New party tries to woo Hungary's Roma

With elections looming on April 6, a new party is trying to win over Hungary's largest ethnic minority, the Roma, a community scarred by deep poverty and racism and disillusioned by traditional politics.

"Until now, the Roma have never had credible leaders," said Aladar Horvath, a prominent rights campaigner and leader of the new Hungarian Gypsy Party (MCP), at a recent party event.

"If we stick together, we can fix our problems. No one else will," the soft-spoken 49-year-old told AFP in Ozd, a rusting former industrial town right on the Slovakian border.

Vast steelworks once employed thousands of Roma in Ozd, a town of about 34,000 inhabitants, but today, they lie derelict.

Widespread unemployment and poverty has fuelled mistrust against the Roma, and far-right party Jobbik -- the country's third biggest party -- is building on that anger.

Its posters are plastered across the town, while in its manifesto, it vows to stop "Gypsy crime", create ghettoes for Roma "deviants" and place "difficult" Roma children in special live-in schools.

But Horvath is pledging to fight that.

Campaigning in a ramshackle community hall, he told a crowd of about 100: "I have brought good news, you have something and someone to vote for!"

"We will defend ourselves from Jobbik, prevent our children from starving and guarantee free education in unsegregated schools, and normal jobs," he said.

- Mistrust -

Sometimes called Gypsies, the Roma account for around 8-9 percent of Hungary's 10-million population.

But only four Roma MPs are in the outgoing 386-seat parliament, and three of them are from Prime Minister Viktor Orban's Fidesz Party.

The fourth, Agnes Osztolykan, of the green LMP party, often complained of being a lone voice battling against Jobbik's anti-Roma rhetoric.

Battered by poverty and discrimination, many Roma harbour deep mistrust of politicians.

"Always empty promises, then they just stuff their pockets once elected," said Galambacz Peterne, a 40-year-old Roma mother of two, who lives on the outskirts of Ozd.

"If they swapped places with us for one week, they'd see what it's like without even enough bread for the children," she told AFP in her tidy but sparsely-furnished house.

"I've sold most of my furniture to pay bills, and buy Christmas presents for the kids."

There is widespread apathy about elections in dirt-poor Roma neighbourhoods where most people have other things on their minds.

"Politicians have done nothing for us for the last 25 years, I don't see any point in voting," said one of a group of men hanging around on a dusty potholed street in a Roma neighbourhood.

"We don't have access to proper jobs," said unemployed Peter Galambacz, complaining of discrimination often faced by Roma on the labour market.

"My brother is a cook in a Budapest hotel, but he's the only Roma out of 200 employees."

Some are also sceptical about an ethnic-Roma party, as Horvath's purports to be.

"We're Hungarians first, Gypsies second!" shouts Kalman Berki, a 40-year-old metalworker.

"Differentiating us causes problems, we want to integrate," he told AFP.

- New election rules -

With many Roma voters unlikely to vote, the new party faces an uphill task to obtain the five-percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

To meet that target, it would need support from at least half of Hungary's estimated 500,000 Roma voters.

The MCP has also had to grapple with controversial election rules introduced by Prime Minister Orban.

Under the new rules, Roma and other ethnic minorities could register to vote for so-called "ethnicity lists" rather than for a political party, a system which critics including 36 Roma organisations said was discriminatory.

The MCP has also been accused of forging signature slips in the registration of their candidates -- a charge it firmly denies although an official probe is likely to be launched.

Horvath admitted that his party needs a "miracle" to get into parliament, but said he is looking beyond the polls to long-term representation.

"With two percent of the overall vote, we'd get our campaign costs covered and could build for the 2018 elections," he adds.