On Dec. 7, 2011 – well before the rest of the European Union became so preoccupied with the democratic deficit in Hungary’s constitution – Dagens Nyheter, the most popular newspaper in Sweden, ran a feature-length article on Hungary’s far-right party Jobbik. Below is Sanna Torén Björling’s article in English. It contains not only an in-depth investigation of the far-right party from the international perspective, but some fresh insights about why the party is so popular especially with young Hungarians. Special thanks to Martin H. for recommending this article and for his generous help with preparing this translation.
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How far-right Jobbik conquered the public opinion of Hungary
BUDAPEST. In Hungary, right-wing forces are stronger than in most other parts of Europe. Jobbik received nearly 17 percent of the votes in the 2010 elections and, using non-traditional forms of media, it has found efficient ways to bring its populist racism to voters.
In the November fog, the Parliament looks almost dreamy. The outlines are blurred; pinnacles and towers fade against the sky. In front of the building flows the mighty Danube slowly, traversed by illuminated bridges between Buda and Pest.
It looks like a fairy tale.
It does so on the inside as well: the neo-Gothic architecture accommodates 690 rooms and 10 courtyards decorated with high arches, gold, and red velvet in matchless splendor. The windows of the wide corridors that surround the Chamber feature numbered cigar holders. Under the largest dome, situated in the middle of the building, a well-guarded booth holds Stefan’s medieval golden crown, perhaps the most important symbol of the Hungarian right. It is a treasure watched over by sentries, who also perform a changing of guards before the tourists.
The Parliament was completed in 1904; it is 286 meters long, 96 meters high and Hungary’s largest building. It looks like a place for the governance of a large kingdom.
The conservative party Fidesz won a landslide victory in the Hungarian elections in 2010 and got 262 of the Parliament’s 386 seats. The election’s biggest losers were the Socialists, who now have only 12 seats more than the other winner of the election: the far-right Jobbik party, which received 17 percent of the vote and 47 seats.
The poor turnout – not even half of Hungary’s eligible voters went to the polls – might understate the actual figure of sympathizers. Recent polls show that Jobbik has the support of nearly the quarter of the population and would beat the Socialist Party.
The party has received considerable attention internationally for its anti-Roma, nationalist politics, which is tinged with anti-Semitism and coarse rhetoric.
Jobbik was formed by a group of history students at the University of Budapest in 2001. Six years later, the party’s organization was supplemented by the independent, though closely related, Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard): an unarmed but uniformed marching vigilante. The black boots often appeared in places where conflicts between Roma and non-Roma had already existed. The Guard was banned in 2009 but reappeared quickly.
As many other right-wing and right-wing populist parties, Jobbik combines a conservative view of family, tradition and morality with antiglobalism and nationalistic demands for a strong state that would promote the interest of its citizens.
Penalties should be tightened, capitalism limited, nationalized banks and industry linked to domestic ownership. Multiculturalism is considered harmful: the Hungarian people must be protected.
Jobbik also believes that the Republic of Hungary should be larger, preferably as large as it was before the Treaty of Trianon was adopted in 1920, when the country suffered the blow of losing two thirds of its territory and three million inhabitants. The treaty of Trianon may be ninety years behind in history, but it still upsets Jobbik supporters, who see a reunified Greater Hungary as a long-term political goal.
“Our style is different from that of the established parties, due to the concepts that we stand for, but also out of necessity, because we have not been able to count on coverage in the mainstream media,” says Márton Gyöngyösi as he sits down on a padded velvet sofa in the halls connecting the corridors and the assembly hall.
He is Member of Parliament for Jobbik and calls himself Shadow Foreign Secretary. He is tall and very elegant in a suit and shiny shoes.
As a diplomat’s child, he was born in India and grew up mainly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt. He studied economics and political science in Dublin and has worked for two international accounting and management consulting firms. Márton Gyöngyösi is pleasant and takes his time even though he squeezed us into a busy schedule of meetings and dinners with Azerbaijani ambassadors and Italian senators (“parliamentary diplomacy,” he says, smiling).
His assistant, Georgina Bernáth, is around 25. She wears a black suit with a straight posture. While we wait for her boss, she tells us that she chose Jobbik’s politics because it touched both her mind and heart. Moreover, she accidentally walked into a bar when Roma individuals stabbed an athlete to death – but more on that later.
Georgina Bernáth has worked for Gyöngyösi since last spring and has plenty to do. Many are interested to hear about Jobbik’s success and she leaves us under the ceiling paintings on which gentle figures shrouded in flowing draperies look down on us, illuminated by the soft glow of the chandeliers.
