A far-right for the Facebook generation: The rise and rise of Jobbik

19.04.10 @ 21:03

  1. By Leigh Phillips

Last week, Europeans woke up to the sinister news that in the heart of Europe a thoroughly far-right party, the Movement for a Better Hungary, or Jobbik, had won 17 percent of the vote in general elections, almost beating the governing Socialists into third place.

  • Gabor Vona, the 32-year-old Jobbik leader and founder of the Magyar Garda (Photo: Flickr)

Most European nations have their share of far-right fringe groups. But Jobbik is openly anti-semitic and anti-gypsy. It is the founder of a rapidly growing, jackbooted and black-uniformed paramilitary, the Magyar Garda, and it is allied to pariahs such as the British National Party and France's Front National in the EU Parliament. How could such an out-and-out fascist outfit climb so vertiginously high up the greasy pole of politics in the modern era?

It is the clearest sign yet that the economic crisis has woken Europe's most frightening demons.

Or so runs the media narrative.

Long-time watchers of the far-right in Europe describe this version of the story as "lazy". Certainly, the crash, which hit Hungary harder than many European nations - it was the first EU member state to run to the IMF - played a role in last week's vote, but the tale is, they say, longer and more complicated.

"The frustration I have with the sudden burst of media coverage is that for most of the time, the far-right phenomenon is not treated seriously," complains Graeme Atkinson, the European editor of the UK's anti-fascist monthly, Searchlight. "They're treated as cranks, so papers don't write about them, don't notice them. And then suddenly something like this happens and they think the sky is falling."

"I don't go for either picture. It's not that the crisis has suddenly caused this. This is a phenomenon that goes back much further than the last two years ... Of course it exacerbates the situation - it would be surprising if the crisis did not result in some increased support for the far-right. But it's a long-term phenomenon that needs monitoring and countering. It's no reason to panic and then forget about it once the next big news item happens."

Mr Atkinson actually lays the bulk of the blame on the centre-left establishment in Europe: "Social democrats everywhere have abandoned their traditional constituency. This is the vacuum the far right are filling."

As socialist and labour parties have, pace Tony Blair, embraced business, backed privatisation and instituted social spending cuts, he argues, extremist ideas provide an easy answer to the thousands that feel disoriented by the slings and arrows of the free market.

The Perspective Institute, a Budapest polling firm, demographically backs this analyis, noting already in an analysis after last year's European elections in which the party scored 14.8 percent that left-wing voters were en masse turning toward Jobbik: "The Hungarian extreme right doesn't primarily recruit its supporters from the centre-right but instead from the leftist camp disappointed with the governmental performance of MSZP [the Socialists]. Jobbik, in certain cases, succeeded in doubling its nationwide share of the votes in cities that had been Socialist strongholds."

Support for far-right ideas doubles in ten years

Hungarian liberal think-tank Political Capital meanwhile has been measuring support for far-right ideas across Europe for a number of years. According to its latest Demand for Right-Wing Extremism (Derex) index, which gauges people's predisposition to far-right politics in 32 European countries, 21 percent of Hungarians are open to extreme right-wing ideas, the highest percentage of any European country other than Bulgaria, where 24.6 percent of the population is so predisposed.

Just seven years ago in 2003, only 10 percent of Hungarians had such a propensity, according to the think-tank's surveys. Poland at the same time also had a score of 10 percent. This has since fallen to 6.5 percent.

"But here it's doubled. The extreme right has profited from a massive growth in disaffection from the political elite. This feeling is not just anti-establishment. They oppose the entire system. They want to get rid of the whole thing," Political Capital analyst Alex Kuli says.

Jobbik's growth was unremarkable until the last four years, when it began its meteoric ascent. The key event was in autumn 2006, when street protests in which the party played a key role rampaged through Budapest following the leak of an audiotape revealing that the then Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany had lied in order to win elections.

But why such a response? There have been political scandals elsewhere.

