Jobbik Scores Big in Hungary’s Parliamentary Election: Now what?

2010-04-11

The ultra right-wing Jobbik party’s successful performance in the first round of Hungary’s general election may come as a shock, but it is no surprise.

In February, Political Capital released its Demand for Right-Wing Extremism (DEREX) index, which measures people’s predisposition to far-right politics in 32 countries. The index showed 21 percent of Hungarians sympathize with the chauvinist, anti-establishment and authoritarian concepts that the radical right espouses. DEREX shows that Hungary’s public morale has been deteriorating since 2003 as people grow increasingly dissatisfied with politicians, the government and democracy itself. Prejudice, especially against foreigners, has risen sharply during the same period.

Reasons for Jobbik’s Rise

Jobbik has enjoyed a meteoric ascent over the past four years. The party played a key role in reviving Hungary’s extreme-right wing in the autumn of 2006, when street protesters ravaged Budapest following revelations that Socialist former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány had lied in order to win elections earlier that year. Jobbik significantly raised its profile over the next six months with its campaign against “Gypsy crime.” In the summer of 2007, Jobbik exploded into the international media with the establishment of the Magyar Garda (Hungarian Guard), an extreme-right paramilitary organization that has since been banned by the courts. By the end of 2008, Jobbik had consolidated the radical right under its own tent.

Jobbik became a political force in June 2009 when it scored 14.77% (427,773 votes) in Hungary’s elections for European Parliament. Jobbik improved its score to 16.7% in the April 11 general election, taking more than 844,000 votes. This means that party doubled its number of voters in less than a year. Jobbik continues to enjoy its strongest support in northeastern counties where the percentage of Roma inhabitants is the highest.

Today’s vote has changed Hungary’s political complexion beyond recognition. After communism collapsed in 1990, six major parties competed with each other on fairly equal footing. This developed into a bi-polar system by the early 2000s, with the center-right Fidesz and the center-left Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) dominating the political scene. The landscape is now uni-polar: Fidesz is the only major party, the Socialists are humiliated and the extreme-right is ascendant. Jobbik played a key role in this transformation.

  • The rise of the ultra-right wing in Hungary is not simply a symptom of societal problems and cannot be blamed on other parties’ failures alone.
  • The main reason for Jobbik’s breakthrough is its savvy politicking. The most important elements are the anti-Gypsy policies that Jobbik began promoting in late 2006 and its robust rejection of Hungary’s political elite.
  • Jobbik is also part of a generational change in Hungary. Young people make up a comparatively large proportion of its voter base and the party leadership is dominated by youthful faces. This represents the first time since 1990 that a new generation has managed to break through on the right: Fidesz, which has singlehandedly ruled the right-wing roost since the mid-1990s, operates under a highly centralized power structure that has always been controlled by Viktor Orbán and his close friends. Jobbik can therefore be considered an attempt at generational change outside Fidesz.

Risks Arising from Jobbik’s Ascent

Jobbik’s sizable presence in the Hungarian Parliament will tarnish the country’s reputation, damage the investment climate and raise political risk levels across Central and Eastern Europe.

  • Jobbik’s rise, along with the attention it draws from both the domestic and international media, will negatively impact on Hungary’s international standing, especially with regard to its stability and its democratic development.
  • Jobbik has singled out foreign investors, multinational companies and big chain stores as the chief culprits behind Hungary’s economic woes. Such politics will make foreign investors think twice about setting up shop in Hungary and will discourage those that are already here. This will put Hungarian jobs at risk.
  • Jobbik, which has a penchant for irredentist, chauvinist slogans, poses a risk for Hungary’s relations with its neighbors. Ultranationalists in the surrounding countries will view Jobbik’s rise as a threat and use it to fuel sentiment against their Hungarian minority populations. This will affect the political stability of the entire region.
  • Jobbik’s anti-Gypsy stance represents a political risk as it may cause tensions between Gypsies and non-Gypsies to grow more violent. As the past few years have shown, Jobbik profits from ethnic conflict.
  • Jobbik is one of several Eastern European extreme-right parties that have adopted blatantly pro-Russian views in recent years.  Instead of orienting itself toward the West, Jobbik talks about cozying up to the East, both politically and economically. 

Jobbik’s Strategic Dilemma

Once in Parliament, Jobbik may proceed in a number of different political directions. But no matter what happens, the party will primarily represent a challenge for the governing center-right Fidesz party.

Jobbik’s highly heterogeneous voter base will pose a dilemma for its leaders: How can they hold on to their more moderate voters while serving their core supporters – the extreme right-wingers who reject the political establishment part and parcel? How will Jobbik be able to keep its anti-establishment bona fides once its members become lawmakers themselves?

  • Should Jobbik prove unable to keep its voter base together and Fidesz takes effective steps against the ultra-right wing, Jobbik may suffer the same fate its radical-right predecessors: A swift ascent followed by an equally swift fall.
  • If Jobbik is able to keep its voter base together and pursues effective anti-government policies – which, as the most potent opposition party, it will have every opportunity to do – it may become stronger. The party may be able to poach more voters from Fidesz, many of whom sympathize with Jobbik’s goals, according to opinion polls.
  • In the best-case scenario for Jobbik, it will grow into a formation that is powerful enough to replace Fidesz as Hungary’s premier right-wing party by 2014.

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