It is tough to swallow that in one of the most beautiful cities of the European Union, which is extremely intolerant of racism, a man, whose political role was controversial and who ruled over Hungary when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were shipped off to concentration camps and shot into the Danube, is being honored.
Xenophobic sentiment is rising in Hungary. In 2010, the newcomer Jobbik party won an unprecedented 16.6 percent of the vote, capturing 45 out of 386 parliamentary seats. Since their founding in 2003, Jobbik has undertaken a series of aggressive nationalist and xenophobic policies, including founding the Hungarian Guard nationalist movement, a paramilitary group frequently compared to Hitler’s brownshirts.
Parliamentary elections in a country barely more populous than metropolitan New York City rarely generate too much international attention. At first glance, the result, disappointing as it seems, would pretty much fit into the post-crisis European pattern that shows a dynamic rise of extremist forces. But members of Jobbik are not your typical EU-skeptical radicals.
Founded in 2003 by a surprisingly young group of right-wing professionals, the breakthrough for Jobbik came in 2006 when severe protests broke out against the ruling social-liberal government following a controversial speech by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. Although the demonstrations started off peacefully, they soon got steered away by groups of radical extremists who began attacking public institutions and engaged in severe clashes with patrolling police officers. Gyurcsány’s main opposition rival, the populist Fidesz party, did not pay much attention to the emerging radical masses, because they were eager to keep the protests alive. But things soon got out of hand.
During the several month-long anti-government rallies, charismatic, radical leaders rose to questionable fame and began introducing unprecedentedly aggressive nationalist and xenophobic elements into the public discourse. Jobbik released a whole set of bogeymen to the Hungarian population: Jews, Gypsies, liberals, Communists, the European Union, the IMF, and claimed a worldwide conspiracy against the country. They introduced the concept of ‘gypsy crime,’ and until 2009, the country frequently witnessed frightening marches of uniformed Guard militants on the streets of small, mostly Roma-populated villages.
The unrest against the government, coupled with the upcoming financial crisis brought the population’s anxiety and frustration to a burning point. Abandoned by all mainstream parties, the coherent and surprisingly well-constructed universe of the extreme right became an appealing alternative for many, and Jobbik’s popularity rose to an unprecedented 14.77 percent at the 2009 European Parliament elections, earning three seats. Cleverly picking up serious but politically uncomfortable issues largely ignored by the other parties in policy areas like widespread petty crime, Jobbik started to be perceived as the only party with ready solutions. Unsurprisingly, their strongest electorates in 2010 were the underdeveloped regions of Northern Hungary, the former strongholds for the left-wing Socialist party.
Opening the parliamentary term in the uniform of the then-banned Guard, Jobbik remained largely stable; neither its policies nor its popularity appeared to show any sign of change. Although their MPs form a heterogeneous group of nationalist university professors and former skinheads, their legislative activity was seriously controversial. Their radical advocacy of nationalist values, the propagation of the reunification of pre WWI Greater Hungary, their clear xenophobia, and the outspoken EU skepticism pair up with cases that even attracted international attention, like a blood libel claim, or demands for a list of MPs with Jewish origins. Meanwhile, Jobbik constructed a surprisingly sophisticated parallel, nationalist universe of radio stations, webpages, dating sites for radicals, and their particular clothing styles and music genres. They must have gotten something right: according to recent surveys, Jobbik attracts 33 percent of university students, and out of them, 52 percent say that in some cases, they would prefer dictatorship over democracy.
In order to combat nationalism and anti-semitism, something urgent must be done. If we don’t want history to repeat itself and see the 1930s again, we have to act immediately. The next elections are a bit more than a year from now. With the rising popularity of the radicals, and with the disenchantment of the electorate, there seems to be a threat that the extreme right will get more seats in Parliament unless something is done.
The published case studies and research from the Free Market Foundation are an effort to fight radicalism. We have also created a website to calculate the financial damages the extreme right is causing, and to educate about the threats and about the alternatives that exist.
Let us be scared. Let us worry about the future of the country and our children. Let us stand up and speak for my country that we love, and let the people learn about the horrors of those who are hailed by the radical right of the country.
Zoltán Kész is president and founder of the Free Market Foundation in Budapest. Mr. Kesz addressed the Atlas Network’s Liberty Forum November 14, to speak about the recent rise in anti-semitism in Hungary. Learn more at AtlasNetwork.org