[This piece appeared April 16 in Transitions Online.]
MOSONMAGYAROVAR, Hungary – It hasn’t gone unnoticed in Europe that the real story of Hungary’s April 11 elections wasn’t just that the right-wing Fidesz party ousted the tiresome Socialists to return to power amid economic hardship. It was that Jobbik, a self-described “radical” party, strategically and successfully scape-goated the country’s large Roma and Jewish minorities to win 17 percent of the vote.
Not only did the number soar past the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament, it was triple the high-water mark achieved by an earlier Hungarian far-right party in 1998.
For the European Union, there ought to be concern that it also represents the greatest triumph of any openly anti-minority party among the 10 ex-Communist states who are its newest EU members.
Let me explain why this is bad for Hungary, which for years was a leading light amid the region’s entire post-1989 transition from dictatorship to democracy. I say this as a foreign correspondent sitting next door in Slovakia, but also lived it first-hand in Budapest, from the mid- to late-1990s.
First, the fact a whopping two-thirds of Hungarian voters thrust rightward – Fidesz secured 53 percent of the ballots; the Socialists, just 19 – does not threaten to upend a 20-year-old democracy.
However, the quality of Hungarian democracy is sickly indeed. The drumbeat of years of political incitement has imbedded a hatred that even drives apart some family and friends. Not to mention what it’s done to swathes of society.
Anti-minority barbs may lead elsewhere. The past two years have seen six Hungarian Roma murdered. On the flip side, in September 2006, several Roma beat to death a Hungarian motorist, while his children watched, after he hit and injured a Romani girl. Last February, in a pub fight, a Rom stabbed and killed a renowned Romanian handball player, competing in the Hungarian league.
Hungary is hardly unique.
Inter-ethnic resentment is rife across the region, often dressed up as newfound “freedom of speech.” Slovakia, for example, has an incendiary party in its ruling coalition that stirs ugliness against ethnic Hungarians and Roma. Bulgaria boasts the “Attack” party, which has roasted ethnic Turks and Roma to collect 9 percent of the 2005 national vote, then 12 percent in the 2009 vote for European Parliament. And in the Czech Republic, scores of Czech Roma have fled, claiming asylum in Canada.
The real issue, for me, falls on the shoulders of one man: Viktor Orban, the Fidesz leader who has won a second chance as Prime Minister. He served from 1998-2002 – during the run-up to EU membership.
How will Orban react when Jobbik utters its first words of demonization on the floor of Parliament? Jobbik will presumably also want some seats on the boards of Hungarian Television and Hungarian Radio, to shape what goes out on the airwaves across this country of 10 million — roughly half a million of whom are Roma, with another 100,000 Jewish.
Will Orban draw a line, send society a message: certain rhetoric and imagery is beyond the pale? Or, will he deliver the opposite: say nothing, for the public to conclude, “There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Given the premier’s track record, there’s little reason for optimism.
It was Orban, after all, who at a critical moment in Hungarian democracy 10 years ago – as political strife and nasty name-calling became common – took the low road and kept quiet.
Back in February 2000, I wrote about Orban’s silence in the face of inflammatory comments from Fidesz colleagues who attacked enemies by deploying terms torn from a Hitlerite lexicon: “cosmopolitans,” “Communist Jews,” and those with “foreign hearts.”
As I wrote then, many decent Hungarians rejected such language, but the envelope was pushed – with impunity. So the mass message was delivered, loud and clear.
Orban, by the way, was also mum on several efforts to whitewash Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.
Then, when Brussels ostracized Austria in early 2000 for establishing a ruling coalition with populist Joerg Haider – who bashed immigrants and praised some policies of Nazi Germany – Orban’s sympathy for Haider drew attention. The EU response “forces us all to think about the deeper meaning of democracy,” he said. Later, he described Haider’s rise as “a stone thrown into an intellectually and politically stagnant pond.”
I’ve never interviewed anyone who suggested Orban said anything anti-Semitic, or that he himself is. But he didn’t seem to mind leading certain segments of Hungarians to believe he was. He needed Istvan Csurka’s far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP) to carry out some of his agenda.
As the former Hungarian dissident and liberal politician Miklos Haraszti, told me in early 2000, before he went on to become the media watchdog for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe: “These are deeply coded messages to the far right to show that this is where their hearts beat.”
