The Troubling Rise of Hungary's Jobbik

It hasn't gone unnoticed in Europe that the real story of Hungary's 11 April elections wasn't just that the right-wing Fidesz party ousted the tiresome Socialists to return to power amid economic hardship. It was that Jobbik, a self-described "radical" party, strategically and successfully scapegoated the country's large Roma and Jewish minorities to win 17 percent of the vote.

Not only did the number soar past the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament, it was triple the high-water mark achieved by an earlier Hungarian far-right party in 1998.

For the European Union, there ought to be concern that it also represents the greatest electoral triumph of any openly anti-minority party among the 10 ex-communist states that are its newest members.

This is bad for Hungary, which for years was a leading light amid the region's post-1989 transition from dictatorship to democracy. I say this as a foreign correspondent sitting next door in Slovakia, but I also lived it first-hand in Budapest, from the mid- to late-1990s.

The fact that a whopping two-thirds of Hungarian voters thrust rightward – Fidesz secured 53 percent of the ballots, the Socialists just 19 percent – does not threaten to upend a 20-year-old democracy. But the quality of Hungarian democracy is sickly indeed. The drumbeat of years of political incitement has embedded a hatred that drives apart even some family and friends. Not to mention what it's done to swathes of society.

Anti-minority barbs may lead elsewhere. The past two years have seen six Hungarian Roma murdered. On the flip side, in September 2006, several Roma beat to death a Hungarian motorist, while his children watched, after he hit and injured a Romani girl. Last February, in a pub fight, a Rom stabbed and killed a renowned Romanian handball player who was competing in the Hungarian league.

Hungary is hardly unique. Interethnic resentment is rife across the region, often dressed up as freedom of speech. Slovakia has an incendiary party in its ruling coalition that stirs ugliness against ethnic Hungarians and Roma. Bulgaria boasts the Attack party, which has roasted ethnic Turks and Roma to collect 9 percent of the 2005 national vote and 12 percent in the 2009 ballot for the European Parliament. And in the Czech Republic, scores of Czech Roma have fled, claiming asylum in Canada.

For me, the question of where this leads Hungary falls on the shoulders of one man: Viktor Orban, the Fidesz leader who has won a second chance as prime minister. He served from 1998-2002, during the run-up to EU membership.

How will Orban react when Jobbik utters its first words of demonization on the floor of parliament? Jobbik will presumably also want some seats on the boards of Hungarian Television and Hungarian Radio, to shape what goes out on the airwaves across this country of 10 million, roughly half a million of whom are Roma and 100,000 Jewish.

Will Orban draw a line – send society a message that certain rhetoric and imagery is beyond the pale? Or will he say nothing, and let the public conclude that there's nothing wrong with it?

Given the premier's track record, there's little reason for optimism. It was Orban, after all, who at a critical moment in Hungarian democracy 10 years ago – as political strife and nasty name-calling became common – took the low road and kept quiet. He has stayed silent in the face of inflammatory comments from Fidesz colleagues who have attacked enemies by deploying terms torn from a Hitlerite lexicon: "cosmopolitans," "Communist Jews," people with "foreign hearts."

Many decent Hungarians reject such language, but the envelope has been pushed open wider, with impunity, and the mass message delivered, loud and clear.

Orban also kept mum on several efforts to whitewash Hungary's role in the Holocaust. And when Brussels ostracized Austria in 2000 for establishing a ruling coalition with populist Joerg Haider, who bashed immigrants and praised some policies of Nazi Germany, Orban's sympathy for Haider drew attention. The EU response "forces us all to think about the deeper meaning of democracy," he said. Later, he described Haider's rise as "a stone thrown into an intellectually and politically stagnant pond."

I've never interviewed anyone who suggested Orban is or has said anything anti-Semitic. But he didn't seem to mind leading certain segments of Hungarians to believe he was. He needed Istvan Csurka's far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) to carry out some of his agenda.

As the former Hungarian dissident and liberal politician Miklos Haraszti told me in early 2000, before he went on to become the media watchdog for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, "These are deeply coded messages to the far right to show that this is where their hearts beat."