"There was the expenses scandal in the UK, sure, but what happened?" asks Mr Kuli. "People are investigated by the police, they resign, expelled from the party. They are humiliated. In Hungary, there is a feeling that there is no recourse to the law. People are caught stealing from the public purse and not a single thing is done against them."

Radical youth

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Jobbik phenomenon is how young and educated many of its supporters are. Far-right supporters elsewhere are thought of as the rural uneducated or, in the urban context, to use an old term, 'lumpenproletarian'. But in Hungary so many of them are the Bright Young Things. They believe they are the radical ones, with a burning fire of injustice as self-righteous as any anti-G8 militant from Genoa to Gothenburg to Gleneagles.

Hungarian pollster Forsense noted that Jobbik and the country's small Green party, the LMP, together won 24 percent of all votes in the election, but a full 40 percent of votes cast by those under age 24. Almost half of the voters for the two parties are under 35 years of age and only 10 percent of them are over 55.

The 2006 events radicalised Hungarian youth. But rather than looking to the left, as disaffected youth have ever done in the West, and once again over the past decade, from the Seattle anti-WTO demonstrations to anti-Iraq war protests in Barcelona, Paris and London and beyond, in Hungary, those who described themselves as left, in the form of the corrupt Socialist party of wealthy businessman Ferenc Gyurcsany, were the ones they were demonstrating against.

"There's no attraction for angry young people to join something to the left of the [Socialists] because this politic is completely discredited after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, so you just don't get this," Mr Kuli says.

Zsolt Varkonyi, the group's presidential campaign chief, at 54 years old is one of the more senior members: "There is a big age-gap between me and them. Most of them could be my sons and daughters."

Jobbik's national spokeswoman Dora Duro, for example, he says, is just 22.

"They get out of school, university and they find themselves without a job. Everyone, even doctors, economists - there has been a huge wave of young people joining the party," he says.

Adam Schonburger, an anti-Jobbik campaigner and an organiser with the Budapest Jewish Youth Organisation, has tried to focus his activities on educating young people about Jewish and Gypsy culture, organising an annual festival in the hope they will learn from other sources than the slick Jobbik website and internet chatrooms.

"University student government is largely controlled by Jobbik, particularly the humanities faculty," he says. "You know that Jobbik was actually created by a student government?"

"There is very strong support for Jobbik in the universities," says Adam LeBor, the Hungary correspondent for the Times and the author of the Budapest Protocol, a political thriller that came out last year that focuses on anti-gypsy oppression in the country.

"Part of this is the economic situation. It is indeed very hard for young people to find a job, but the crucial element is that Jobbik has an extremely savvy web presence, enabling them to sidestep the traditional media and speak directly to youth, to the Facebook generation. It even has pages in English, well-written English that isn't garbled. The other parties haven't really done this."

"It's a lot more complex than just 'the nasties are marching'."

'Judapest'

The Magyar Garda, the estimated 3,000-strong paramilitary group founded by Jobbik leader Gabor Vona, has taken to calling the capital "Judapest." Socialist Party election posters were defaced with Stars of David and the Jewish community mounted a thousand-strong demonstration the week before the election after a rabbi's windows were stoned during Passover. Orthodox Jews in the supermarket are saluted with a raised arm 'Heil Hitler'. But Mr LeBor says that as terrifying as this is, it is not anti-semitism that is really what he calls "the mobilising issue".

"The mobilising issue is racism against gypsies, which is much more widespread."

He blames previous administrations for doing nothing to tackle the problems of the Roma community: "No government of any stripe has managed to deal with the situation of the Roma, who live in utter squalor, with high levels of unemployment. It's the classic strategy: in times of crisis, you seek a scapegoat."

Roma homes and individuals have been repeatedly shot at and firebombed with Molotov cocktails. In 2009, eight gypsies were killed in incidents police believe to be deliberately targetted against the community.

'Gypsy Crime' and 'Israeli companies'

Roberto Fiore, leader of Italy's neo-Nazi Forza Nuova addressed a Jobbik rally in Budapest in November last year, but the Jobbik youngsters do not think of themselves as fascists at all. "They view themselves as part of a generational change in Hungary," the Political Capital think-tank's Mr Kuli adds.

