Big shift in Hungary’s political landscape

In a country on heels of economic ruin, elections oust socialists in favour of right-wing parties

Olivia Ward
Toronto Star, April 20, 2010

Hungary faces a second round of parliamentary elections this weekend. But voters aren’t holding their breath for the results.

On the heels of an economic disaster, the biggest political shift in two decades is already underway — with the socialists ousted by a mainstream right-wing party, while an extreme right party linked to a neofascist-style militia came a narrow third to the former ruling party.

In the poll’s first round last week, Fidesz won a resounding victory, promising an economically shocked public badly needed jobs and growth.

In an equally major development, the far-right Jobbik party surfaced as a political challenger, taking nearly 17 per cent of the vote.

“They polled one year ago at 2 per cent,” says Hungarian expert Christopher Adam of Carleton University, who publishes the online Canadian Hungarian Journal. “Now they’re only 2 per cent behind the former governing Socialists.”

In Hungary’s complicated political landscape, Adam points out, the success of Fidesz and Jobbik does not mean that its 8 million voters have made a massive right turn. While Jobbik capitalizes on its anti-immigrant, anti-Roma and anti-Semitic rhetoric, it holds leftist economic views. And Fidesz’s platform is little different from many left-wing socialist parties.

“There’s really no market for conservative economic policy in Hungary,” says Adam.

Fidesz leader Viktor Orban — a former prime minister — recently declared that “the era of financial capitalism is over,” and he would look for an economic “third way.”

He’s spoken out against medical user and university tuition fees, and said he would like to renationalize some industries. He has also turned thumbs down on the influence of multinationals.

“It’s a very hybrid movement,” said Adam. But for many inside and outside Hungary, the rise of Jobbik is more worrying.

“Hungary has been through a terrible transition period,” says Robert Austin, who coordinates University of Toronto’s Hungarian studies program. “It started out at the front of the race in Central Europe, and now it’s an economic catastrophe. That allows movements like Jobbik to make gains.”

With a heavy reliance on foreign credit, Hungary was one of the hardest-hit European countries during the 2008 economic meltdown. Its economy shrank more than 6 per cent in 2009, and it was forced to seek a $25 billion (U.S.) bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The Ssocialist government’s resulting tax hikes and spending cuts alienated many voters.

The economic squeeze fuelled anti-immigrant sentiment in Hungary, and the Roma minority — widely accused of criminal activity — was a prime target for popular anger, galvanized by Jobbik. So were “foreign speculators” from Israel, whom Jobbik accuses of trying to dominate the country’s economy. But the party denies it harbours racist sentiments, insisting it represents the views of many Hungarians.

“Jobbik’s rise isn’t so surprising,” says Marko Papic of the U.S.-based global intelligence firm, Stratfor. “As the recession hits more pocketbooks in Europe we’ll be seeing more nationalists in parliaments.”

In former Iron Curtain countries, he says, Jobbik’s ultranationalism doesn’t face the same taboos as in North America because in their memories, the holocaust took second place to the Soviet invasion.

Some predict Jobbik could gain even more support during forthcoming municipal elections. And that it could force Fidesz into more extreme positions by going on the political attack at a time when traumatized Hungarians are looking for quick solutions.

“In the 1990s, Hungary had a far right movement that didn’t attract much interest,” said Adam. “This party is quite different in its methods, and is extremely good at using electronic media. It appeals to youth in all the wrong ways. It’s a much more disturbing phenomenon.”