Hungary Takes This Jester Seriously A Nationalist's Emerging Party Is Garnering More Support Than the Governing Socialists

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A YEAR ago he was considered a joke. Polls showed his support among Hungary's Stalinists and neofascists languishing in single figures. But a population disillusioned with the austerity package introduced by a Socialist government is turning to the man dubbed the "clown prince of the right," Jozsef Torgyan, leader of the Independent Smallholders Party, a rural-based nationalist group. A Hungarian opinion poll published Sept. 8 shows Mr. Torgyan's party to be more popular than the governing Socialists, 16 percent to 14 percent. "The main reason for our breakthrough is that the nostalgia for communism has turned into real disillusionment," Torgyan says in an interview. "The people recognize that we have taken the cover off communism all along. We have been consistent, and I can say for sure that we will be in power after the next elections." Not only the government lost support. The mainstream opposition conservative parties that formed Hungary's first post-communist government are in disarray after being hammered in elections last May. Torgyan has stepped into the vacuum. A joker in the house The violinist-turned-lawyer is a master of rhetoric, and his rough sense of humor can leave usually dormant backbenchers howling with laughter. In contrast to the slick mobile-phone image of most Hungarian members of parliament, he plays the straight-talking, no-nonsense patriot. His party claims to be the successor to the prewar Smallholders Party which, after being banned under the rule of the fascist Arrow Cross, won Hungary's 1945 elections only to be outlawed by the Communist regime. After the party reemerged in 1988, it split into a half-dozen competing factions. Torgyan's was victorious. Torgyan is a bundle of contradictions. He slams the West for placing too many restrictions on Hungary. Then he criticizes the government for slowing Hungary's integration into NATO and the European Union. But a common thread runs through his rhetoric: The former Communists are still in power and must be defeated. "This government cannot escape from the people who helped them into power - the inheritors of the Communists whom Hungarians have learned to hate. The nomenclature has returned - at first quietly, but now openly." His language is often more colorful when he is surrounded by loyal followers. Speaking to 10,000 supporters on Hungary's Independence Day in March, he declared, "The liberal Bolsheviks, the privatizers, and the bankers who sink millions into their pockets, are about to push the world's most talented people, the Hungarians, into a state of slavery. …