Rise of the Hungarian Right

With Web-savvy "radical nationalism" -- and a dash of anti-Semitism and Roma-baiting -- firebrand politician Gabor Vona has touched a chord among Hungary's disaffected and disillusioned young voters.

Gyongyos, Hungary — While running for a parliamentary seat in Hungary’s April elections, far-right candidate Gabor Vona made one campaign promise that was controversial even by his standards: If voted into parliament, the 31-year-old extremist would report for duty wearing the insignia of his outlawed paramilitary organization, the "Hungarian Guard" — a taboo symbol that, with its ancient, red-and-white-striped emblem, bears a striking resemblance to the flag of Hungary’s Nazi-era fascist party, Arrow Cross.

The suggestion was intolerable to many Hungarians. Arrow Cross’s brief period of political dominance, during which the party murdered thousands of Hungarian Jews and shipped many tens of thousands more to concentration camps outside the country, is still a painful subject. More to the point, the insignia itself is illegal. Vona’s announcement directly flouted a court decision banning the Hungarian Guard, and it provoked the outgoing Hungarian prime minister into asking the Justice Ministry to investigate.

But the controversy appeared only to reinforce the popularity of Vona’s far-right, Web-savvy Jobbik party, which went on to win a stunning 16.7 percent of the vote — the best performance of any hypernationalist party in post-communist Eastern Europe. And Vona kept his word: At the May 14 inauguration, he took off his suit jacket to reveal a black vest with the Hungarian Guard’s emblem.

Vona’s intransigence may have been shocking, but it wasn’t surprising. Central Europe may be two decades removed from communist dictatorship and ensconced in Western institutions such as the European Union and NATO — but few people are cheering. Promises of a glorious new post-communist life have resulted only in rising prices, growing unemployment, and endemic corruption. And resentment is fueling a greater appetite for right-wing extremism across the region, according to a new survey by the Budapest-based think tank Political Capital. In Hungary alone, right-wing attitudes have leapt from 10 to 20 percent since 2003.

"It’s been constant disillusionment that many people [in Hungary] are susceptible to. They’re bitter about the whole system," says Alex Kuli, a Political Capital analyst. "That’s what Vona is responding to and manipulating — this deep-seated disillusionment."

Vona came of age amid the post-communist collapse of industry and agriculture, which was particularly devastating in his native northeastern Hungary. The young Vona, a good student in the small town of Gyongyos with a strong interest in politics and debate, was fascinated by Hungarian history, which was often distorted by the communists. Most obvious was the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which punished Hungary for its role in World War I. The victors lopped off two-thirds of Hungary’s territory and one-third of its people — including five of its 10 largest cities. Desire to recover those lands would help drive Hungary into the Nazis’ arms during World War II. But that national trauma, which resonates even today, was glossed over in communist-era history books.

Vona took notice. "He felt history was written by the winners," says Vona’s cousin, Viktoria Laczhazi, herself a Jobbik volunteer in a city near Gyongyos. "And because we were the losers, our history wasn’t being told."

At university in cosmopolitan Budapest, Vona explored history and psychology and reportedly planned to become a history professor. His strident politics, though, swept him in another direction. In 2003, dissatisfied with the political spectrum available to him, Vona and his comrades founded a new party, Jobbik, to fight for "national radicalism."

Jobbik snared just 2 percent in the 2006 elections. Later that year, however, the party caught a lucky break and exploited it fully. In September, then-Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany — a communist-turned-millionaire whose Socialist Party is heir to the old communist party — was caught on tape admitting his Socialists won reelection by lying to voters "morning, evening, and night" about the country’s economic health.

Bloody riots erupted in the streets of Budapest. Protesters, portraying themselves as patriots seeking to overturn an illegitimate government, rehabilitated the red-and-white "Arpad stripes," derived from an ancient royal coat of arms, but now associated in Hungary with the Arrow Cross flag. Suddenly, the insignia was back in fashion.

And Jobbik, whose members were the ones wearing the stripes, came into fashion too. Under Vona’s leadership, Jobbik has adopted the enduring trauma of Trianon, epitomized by the 2.5 million or so ethnic Hungarians who today live across Hungary’s borders — mostly in Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia — as a cause célèbre. Images of "Greater Hungary," which extends the borders to those of the old monarchy, were a rarity in the 1990s. Today, they’re ubiquitous on bumper stickers, posters, and T-shirts. It has also stirred tensions with Hungary’s northern neighbor, Slovakia, much of which was once part of the Hungarian kingdom.

For several years, before Vona leapt to center stage, the party’s most public face was human rights lawyer Krisztina Morvai, who had taught law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, served on the European Commission of Human Rights, and worked for the U.N. Women’s Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Morvai is an attractive blonde with a nasty way with words. In February 2009, after war broke out between Israel and Gaza, she wrote Israel’s ambassador to Hungary, "The only way to talk to people like you is by assuming the style of Hamas. I wish all of you lice-infested, dirty murderers will receive Hamas’ ‘kisses.’" Later in the year, she countered online criticism by suggesting Hungarian Jews "go back to playing with their tiny little circumcised tails rather than vilifying me."