The rest of the world may not be able to speak Hungarian, but the hyper-educated Hungarian youth can read English and know what the rest of the world is saying about them. The Jobbik kids are not big fans.

Jobbik are not Nazis, they insist, with the party's English-language website contrasting a relatively gentle picture of Jobbik voters in military "traditional dress" with a German skinhead with a large swastika tattoo on his neck, whom the caption describes as a "Nazi imbecile."

On the day of the election, the Jobbik website published an rejoinder raging against the international coverage of the party and in particular an article in The Scotsman newspaper entitled 'Anti-Roma rhetoric pays off for far right in Hungary' explaining why so many people were voting for the party: "The scenario is classic. Hungary's economy is in crisis, its large Roma minority is an easy scapegoat, and a far-right party blaming 'gypsy crooks' and ‘welfare spongers' is set to be the big winner."

Responding to what a Jobbik web-writer viewed in the Scottish report as vicious slander, the party's missive reads: "What is this 'classic scenario?' Quite simple really. Central Europeans + Economic Downturn = (or rather, must and can only equal) Hateful Extremists and persecution of minorities ... Take a few pennies out of a Hungarian's pocket, and he turns almost immediately into a slavering ultra-nationalist who on the way back from clubbing a local gypsy, will pause only to hurl yet another brick through the windows of his nearest synagogue."

Mr Varkonyi, the Jobbik spokesman, says the party is only reminding Hungarians "of what Israeli President Shimon Peres himself admitted."

He refers to the boast by Mr Peres of how well his country's real estate sector had been doing at a gathering of businessmen in Tel Aviv in October 2007. "The economic situation in Israel is excellent. We are buying up Manhattan, Romania, Hungary and Poland, all due to Israeli business acumen and connections."

When EUobserver proposes that Mr Varkonyi perhaps might be misinterpreting the Israeli president's speech, Mr Varkonyi says: "Look, 70 percent of Budapest property development belongs to Israeli companies. These were not empty words - there was something behind it."

Krisztina Morvai, an MEP for the party and Jobbik's presidential candidate in the country's upcoming June elections for head of state, once spat: "So-called proud Hungarian Jews should go back to playing with their tiny little circumcised tails."

But even she, a mother of three and practising human rights lawyer who once worked for the United Nations, styles her anti-Jewish rhetoric not with the bile of a Der Sturmer polemic, but couched in a pro-Palestinian discourse, albeit one that Palestinian solidarity groups elsewhere distance themselves from. In February, 2009, following Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip that killed 1400 Palestinians, she wrote in a letter to the Jewish state's ambassador to Hungary: "The only way to talk to people like you is by assuming the style of Hamas. I wish all of you lice-infested, dirty murderers will receive Hamas' 'kisses.'"

Mr Varkonyi also insists that the party's strategy for dealing with the "gypsy problem" is "no different to what is being done in Italy or Slovakia."

"And there is a reality to what we say about gypsy crime. There were 118 case of gypsies committing crimes against Hungarians from 1993 to 2009."

"We don't need sociological explanations" when it is suggested to him that crime rates may grow amongst economically dislocated, racially oppressed communities. "How does a sociological explanation feel to an old lady who has had her head cut off by an 18-year-old gypsy, or a girl who is tied to a tree and raped and then set on fire?"

Political magpies

"We are not even a right-wing party," declares Mr Varkonyi. "We do not believe in the division between left and right. The true division is between those who want globalisation and those who do not. We are a patriotic party."

He goes on to approvingly quote the left-wing Franco-American Tobin-Tax and anti-Lisbon-Treaty campaigner Susan George, criticising the privatisation of energy and water companies. "There is some cross-over with the anti-globalisation protests [at the turn of the millenium]. But the difference is that we respect private property. We are different from the Seattle protestors in that we want local private property but not a global version of private property."

