Above~Leader of Hungary’s nationalist, far right wing party Jobbik, Gabor Vona, center.

Jobbik may end up the second-biggest in parliament

AS A firebrand leader of Hungary’s nationalist Jobbik party, Gabor Vona once railed against “Gypsy crime” and “Israeli conquerors”. He even attended parliament in the outfit of the Magyar Garda, Jobbik’s now disbanded and, to many, deeply sinister, uniformed wing.

But as Hungary starts to gear up for an election due by next April, Mr Vona and Jobbik claim to have mellowed. They now declare that they want to move beyond the old left-right divide and instead try to build social consensus. “Our goal is to get the support of all constructive forces who want to build rather than destroy,” says the new Mr Vona. The state and business leaders should work together to boost wages and the economy. There is no room for anti-Semitism or racism against Roma people, he says—although not all party supporters are likely to stick to that. Mr Vona even sent Hanukkah greetings last year to a Budapest rabbi.

Mr Vona, 39, is following the example of Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, reckons Tamas Boros, of Policy Solutions, a Budapest think-tank. “Jobbik have copy-pasted the [National Front].”

Jobbik won 21% of the vote in an election in 2014, making it the third-largest party in parliament. Its critics describe the party as neo-Nazi, though Jobbik’s ideological underpinning was always extreme Hungarian nationalism, rather than any form of admiration for Hitler. But that too has a limited market.

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Jobbik’s leaders have since then realised that Hungarian society is not generally radical, says Mr Boros. “Most people are much more interested in financial matters, such as their wages and the economy.” The party is now promoting a hazily defined EU-wide campaign to equalise pay rates across the continent and stem the mass exodus of young people to western Europe.

But not everyone manages to stay on message. Dora Duro, a Jobbik MP, recently said that the party would welcome homosexuals’ votes if they felt the party represented their interests—but later called for Budapest’s Gay Pride parade, and gay and lesbian civil partnerships, to be banned. Laszlo Toroczkai, one of the party’s most hard-line radicals, remains its vice-president. As a village mayor, he passed by-laws against Muslim dress and public displays of gay affection, and during the refugee crisis of 2015-16 warned migrants to stay away.

Officials from the governing Fidesz party dismiss Jobbik’s new line as posturing. “They are desperate. They have sold everything in the house and now it’s empty,” says one, pointing to a lack of concrete new policies on the part of Jobbik. Mr Vona will have a tough task convincing many voters that the party’s transformation is real.

But there may indeed be a gap in the market. Hungary lacks a small-state conservative party; and many voters think the incessant campaign of Viktor Orban, the prime minister, against George Soros, a Hungarian-born philanthropist and financier, is batty. Mr Orban claims that Mr Soros plans to swamp Hungary with migrants with the backing of the EU. (How he might actually do this is unclear, and Mr Soros strongly denies having any such plan.) Hungary’s government engages in “pointless conflicts”, says Geza Jeszensky, a former foreign minister and ambassador. Tibor Navracsics, a former Minister of Justice under Mr Orban, who is now European Commissioner for Education, Youth, Culture and Sport, has gone on record to deny that there is any migration plan at the European Commission, much to the rage of his former colleagues.

Yet, however Jobbik evolves, Mr Orban has some wind in his sails. The opposition is fragmented and demoralised. Helped by EU funds, the economy is in good shape, growing at a rate of 3.2% year-on-year. Although far too many Hungarians are still poor, a burgeoning middle class has pushed consumption up sharply. The government’s relentless message that Hungary is under threat from external enemies shores up the base of Fidesz. Support for the ruling party is at its highest since January 2011, at 40%, according to Median, a pollster. Jobbik scores only 11%, and the Socialists are languishing at 7%. The only question, says Mr Boros, is who will come second next year. It may well be the new-look Jobbik.

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Do they have ill intent at heart?

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “New-look nationalists”
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