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.'' The current government is tackling with cautious diplomacy the simmering problem of Hungarian minorities living in Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia. But Torgyan adopts a strident tone on this question. He opposed the signing of a bilateral treaty with Slovakia and recently called for breaking off diplomatic relations with Romania, whose policies he described as ''fascist.'' While he holds back from demanding a revision of borders, his words have a clear appeal to nationalists, describing the post-World War I Trianon Pact that took away 60 percent of Hungary as ''terribly unfair, and we should not be embarrassed to say so.'' But observers say that if Torgyan did achieve power, the rhetoric might be dropped for a more pragmatic approach. ''Torgyan is a typical populist. Should he become a member of any future government, I don't think he would change the basic direction of the country,'' says Pal Lederer of the daily newspaper Nepszabadsag. ''The circumstances are such that if you don't want to close yourself off from the rest of the world, you have to follow some basic rules.'' Just like Ross? Others say he could be just a Perot-style flash in the pan. ''Torgyan is a clever and ingenious politician. But he is a little naive and sometimes speaks without thinking. The bubble will burst before the next election, once the media start to really grill him about concrete policies,'' says Johnathon Sunley, Budapest director of an East European political consulting group. In an attempt to cash in on his popularity among conservatives, Torgyan recently set up a National Alliance for Hungary that brings dispirited nationalists from mainstream conservative parties under his leadership. A group of right-wing intellectuals previously associated with the Democratic Forum announced that they, too, were backing Torgyan. His supporters have high hopes. Miklos Budoso, a local party worker, says, ''Torgyan is a great personality whose only interest is in improving the fate of Hungarians. We are rapidly returning to [a] one-party system, and he will bring back democracy to our country.''