Hungary: Jobbik and the ‘Enemy Within’
It can be a devastating experience for a truly extremist party to realize that the “enemy” is within their own ranks. This is what happened to Hungary’s Jobbik two months ago, when Csanád Szegedi, a leading figure in the party and a founding member of the vigilante group Magyar Gárda, discovered that he is Jewish. Although it could have been a rare opportunity for the party to dispel claims of anti-Semitism, it remained true to its convictions, and Szegedi was forced to resign from his various positions (the official reason being that he lied about his origins). Jobbik thus reaffirmed its unconcealed anti-Semitic nature, which differentiates it from other European populist parties.
Jobbik was founded in 2003 by a group of university students and came to political prominence in 2009, when it received 427,773 votes, or 14.77 percent, in European Parliament elections. While initial commentaries downplayed the result by pointing to the low turnout rate (36.31 percent) and noting that radical voters are easier to mobilize, the 2010 parliamentary elections solidified Jobbik’s status as the country’s third-largest party, with 855,436 votes (16.67 percent).
Figure 1 - Support for the two leading parties and Jobbik between 2006 and 2012 (source: tarki.hu)
However, Jobbik’s rise was not without warning signs. Its growth overlapped with an increase in the percentage of potential supporters of extremist ideologies: the figure skyrocketed from 10 percent in 2002 to 21 percent by 2010. According to Political Capital’s DEREX Index, which measures right-wing extremism, Hungary is Europe’s fourth most prejudiced country (after Turkey, Ukraine, and Bulgaria), scoring especially high on welfare chauvinism and antiestablishment attitudes. The discontent with traditional politics is reflected in recent polls, with the percentage of undecided voters reaching 50 percent and the extreme right consistently registering above 10 percent. Hungarians mistrust a wide range of democratic institutions: the legal system and the police, for example, are much less trusted than in Western Europe.
Figure 2 - DEREX scores in 10 countries (source: riskandforecast.com)
Jobbik’s electorate is characterized by even lower levels of institutional trust and stronger antiestablishment attitudes than the general public. Although often depicted as uneducated and coming from lower-income backgrounds, Jobbik supporters are in fact younger, better educated, and more well-off than average voters of the two major parties, Fidesz and the Socialist Party (MSZP). This disproves the common assumption that the voters of extremist parties should consist solely of people who lost out during the transition to democracy or have been badly hurt by the economic crisis.
If not poverty, then what are the reasons for this apparent ideological radicalization? Some blame both the current and previous governments. The “hesitant” way of governing that characterized the previous left-wing coalition lacked the kind of emotional identification that is very important for this group of voters, who feel increasingly threatened by the uncertainty and value pluralism associated with both European integration and globalization in general. On the other hand, the content and style of the then opposition party Fidesz’s rhetoric legitimized a politics of emotions, with no room for constructive debate. The two major parties’ media strategies were also inappropriate: Fidesz downplayed Jobbik’s importance while trying to exploit some of its themes (e.g., Hungarian minorities abroad, anticommunism), and MSZP overreacted by playing the antifascist card indiscriminately.
To expand its base of support, Jobbik seized on a combustible issue that had been ignored by political elites: the Roma. The economically and socially disadvantaged Romany community accounts for about 5 to 10 percent of the country’s population (the 2001 census recorded 190,000, but current estimates are somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million). Yet the average Hungarian believes the Roma to be at least twice as numerous. In fact, all minorities were overestimated by respondents to a survey conducted in 2012. The end result was a false perception that ethnic Hungarians were becoming a minority “in their own country.” (In reality ethnic Hungarians make up about 90 percent of the population.)
The Roma issue as put forward by Jobbik—which presents it as a question of public security by referring to “Gypsy crime”—resonated well with several groups. Jobbik has benefited both because it was the first to politicize the Roma issue and because the center-right Fidesz government has proved unable to advance policies that satisfy more radical voters.
Thus whereas in other European countries center-right parties have succeeded in undermining populist parties by seeming to embrace aspects of their platforms, in Hungary Jobbik remains unchallenged on the far right. It has benefited from the growth of potential extremists, the worsening of the economic situation, the increase in welfare chauvinism, and, no doubt, the fact that the government has been unable to address the question of Romany minorities in an adequate manner.
Jews constitute the other threat invoked by Jobbik, as we learned from the fate of Csanád Szegedi. According to an Anti-Defamation League index measuring anti-Semitism in several European countries, more than 70 percent of Hungarians agreed that “Jews have too much power in the business world / international financial markets.” Although the survey’s methodology was questioned by some (500 telephone interviews were conducted, and the questions could be seen as measuring the prevalence of certain anti-Jewish prejudices rather than a willingness to discriminate in practice), it is still a fact that Hungary’s scores have been increasing in recent years and are far above those of most other countries.
Why is this so? The Hungarian situation cannot be characterized as the “anti-Semitism without Jews” found in several other Central and Eastern European countries, because Hungary has a sizeable Jewish community (the world’s 13th largest, according to some estimates). One Hungarian study recently found that despite a slight decline since 2010, the percentage of those who can be defined as “extremely anti-Jewish” has grown from below 10 percent to above 20 percent in the past 10 years, somewhat higher than the percentages measured in Western and most Central and Eastern European countries. However, it is interesting to note that the rather large “no answer” group with regard to opinions on Jews that had been distinguishable in 2009 almost vanished afterward, suggesting that the appearance of Jobbik in the political arena legitimized anti-Semitism as an acceptable attitude among elements of the population.
The number of people believing in “conspiracy theories” also grew in the past several years, along with institutional distrust. Such theories are essential for extremist parties because they serve as a cohesive force and contribute to the formation of an antiestablishment identity. Jobbik’s rhetorical division of Hungarian society into “our kind” and “your kind” of people is a prime example of this phenomenon.
Central European University professor Andras Kovacs has described Jews as the “stranger at hand”: they can always be used as scapegoats, especially because historically they have often been seen as representing modernity and internationalism as juxtaposed with local tradition. In Hungary this “old type” of scapegoating is still rampant, unlike in most Western European extremist parties, which tend to focus on the “Islamic threat” and can even be characterized as pro-Jewish in some cases (e.g., Vlaams Belang).
It has to be stressed, however, that anti-Semitism has not taken the form of outright political claims or discriminatory administrative behavior in Hungarian society. It does not constitute a coherent rightist ideology. Indeed, it has been condemned by the governing party, and, according to surveys, Jews are the second least “disliked” minority after Swabians (ethnic Germans living in Hungary). The question is whether anti-Semitism can be made into an idea that differentiates Jobbik from all other political parties. And that is a possibility if Fidesz seizes every other pet topic of the far-right party, leaving it with its unique penchant for seeing the Jewish “stranger” behind every problem. As a former vice president of the party once asked: “So what is Gypsy crime, after all? Don’t be deceived. It is a biological weapon in the hands of Zionism.”
* Zselyke Csaky is a human rights graduate who specializes in minority rights, privacy, and European affairs.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.