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Populists in Europe (4/8) : Hungary facing nationalism

Thursday, 15 May, 2014 - 14:33

myeurop avec  

Hungary is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. The country has to cope with the rise of Jobbik – the self-proclaimed “most popular radical party” in Europe. The ruling Fidesz party, on the other hand, does not hesitate to use their political opponent’s most extreme ideas.

In Hungarian, Jobbik means both “better” and “further right” – an apt name when we look at the current political context in the country. The party in power, Hungarian civic alliance Fidesz, has been steered so far towards the right by its leader Viktor Orban, who became Prime Minister again in 2010, that it is now perceived as a nationalist and populist group too.

A swift rise to the top

The Jobbik was born in right-wing university circles and has never been a moderate party since its creation in 2003. Among its founding members is current party leader and elected MP Gábor Vona, who was at the time majoring in history. In 2006, the Jobbik, in a coalition with the nationalist MIEP party, which Jobbik has since supplanted, only got 2% of the votes and no seats in the legislative elections.

It was not until 2009 that the nationalists entered the European Parliament with three MEP seats. A year later, the Jobbik became the third political force in the country by getting 16.7% of the votes in the first round of the legislative ballot, which earned them 47 seats out of a total of 386 in Parliament.

This push was confirmed by the legislative results in April 2014. The party got 20.5% of the votes with 23 seats in a smaller Parliament of 199 seats. When this result was announced, it prompted Gábor Vona to boast that “Jobbik is the most popular radical party in the European Union.”

As a young anti-establishment party with nationalist, anticapitalist, Euroskeptic, anti-Zionist and Pro-Palestine stances, the Jobbik was until recently using antitziganism and anti-Semitic rhetorics. Since the 2014 electoral campaign, however, the group has orchestrated a change in its image and its position. No more talking about Roma and Jews, now they use consensual slogans such as “you can’t stop the future”.

The executive also got rid of troublemakers from their lists. This endeavour to increase respectability has been bearing fruit: “the Jobbik has been growing stronger. It is entirely possible that the party will come second only to Fidesz in the European election if the left doesn’t unite”, Gábor Györi, political analyst with Budapest think tank Policy Solutions, explains.

Constant agitation

As with all extremist populist movements, the Jobbik keeps orchestrating publicity coups and communication events to galvanize their supporters. In 2003, their activists set up a forest of crosses (see video below) to emphasize the real meaning of Christmas. Three years later, they decided to occupy Hungarian television headquarters after Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány confessed he had been “lying to Hungarians night and day”.

The following year, the unarmed paramilitary militia Magyar Garda was created (see video below) with Vona as its president. The group attends big Jobbik gatherings and patrols Gypsy neighbourhoods in the countryside to “restore order”. When it was dismantled in 2009, it was replaced by a “new Hungarian guard”. In 2011, they set up their training facility in the Roma neighbourhood of the small town of Gyögyöspata after a Jobbik mayor was elected there. The party keeps talking about Gypsy criminality.

In the same year, the Jobbik launched the European Alliance for National Movements in Budapest. Far right French leader Marine Le Pen left this group in 2013 after judging it too extreme for the National Front. The Jobbik has distinguished itself in various Euroskeptic events. In 2012, during a Jobbik gathering, MP Előd Novák publicly burned a European Union flag. The party advocates exiting the EU and is also strongly anti-Semitic.

In November 2012, pro-Palestinian Jobbik MP Marton Gyöngyösi made the following anti-Semitic comment in Parliament, suggesting the Hungarian State should “identify Hungarian Jews”, who “pose a threat to national security” in the context of conflicts around the Gaza strip.

A half-hearted refutation from the political class

The fact that this surrealist proposal caused no scandal in Parliament – though it did disturb the press – is symptomatic. The question was asked to the State Secretary of Fidesz who simply replied that Gyöngyösi’s proposal had “little to do with the conflict in Gaza” and that the government “neither had a pro-Israel or a pro-Palestine stance on this matter”, without commenting on the suggestion that Jews be identified. According to Gabor Györi from think tank Policy Solutions “Hungarian political parties reject the Jobbik but remain passive”.

Many debates between Gábor Vona and Viktor Orbán in Parliament have shown that the leading right-wing party, despite keeping their distances from the Jobbik by offering counter-arguments, have also been co-opting some of their principles such as defending the Hungarian diaspora or redeeming nationalist writers considered fascists. They are using any excuse to titillate nationalist feelings.

“Even though the left is rejecting the Jobbik more clearly, it is still not actively fighting it, as they prefer to denounce Euroskepticism in the ruling Fidesz” Gabor Györi adds. “If they wish to get their voters back, the left will have to explain clearly why the Jobbik is a bad choice.”

(Translation: Clemence Grison)