“The resistance of the media has been good for us,” says Márton Gyöngyösi and continues:
“We have reached out. Met people. My own constituency consists of eighteen small towns and villages, and before the election, I attended 47 public meetings and hearings there. It was an incredible opportunity to tell the people directly what we stand for – and get valuable feedback.”
Ears to the ground: few of the established parties other than Jobbik did this job from the ground up. But included in the tufts grown from the grass roots were weeds as well.
Though building a popular movement through direct tactics has been essential in rural areas, which often have low levels of education and poor access to the Internet, other means also turned out to be important for attracting supporters from different milieus. Even though Jobbik, like many other right-wing populist parties, draws its voters primarily from the poorly educated population – who tend to reside in socially deprived areas with high unemployment rates – another circle in the party holds university degrees.
“And the young voters are drawn to politics through the Internet,” says Márton Gyöngyösi and repeats, “the net has been crucial.”
Jobbik has a strong, developed online presence. The party’s program, newsletters and regular information are available on the official page of the party in English, German, French and Russian versions even. Barikád, the party’s newspaper, which comes out on paper once a week, also has its own site. In addition, there is Kuruc.info, a page which is not officially associated with Jobbik but whose intimate involvement with the party is neither questioned nor denied by anyone (not even by the shadow foreign minister). Kuruc.info reminds one of what a youth club is relative to the parent-party: loyal but critical, positing challenges yet bold in its encouragement. Through these and their links to Facebook as well as to Twitter, you can reach many. Everyone can choose whatever suits their taste and tolerance level.
We will return to this as well.
Another person with direct influence over Jobbik’s communication is Zsolt Várkonyi. He has held a number of assignments in Jobbik’s leadership, including being responsible for contacts with the international press. Now he is just a member.
“Jobbik was really great online before the election. We have a network of Hungarians in countries like the USA, Canada and Germany, who write articles and help us with building a powerful site” he says in perfect Swedish and continues:
“You have to be radical to get through if you do not have your own media, and it’s always hard to be the first to say something. But when we were accused of being behind the Gypsy killings of 2009, I was able to list, with detailed facts, 110 crimes committed by the Roma. After that, criticism of Jobbik declined.”
Zsolt Várkonyi has silver-gray hair and is fifty-five. He is highly trained and says that he always hated communism, and therefore left Hungary as a twenty-year-old in 1976; for Sweden, where he remained for seven years, before moving on to England. He did not return to Hungary until the first free elections in 1990.
“Though what exists today is in many ways worse than communism. Hungary’s soul was destroyed, there is no will to live here, no spirit. After the regime-change the reforms took place way too fast, and everything was sold out to foreign owners. Hungary became very weak.”
He looks at me through his narrow-rimmed glasses with a look of sadness and anger:
“Did you know that Hungary used to be three times as large?”
Then he talks at length about the disaster of Trianon.
“Many Hungarians are desperate. I was a member of Fidesz before, but got disappointed. I felt that we must work harder. Jobbik had young people who were much more radical. It looked agreeable.”
What Zsolt Várkonyi says illustrates how Jobbik emerged out of deep and widespread dissatisfaction with today’s politicians, who, regardless of political affiliation, are regarded to be corrupt and unresponsive, paralyzed before the problems of segregation, unemployment and security. The Guards used to be welcome in many place which the police seemed to have abandoned.
Even before, in post-communist Hungary, there was a party on the far-right, MIEP, with a strong anti-Semitic profile. It is now completely marginalized. Since then, the hunt for scapegoats settled on the Roma. There were real problems: skyrocketing unemployment and frequent conflicts between Roma and non-Roma, especially in areas with a high percentage of Roma population. In the northeast, the poor parts of Hungary, the Roma live more or less apart from society in large ghetto-like areas.
With the fall of communism and with the deregulation of the market economy and privatization, many jobs disappeared. A school reform further exacerbated segregation.
Jobbik accuses the Roma with welfare dependency and lack of interest in education and work, as well as with bearing children in order to receive child benefits (in addition, they are starting to become so numerous that demographically speaking they threaten the aging Hungarians). The accusations extend even to hitting their pregnant women in the stomach so as to harm the fetus and to receive higher amounts for disabled children. They are accused of thefts too, often of food.
Zsolt Várkonyi tells a story, nearly identical in the way in which it is told to several others found on various resources of the right:
“Just imagine an old woman in the countryside. Her pension is very low and though she is poor, she has a little garden and maybe a few chickens to make ends meet. But her potatoes and her chickens are constantly stolen by the gypsies. The police do not care, the value of the items stolen is too low.”
