FEARS that Hungary's political mainstream is shifting toward the right grew as the centrist governing party reelected an exponent of racial conspiracy theories to a senior party post Jan 23.
The move appears to be an attempt to paper over an ideological chasm between ultra-nationalists and moderates within the governing Hungarian Democratic Forum (HDF), which is struggling to overcome new lows in popularity with elections a year and a half away.
But observers say the compromise could further erode party support among Hungarians, who since communism's demise have shied away from extreme views.
By electing Istvan Csurka and five followers to the 20-member party presidium, its highest policymaking body, the HDF seemed partly to embrace one extreme.
Mr. Csurka opened rifts in the party in August with an essay characterized as "a notorious example of an antidemocratic and anti-Semitic outlook" in a recent United States Department of State human rights report.
"It's significant that [Csurka] has not been shown the door, and that it doesn't appear imminent," said a Western diplomat speaking anonymously. "The center has been moving to the right for several weeks."
Among numerous examples of bigotry, Csurka described the communist era as "an unhealthy period where Jewry had a word to say and had open or hidden influence where it could be a decisive element." He warned the HDF to halt a conspiracy of Jews, liberals, communists, and Western bankers.
More than the essay itself, Csurka's status as HDF cofounder and presidium member has prompted fierce controversy in a country that allied itself with Nazi Germany and helped to kill, deport, or enslave some 681,000 Jews during World War II.
Opposition parties, which have Jews in prominent positions, urged Prime Minister Jozsef Antall, who is also HDF president, to repudiate Csurka.
But Mr. Antall, who is not viewed as an anti-Semite, seemed cowed by the prospect that Csurka and followers might leave the party if challenged. As a result, Antall and other HDF moderates' responses to the "Csurka question" have varied with time and audience.
* Three days after the essay appeared, Antall told a TV audience on Aug. 23 that the essay was a "gentlemanly gesture" to show strife-ridden opposition parties "there may be tensions within the [HDF] as well."
* The party's centrist national board on Aug. 30 criticized HDF liberal Member of Parliament Jozsef Debreczeni for calling Csurka's essay "a complete Nazi ideological foundation." The board said Csurka's essay "helps form the [HDF's] long-term strategy."
* The next day, Antall told parliament that Csurka "misinterprets a number of issues and gives politically harmful and incorrect answers." He accused the press of exaggerating Csurka's importance.
* On Nov. 14, Antall told HDF members Csurka's ideas were "political lunacies."
* Antall did not criticize Csurka at a Jan. 8 meeting of Csurka backers, instead urging them to "maintain our unity" to ensure the party a second four-year term. But 10 days later, Foreign Minister Geza Jeszenszky told the Jerusalem press corps that Csurka "is not close to the government" and is a "backbencher."
"We will soon get rid of Csurka," Mr. Jeszenszky was quoted as saying in the daily Magyar Hirlap.
But the party did not. Instead, 536 of its 746 general congress delegates elected Csurka to the HDF presidium, placing him fourth on a list of 20. Five of his backers won seats as well.
The result is a tenuous unity unlikely to shore up party support that recently hit a low of 11 percent. Yet many worry that Csurka's apparent legitimization could fuel a small but visible neo-fascist movement. The vote, "accepts and incorporates" Csurka's views within the HDF, says Rabbi Tamas Raj, an opposition legislator.