Two elections in Hungary: 1939 and 2009

Of course, the 1939 election was a national election while in 2009 it was a European parliamentary election, but there is one thing that these two elections have in common: the unexpectedly strong showing of the extreme right. In 1939 there were six parties that could be described as right-radical, and altogether they received more than one million votes. It is true that the traditional government party still got 71.92% of the votes, which meant 187 seats in a 260-member parliament, but the parties of the extreme right received 18% of the votes and could send 46 people to parliament. Even in Budapest where the liberals and the social democrats were traditionally strong, the extreme right gained ground. Four years earlier these small radical parties had received only 50,000 votes. Four years later over one million! One might add that prior to 1939 voting in the countryside was not secret. The 1939 election was the first to have secret ballots everywhere. At the same time Law 1938/XIX increased the minimum voting age and introduced stricter educational requirements. However, it didn't help. Just as István Csurka's MIÉP enjoyed a strong showing in the well-off Buda districts in the 1990s, so the Arrow Cross, the most important extreme right-wing party, was the favorite of the upper middle classes in 1939.

Even then, as now, pundits debated about who voted for these parties. The conservatives gleefully pointed to Red Csepel (a working class district in the southern part of Budapest) that went solidly for the Hungarian Nazis and to their strong showing in mining towns. Western Hungary, an area that remained firmly in the Fidesz camp in the EU election, was an Arrow Cross stronghold in 1939, especially around the city of Keszthely and along the Magyaróvár-Zirc-Enying axis. The extreme right in 1939 was also very popular in central Hungary. In 2009 Jobbik was successful in counties with high Roma populations due to their anti-Gypsy rhetoric while "the Roma question" was a non-issue in 1939.

Several articles appeared lately on the the growth of the extreme right in Hungary. I want to focus on one that I found especially interesting: Andor Ladányi's "Kísért a múlt?" (Élet és Irodalom, July 3). Andor Ladányi as a young historian wrote a little book on the radical youth of the early 1920s which I found particularly useful when I was working on this period. Ladányi, like others then and later, believes that in large part the votes for the extreme right came from the left. In 1935 there were eleven social democratic members of parliament. In 1939 only five. But the smallholders also lost out to the Hungarian Nazis. In 1935 the party had a parliamentary caucus of twenty-two while after 1939 it was reduced to fourteen. In Buda, in the so-called "Christian middle-class" districts, the Arrow Cross party received 32.92% of the votes. Looking at the details of the 1939 election one can safely say that support for the extreme right was wider and deeper than it is for Jobbik today. First of all, the 18% figure is misleading because the radical parties, including the Arrow Cross Party, were unable to compete in every district. In those days there were districts where one could vote only for parties and others in which one could vote for individual candidates. There were thirty-eight districts where one could vote only for parties, and the Arrow Cross Party was on the ballot in only twenty-one of them. But when they were on the ballot, they received 29.35% of the votes. Then there were 135 districts where the electorate voted for individual candidates; here the Arrow Cross Party managed to get on the ballot in fewer than half of them. When they were represented, they received 26.37% of the votes. So, although it's not scientific to extrapolate based solely on these numbers, it's still not difficult to imagine what would have happened if they had been on the ballot in all 173 districts!

Although there are many similarities between the Arrow Cross and Jobbik, there are obvious differences. In those days the extreme right didn't face such issues as globalization or Hungary's relation to the European Union. Rascism was of course present but the "Gypsy question" was not an issue. First of all because the number of Gypsies in those days was much smaller than today, and in the late 1930s this minority group was not really visible. The extreme right found a common cause in anti-semitism, manifested more openly and virulently than today. Or at least in those days it wasn't necessary to use code words. Nationalism was an important component then as now, but irredentism dominated the vocabulary of the extreme right in 1939 in a way that it no longer does. By 1939 German Nazi propaganda exercised a powerful influence on the Hungarian extreme right, and the Hungarian national socialist parties even received financial assistance from Germany. For the 1939 election campaign this financial assistance was substantial. Ladányi believes that Jobbik doesn't receive financial assistance from other European right-wing parties. I might mention here that György Lázár, who often writes from California in Élet és Irodalom, makes a case for Iranian financial support of Jobbik just as an earlier Hungarian right-radical group received generous sums from Saddam Hussein (http://www.es.hu/index.php?view=doc;23303). I don't know where the money for the 2009 election came from, but surely not from the local supporters.

Finally, Ladányi recalls that in 1939 the extreme right won votes from the opposition parties (social democrats, smallholders, and liberals). The "government party" MÉP (Magyar Élet Pártja) actually gained voters. MÉP had more than a two-thirds majority in parliament. Prime Minister Pál Teleki and Interior Minister Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer immediately distanced themselves from the extreme right, and the policies of the government were in no way influenced by the presence of a fairly large national socialist group in parliament. The situation is somewhat different today. Fidesz's attitude toward Jobbik is ambivalent, making it more difficult to marginalize the Hungarian neo-Nazis.

As opposed to Ladányi I still don't believe that the majority of Jobbik's voters came from the left. The Progresszív Intézet came out with a new study that is very similar to the early Medián poll. See here: http://nol.hu/belfold/20090710-fokent_a_fidesz_szavazoibol_toltekezett_a_jobbik But to me even more telling is that half of Fidesz voters are opposed to the court's decision to ban the Hungarian Guard, and we know from other sources that one-third of them actually want cooperation between Fidesz and Jobbik. See http://nol.hu/belfold/20090709-nem_az_egyenruha_teszi And, as we know, the pollsters expected Fidesz to do much better in the EU parliamentary election than their final  56.36% figure. All in all, I believe that the majority of the Jobbik voters came from first-time voters and former Fidesz supporters.