Indeed, the Jobbik website article goes on to try to deliver as proof that the party are not your average Nazi boneheads a laundry-list of policies, which, in all fairness, no one would be surprised to hear coming out of the mouths of the likes of leftist figures such as a Jose Bove, Oscar Lafontaine or Olivier Besancenot: rejecting IMF austerity measures, the influence of agribusiness and "unrestricted cowboy-capitalism."

However, Jobbik, like any classic far-right formation, are political magpies, picking and choosing from the left and the right. Its website article that is supposed to explode "myths" about the party goes on to explain, without giving evidence, how gypsies increase crime in whichever country they go to, promotes Greater Hungary chauvinism - aiming to restore Hungary to its pre-World-War-One borders - and demands the return of the Csendorseg, the Hungarian Gendarmerie, the country's chief agents of Jewish deportations during the Holocaust, notorious for robberies, acts of torture and a viciousness which startled even the Germans.

"When the Gendarmerie walked down the street and gypsies saw them, they would run away. They knew someone was watching them," warns Mr Varkonyi.

2006 riots

Vilmos Hanti, the president of the Hungarian Federation of Resistance Fighters and Anti-fascists (Measz), which dates back to 1945, blames the youthful attraction to the far-right on a gap in the school curriculum after 1990.

"History books used in the schools are without a word of criticism regarding the role of Hungary in the Second World War. The young people of today know very little about Hungarian anti-fascist resistance," he says. "In spite of our efforts, a museum presenting Hungarian resistance to young people was never realised."

In the six months that followed the 2006 anti-Gyurcsany riots in Budapest, Jobbik boosted its profile with a militant campaign against "Gypsy crime." Then, further building on its notoriety, the following year, the party launched the paramilitary Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard.

The Magyar Garda, attired in black boots, black trousers, white shirt and black vest, take their oaths under the red-and-white striped flag of Arpad, the banner of the Arrow Cross, the Hungarian fascists who murdered between 10,000 and 15,000 Jews and together with the Gendarmes sent 80,000 to their deaths in Auschwitz.

The Budapest Jewish Youth Organisation's Mr Schonburger says that the police in many cases are leaving the Hungarian Guard to solve problems: "'They say 'We can't help. Go ask the Hungarian Guard.'"

Still, even two years after the riots, as late as December 2008, the party could not claim more than roughly three percent of voters. Over the following five months, it started to climb sharply as the economic crisis began to pinch, winning 14.8 percent or 428,000 votes cast in the June 2009 European Parliamentary elections, making it for the first time a serious political force.

And then onn 10 April 2010, the party won 16.7 percent or 844,000 ballots, doubling its number of voters in less than a year.

While Jobbik, led by 32-year-old Gabor Vona, a history teacher and founder of the Hungarian Guard - who has said he will wear his Magyar Garda uniform when sworn in as an MP - has won over thousands of young people, it is not true to say that they form the majority of the party's voters. The bulk of Jobbik's support actually comes from the east of the country, where there is enormous economic dislocation. There, one finds a strong correlation between such poverty and support for Jobbik.

It should also be remembered that in Budapest, the LMP, from its Hungarian acronym for Politics Can Be Different, which is affiliated to the European Green Party, is also a party of the young, and that it beat Jobbik into fourth place inside the capital.

The Times' Mr Lebor thinks there may be some hope here: "And this is a party that barely existed six months ago. All people really know about them is that they are sort of green and progressive. They don't know much more."

Mr Kuli, for his part, is dismissive of the upstart LMP, a left-wing group but untarnished by any link to the Communist Party. "Their leader, Andras Schiffer, a lawyer, in the early 2000s defended a bar that refused entry to two gypsies and the husband of the party's number six on their list has been a legal advisor to Jobbik, so is there a real human rights commitment there or is it opportunism?"

Searchlight's Mr Atkinson is quite pessimistic about the chances for a movement against the growth of the far right in the country: "Measz [the official Hungarian anti-fascist organisation] are very elderly, and maybe a bit old Stalinist, so there is that mark against them," he concedes. "But they were very heroic people in their time, although they are not really up for a fight now. There are no young anti-racist or anti-fascist groups that I know of, at least not on the scale that exist in most Western countries, even in eastern countries, Russia."

