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Hungary's Prime Minister Embraces Far-Right Policies, May Reap Election Win


In Hungary, two of the biggest political parties are going through a dramatic change. The current prime minister and his one-time Centrist Party are embracing the rhetoric that once belonged to their main rival. That far-right faction, in turn, is taking a more mainstream approach. So which party's message will get through to voters? That will become more clear after this Sunday, when Hungarians vote in national elections. Here's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: So far, Hungarian opinion polls show Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party in the lead. It likely has something to do with them embracing policies championed by the far-right Jobbik Party.

PETER KREKO: There is definitely a demand for radicalism in Hungary, and it's pretty big.

SARHADDI NELSON: Peter Kreko is a political scientist and co-author of "The Hungarian Far Right."

KREKO: Fidesz took out the wind from the sails of Jobbik. And they practically grabbed almost all the elements of Jobbik's ideology and policy proposals.

SARHADDI NELSON: Like establishing a memorial day to mark a century-old treaty that cost Hungary 2/3 of its territory, or building a heavily fortified fence along the Hungarian border with Serbia to stop asylum seekers. Jobbik foreign policy spokesman Marton Gyongyosi says, in some ways, there's great satisfaction in watching the Orban government adopting positions shared by Jobbik.

MARTON GYONGYOSI: Nonetheless, I think the government has created the hysteria in this country out of the migration issue.

SARHADDI NELSON: He also accuses Orban of going too far with his anti-EU stance.

GYONGYOSI: If we unite, we can put such issues on the European agenda and we can maybe influence the course which the European Union is taking at the moment. And now Viktor Orban, at this moment, he's basically slamming the door and he moves out of the European debate. I think this is completely irresponsible.

SARHADDI NELSON: He admits such statements are vastly different than what Jobbik has said in the past.

GYONGYOSI: It's very different to be a movement being outside Parliament and being within Parliament. It is very different to be a radical party which is basically speaking and talking to a subcultural political community.

SARHADDI NELSON: But the analyst, Peter Kreko, says Jobbik's attempts to be more politically relevant are backfiring. Polls show the party has less support than during the last elections in 2014.

KREKO: The problem with Jobbik, as I mentioned, is that they became a boring centrist party. And I think if they want to mobilize their core electorate, they have to go back to this hardcore, classical, nationalist topics. Otherwise, their voters will be lazy to turn up at the ballot boxes on election day.

SARHADDI NELSON: Jobbik's new approach has also failed to persuade other opposition parties to join with it to try and defeat Fidesz. Meanwhile, Fidesz denies coopting anyone's platform, let alone Jobbik's, says the governing party spokesman Balazs Hidveghi.

BALAZS HIDVEGHI: In many respects, they, it seems to me, have betrayed their own voters. And in a larger sense, they've betrayed issues that are critical to Hungary's safety and security.

SARHADDI NELSON: Earlier this year, the government-controlled State Audit Office fined Jobbik the equivalent of $1.3 million over an antigovernment billboard campaign funded by a wealthy adversary of Orban. Jobbik stands accused of running an ad campaign at below market prices, which the party denies. Auditors eventually agreed to delay the case until after the election. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Budapest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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