By August 2007, however, Vona had taken over the Jobbik spotlight, unveiling his brainchild: a paramilitary wing called the Hungarian Guard, or "Magyar Garda." At the swearing-in ceremony for the first few dozen members, Vona proclaimed, "The Hungarian Guard has been set up in order to carry out the real change of regime" — from communism — "and to rescue Hungarians."

Vona picked as his first target an oft-vilified group, the Roma (more commonly, and pejoratively, known as "Gypsies"). Hungarian attitudes toward the Roma were already inflamed: After a teacher driving through the northeastern village of Olaszliszka in the fall of 2006 reportedly struck a Romani girl with his car, an enraged mob of local Roma beat the motorist to death, as his two daughters watched.

In the fall of 2007, the Hungarian Guard burst onto the scene in their black boots, black caps, and black vests stamped with the Arpad stripes. They began marching in lock step through Romani neighborhoods and villages around the country. It sent an ominous message, and some Roma threatened to respond with their own self-defense units, though no clashes have yet been reported. (Still, human rights activists say, over the last three years nine Roma have been murdered by unknown assailants.)

Hungarian and international critics soon branded the Hungarian Guard as fascist, racist, and neo-Nazi. In December 2008, the Budapest Metropolitan Court banned the Hungarian Guard for the unconstitutional violation of the human rights of minorities. Jobbik has appealed and threatened to take the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. Meanwhile, attuned to the realities of political spin, the organization has attempted to revamp itself as a civil service group. Last month, as Hungary faced its worst flooding in years, guardsmen were out in their caps and vests, laying sandbags to protect villages and homeowners.

And Jobbik’s popularity has continued to grow, despite the fact that the Hungarian media — often explicitly linked to mainstream political parties — have either shunned or bashed the party.

On the eve of June 2009 elections to the European Parliament, Jobbik leaders like Morvai and Vona crisscrossed the country, appearing in one town-hall meeting after another. The grassroots approach helped Jobbik score a startling 14.8 percent of Hungary’s votes, sending Morvai and two other Jobbik representatives to Strasbourg. On their first day of work, they all sported the Hungarian Guard insignia, seated at the back with fellow far-right representatives from other European countries.

This April, with Hungary in the throes of economic crisis, Jobbik did even better, with Vona leading the party to its largest electoral slice ever, only a few points below the venerable Socialist Party’s abysmal 19.3 percent showing.

Most striking about Jobbik’s performance was its strength among young Hungarians. Nearly a quarter of voters ages 18 to 29 went for the party’s pledge of "Szebb jovot!," or "A brighter future!"

This feat is due partly to Jobbik’s youthful leadership and its shrewd use of the Internet: The party has a strong presence on Facebook and Twitter, and it has its own YouTube channel, "jobbikmedia." But it’s also a marker of how disenfranchised Hungarian youth feel, at a time when unemployment for those ages 25 to 40 hovers around 25 percent, compared with about 12 percent for the population as a whole. For many young Hungarians, a vote for Jobbik is a protest vote against the mainstream parties, which are seen as having failed the younger generation.

Jobbik’s new higher profile, of course, brings up some questions about its future: How does an anti-establishment party cope with being elected to the establishment?

There’s also the fact that polling research has indicated that Hungarian support for right-wing extremism tops out at around 20 percent, meaning that Jobbik could be nearing the ceiling of its influence. Vona himself — now in the daily spotlight as the head of the Jobbik faction in parliament — might have limited appeal. In three pre-election polls on who might be elected the next prime minister, he mustered only a few percentage points, coming in a distant fourth.

Morvai, however, hasn’t disappeared in Strasbourg, and she still holds strong appeal on a national level. Her ambition could split the party in two. Miklos Szantho of the Hungarian think tank Perspective Institute thinks an in-house skirmish might be inevitable.

"While the often politically incorrect messages and image of Jobbik are widely supported among some segments of the society, Vona as a political leader hasn’t acquired such popularity," says Szantho. "It’s a question for the future: How can the radicals bridge the inner ruptures?"

There’s also the pressure coming its way from the ruling party, Viktor Orban’s center-right Fidesz, which won in a landslide. Of course, Vona and Jobbik have the luxury, for the time being, of waiting in the wings while Fidesz labors to fulfill its lofty promises and handle the new challenge that Jobbik poses to its right-wing base. But Fidesz has dealt decisively with attackers from the right in the past: It already co-opted Hungary’s first far-right party during Orban’s first stint as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, swiping several of its red-meat issues. And it could be starting the process again: After the elections, Vona wrote a Facebook post alleging the existence of an Orban plot to "eliminate" Jobbik, a charge that could well be true.

For the time being, though, Jobbik’s popularity shows no sign of waning.

"People are fed up with all of the political elites, and Vona is a new face who promised purity and security for the people in the countryside," says a Hungarian journalist who covers politics for a leading publication and didn’t want to be identified. "If Jobbik waits a little, they can win a lot."

Michael J. Jordan is foreign correspondent based in Lesotho.