"There is no real opposition in Hungary. It would be nice to see if something happens with the [LMP], although I worry they don't have much of a base."

Will Fidesz take them on?

And what of Fidesz, the socially conservative party of family values and law and order that won the election? After winning a whopping 52.8 percent of the vote and heading for an even better result in the second round that should give it a two-thirds majority in the parliament, it has no need to build a coalition with the far-right. Many are thankful that this at least this puts something of a break on and perhaps reverses Jobbik's advance, which according to some polls, had reached 25 percent support ahead of the voting.

After the first round of voting, Fidesz' charismatic leader, Victor Orban, said he would take on Jobbik: "No radical party will be allowed to get rid of law and order in this country," he told reporters. "Democracy in this country is strong enough to defend itself."

However, Mr Atkinson believes Fidesz is a worry in itself: "I cringe when I see some in the press refer to Fidesz as 'centre-right.' They're not. They're nationalist populist, what in German is sometimes referred to as a 'Volkisch' right."

Fidesz, itself once a party of youth - the name is an acronym of Fiatal Demokratak Szovetsege, or Alliance of Young Democrats - was founded in 1988 as a libertarian anti-Communist party, joining the Liberal International in 1992. After a poor showing in the 1994 elections, it switched allegiance from liberalism to conservatism.

The British anti-fascist editor says Mr Orban is a political chameleon, shifting ideology to whatever will keep him in power. He notes that the party has been in coalition with Jobbik at the local level in "around 100 municipalities."

In 2008, Fidesz MP Oszkar Molnar, who was also mayor of Edeleny, a town in eastern Hungary, famously claimed that pregnant Roma women take medication to give birth to "fools to receive higher family subsidies. I have checked this and it's true; they hit their bellies with a rubber hammer so that they'll give birth to handicapped kids."

Responding to Mr Molnar's statement, Mr Orban said only that his speech was "embarrassing," although the MP was later dropped from national lists and quit the party.

But Mr Kuli, from the Poltical Capital think-tank, thinks the conservative party should be given the benefit of the doubt for now.

"Fidesz has dealt with these issues very gingerly, it is true. But it's a political calculation. They do not want to alienate their rural support by taking decisive action against Molnar and send them into the arms of Jobbik. I don't necessarily support this strategy, but this is why they acted this way," he said.

The Times' Mr LeBor believes that to call Fidesz "Jobbik lite" is "a complete nonsense. During the election campaign it made great efforts to distance itself from Jobbik. Like all parties, they include a wide range of views. Some of their MPs are more right-wing than others."

The Budapest Jewish Youth Organisation's Mr Schonburger also does not think Fidesz are wolves in centre-right sheep's clothing, but he does wish the party was more forthright in countering Jobbik: "We are hoping for the incoming government to make a clear statement on the issue in the next two weeks, Orban needs to make more public statements about what has happened. But I don't know if they are willing to. We certainly don't see any clear statement coming from them yet."

He is however furious at the post-Hungarian election triumphalism of other conservative parties across Europe: "How can they call this a victory? How can they celebrate when so many people have voted for Jobbik?"

"This is the most important issue facing Hungary, maybe even more important than the economic crisis. Something is going on here. How in the middle of Europe, in this new part of the EU, can we have such radical voters, Jobbik, the Hungarian Guard?"

Analyst Mr Kuli is more optimistic: "What will Hungary look like in two years? Orban says he will be able to renegotiate the terms of the IMF deal. But he has very little room to manoeuvre. At the same time, the stability that a supermajority gives Fidesz - it will be the most stable government since 1990 - shouldn't be forgotten. And the economic gurus around him are very intelligent men."

But even he issues a warning: "The trick is if Orban goes further with austerity measures. If his voters see that he doesn't have their dreams in mind, I think you'd see protests against him as well.

"And Jobbik will be ready and waiting in the wings."

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