Hungary's political left partly responsible for rise of its far-right
By Eszter Zalan
The significant inroads made by Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front in the recent regional elections in France – especially in traditionally socialist strongholds – came as a surprise to many.
But the far-right making gains at the expense of the left is nothing new: four years ago something similar happened in Hungary.
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In the impoverished northeast region, the Hungarian far-right party, Jobbik, managed to get 24-27 percent of the votes in the 2010 elections, considerably higher than its national result of 17 percent.
According to a poll cited in a study on Jobbik, 37 percent of the far-right party's voters said they had previously voted for the conservative Fidesz Party. Twenty-one percent said they were traditionally socialist voters (although polls based on memory can be somewhat unreliable).
"You cannot credibly represent the outcast, protect the poor, and talk about the lower middle class if you are far, far away from that world. That is a problem for the left all over Europe," says Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute in Budapest.
He points to a corruption scandal that has made headlines in Hungary involving a high-level socialist politician who participated in a "hunger march" and at the same time had money secreted away in an Austrian bank account.
"It is also a lifestyle problem, it is not convincing," Kreko points out. "Jobbik is more successful in targeting the concerns of the lower middle classes."
In the 1990s social democratic parties all over Europe adopted a more market-friendly approach with British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Third Way philosophy leading the charge.
The parties' move toward the centre meant they started to lose touch with core voters, some of whom felt left behind and that they were victims of globalisation and, later, the financial crisis.
In western Europe tension caused by immigration should have been detected by the left. Instead it was picked up by the emerging far-right parties and it is they who now frame debate on the issue.
In central and eastern Europe the same was true of the tension between the majority and the Roma community.
"Jobbik went into the poorest villages, marched up and down to 'protect' the majority. In these regions, the quality of state services is very low, including the police," says Peter Kreko.
Far-right parties with paramilitary guards in the region often try to provide a substitute for state services, he adds.
Ildiko Lendvai, who was president of the Hungarian Socialist Party between 2009 and 2010 and its group leader in parliament from 2002 to 2009, concedes that the left does bear some responsibility for the rise of the far-right.
She says that before 2010, Jobbik was able to get votes from social groups and regions which traditionally had a left-wing basis.
"It is the same social milieu and region – northeast Hungary – with people who are most at risk of sliding backwards. This lower middle class that has always been the social basis for the left all over Europe," says Lendvai.
"We have lost contact with this group, or part of it, and we have left a big vacuum where the far-right was able to make gains. The voters felt betrayed and orphaned," she adds.
But she also notes that it was partly inevitable as the economic crisis hit this social group the hardest.
"They expected security from the socialists, but it had been shaken, so they looked for help elsewhere."
Lendvai says the socialist's governing style in which they pushed through reforms, such as on health care, but without first building alliances, contributed to such alienation.
She says the party's task now is to engage civil society and to become better embedded in local communities. It also has to move more comfortably in the digital age, something Jobbik already manages very well.
The socialists are proposing employee tax relief and a rise in the net minimum wage to benefit this voter group.
"We have to look credible and able to govern, and to get the message out there to the voters," Lendvai says. In northeastern Hungary, the socialists have been able to win back some voters from Fidesz [the centre-right governing party] but not yet from Jobbik, she says.
It is a general trend that far-right parties gain strength under leftist governments, argues Peter Kreko, because it is easier to mobilise people to fight the ideological enemy. He notes the same thing happened in Poland and Bulgaria.
"An unsuccessful socialist government helps strengthen a far-right party more than anything else," he says.
Kreko also thinks the socialist government between 2006 and 2010 was not tough enough. It did not challenge Jobbik, which was nowhere to be seen before 2006.
In autumn 2006, far-right street riots broke out in Budapest after the then Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, a socialist, admitted on a leaked tape that the government had lied to Hungarians about the state of the economy, and then refused to resign.
Jobbik leaders label themselves as the "2006 generation", and call this period the "moment of awakening".
Kreko argues that a quarantine and stigmatisation policy – something called for by the left – does not work against Jobbik.
"If you don't debate with them, only their narrative is going to be heard," he says.
But Lendvai argues the quarantine policy did not work because there was no quarantine.
"Fidesz plagerised their [Jobbik's] ideological and cultural ideas, and blocked all our proposals that would have introduced serious punishment for anti-semitic, anti-Roma talk in the parliament," says the socialist politician, who after 20 years will not be an MP after the 6 April national elections.
She adds that the socialists have to play their role in dispelling prejudices against the Roma.
Lendvai says the murders of six Roma in 2008-2009, including a 5-year-old child, was one point when Hungarian society could have come together on the issue. Even people with anti-Roma sentiments were appalled by the hate-filled attacks. But neither at the time, nor since, were the crimes the subject of thorough political discourse.
"We could not have worked miracles, but there was a historical moment where we could have appealed to the peoples' hearts," she explains.
Maybe that is also a lesson for the rest of the European left.
Eszter Zalan is a journalist with Nepszabadsag, a Hungarian daily.