By Marton Dunai
DEVECSER, Hungary (Reuters) - Decades of animosity between Hungarians and ethnic Roma in this small town in western Hungary had attracted little attention until the far-right Jobbik party saw an opportunity to score a few political points.
A protest rally organized by the party, a little after a brawl between a Roma family and some local people, turned into a running street battle that has left the town thoroughly shaken but which Jobbik was able to exploit for its own ends.
It is a strategy that has worked well for Jobbik, a party that once made use of a "Hungarian Guard" of vigilantes dressed in fascist-style uniforms to target the Roma.
Support for Jobbik, or the Movement for a Better Hungary, is strong and the party could well hold the balance of power between the ruling Fidesz party and the left wing opposition after parliamentary elections in 2014.
That could allow Jobbik to wield a decisive influence over the government, pushing pet issues such as a rethink of European Union membership and a realigning of economic ties towards countries of the east.
Recession-hit Hungary may be forced to accept aid from the International Monetary Fund if economic conditions get worse. That would compel the government to introduce unpopular austerity measures and could mean more votes for Jobbik.
Fidesz insiders deny it, but pressure from Jobbik is widely seen as already influencing the government's agenda, pushing it towards unorthodox and widely criticized economic policies.
The conflict between Roma and Hungarians is Jobbik's principal means of achieving the support at the ballot box it needs to push its policies in Budapest.
Fidesz has lost more than a million voters since 2010, the opposition remains weak, and more than half the electorate is undecided. Jobbik meanwhile has retained its base and is the third strongest political force in Hungary.
The party is skilled at making national headlines out of local flare-ups, which is what happened in Devecser.
About a third of the 5,000 inhabitants are Roma. They make a living largely from collecting second hand goods in Austria and Germany and selling them at a giant flea market just outside the town. Many local Hungarians take a dim view of the practice.
One day in July, Ferenc Horvath, a stocky Roma furniture dealer, was driving his van along a narrow street when a car blocked his way. He told the driver, who was staying at a nearby house, to move. Words were exchanged and Horvath drove on.
Two days later Horvath's family and friends returned to the house. In circumstances that remain unclear, a bloody fight ensued. Both sides, Roma and Hungarian, used spades and baseball bats, even a knife. A crowd gathered, mostly local Roma.
According to a report by the interior ministry, the police booked 17 people and started an investigation. To some in Devecser that was not enough. They asked for help on a far-right online news portal, and someone also called Jobbik.
The party obliged, and organized a protest to demand better public safety. On posters announcing the event extremist groups were listed alongside Jobbik, raising fears of violence.
According to witnesses and a video recording of the August 5 protest, speakers invoked the darkest periods of Hungarian history. Zsolt Tyirityan, the leader of a group called the "Army of Outlaws", told the crowd to get tough with the Roma, even citing the Nazi idea of Lebensraum, or living space.
"Force demands respect," he bellowed. "What will we show against these people? Only force! There will be no Gypsy Martin Luther King, no Roma Malcolm X, because we will stamp out this phenomenon that wants to eradicate us from our living space!"
Some of the 1,000 protesters then marched to the Roma part of town, threatening people, throwing rocks and yelling insults.
The video shows thugs throwing half-bricks into the yards of Roma houses and the Roma hurling the bricks back. By chance there were no serious injuries.
"They attacked everyone they saw," Ferenc Horvath said a few weeks later at the flea market. "They called us genetic rejects, or worse. People are still scared out of their wits."
Jobbik denied responsibility for the violence. However, Jobbik MP Gabor Ferenczi, who put the protest together, later took credit for an increased police presence in the town.
Jobbik registered as a political party in October 2003; by Christmas, it had 2 percent voter support after erecting wooden crosses to protest against the holiday's commercialization.
In September 2006, violent protests erupted when a recording leaked of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany admitting that his Socialist party had lied for years about the state of the economy to gain reelection that year.
Jobbik took to the streets. It campaigned against police brutality, held rallies and began a meteoric rise.
"There was no way to do politics the traditional way any more," Jobbik chairman Gabor Vona said on a 2010 propaganda DVD. "Local chapters, a board, a program ... it was too little."
"It was just before Christmas that year that I came up with the idea of the Hungarian Guard."
Later banned, the Guard was a uniformed voluntary vigilante group that bore a resemblance to the fascists of World War II. Unarmed but belligerent, it helped the party target a new political scapegoat: the Roma.
In October that year, a teacher was lynched by a Roma mob in eastern Hungary, provoking nationwide outrage. Jobbik coined the term "Roma crime" and began to vilify the country's 700,000 Roma as free-loading, lazy, and criminal.
The party insists it only targets criminals, but the public perception is far less nuanced and supporters viewed the Guard as a sort anti-Roma defense force.
The media took up the story, but the critical coverage served only to launch Jobbik into the mainstream.
"We could never have bought the air time to promote Jobbik and fill the ranks of the Guard the way this coverage did," Jobbik executive director Gabor Szabo said in the party video.
Success came in 2009. Jobbik scored 14 percent at European Parliament elections. Then in 2010, it became the third biggest party in Hungary's parliament, polling 17 percent and winning 45 of the 386 seats.
The gains could easily continue in 2014, said historian Rudolf Paksa, an expert on the far-right, who said that in an extreme case the party could get 30-35 percent of the vote.
At a Jobbik summer camp in Velence, 60 km (40 miles) west of Budapest, about 100 activists gathered this year for a two-day political session and a morale boost by Vona.
"We are normal people in a screwed-up world, even if some see us as screwed-up people in a normal world," Vona told them.
"The Jobbik brand right now is dark, violent and gloomy. We did not paint it dark, but we cannot win a majority like this. We need to refine it to gain a brighter, younger brand."
Most of the audience were barely of voting age, but young people are Jobbik's strongest asset, and its communications strategy is largely built on the internet and its young users.
Jobbik says it has good relations with a far-right web site called Kuruc.info, which features a column called "Gypsy Crime" and often runs pieces by Jobbik leaders.
Some opinion polls suggest Jobbik is already neck-and-neck with Fidesz in the age group below 30.
If Jobbik had its way, Hungary would be a lot harsher on its Roma. It may not be a member of the European Union. And it would definitely not be talking about loans and aid deals with the West, pursuing instead engagement in the Middle East and Asia.
"It was a grave mistake of the post-Communist era to naively tie Hungary's fortunes to the mast of a sinking ship and pursue 100 percent Euro-Atlanticism," Jobbik's foreign policy chief Marton Gyongyosi told Reuters.
Gyongyosi, whose office is decorated with Iranian and Turkish souvenirs, said Hungarians are the descendants of Turkic peoples and should cultivate those ancient ties.
Jobbik has protested against EU membership, even burning the EU flag outside the Union's Budapest offices.
Gyongyosi said the IMF has "bled Hungary dry for decades" through loans and austerity requirements, so Jobbik will call for financing from eastern countries such as Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan or China instead of the IMF or EU.
Jobbik also uses anti-Semitic language and some of its deputies espouse such ideas. The party does not embrace this openly but does little to dispel the image.
One Jobbik MP went as far as invoking the centuries-old blood libel - the accusation that Jews used Christians' blood in religious rituals - in a speech in parliament earlier this year.
Fifty U.S. Congressmen then wrote to Prime Minister Orban to complain about anti-Semitism in Hungary.
This compelled Vona to reply, rejecting the charge. But for the liberal members of parliament who sit next to Jobbik deputies, this is empty talk from a party that basically shrugs when it is labeled anti-Semitic.
(Reporting by Marton Dunai; Editing by Giles Elgood)