Dispatch

How Hungary’s Far-Right Extremists Became Warm and Fuzzy

The Jobbik party, once known for its overt racism and anti-Semitism, is trying to reinvent itself as the responsible voice of the center.

Gabor Vona (center), leader of the Hungarian far-right Jobbik party with his wife and son  casting his ballot for the European Parliment elections on May 25, 2014 at a local polling station in Budapest.
Gabor Vona (center), leader of the Hungarian far-right Jobbik party with his wife and son casting his ballot for the European Parliment elections on May 25, 2014 at a local polling station in Budapest. (PETER KOHALMI/AFP/Getty Images)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Marton Gyongyosi, a member of parliament for the Hungarian far-right Jobbik party, drew international ire in 2012 when he called for a list of all Jews in Hungary, particularly lawmakers, arguing that they could pose a “national security risk.”

Now, however, sitting in his office overlooking the Danube River, he explains that he made a mistake. “I will not pretend that the context explains or saves what I had to say,” he tells Foreign Policy. “It was a bad sentence, it was a not-well-thought-through sentence, it was a disastrous sentence.”

Such rhetoric was once a hallmark of Jobbik, or Movement for a Better Hungary, which got its start as a radical nationalist student movement in the early 2000s and won its first seats in parliament in 2010. The party made a name for itself with its extreme rhetoric, most frequently directed at Jews and members of Hungary’s Roma minority.

But over the last four years, Jobbik has undertaken an explicit and concerted shift to the center, toning down its rhetoric and bolstering its policy program to focus on economic inequality and stopping the flow of workers leaving Hungary for other European countries.

Throughout the campaign for Hungary’s parliamentary elections, to be held on April 8, Jobbik has abandoned its old anti-Semitic invective and is now pitching itself as the centrist alternative to Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose eight years in office have seen Hungary drift increasingly rightward as the country’s democratic institutions have come under attack. The party hopes that its shift — referred to by those in politics and the media as Jobbik’s cukisagkampany, which roughly translates to “cuteness campaign” — will propel it to greater heights and give it the chance to truly challenge Orban for power.

Jobbik, of course, isn’t the first far-right party in Europe to consider rebranding. From the dédiabolisation (de-demonization) of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France to the Austrian Freedom Party’s recent announcement of a commission to examine its history of Nazi ties, other far-right movements across the continent have worked to shed their most unsavory elements and broaden their appeal. But none have gone further than Jobbik — whose goal is not only to be seen as less far-right, but also to credibly bill itself as a centrist “people’s party” in the tradition of the major European political parties like Germany’s Christian Democrats or the Austrian People’s Party.

The polite and polished Gyongyosi, the son of a diplomat who graduated from Trinity College in Dublin and speaks perfect English, personifies that change of tone — and rhetorically, at least, it’s clear Jobbik has changed. What’s still unclear is whether Hungarian voters are buying that change and will reward Jobbik for it at the polls.

Jobbik’s shift toward the center dates back to late 2013, just before Hungary’s 2014 election. At the time, party leader Gabor Vona announced the strategy of professionalizing Jobbik’s image and shedding overtly extremist rhetoric. He said anyone who was not on board could leave the party — and several people did. Vona also sidelined or kicked out several politicians, including three Jobbik vice chairs in 2016. Some of those politicians, such as the ex-Jobbik MP Elod Novak, have since criticized the party for betraying its roots.

The change in rhetoric was accompanied by several notable changes in policy: Opposition politicians acknowledge that Jobbik has a far more extensive policy program than Orban’s Fidesz party. Previously a Euroskeptic party, Jobbik has said it does not want to exit the European Union but supports working with the EU and reforming it from within. The party has proposed a wage union to better equalize pay between EU countries and has proposed other policies to keep talented young Hungarians from moving abroad. And on the issue of fighting corruption, which Jobbik has made a centerpiece of its campaign, even the party’s detractors now acknowledge it is a credible messenger on the topic.

Jobbik’s leaders characterize this as a natural progression for a young and radical party — an inevitable maturing once they realized that actually sitting in parliament is much harder than making noise outside of it. It wasn’t until the party saw what Orban’s government was capable of once he took power, Gyongyosi says, that Jobbik recognized it wanted to stand for something different. From hard-line anti-immigration, anti-refugee rhetoric to an open disdain for the EU, the old Jobbik and the current Fidesz have a lot in common.

