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Roma in rights struggle as Hungary votes

The newly formed Hungarian Gypsy Party aims to mobilise support from the poor going into Sunday's election.

Last updated: 06 Apr 2014 07:50
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Aladar Horvath of the Hungarian Gypsy Party believes discrimination impacts voters [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

Budapest, Hungary - In Budapest's eighth district, known for its high population of Roma, a new party aimed at the disadvantaged minority is getting ready for its first election on Sunday when Hungary goes to the polls.

The Roma, also known as Gypsies, are a mostly poor minority that many believe face widespread discrimination in Hungary.

The Magyarorszagi Cigany Part (MCP), or Hungarian Gypsy Party, is hoping to change that.

The party's spokesman, Aladar Horvath, who is also running as a candidate in the eighth district, says the biggest challenge for the party has been facing political apathy from a minority that many believe has been ignored.

"They have no belief… [in] the future," he says. "I think the Roma party is a hope for us because we know what the real problems are, we know our community and we know… what [politicians] need to do for us in the parliament."

Eighteen-year-old Andrea Marosi who is half-Roma says she will not vote because the ruling party is likely to win and she's disillusioned by the other choices.

"I don't vote because these people… just deprive us of our money and our possibilities or opportunities and they're somehow tricking us because they always have some promises and they never really fulfil them."

Rita Taneyes, 35, is Roma and a single-mother who says the widespread discrimination her community faces is not going to be helped by politicians who she sees as self-serving. She likes the idea of a Roma party but her scepticism remains. "I would like it but… I don't have high hopes," Taneyes says. "Those in the higher positions, they represent their own interests but still it would be nice."

Struggling for representation

The party also had to deal with a scandal - it was accused of forging signatures when registering candidates. The MCP strongly denies the claim.

Horvath concedes that the party, which is only a year and half old, is unlikely to win a seat in parliament. But he believes in another four years they will have chance.

The head of the political science department at the Central European University in Budapest, Gabor Toka, says the Roma could gain political capital if MCP gets a high turnout, but the new party's plans could also backfire on the minority.

Politicians advocating for any measures of the benefit for the Roma [are] penalised in the next elections because anti-Roma [prejudices] are so strong.

- Zeljko Jovanovic, Open Society Foundations

It could make "the Roma even more powerless in politics because politicians just learn as a lesson that even if they vote, they vote for parties that don't make it into parliament so they can ignore them," Toka says.

The Roma make up an estimated eight percent of Hungary's population of 10 million, however only four MPs are known to be Roma, according to AFP.

Horvath contends that the current crop of Roma MPs do little for their own community. "They are party members and not representing the Roma population, only the government or the opposition parties," he says.

Zeljko Jovanovic, Director of the Roma Initiatives Office at the Open Society Foundations, says the Roma struggle for proper representation because they are afraid and intimidated by those around them.

He says local mayors, who are often tied to national parties, help distribute jobs through public works programmes, which many Roma rely on. Officials then employ this leverage to influence the Roma vote.

Even when politicians who want to fight for Roma issues come into power, they still face major obstacles, says Jovanovic. "Roma interests are not well-represented in the national parliament… because of the current climate in which politicians advocating for any measures of the benefit for the Roma [are] penalised in the next elections because anti-Roma [prejudices] are so strong."

Aside from underrepresentation, the Roma also face outright hostility in parliament by the far-right Jobbik party which often talks about "Gypsy crime" and says the minority does not want to work.

Jobbik MP Marton Gyongyosi, who made international headlines in 2012 for suggesting Hungary create a list of Jewish MPs, says his party does not want to divide the country based on ethnicity or race.

However, he goes on to say the Roma are especially linked to delinquency.

"Gypsy crime was a phenomenon which existed in Hungary before we joined this extremely politically correct world which does not dare to speak anything… that is in front of its eyes and wants to call things another name.

"Gypsy integration is a growing problem in this country," Gyongyosi says. "We have to face this issue."

New law

The government says it is trying to increase minority representation in parliament with the introduction of a new law which allows citizens who are registered as a minority to vote for a representative from their own ethnicity. Such a minority representative would need a quarter of the votes that regular MPs require to gain a seat in parliament.

However, once people are registered as a minority, they are no longer allowed to vote for an MP from the national political parties.

The government says this is to stop a minority citizen's vote from having more power than the votes of other Hungarians.

Toka expects the law will be changed after criticism from international observers. "It sounds totally unconstitutional to me," he says.

Some municipalities urge minority citizens to register and they may only realise on election day that they cannot vote for a national party, Toka says. Minority voters can register months before they know the candidates on the ethnic minority list.

While they are allowed to unregister, Toka says that creates an additional step and minority voters may not even know they can do this. "An extraordinary burden is put on them and only on them."

While there are 13 registered minorities, the Roma are considered the only one large enough to have a good chance at voting in an MP under this system. However, even if there are not enough votes cast for an MP, special minority representatives can still grab a seat in parliament - except they will not be able to vote.

"[He] can join the sessions, can ask questions… can have speeches, everything, but doesn't have [a] voting right in parliament, which is of course a huge difference," Kumin says. "But this is another type of representation of minorities."

Toka, however, does not see the point of having representatives in parliament who cannot vote. He thinks such a plan is undemocratic.

"It's a useless institution and it makes a mockery of parliamentarians as well as ethnic minority representation."

Horvath says he and some Roma civil organisations campaigned against citizens registering as a minority. He believes the Roma candidates on the list would not be independent from the government and could not properly serve community interests.

While a seat seems unlikely for Horvath's party, he says the MCP was able to combat some of the disillusionment that many Roma experience, providing a foundation for future electoral growth.

"We have no power, we have no money, we have no organisation [but] we have some respect," he says.

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Al Jazeera
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