Can Europe Make It?

The rise and fall of Jobbik

Tracing the Jekyll and Hyde relations of the two largest parties in the Hungarian parliament.

Vassilis Petsinis
27 October 2020
Jobbik anti-Victor Orban election poster in Miskolc, Hungary, March, 2018.
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NurPhoto/PA. All rights reserved.

Since the April 2018 elections, Jobbik (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom/Movement for a Better Hungary) stands as the second largest party in the Hungarian parliament with 26 out of 199 seats. However, throughout the last couple of years, the party has been suffering from a steady decline in public appeal.

In the latest ratings, Jobbik’s popularity is hovering around 7% of the electorate’s preferences; that is below newer parties such as (centrist-liberal) Momentum Movement/MM and (centre-left) Democratic Coalition/DK. Following the departure of former chairman, Gábor Vona (October 2019), the new leadership has been struggling to refashion Jobbik’s rhetoric, as well as the party’s organizational structure, in an attempt to reclaim at least a fraction of its former target-groups from the preponderant Civic Democratic Union/FIDESZ. Nevertheless, this endeavour has not yet met success.

What are the reasons behind Jobbik’s steady decline of popularity? How does this impact on Jobbik – both in terms of ideology and party-organization?

Classification schemes and the increase of Jobbik’s public appeal

Radical right-wing parties in contemporary Europe tend to converge on three constitutive pillars: ethno-nationalism, nativism and populism/anti-establishment politics – with the two former usually functioning as the ‘host ideologies’. Ethno-nationalism, possesses a powerful socio-psychological component through its association with ancestral myths and symbols crucial for mass mobilization. Nativism opposes immigration and holds that primacy must be granted to the political rights, economic needs and cultural identity of the ethnic/native members of these nations. For the purposes of this piece, I take the definition of populism as a thin ideology which tends to juxtapose the people to the elite.

Owing to the low percentage of immigrants in Hungary’s population, nativism from early on did not form a major component of Jobbik’s political engineering. Instead, the party-leadership envisaged Hungary as a ‘bridge between east and west’. Especially in light of the de-legitimization of the Socialists/MSZP on charges of corruption (2006-2008), Jobbik urged the swift introduction of ‘political crime’ as a separate category in the penal code. The absence of potent forces on the left of the MSZP facilitated Jobbik’s campaign of artificial anti-capitalism.

Rather than a critique of capitalism in a literal sense, it was financial protectionism, combined with ethno-nationalism, that had a pivotal significance in Jobbik’s political programme of 2010. The party announced its intention to ‘tailor the economy through controls which would lead it to serve the national interests of Hungarians’, considering ‘Hungarian populated territories beyond the border to be part of a unified protected Hungarian economic zone’ (page 3). While Jobbik advocates for the implementation of stricter measures (e.g. higher taxation rates) for foreign entrepreneurs and investors, at the same time the party maintains a particularly encouraging stance vis-à-vis domestic businesses – including proposals for substantial tax-breaks. This financial protectionism and the overriding objective to rely primarily on ‘domestic capital’ has been commonplace in various political programmes and declarations of other parties of the radical right across Central and Eastern Europe (e.g. the Estonian Conservative People’s Party/EKRE, Latvia’s National Alliance/NA and the Lithuanian Nationalists Union/NU as indicated in the text of the ‘Bauska Declaration’ – jointly adopted by the three parties in 2013).

With its concept of so-called ‘Eco-social National Economics’, Jobbik called for the renegotiation of Hungary’s foreign debt, the establishment of a banking system independent from the interference of multinational corporations, the state-ownership of sectors such as health and education and the long-term renationalization of various others. One of Jobbik’s main objectives is ‘the reincorporation into the national body of both Western and Carpathian-basin Hungarians’ (pages 15 and 20).

Jobbik’s position in Hungarian politics is also somewhere between the radical and the more extremist right-wing parties. The latter have often come into being as result of processes spearheaded by a grass-roots nucleus aided by semi-paramilitary groupings, (the cases of Greece’s ‘Golden Dawn’, Bulgaria’s ‘Ataka’ and the party of Naše Slovensko/’Our Slovakia’). While parties of the radical right tend to respect constitutional order, those of the extremist right may actively challenge, or temporarily substitute, the operation of state institutions.

Early on, Jobbik hosted under its auspices the semi-autonomous, self-styled militia of the Magyar Gárda/’Hungarian Guard’. Between 2007 and 2011, the Magyar Gárda performed a string of ‘patrolling operations’ in areas seen as threatened by ‘Gypsy crime’ and other activities such as blood-donation and charity work. In October 2011, the successful mobilization of the Magyar Gárda in the north-eastern district of Gyöngyöspata resulted in the departure of the Roma community, the resignation of the local mayor and the Jobbik candidate’s victory in the elections that followed. Systematic grass-roots activism enhanced Jobbik’s anti-establishment rhetoric because, in Gábor Vona’s words, ‘If people hear about us at first hand, the people will choose our side. This is the message of Gyöngyöspata!’.