“Viktor Orban and Fidesz … have basically become what we would have become if we would not have started to change,” Gyongyosi tells FP. It was a lesson for the party. “It contributed to our development — it helped us to basically exit from our teenage years.”

There is, of course, a less generous explanation for Jobbik’s change of heart: that party leaders, recognizing Fidesz had co-opted many of its major policies and messages, realized they needed to make a change or face political obscurity. “Basically they [Fidesz] took over many of our good ideas and implemented them,” says Pal Losonczy, who directs Jobbik’s marketing and communications and is a parliamentary candidate for the party in Budapest. “They were draining air away from us, they were draining energy away from us. We had no more leeway.” For Jobbik, it was a question of survival as a party.

“This is exactly what Viktor Orban did with the other rightist parties,” Losonczy adds, naming the Hungarian Democratic Forum and the Christian Democratic People’s Party. “Where are these parties now? They are nowhere.”

It’s still unclear whether they’ve now found that electoral and political leeway: While Jobbik hasn’t sustained significant losses in the polls, it hasn’t seen any noticeable gains. Polling in the race suggests Jobbik is on track to secure support in the high teens, slightly below the 21 percent it won in 2014; what it may have gained in support from disaffected Fidesz voters it likely lost from its own right wing.

“The support of Jobbik didn’t really change throughout the last four years, or since they have a different rhetoric,” says Daniel Mikecz, a researcher with the Budapest-based Republikon Institute. “But also, I do believe there’s been changes among the voters: Many former Jobbik voters changed to the Fidesz because they’re more radical, and I think there are disappointed Fidesz voters who came to Jobbik.”

There are also those who have come on board in recent years, particularly certain segments of Budapest’s intellectual class. Koloman Brenner, a professor and member of the country’s German-Hungarian minority, tells me he had initially stayed away from Jobbik because its solutions to certain problems weren’t, as he says, “so precise or well thought out.” It wasn’t until 2015, once the party’s ideological shift was well underway — and in particular, after it began to soften its stance on the European Union — that he began supporting Jobbik.

Although he is not a formal party member, Brenner is running as Jobbik’s candidate in a parliamentary constituency in the northwestern Hungarian county of Gyor-Moson-Sopron. “As an intellectual, I saw myself as duty-bound to become politically active against the authoritarian tendencies of Fidesz and Viktor Orban,” he tells FP.

He says he “rarely” noticed xenophobic comments from Jobbik leaders even before the shift, and that he now believes the party has fully eradicated such views. Before 2013, Jobbik’s leaders did not crack down on members making racist or anti-Semitic statements. “But this has changed,” Brenner says. “Every statement in this direction results in the appropriate disciplinary action.”

For others, supporting Jobbik is primarily pragmatic: It’s currently polling as the second-largest party in Hungary and poses the best chance of defeating Orban and Fidesz. Istvan Teplan, who co-founded Central European University with the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, says he is far more worried about giving another four years to Orban than about what Jobbik would do as the governing party. (CEU, along with Soros, have been top targets of Orban and Fidesz in recent years.) Teplan is not a member of Jobbik, but he has been publicly supportive of the party in the lead-up to the election. And, surprisingly, Jobbik has been among the loudest defenders of CEU recently, criticizing Orban’s attacks on the university.

“I ask myself what is the biggest danger: to have this Fidesz nightmare forever, or give a trial phase … to this young Jobbik, give them a chance that they leave their radical past behind?” Teplan says. “I think we have to give them a chance.”

Opposition party leaders are skeptical that the changes are sincere, though they acknowledge Jobbik’s shift has been noticeable. Though Vona did kick out some party members who had made inflammatory comments, many of them remain in positions of power.

Jobbik “is definitely showing a different veneer,” says Istvan Ferenczi, a party leader and candidate for the green-liberal party Politics Can Be Different. Still, he says, “it has not been totally convincing. … Fidesz looks more fascistic and far-right than the Jobbik at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that the Jobbik couldn’t switch back.”

Gabor Daroczi, the would-be education minister for the Socialist coalition and a member of Hungary’s Roma minority, says that just because Jobbik has stopped its overt anti-Roma rhetoric doesn’t mean it has changed its views.

He asks if I know the joke about the difference between a rat and a squirrel. There is no difference; a squirrel is just a rat with “much better PR.”

“For me it’s the same,” he says. “Jobbik hasn’t changed, but they have better PR.” 

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism.

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