Orbanism vote eclipses EU election in Hungary
By Eszter Zalan
While Europe is gearing up for its most important election season so far, Hungary is buzzing with election anxiety as well.
In this country of 10 million however, the excitement is all about 6 April, the national parliamentary elections.
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The day represents the first time Prime Minister Viktor Orban's overhaul of Hungary’s constitution, economy, social fabric and foreign policy will be tested at the voting booths.
Anything beyond that date, including the European Parliamentary elections at the end of May, is terra incognita.
Orban is probably not fretting much.
Recent polls suggest his governing center-right Fidesz has a comfortable lead over the combined various leftist parties, which decided to run on a united list so as not to let opposition votes be fragmented under the new election law.
Extreme right-wing party Jobbik is performing just under or at the same level as four years ago when it received 17 percent of the votes.
While its leader Gabor Vona was recently called Europe's most successful fascist by The Guardian newspaper, Jobbik is experimenting with a strategic shift, moving closer to the centre.
There are no signs yet on whether this is successful with voters. But the novelty of their extremist statements, such as saying Roma are inherently criminal, have worn off. The party’s antisemitism is also limiting its growth potential.
Tamas Lanczi, an analyst at Szazadveg Foundation, says one of the reasons Jobbik was unable to grow is the lack of politically talented manpower, and the difficulty of competing with a right-wing government.
Lanczi points to law and order which was a flagship issue for Jobbik. But the party lost ground to the government on the issue. Orban’s changes, including curbing welfare benefits and tougher penalties for petty crimes, relieved some of the tensions between the Roma and non-Roma community.
The analyst also credits the government with addressing the issue of foreign currency mortgages to take pressure off several hundred thousand borrowers hit by a weak forint – an issue that could have potentially been exploited by Jobbik.
"They probably saw the example in France, where a move towards the centre was a success for the far-right party," explains Csaba Toth of the Republikon Institute, in reference to the National Front.
For his part, Jobbik leader Vona says the party is fed up with being labeled as racist.
He says that Jobbik does not distinguish between Hungarian citizens based on race, ethnicity or religion. And presents the party as one that simply breaks taboos – by attacking the financial sector, being anti big business and anti-Brussels.
However, some former Jobbik supporters want to stay the course and recently formed Hungarian Dawn, a party alluding to its Greek version, the Golden Dawn.
"The idealistic expectations from the time of the fall of communism are gone and what people are left with is trauma," says Kristof Domina of the Athena Institute, which researches extremism.
He points to the "transitional" generation's fatigue with continuous disappointments.
Jobbik is trying to tap into that sentiment.
Gabor Vona recently said that Hungarians were made to believe that the EU is a fair community where member states are equal, independent partners.
In reality, he says, the EU is a colonial empire, where the stronger member states use the poorer ones for cheap labour and market access. Vona argues that with EU accession Hungary lost more than it gained, with a weakening of the agriculture and industry sectors as well as job losses.
Jobbik favours a referendum on EU membership. But it does not say outright that Hungary should leave the European Union.
Despite its strong eurosceptic tone, Jobbik is not welcome by the likes of the National Front in France or the Dutch Party for Freedom who view it as too extreme.
It remains unclear what faction, if any, Jobbik will join up with in the new European Parliament. However it intends to coordinate its campaign for the EU assembly with Ruch Narodowy, a nationalist group from Poland.
EU issues will not top the agenda in the national campaign, despite the fact that Brussels has repeatedly criticized the government for its economic policies, crisis taxes on banking and a raft of legal changes that raised concerns on rule of law and checks and balances.
East versus West
As the Fidesz government recently signed a nuclear deal with Russia, a discussion on West versus East, and democratic versus authoritarian values, could take place ahead of the April national election, reckons Csaba Toth.
Analyst Tamas Lanczi also believes the EU will be a non-issue unless the European Commission challenges Viktor Orban's policy of capping utility prices.
Despite Fidesz's opening towards the East, its voters are more Europe-friendly than the government's rhetoric, says Csaba Toth, citing recent research by Republikon Institute.
The research shows that the traditionally low levels of euroscepticism grew in Hungary since 2010, when the Fidesz party came to power. Now euroscepticism in Hungary is at the EU average.
The Szazadveg Foundation also checked the Hungarians attitude toward the EU, and noted a rise in euroscepticism.
Lanczi notes that this is a European trend, and it's difficult to say if the government produced this scepticism or merely reflects it.
Brussels plays into Budapest's hands
He argues, however, that with its strong criticism of the Hungarian government Brussels ironically played into Orban's hands.
"The performance of Viviane Reding for instance was counterproductive", says Lanczi, referring to the EU justice commissioner's repeated statements about the independence of the country's judiciary.
A remark by Reding last year saying it was "understandable" that Ireland was reluctant to extradite one of its citizens to Hungary - the man killed two Hungarian children in a car crash in 2000 near Budapest - was exploited by Orban.
Lanczi also notes that while the Hungarian government's methods to bring the country's budget deficit within the EU threshold were debatable, Brussels handled the situation badly.
The European Commission insisted on keeping Hungary in 'excessive deficit procedure' - a process initiated when member states break EU deficit rules - even though the country was below the EU limit for two years in a row.
This allowed the government to present itself as being treated unfairly.
Orban sees his policies vindicated after a long fight with the EU.
As a fellow journalist put it, from a rebel with unorthodox measures, Orban now sees himself as offering viable solutions to Europe's problems.
In a recent speech to national parliament, he suggested the EU should also regulate energy prices because market competition would not be sufficient to lower the price in the EU in order to gain a competitive edge over Asia or the US.
It remains to be seen if his advice is taken.
Hungary will elect 21 MEPs to the 751-strong European Parliament on 25 May.
Eszter Zalán is a journalist at the daily newspaper, Népszabadság