The world’s press has been keeping a watchful eye on Hungary’s governing Fidesz party – and especially its leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – since they took power last May. Journalists are usually most interested in questions surrounding Fidesz’s economic policies. But certain reporters, notably from France and Germany, have also put a lot of energy into dissecting Fidesz’s ties to Hungary’s extreme right. Some even accuse Fidesz of being directly responsible for the rise of the ultranationalist Jobbik party, as a piece in Germany’s Spiegel Online suggested September 9.
Such ideas are way off the mark. The question of Fidesz’s relationship with the extreme right is highly complex. What follows is a summary of the events that lead to Jobbik’s breakthrough in Hungarian politics – and Fidesz’s efforts to turn it around.
When state socialism collapsed in 1990, Hungary’s radical left was a spent force in Hungary. No far left-wing movements managed to gain any ground in the early years of Hungary’s new democracy. People who opposed the market-based system therefore found their voice in the extreme right. Even so, it took a long time for the far right to make any political waves. The only exception was István Csurka’s Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP), which squeaked past the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation in the 1998 election, mostly thanks to low voter turnout. In the 2002 ballot, MIÉP failed to get enough votes to remain in Parliament, mostly thanks to Fidesz.
Once Fidesz became Hungary’s undisputed right-wing standard bearer in the mid-1990s, it began working to consolidate Hungary’s entire right under its own umbrella, from centrists to radicals. The presence of MIÉP made this strategy impossible to realize. Fidesz therefore began reaching out to extremist voters (similar to the way Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement has targeted supporters of France’s far right). Fidesz’s efforts halted the growth of the radical right and bounced MIÉP out of Parliament. The price was that Fidesz’s public statements frequently blurred the lines between moderate- and extreme-right points of view.
Fidesz leaders have openly talked about this strategy on several occasions. In January 2007, Orbán himself told ManagerMagazin, “There’s no need to criticize the fact that right- and left-wing parties are trying to integrate radical voters, even though these parties’ policies are otherwise centrist. From a societal point of view, I see this as a benefit. It prevents Hungary from looking like other countries where radical forces are cropping up on both the right and the left. God only knows how long these can be kept below the 20% level or how long they can exist within the framework of Europe’s democratic traditions.”
Fidesz’s politics thus cannot be characterized as extremist. Indeed, the party has always worked to prevent the far right from becoming institutionalized. And for 10 years, it worked.
September 17, 2006 marked a turning point. That was the day Hungarian media got hold of a recording on which former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted that he had deliberately lied about the state of Hungary’s economy in order to win re-election the previous April (the infamous “Őszöd Speech”). Rioters poured into Budapest’s streets demanding Gyurcsány’s resignation, plunging the city into chaos for days. The turmoil in Hungary’s capital and the popular anger toward the Socialists gave the extreme right the opportunity it needed to regroup. Old ultra-right formations began to recover and new ones sprouted up.
It soon became clear that Jobbik, a youth movement that became a political party in 2003, was taking the leading role in building its movement. The party had run for Parliament in April 2006 in cooperation with MIÉP and failed to win a single seat. But in the October 2006 municipal elections, Jobbik successfully ran some joint candidates for mayor with Fidesz and other right-wing parties. At the end of 2006, Jobbik launched its campaign against “Gypsy crime,” tapping into popular prejudice against Hungary’s Roma minority.
The watershed moment came in 2007, when Jobbik spawned the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda), a paramilitary organization whose uniforms evoked memories of Nazi-era Hungary. Hungarian courts banned the Guard in July 2009 – but by then, the group had already worked wonders for Jobbik. It was not only a magnet for media coverage, but also served a unifying force for right-wing radicals: Smaller extremist groups that had once competed with each other now lined up behind Jobbik.
Fidesz began to give up on radical-right voters once the Hungarian Guard was formed. At first, Fidesz tried to trivialize Jobbik; when this was no longer possible, the party launched a targeted campaign against right-wing extremists. But Fidesz was unable to derail the radical-right juggernaut: Jobbik won more than 450,000 votes in the June 2009 elections for European Parliament and took more than 850,000 votes in the 2010 parliamentary ballot.
It is clear that Jobbik was helped by public revulsion toward the constant mudslinging that Fidesz and its biggest rival, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) engaged in between 2002 and 2010. But the main factor behind Jobbik’s rise has been its ability to make political hay out of popular demand for extremist policies. The percentage of Hungarians who are predisposed to radical right-wing ideologies more than doubled between 2003 and 2009, according to Political Capital’s Demand for Right-Wing Extremism (DEREX) Index. The primary driver behind extremist sentiment is a decline in public morale: Many Hungarians feel they can no longer trust the political elite or their governing institutions. The other factor is a rise in prejudice, especially toward foreigners. In 2003, 37% of Hungarians expressed prejudicial sentiments; in 2009 the rate had jumped to 52%, according to DEREX data.
There is little doubt that the Gyurcsány administration bears a large degree of responsibility for the popularity of the extreme right. At the very least, the Socialists failed to counter Jobbik’s rise while in power, just as Fidesz did while in opposition. The main question is whether Fidesz will be able to weaken Jobbik as a governing party. The initial indicators are favorable: Since Fidesz took over last May, Jobbik has lost much of its power to affect public opinion. Whether Jobbik’s political support has declined is a question that will be answered when the votes are counted in the municipal elections October 3.