It might not be an exaggeration to assert that, especially between 2008 and 2014, Jobbik’s discourse and practice challenged the boundaries between the radical and the more extremist right, while including some idiosyncratic particularities (alternative geopolitics and a solidly structured platform of artificial anti-capitalism).

FIDESZ ‘plagiarizes’ selected Jobbik prerogatives

The initial stage of FIDESZ’s ‘entryism’ into Jobbik’s target-groups consisted in the introduction of governmental policies which were modified versions and/or selective re-appropriations of certain sections of the Jobbik manifesto of 2010. As early as 2011 and 2014, FIDESZ chairman and Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán started repeating the fact that his government was engaged in a struggle against external political pressures and economic interference, with the ultimate task of ‘…rescuing Hungary from becoming a colony’. These rhetorical allusions soon corresponded to the imposition of new taxes on sectors owned by multinational corporations and foreign investors (telecommunications, energy providers, and retail chains) – a course of action also called for in the 2010 manifesto (page 4).

The next step was to introduce a legal framework that gradually placed all media under the surveillance of government-appointed monitors – another proposal included in Jobbik’s manifesto of 2010 (page 15). To this should be added the adoption of measures such as: (a) the institutional safeguarding of national symbols (e.g. Szent Korona/the Holy Crown of Hungary); (b) the provision of state funding to schools, at all levels of education, for at least one excursion to the territory of an adjacent country inhabited by ethnic Hungarians – as previously prescribed by Jobbik (pages 13 and 22 of the 2010 manifesto). To crown it all, whereas Jobbik’s manifesto of 2010 merely warned of the endeavour by global liberalism to ‘dismantle national values and symbols’ (page 9), Viktor Orbán and FIDESZ went several steps further and formulated the concept of illiberal democracy in a bold blaze of publicity.

FIDESZ capitalizes on nativism

The staunch opposition to the refugee redistribution scheme on a proportional basis (quota arrangement) among EU member-states constitutes one of the major bones of contention between Hungary and the European Commission to date.

As early as autumn 2015, the FIDESZ-led government decided to shut Hungary’s southern borders with Serbia and Croatia and commenced the construction of a razor-wire fence along the southern borderline. Viktor Orbán repeatedly claimed that ‘Europe and European culture are rooted in Christian values’ and that therefore ‘there is no alternative, and we have no option but to defend Hungary’s borders’. This line of thought and active policymaking did not solely resonate with the Hungarian public, but was greeted with the approval of other leading statesmen within the ‘Visegrad Four’ (e.g. Slovakia’s former PM Robert Fico).

In regard to Jobbik, it took some time until the party-leadership started to mobilize its bases of support against the admission of migrants and issue calls for the need to safeguard Europe’s Christian pillars of identity and protect Hungarian and European women from ‘rapacious Islamic invaders’ – especially following the wave of sexual assaults throughout Germany on New Year’s Eve, 2016. Empirical surveys demonstrated, throughout 2016 and 2017, that Jobbik-affiliated mayors had been issuing proposals for banning the entry of Muslim migrants as well as the public display of Islamic religiosity in their localities. Nevertheless, FIDESZ was quicker at capitalizing more extensively on public anxieties over the refugee crisis, and soon started claiming a non-negligible percentage of voters from Jobbik.

FIDESZ was quicker at capitalizing more extensively on public anxieties over the refugee crisis, and soon started claiming a non-negligible percentage of voters from Jobbik.

FIDESZ recasts antisemitism into ‘anti-Sorosism’

Since 1994 and throughout the mid-late 1990s, the Hungarian Party of Life and Justice/MIÉP, led by former journalist István Csurka, propagated a string of antisemitic conspiracy theories centred on the alleged ‘machinations of international Zionism against Hungary’. Jobbik prioritized a critique on Israel’s geopolitical role in the Middle East along the lines of ‘artificial anti-imperialism’. Inside the context of Jobbik’s alternative geopolitics, the party was quick to strike a ’pro-Palestine’ outlook and castigate Israel not solely for its aggression against the Palestinians but also over its belligerent foreign policy towards other states in the Middle East (e.g. Iran).

Nevertheless, between 2010 and 2014, negative references to Israel’s alleged meddling in Hungarian domestic policies featured rather prominently in Jobbik’s rhetoric. Specific references to the engagement of Israeli entrepreneurs in Hungary appeared more frequently than the link between the collapse of certain German or Austrian banks and Hungary’s economic crisis of 2008-2010. This campaign reached its zenith in November 2012 when Marton Gyöngyösi, Jobbik’s second-in-command, stated that: ’It is high time to figure out which MPs and government members are of Jewish origin and represent a security risk to Hungary’. A few days earlier, former chairman, Gábor Vona demanded that: ‘Government members and MPs are screened in order to determine whether any possess double, Hungarian-Israeli, citizenship’. This informal statement was made during a ‘pro-Palestine’ rally held by Jobbik in front of the Israeli embassy in Budapest.

