And at least to me, Hungary’s vital center seems to be increasingly preoccupied with two things: avoiding becoming as poor as Gypsies, and the Gypsies.
The news this week that some Roma/Gypsies are planning to set up a self-defense group akin to the right-wing Magyar Gárda has led even some perfect examples of Budapest cosmopolitism I know to shiver. One of the fears is that we could ultimately see a full-blown “race war” pitting uniformed right-wing paramilitaries against their Roma equivalents. (Thought the latter may not be wearing uniforms; one local journalist I know told me the leader of the “Roma Gárda” told his publication that “our skin in our uniform.”) Another of the fears – at least among the sort of foreigner-friendly liberal Hungarians I inevitably spend a disproportional amount of time with – is that growing public concern/hysteria over the Roma will naturally play into the hands of the right come voting time, and add to the substantial “vote cushion” already enjoyed by Fidesz.
It is of course true that, if the issue of Gypsy crime (note that I am not putting it in scare quotes) continues to swell in the public consciousness, it will pull voters to the right.
At the same time, the “Gypsy issue” is very much a double-edged sword for Fidesz, and if not handled carefully, could hypothetically even cost the party its now seemingly guaranteed return to power.
The problem for Fidesz is that growing anti-Roma sentiment has the potential to squeeze the party from both sides. On the right it faces the surging Jobbik, which now looks set to easily breach 5% in the upcoming European Elections, and will greatly benefit in the subsequent general elections from the perception that Fidesz is a shoo-in. (In a tighter race, Jobbik supporters would be more likely to vote for Fidesz so as to avoid a return to power by the left.)
Meanwhile, on the left the party faces two problems. One is that the Socialists appear to have finally cottoned on to the potency of the issue, as was demonstrated this weekend when the government backed away from dismissing the police chief of Miskolc following some (very) impolitic remarks about crime and the Roma.
But the second threat on the left involves the one issue of much greater concern to most voters: the economy. Come 2010, it is likely that Hungary will be more rather than less dependent on outside sources (read: EU) of financing to keep the economy afloat. (By a strange coincidence/conspiracy, the enormous IMF facility the country received last fall runs out a month before the next scheduled general election.) And if Fidesz is perceived by the country’s foreign paymasters to be an objectively “anti-Gypsy” party, there is a very real possibility that not only would the taps be turned off after the election, but that Brussels would make it clear before the election that this could happen. If you doubt this, recall that one of the reasons Fidesz lost its re-election bid in 2002 was the feeling among many centrist voters that a Socialist-led government would get the country better terms during the final run-up to EU accession. And if there is anything more terrifying to voters than not getting money you want, it’s not getting money you have already come to rely on.