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Central Europe's rightward slide

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

The country’s third force is now the ultranationalist Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary), which preaches a greater Hungary (to its pre-World War I boundaries) and hate against Gypsies, Jews, gays and other supposedly “non-Hungarian” elements in the country.

“This is an outright Nazi party and they’re very well organized,” the constitutional law professor Andras Pap said. “Some of their leaders are at the level of soccer hooligans, others are very well educated."

The party’s top figures include many historians, who have dressed up old-school nationalism in a highly modern garb. Their flashy website is translated into five foreign languages and their branding is state-of-the-art.

Jobbik even boasts its own paramilitary arm, the Magyar Guard, which marched around Budapest in World War II fascist uniforms until the constitutional court banned it. Jobbik scored particularly well in the hard-hit parts of northern and eastern Hungary where unemployment often tops 20 percent and large Gypsy, or Roma, populations live.

“Jobbik appeals directly to racist cliches about the Gypsies, like that they are ultimately responsible for crime and the joblessness of the worst-off regions. They appeal to a racism that has a lot of currency in Hungary,” said Jeno Kaltenbach of the European Center for Roma Rights. “This is why it works so well.”

The implications of Hungary’s rightist landslide goes beyond the blow it delivers to the country’s young democracy. Orban’s overtures to the large Hungarian minorities in Slovakia, Romania and Serbia are certain to fan the flames of nationalism in those countries, stiffening already considerable national populist forces. Relations between Budapest and Bratislava are at a 20-year low. Orban’s promise to give Hungarian Slovaks dual citizenship will certainly infuriate the Slovaks and, if successful, provide Fidesz with a new constituency that could keep it in power for years to come.

The right's rise in central Europe has implications for the European Union, where an array of far-right parties, Jobbik among them, now have seats in the European Parliament. As happened when Haider’s party joined in Austria’s ruling coalition in 2000, the EU and its member states can do little to counter this trend other than express indignation and regret. The EU's legendary soft power to inspire countries to do its bidding loses its clout once these states join its privileged ranks. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine EU member states sanctioning their leader — in 2011 Hungary is scheduled to take over the presidency of the EU Council.