FIDESZ affiliates have staunchly denounced accusations of antisemitism. By contrast, the party-leadership has highlighted the close partnership between Viktor Orbán and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the party’s prioritization of Israel as one of Hungary’s key global partners. Nevertheless, FIDESZ’s antagonistic portrayal of (Hungarian Jewish born) George Soros, as the alleged mastermind and secret funder of Anti-fa and radical left circles in Hungary and beyond, revolves around reproducing negative Jewish stereotypes on the level of cultural discourse across Central Europe. These are stereotypes alleging conspiratorial activity; illegitimate networking; and the refusal to fully integrate into the national societies where they (Jews) live.

In contrast to Jobbik, FIDESZ, appears to have succeeded overall in evading charges of latent antisemitism, by denouncing George Soros and his activities through the ideological prism of illiberalism. This has enabled Viktor Orbán not solely to mobilize his bases of support inside Hungary but, more importantly, to burnish and consolidate his image as ‘a virulent defender of conservative and Christian values’ to the eyes of his global enthusiasts. This strategy has also helped divert the attention of Viktor Orbán’s global allies (Benjamin Netanyahu included) from the simultaneous veneration of controversial historical figures (e.g. wartime leader Miklós Horthy who allied Hungary to Nazi Germany) by the Hungarian PM.

Jobbik ‘de-radicalizes’: switching from identity politics to the anti-corruption debate

Since 2016, and prior to the departure of Gábor Vona from its leadership, Jobbik officially entered a phase of ‘de-radicalization’. Although empirical evidence demonstrates that as late as 2017 Jobbik was still seeking to extract political capital out of the cleavage between locals and Roma in those municipalities under its control, the more extremist cadres were gradually purged from the party’s structures. This whole process culminated in the dissolution of any links between Jobbik and Magyar Gárda (the latter evolving into a more extremist party under the designation Mi Hazánk Mozgalom/’Our Homeland Movement’ in May 2019).

According to Jobbik’s website, the great-grandfather of the present leader, Péter Jakab, ‘died in Auschwitz’ whereas ‘his grandmother converted (from Judaism) to Christianity in 1925’. Throughout the last couple of years, Marton Gyöngyösi and other prominent cadres have been contending that ‘Jobbik was never antisemitic’. Since late 2018, Jobbik started joining other, centrist and centre-left, parties in public protests against the FIDESZ-led government.

Since late 2018, Jobbik started joining other, centrist and centre-left, parties in public protests against the FIDESZ-led government.

Most importantly, Jobbik drastically redirected its rhetoric from identity politics (e.g. the necessity to combat ‘Gypsy crime’) to the debate on corruption. The party has been accusing Viktor Orbán and FIDESZ of slowly setting up a ‘deep state’, condoning criminal activities and cementing a network of crony capitalism which consists of private entrepreneurs amicable to the Hungarian PM. In spite of evidence of corruption especially in public procurement, Jobbik’s recent emphasis on anti-corruption speech does not seem to have helped them project a convincing alternative to the right of FIDESZ.

In a similar vein to dominant parties of the conservative right in Hungary’s neighbourhood (e.g. the Serbian Progressive Party/SNS and the Croatian Democratic Union/HDZ), FIDESZ has succeeded in consolidating an even more extensive network of supporters, embedded in political clientelism, in the public sector and state-run institutions. The electoral mobilization of this countrywide network, who are highly dependent on the party for their career advancement, has been particularly efficient. This, in turn, considerably limits the prospects of success for any contenders to FIDESZ along the lines of anti-corruption rhetoric, however substantiated.

Concluding remarks

As argued by Ernesto Laclau, ‘the emergence of populism is historically linked to a crisis of the dominant ideological discourse which is, in turn, part of a more general social crisis’. During its early phase, Jobbik firmly capitalized on the ideological, as well as socio-political, ramifications of Hungary’s economic crisis (2008-2010) and rapidly boosted its popularity.

Throughout that period, the party succeeded in assembling a wide array of public grievances into a grand coalition with the ambition to accommodate societal demands that stemmed from a broad range of target-groups. In all of this, Jobbik’s anti-systemic engagement possessed firmed ethno-nationalist underpinnings. Jobbik did not solely exhibit elements of right-wing populism but also oscillated between the identities of a radical and a more extremist/militant right-wing party prone to street-level engagement.

FIDESZ ‘gradual and decisive turn to governing from the right claimed a substantial swathe of target-groups from Jobbik. As part of the ongoing endeavour to project a convincing right-wing alternative to FIDESZ, Jobbik has currently evolved into a political entity that predominantly displays features of right-wing populism – with a primary emphasis on anti-corruption rhetoric. The degree to which this transformation process can guarantee the political survival of the party is hard to assess.

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