It's important to remember that these things happened when Budapest was trying to satisfy Brussels in hopes of entering the EU club. It did so in 2004, and with that Brussels lost much of its leverage over the new members. Once you're in, you're in. Today I wonder what impact – if any – EU criticism would have on Orban.

Enter Jobbik, the Movement for a Better Hungary, and its charismatic young leader, 31-year-old Gabor Vona. Unlike MIEP collaboration, Jobbik represents a threat to Fidesz.

Jobbik has referred to Fidesz as "Zsidesz," a play on words interpreted as "Jewish party." And Jobbik issued a double-barreled press release 14 April that went after both Fidesz and the Socialists.

First Jobbik accused Fidesz of creeping "dictatorship" for stifling investigation of alleged electoral fraud. Then the party announced it would sue the Socialist candidate for prime minister, Attila Mesterhazy, for defamation for branding Jobbik "fascist" during his 11 April concession speech. The party vowed to sue anyone who "defame[s] the more than 855,000 Hungarians who voted for Jobbik."

Orban himself will be under pressure, as his team made lofty promises to clean up Hungary's economic mess, much of it created during eight years of Socialist rule. (Context is also important: many Hungarians won't forgive that the Socialist Party is heir to the old Hungarian Communist Party.)

Most notoriously, in September 2006, Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was caught on tape confessing that earlier in the year he'd lied to voters "morning, evening, and night" about the economy to win re-election. Orban, then head of the Fidesz-led opposition, fanned the flames by attacking the government as "illegitimate." Vicious street riots erupted, with CNN covering them.

Today, with IMF-imposed belt-tightening, Hungarian anger has grown, as has unemployment: at 11.4 percent, it's the highest since 1994, early in the turbulent economic transformation. This frustration also exacerbates what has festered from the beginning: widespread poverty of the marginalized Roma, which has spurred a rise in petty crimes and, in turn, conflicts with Hungarian neighbors.

This serves as toxic fodder for Jobbik. Ranting against ciganybunozes – "Gypsy criminality" – the party unveiled a uniformed militia in September 2007, the Magyar Garda (Hungarian Guard). Dressed primarily in black, with mixed military and folk-ethnic motifs, the Garda embraced the ancient, red-and-white-striped "Arpad flag" as its symbol. The same flag was used by the Hungarian Nazi party that helped kill more than a half-million Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

As I wrote for Transitions Online in March 2008, the Magyar Garda would march in lockstep formation in Roma-heavy villages where there'd been reports of "atrocities." Some observers warned of bloodshed if Roma were to respond with "self-defense" forces of their own. The Hungarian courts banned the militia in December 2008, but Vona has reportedly stated that he would wear his Garda uniform when sworn into parliament.

Cover images of recent issues of the magazine Barricade, a Jobbik mouthpiece, have included the following:

A thick-necked, dark-skinned man, drawn from behind, wearing a thick gold chain. Headline: Gypsy Criminality! Over!

The statue of St. Gellert that perches high above the scenic panorama of Budapest holding a Jewish menorah. Headline: Wake Up, Budapest! Is This What You Want? (This plays to a favorite canard, that Israel is scheming to occupy Hungary.)

Jobbik's leader clutching a medieval sword and Arpad-decorated shield. Headline: Unwavering! Hungary for Hungarians!

So the contagion of hatred spreads through society. Why wouldn't it infect more and more Hungarians?

One of the most striking comments I heard from Vona came 11 April, as the election results were announced: "I still feel, however, that two-thirds of Hungarians are Jobbik supporters but don't know it yet."

By my math, that encompasses the whole Fidesz electorate.

Is there truth in it? Maybe. Perhaps pressure from the right is also what Orban had in mind when he admitted the same day, "I know deep in my heart that I stand before the biggest task of my life."

It's hard to imagine he'll get a third crack at this. More than fulfilling campaign promises, though, the incoming prime minister should also aim to fulfill the promise of Hungarian democracy.

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