When it comes to Western pressure, it’s important to remember that was also a time when Budapest was trying to satisfy Brussels, in hopes of entering the EU club. Hungary eventually joined in 2004. With that, Brussels lost much of its leverage over the new members: once you’re in, you’re in.
Today, I wonder what impact – if any – EU criticism would have on Orban.
Enter Jobbik, the “Movement for a Better Hungary,” and its charismatic young leader, Gabor Vona, 31. Unlike MIEP collaboration, Jobbik represents a threat to Fidesz.
Jobbik has referred to Fidesz as “Zsidesz,” a play on words interpreted as “Jewish party.” And Jobbik issued a double-barreled press release April 14 that went after both Fidesz and the Socialists.
First, Jobbik accused Fidesz of creeping “dictatorship,” by stifling investigation of alleged electoral fraud. Then, Jobbik announced it would file for defamation against the Socialist candidate for prime minister, Attila Mesterhazy, who branded Jobbik as “fascist” during his concession speech Sunday. The party vowed to sue anyone who “defame[s] the over 855,000 Hungarians who voted for Jobbik.”
Orban himself will be under pressure, as his team made lofty promises to clean up Hungary’s economic mess, much of it created during eight years of Socialist rule. (Context is also important: many Hungarians won’t forgive that the Socialist Party is heir to the old Hungarian Communist Party.)
Most notoriously, in September 2006, Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was caught confessing on tape that earlier in the year he’d lied to voters “morning, evening and night” about the economy to win re-election. Orban, then head of the Fidesz-led opposition, fanned the flames by attacking the government as “illegitimate.” Vicious street riots erupted, with CNN covering it.
Today, with IMF-imposed belt-tightening, Hungarian anger has grown, as has unemployment: at 11.4 percent, it’s the highest since 1994, early in the turbulent economic transformation. The economy contracted last year by 6.3 percent. This frustration also exacerbates what has festered from the beginning: widespread poverty of the marginalized Roma, which became a source of increasing petty crimes, which spurred conflicts with Hungarian neighbors.
This serves as toxic fodder for Jobbik. Ranting against Cigánybűnözés – “Gypsy criminality” – the party unveiled a uniformed militia in September 2007: the Hungarian Guard. Dressed primarily in black, with mixed military and folk-ethnic motifs, the Magyar Garda embraced an ancient, red-and-white-striped Hungarian flag as a symbol, known as the “Arpad flag.” That symbol, coincidentally, was the same used by the Hungarian Nazi party that helped kill more than a half-million Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.
As I wrote for Transitions in March 2008, the “Magyar Garda” would march in lockstep formation in Roma-heavy villages where there’d been reports of “atrocities.” Some observers warned of bloodshed if Roma were to respond with “self-defense” forces of their own. The Hungarian courts banned the militia in December 2008, but Vona has reportedly stated that he would wear his Garda uniform when sworn into Parliament.
Meanwhile, here were the cover images of recent issues of the Jobbik magazine mouthpiece, “Barricade” – plus, my interpretation of them:
- A thick-necked, dark-skinned man, drawn from behind, wearing a thick gold chain. Headline: Gypsy Criminality! Over! Translation: “These rogues get rich, while you, poor Hungarians, suffer.”
- The statue of St. Gellert, perched high above the scenic panorama of Budapest … holding a Jewish menorah, or religious candelabra. Headline: Wake Up, Budapest! Is This What You Want? Translation: “The Jews control and strangle us.”(It also plays to another favorite canard, that Israel is scheming to occupy Hungary.)
- Jobbik’s leader clutching a medieval sword and Arpad-decorated shield. Headline: Unwavering! Hungary for Hungarians! Translation: “Keeping pushing, patriots, I’m on my way. Non-Hungarians, watch out.”
So, the contagion of hatred spreads through society. Why wouldn’t it infect more and more Hungarians?
One of the most striking comments I saw from Vona came Sunday, as results were announced: “I still feel, however, that two-thirds of Hungarians are Jobbik supporters but don’t know it yet.”
By my math, that encompasses the whole Fidesz electorate.
Is there truth it? Maybe. Perhaps pressure from the right is also what Orban had in mind when he admitted Sunday, “I know deep in my heart that I stand before the biggest task of my life.”
It’s hard to imagine he’ll get a third crack at this. More than fulfill campaign promises, though, the incoming prime minister should also fulfill the promise of Hungarian democracy.
To view the original article, click here.