It has been denounced by opponents as a stain on Hungary, an alarming reflection of rising nationalism and xenophobic sentiment. But to far right party Jobbik, the victory of its first ever directly elected parliamentarian is a sign that it is the movement of the future.
Jobbik candidate Lajos Rig narrowly won Sunday's by-election in Tapolca, west Hungary, a special election called after the death of Fidesz member of parliament (MP) Jen?' Lasztovicza in January.
The win represents "a major milestone in the party's political history," the party's deputy caucus leader Marton Gyöngyösi told VICE News.
"Fidesz and the Socialist Party MSZP represent the 20th Century, we represent the 21st," Gyöngyösi said of Jobbik, which was co-founded in 2003 and became known for its anti-Semitic and pro-Putin stances and zero tolerance towards what it terms "gypsy crime."
But of the country's opposition politicians, Liberal MP Gábor Fodor declared the result "shameful" for Hungary, while Ágnes Vadai, deputy leader of the Democratic Coalition, called Jobbik's victory a "warning sign." While the party already has 23 parliamentarians, all of entered via the party list under Hungary's part-proportional representation system; this is the first time a candidate has ever won a direct contest for a constituency.
Prime Minister Orban used a soccer analogy to explain his Fidesz party's loss by 10,093 votes to 10,354. "There are times when the football hits the post," he wrote on Facebook. However the result has hurt Orban, who can no longer portray his weakened Fidesz party as a guaranteed buffer to Jobbik's extremism.
After years of directing its attacks solely at Hungary's left-wing, Fidesz politicians have only this year begun to publicly criticize Jobbik, branding it a dangerous neo-Nazi party. Ironically, this change of tack came as Jobbik adopted a policy of avoiding extremist statements, with party leader Gabor Vona saying he will "prune" racist views from the party ranks and even posing for photographs while holding puppies.
Vona's leadership is now consolidated within the party, Robert Laszlo, an election analyst at Budapest think-tank Political Capital, told VICE News. "In the future he can move the party in the direction of the center-right with more confidence [and meanwhile] eliminate his opponents inside the party who accused him of being 'soft'," he wrote.
As the beleaguered Fidesz government struggles to pin the blame for the collapse of three brokerage houses in Hungary this year on the Socialist Party MSZP, Jobbik has been able to fill the vacuum created by disillusionment with Orban.
Gyöngyösi said the growing popularity of Jobbik has been due to it representing "the opposite of whatever characterizes the older parties: like economic corruption."
According to Gyöngyösi, Jobbik is Hungary's only political force that has not discredited itself in power. He argued that since the fall of communism in 1989, Fidesz and Hungary's social liberal politicians have been covering up each other's corruption. "It functions like a coalition," he added, referring to an alleged secret agreement made between Hungary's two main post-regime change parties Fidesz and MSZP to split corruption money 70-30.
However Rig espoused racist views online even during the campaign: in one Facebook post he accused Jewish people of using Roma people as biological weapons in order to kill off the rest of Hungary.
It also came to light that Rig has a tattoo with similar wording to the German SS motto "My honour is loyalty." Gyöngyösi defended Rig, saying "he does not have any SS tattoos. He has the words honor and trust, which i think should not be monopolized by anyone." Rig admitted having the tattoo, but refused to show it, saying it was dedicated to his wife. Hungarian media on the ground in Tapolca suggested that Rig's victory was in part due to him being the only local candidate.
Regardless, Hungarian voters no longer look at the party as extremist, according to Laszlo of Political Capital. "Taboos that once kept a large number of undecided voters away from Jobbik have fallen by the wayside. [This] victory has confirmed what we have maintained all along: there is no limit to Jobbik's expansion."
Laszlo added that the failure of Hungary's weak and divided left wing to unite around a credible candidate had also been a factor in Jobbik taking votes from Hungary's dominant political force, Fidesz.
Viktor Szigetvári, co-leader of the Together party, said "the democratic [left-liberal] opposition cannot rejoice," and his party was "not happy" to see Fidesz's policies fail. He called for more unity in the leftist opposition.
Dialogue for Hungary party spokesman Bence Tordai also bemoaned a lack of cooperation between left-liberal opposition parties in Tapolca, adding that it was "shocking" that an "extreme-right, pro-Putin party" had won the by-election.
Perhaps uniquely within the EU, Hungary now has not one but two major pro-Putinist parties. When the proto-Jobbik first emerged from a Fidesz "civic circle" initiative in 2001, neither of the nationalistic parties had a pro-Kremlin line.
However in recent years Orbán has praised Putinism and backed the construction of a similar "illiberal democracy" in Hungary, drawing widespread criticism from international observers. Meanwhile Gyöngyösi and other Jobbik officials have taken regular trips to Moscow and even acted as election observers at the Donetsk ballot last year, before being banned from entering Ukraine. Gyöngyösi embraces the Eurasian ideology of Kremlin far-right ideologue Aleksandr Dugin, a professor dubbed "Putin's Brain," who repeatedly pushed for the invasion of Ukraine. He describes Dugin as "a good friend" who "sees the way things are going and the 21st Century challenges."
Jobbik rejects "one-sided Euro Atlanticism that does not serve the national interests," Gyöngyösi told VICE News, speaking from parliament after his party unanimously voted against a motion to send 150 Hungarian troops to fight IS.
However political analysts note that Jobbik often alienates its fans by moving closer to Putin, as polls consistently show that its party members favor the US over Russia, and point to indications that Putin has funded Jobbik from its earliest days. Such clues are to be found in the "K.G.Béla" case, in which Béla Kovács, a Jobbik member of the European Parliament, was accused of spying for Moscow in Brussels. Péter Kréko, the director of think-tank Political Capital told VICE News: "Kovács brought several million forints with him into the party when he joined in 2005, when Jobbik was a small marginal party with around 2 percent support. Given his background and statements that he gained his wealth in Moscow and Tokyo, I think we can assume that it wasn't his own money."
Quoting Hungary's secret service sources, Hungarian daily Népszabadság wrote: "It is suspected that Béla Kovács has acted as a so-called 'influence agent' for the Russian secret service. For the most part, the Russian secret service did not instruct him to acquire secret European Union documents; his 'expertise' lies in disruption and agitating against the alliance in the heart of the European Union, and unifying Eurosceptics and anti-EU extremists, organizing them into a faction."
However, as a party that has never held power, Jobbik is successfully deflecting its own scandals for now. "This is the first time that a new party outside of this [post-1989] political circle has won a direct constituency," Gyöngyösi noted. "It's a very difficult task to win a single consistency," Gyöngyösi said. "Fidesz adjusted [Hungary's electoral legislation] to suit its needs a couple of years ago, but we have always said that no matter what the electoral system, Jobbik will break through."
Laszlo concluded that the rise of Jobbik "could be checked by its political rivals… the leftist opposition should stand behind locally known and popular candidates and try to attract undecided voters disaffected with the government, and turn them away from Jobbik."
Main image: Jobbik supporters attend the commemoration of the 1848 uprising against the Hapsburg rule in Budapest on March 15.
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