“Gypsy crime” is a frequently used concept.
Jobbik poll ratings soared at the wake of two murders that added fuel to the hatred against the Roma. In October 2006, a teacher accidentally ran over a girl in a small village in northeastern Hungary. The girl, who happened to be Roma, was very slightly injured, but a group of Roma men rushed forward, pulled the teacher out of the car and beat him so badly that he died.
A few years later, in February 2009, a young, successful handball player was stabbed to death at a nightclub in Veszprém, a town west of Budapest.
Várkonyi‘s assistant Georgina Bernáth, who is from the town and who often hung out in the popular bar, left the site shortly before the violence started. She felt that the atmosphere was becoming intimidating, she says that she saw the knife blades. The incident made an impact on her political views. The handball player was always so nice, she says, happy and well-liked. The perpetrators were Roma, the violence unprovoked.
Both of these events received enormous amount of attention and the victims became iconic symbols. Zsolt Várkonyi acknowledges that the murders benefited Jobbik.
The blame for the disastrous situation falls heavily on the previous governments, even according to Jobbik’s critics.
The award-winning journalist Szilvia Varró, who has been covering the situation of the Roma throughout her fifteen-year journalistic career, says that the discrimination against the Roma is by no means specifically Jobbik’s fault.
“The responsibility lies with both the Socialists and the conservative governments. None of them did anything about a situation that had been horrible for many years.”
Jobbik did not waste time to exploit the discontent, and Szilvia Varró also emphasizes their conscious communication. Reports of human and Roma rights line the bookcase of her living room. The floor is laid with books, prints and toys. Szilvia Varró works for a well-established, community-oriented weekly magazine, but she also helps international journalists understand the Hungarian situation.
If you look closely at the links on Jobbik’s official website, they are relatively decent. They bring you to news, programs and policies on everything from transportation services to adolescents (though on its press page the site criticizes “lazy journalists” for “besmirching modern Hungarian patriotism” only to make their “tiresome and repetitive articles sensational”). But neither is what lies at the roots of the party’s agenda hidden: the site carries an article about “gypsies criminals,” who should be locked up in “correctional facilities” surrounded by a double roof and guarded by police. Only after registration should they be allowed to leave the area, with a 22 o’clock curfew. “Release into society” should be granted only to those who work, abide by the laws, and send their children to school – once they have applied for authorization to a special committee of their local municipality.
In the newspaper Barikád and on its site, the talk is more direct, while the website Kuruc.info is explicitly aggressive, racist and anti-Semitic. Tabs on its front page include “gypsy criminality,” “Jewish crime,” “anti-Hungarianism” and “humor”, with coarse jokes and funny stories one would more likely associate with hate speech. Articles and posts deal with the solution to the “Gypsy question” (they suggest that it would be best if they shot and killed one another), and one describes a couple in a gay wedding in Tel Aviv as “gay Jew and his bitch.” An article cites a Jobbik representative who asserted in the Parliament that the party sees the Trianon peace-treaty, not the Holocaust, as the greatest tragedy of Hungarians.
On the net, rumors about alleged Roma offenders spread quickly. Denials and corrections drown out quickly, on the other hand.
As said, a window for every taste and threshold of tolerance.
Jobbik MEP Márton Gyöngyösi puts one suit-clad leg over the other:
“In the beginning we were regarded as a party for a certain social strata, as a single-issue party. We are not at all that. Our program is more than a hundred pages long and deals with all areas of policy. We are everywhere.”
He speaks fast and eloquently. He says he has a wife and a young child and that he lives in a village just outside Budapest. He is not really a city person and he himself is not on Facebook – he would just be swallowed up by it, he says, smiling. He uses no demeaning names or coarse words when he talks about the Roma, even though he describes them as work-shy criminals. He says that the Roma problem of course does not have anything to do with genes, but he nevertheless wants to introduce ethnic registration and create boarding schools for Roma children “to separate them from the demoralizing home environment.”
“I myself went to boarding school. It was amazing,” he says.
When I meet his parliamentary colleague, Ms. Osztolykán, who belongs to the little green party LMP, she says that the tone of Parliament has changed dramatically with Jobbik’s entrance. Language is being used that previously would have been impossible, and the only person who may suspend a member, the President, has not reacted to it so far. She says that there are Jobbik members who are interested and curious, but that most will never miss an opportunity to point out that she is not a Hungarian, only a Roma.
