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Central Europe's rightward slide

The repercussions of Hungary's election reach neighbors and all the way to Brussels.

A homeless man stands under a vandalized election poster of radical far-right party Jobbik in Budapest on April 9, 2010. (Laszlo Balogh/Reuters)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — In the quirky political landscapes of central Europe, Hungary isn’t the first post-communist country to lurch dramatically to the right. Across the region, from the Baltics to the Balkans, national populists with questionable democratic credentials have proven adept at dominating discourse and even winning elections.

But Hungarian voters are in the process of distinguishing their country in more ways than one. Hungary was the one model transitional democracy in the region. Now ongoing nationwide elections have both catapulted right-wing populists to power and handed 17 percent of the vote to an upstart neo-fascist party. If the second round ballot later this month mirrors the polls as closely as Sunday's did, a single party — Fidesz — will amass a super majority, giving it the two-thirds majority necessary to pass legislation at will and even alter the constitution.

Like other successful populists in central Europe, Fidesz revolves around a single personality, namely the 46-year-old Victor Orban. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Orban and a group of fresh-faced law students banded together to form Fidesz, a stridently anti-communist but thoroughly liberal party intent on modernizing Hungary at record tempo. Over the years Orban shaped Fidesz into his own vehicle, straying from a liberal path as the political winds dictated. Orban reinvented Fidesz as he went along: from free-market liberal to agrarian folk party to national conservative.

Although Orban likens Fidesz to western Europe’s Christian Democrats, his disrespect for parliament and his nationalist rhetoric — above all directed at neighbors Slovakia and Romania — better place him in the company of Austria’s right-wing wunderkind, the late Joerg Haider. But while Haider’s party never broached 30 percent of vote at its height, Fidesz is poised to come away with nearly 70 percent of the seats in parliament.

Fidesz’s extraordinary showing would never had been possible were it not for the ruling Socialists’ toleration of ubiquitous corruption and eight years of financial mismanagement, which sent unemployment soaring to 11 percent. Transparency International ranks Hungary’s graft on a par with Bahrain and Cape Verde, worse than Costa Rica and the United Arab Emirates. Scandals involving Hungary’s political class sent trust in democratic governance tumbling, a classic scenario for savvy populists to capitalize on. The socialists plummeted from scoring 43 percent in the last elections to just 19 percent in the first round of this one, only a hair ahead of the extreme right.

But the Socialists at least made it back into parliament, unlike the handful of middle-of-the-road liberal and conservative parties that had vied for power in the post-communist decades. These elections are in the process of both upending and thinning out the party spectrum as Hungarian knew it for the last two decades. Now even more blatantly than elsewhere in central Europe, where politics tends to be fought between populists and former communist, now-Socialist, parties, Hungary is left with a razor-thin liberal democratic middle. The vote’s one surprise: This middle ground is held by a newcomer, a green-oriented civic group that captured 7 percent of the vote.