Hungarians held an annual march to remember the Holocaust, amid a surge in polls by a radical party known for its anti-Semitic message and which is positioning itself to win the next national election.
Thousands turned out for the “March of the Living” that wound through Budapest on Sunday, with participants walking from the former Jewish ghetto past some of the capital’s landmarks. About 500,000 Hungarians, mostly Jews, were killed in the Holocaust, according to the Budapest-based Holocaust Memorial Center.
The radical nationalist Jobbik party became the second largest political party in elections a year ago and has since climbed further in polls, sucking away voters from Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose government has battled corruption allegations.
Politicians from Jobbik, which on its website calls for fighting “Zionist Israel’s quest for world domination,” have in the past questioned whether the Holocaust took place and called for drawing up a list of Jewish lawmakers who may pose a “national security risk.”
“Today, the world sees Hungary and they see Jobbik,” Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, told participants. “And when businessmen want to invest in Hungary, they also see Jobbik and they’re afraid to come. Jobbik hurts Hungary. Do not allow a small percentage of the population to destroy Hungary.”
Hungarian lawmakers in 1920 approved what is widely considered as the first anti-Semitic law passed in Europe after World War I, restricting university access for Jews. The country allied with Germany’s Adolf Hitler in World War II and some 424,000 Hungarians were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp alone in eight weeks between May and July of 1944, according to Yad Vashem museum. Hungary retains central Europe’s largest Jewish population, estimated at as many as 120,000 in a country of 10 million, according to the World Jewish Congress.
Jobbik is in the process of trying to change its image to appeal to mainstream voters in a bid to win the 2018 parliamentary election, party leader Gabor Vona said in a newspaper interview last month. Vona this year ordered a party member who had called for the murder of Roma, also known as Gypsies, to move in with a Roma party member for three days to repent. Another Jobbik party member who spat on a Holocaust memorial was told to go back with a flower to show remorse.
“I’m going to disappoint those who hoped that Jobbik was an extremist, Nazi party,” Vona told Magyar Nemzet newspaper in the March 28 interview.
Support for Jobbik advanced to 18 percent among eligible voters in March from 11 percent in October, while Fidesz’s backing plunged to 21 percent from 35 percent in the period, Ipsos said in a March 17 survey. One in five Jobbik supporters voted for Orban’s Fidesz party last year, another poll by Median found, according to an April 9 HVG weekly report.
“It’s scary that after all that has happened in Hungary, Jobbik stands a realistic chance of winning power,” said 29 year-old Honoria Kovacs, who took part in the march. “It’s like people haven’t learned anything from the past.”