“They do not consider me an equal. They consider the Roma to be some kind of a social animal that should shut up.”
She stops and looks pensive.
“It has somehow become fashionable to be on the right. Hungary is not exactly known for being an open and tolerant country.”
In the capital tourists and visitors unfamiliar with the situation do not notice very much of the rancorous atmosphere. Budapest is traditionally more open and liberal than the rest of Hungary, and in a recent special election Jobbik only got 6 percent of the vote.
Not that you need to go far to find completely segregated Roma areas: in commuting distance from the center there are neighborhoods where people live in wood shacks of planks, cardboard and bricks. Some of them have not worked for twenty years.
But in the inner city one does not notice a thing. The Roma I talk to say that they rarely felt discriminated against. One says yes, when he was a child it was always his family that got blamed for any trouble that may have occurred. I learn that Latin-American tourists have been treated to slurs intended for Roma on occasion, and I catch myself wondering how my own Walloonic appearance is perceived. You are too light-skinned to be Roma, I am told when I ask.
This does not mean that the bias is not present – on the contrary, it affects more groups than the Roma people, mostly Jews and homosexuals. András Schépasz, a young gay man I meet, says that the Pride parade in Budapest has shrunk from thousands to just a few hundred people. People do not dare to go any more. And the harassment has evolved from awkward but harmless egg-throwing to scorching acid. András Schépasz says he would never go hand in hand with his boyfriend, much less kiss him in public.
And in the city’s eighth district, which, with its high proportion of Roma residents, has long had a reputation for being dangerous at night, the local office of Jobbik distributes newsletters to every households, with articles on crime, security and penalties – and recruitment ads for new members of the resurrected New Hungarian Guard.
And there are other signs.
The area closest to the Parliament is to be restored to what it looked like in 1944, which critics say is the Conservative government’s excuse to get rid of, in particular, a monument to Mihály Károlyi, Hungary’s first president during the brief democratic period from 1918 to 1919, who is a despised figure on the right. As a bonus you get rid of the angst-ridden, left-radical author Attila József. His statue looks with serious, bronze-like gaze out over the Danube, its base is covered with lanterns and red roses.
Just a stone’s throw away is the Calvinist Church of Homecoming, a place of worship for the extreme right. A large wooden cross stands on the sidewalk in front of the Bauhaus building – a donation from Jobbik. One of the busts at the stone steps outside of the entrance depicts the fascist head of state Miklós Horthy. The church façade carries a megaphone and red and white striped flags, symbol of the arrow cross movement – you can even see them wave in the air here and there. A large placard sits on the wall with a religious quote about the everlasting spirit of Hungary’s 1939 expansion.
But if Jobbik supporters argue that they are talking about things no one else is talking about, others – artists, NGOs, journalists – complain about the low level and bad quality of the intellectual public debate.
Szilvia Varró sighs, patting her feverish one year old on the rear end. She adds that she’s thinking about leaving journalism after her parental leave.
“In Hungary, the division is very sharp between left and right, and it is difficult for a print journalist to cope financially. When it comes to the Roma, the media has often made things worse. Today, I can also see all the mistakes I have made. We portray everything as black and white, and the Roma are always the victims, someone to feel sorry for.”
She does not agree that the ruling Fidesz party has drifted to the right because of Jobbik – they have always fished for the right-wing votes and the two parties already share views on a series of questions and are equally outraged by Hungary’s small size.
Others, like the Greens’ Ms Osztolykán, insist that Jobbik made its impact not only on the rhetoric but also on the policies of the Parliament. With the same electoral base, Fidesz is forced to keep up with Jobbik.
In local elections, Jobbik performed well and now controls several municipalities. But despite that and despite opinion polls, Zsolt Várkonyi does not believe that the party will become much bigger or ascend to government. For that, they would have to get at least 30 percent of the votes in Budapest, which is difficult. He sighs.
“The second option is a coalition – but no one wants to sit in a coalition with us,” he says.
It’s not completely socially accepted to vote for Jobbik yet. The taxi driver who drives me to the airport says that he sees Fidesz as Hungary’s only hope: both communism and the subsequent neoliberalism turned out to be bad, he says. But he does not believe in Jobbik and their ways either: they are manipulative and evocative of the Nazis during World War II.
“It does not feel right,” he says, meeting my gaze in the rear-view mirror as he turns toward the international terminal.
When I ask if he voted in the last election, he says:
“Of course. If you believe in democracy, one must use his voice.”