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.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is trying to win the October 3 municipal elections using roughly the same tactic that brought it a 68% majority in Parliament last April: Make vague, crowd-pleaser promises without disclosing the dirty details of how they will be fulfilled – or more importantly, who is going to pay for them. There is certainly nothing unusual about politicians making unrealistic promises. But Fidesz has raised it to an art form: When pressed for more information, party leaders not only resort to tried-and-true political subterfuge, they behave as if they have no obligation to explain themselves.
Fidesz’s state secretary in charge of healthcare, Miklós Szócska, last week refused to elucidate his plans to overhaul the medical system, saying it would inappropriate during a political campaign, according to the Népszabadság newspaper.* This is an interesting take on democracy: A sitting government should clarify its budgetary priorities only when the voting is over. The press would have skewered Szócska in the United States, where he earned his master’s in public administration from Harvard University. But his words barely made a ripple on the Hungarian political radar screen.
Leading Fidesz candidates see no reason to defend their positions in public debates – a basic tenet of democracy in developed countries. István Tarlós, the runaway favorite to become Budapest mayor, refuses to go head-to-head with his rivals. His spokeswoman said Tarlós prefers to spend his time with the people of Budapest rather than other politicians. Ákos Kriza, Fidesz’s mayoral candidate in Hungary’s third-biggest city, Miskolc, did not show up for a September 15 debate with incumbent Socialist Mayor Sándor Káli and independent Ákos Hircsu. This means neither Tarlós’ nor Kriza’s ideas will be subject to the kind of scrutiny that only a debate can bring. Of course, both men have a strong precedent: Orbán refused to debate other parties’ nominees for prime minister ahead of the April 11 ballot.
Fidesz is also keeping its plans for the 2011 budget under wraps. On July 5, Fidesz restored an old law that extends the deadline for the government to present its draft budget until Oct. 31 in election years. Without this change, the Orbán administration would have had to send its 2011 spending plan to Parliament before the municipal vote. It is understandable that a brand-new government needs an extra month to get its spending priorities in order. However, Fidesz is facing an EU-imposed budget-deficit target of 2.8% of GDP for 2011, which would be a record-low shortfall since 1995. The budget is therefore bound to bring some negative news, whether it be delays in promised income-tax cuts, lower social spending or sector-specific corporate levies similar to the “bank tax.” Problem is, voters will not know the details until after the polls close.
Nonetheless, Fidesz is poised to sweep every county and nearly every major city on election day, if opinion polls are correct. Popular revulsion toward the main opposition party, the Socialists, is so strong that many Hungarians will stick by Fidesz no matter what they say. Perhaps it would be wise to recall the words of U.S. President Andrew Jackson: “Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty.” In modern-day parlance: “Democracy: Use it or lose it.”
*Szócska’s office declined to confirm or deny whether the Népszabadság quote was accurate.
- Alex Kuli