The real question is whether Jobbik will make further strides and receive an even greater number of votes next year or whether the same thing will happen now as happened after 1939. The right radical groups splintered and again became insignificant. It was only after October 15, 1944, that Ferenc Szálasi, the head of the Arrow Cross Party, gained power, but only as Germany's puppet. Today I think a lot will depend on how the government handles the situation. From today's news it looks as if at last they decided to be courageous and take steps against any future activities of the Hungarian Guard. Meanwhile I wouldn't like to be in Viktor Orbán's shoes. His situation is very difficult given the presence of Jobbik sympathizers among Fidesz voters. But I don't think that ignoring the problem is the right answer to the problem.

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Mark
Guest
“Of course, the 1939 election was a national election while in 2009 it was a European parliamentary election, but there is one thing that these two elections have in common: the unexpectedly strong showing of the extreme right.” I’m very pleased that the question of comparison between these two elections has been raised. There are parallels and significant differences. I’ve spent a lot of the past two years studying this period in western Hungary at the local level, and the 1939 elections figure prominently. Before we go into this further one can’t really divorce the upsurge in far right activity from the international context. In 1939, Nazism was at its high watermark, and its prestige extended beyond those who were drawn to the far right. Its descisive anti-Semitic measures and its territorial revision met with considerable approval from supporters of the ruling party as well. This is a huge difference with today. The second relates to the electoral process – inter-war elections in Hungary were not free and fair in the sense that those are in Hungary today. This was not because of the franchise – and the institution of the secret ballot did help. It was instead because the… Read more »
Gábor
Guest
“The Progresszív Intézet came out with a new study that is very similar to the early Medián poll.” Well, even at the left exists a “Nézőpont Intézet”… Good for us! The most important methodological problem is that in Hungary phone polls are highly unreliable. (Although in this case the methodological data was really not given in the article, unlike the Medián one! But I suspect it was a phone poll, as it is cheaper than making face-to-face surveys with hundreds of commissioners…) “MÉP had more than a two-thirds majority in parliament. Prime Minister Pál Teleki and Interior Minister Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer immediately distanced themselves from the extreme right, and the policies of the government were in no way influenced by the presence of a fairly large national socialist group in parliament.” I can only aggree with Mark on this point, although the bulk of the Arrow Cross was considered as coming from the mob and representing the mob, Teleki’s agenda was a reform agenda, in many ways overlapping with extreme rightist proposals. Moreover the government party was divided, Teleki has a very small group of followers, as the list of candidates consisted followers of the late Gömbös and was influenced by… Read more »
Gábor
Guest
I think that the treating of the “where did the Jobbik voters came from” issue highlights almost every problem and weakness with the Hungarian politology as a social science and with the polituical analysis. Insitutes are stating the obvious, making unnecessary surveys that will yieled only results in line with one could have had relying on his or her common sense (Jobbik drew voters from a broad social spectrum and from those who never voted earlier etc.) This is not too much for so much money, while they are not adressing the methodological problems. (How reliable can be the statement of the surveyed on their vote in 2006? If they sum it up how far is it from the actual election result? What about phone polls etc.?) But the real problem is, that nationwide surveys simply veil the political problem. You can argue on the basis of such opinion polls that either Fidesz voters or Mszp voters, or first-timne voters were the reason behind the unexpected success of Jobbik, but it is redundant, as you can’t adress the regional differences. Why should one accept that Jobbik’s voter base is a homogenous one? (It is a possible implicit suggestion of national… Read more »
Mark
Guest

Gábor: “There was a certain ideological continuum from the MÉP to Imrédy and to the extreme right and to parts of the populist movement, with an underlying common idea of an organic national community, from wich every “foreign” element should be excluded in one way or in other… ”
It is very clear that when one looks at local political dynamics (and indeed the pro-government press at local level) the years 1938 to 1940 witness a real radicalization in the base of the governing party. While Teleki was a complex figure politically (though the “racial” nature of his anti-Semitism suggests that much of the rehabilitation of Teleki is unwarranted), I think the differences by 1939-40 between MÉP and the Arrow Cross at least in so far as building the “pure” national community were concerned were ones of emphasis rather than a fundamental ideological divide. One of the areas in which there is a parallel between 1939 and now is in the symbiotic and problematic relationship between the mainstream and the extreme right.

Mark
Guest

Éva: “But Mark, don’t you think that one can say the same about Fidesz and Jobbik?”
Yes, I think that is precisely the point, and it is what I’ve been getting at for a while. What the European elections show us is that the political divides of the 1930s are being reproduced in the circumstances of seventy years later: so, a dominant, hegemonic right-wing party with at best an ambiguous relationship to the far right, flanked by the remains of the left, and far right radicals. The context is very different, but one doesn’t have to take the parallels too far to realize this is a dangerous situation.

Mark
Guest

Éva: “From the name of the URL one can guess the results.”
I don’t care much who does it, but I’m pleased to see that someone has subjected the actual votes to proper statistical analysis, even if they’ve adopted a “lazy” way of managing some of the complexities of comparing two sets of elections where the electoral administration was different. This is at least a defensible approach methodologically, and maybe Medián and the Progresszív Intézet could take up the challenge, refine the algorithim, deal with the data a little differently, and produce a better analysis! That having been said, the four conclusions seem sound to me, but then they are in line with what I would expect see.

Mark
Guest
Éva: “You’re not equally skeptical about this analysis as those others?” I’m much less sceptical – which isn’t to say I don’t have criticisms. This is really because the technique allows them to make detailed comparisons of the geographical spread of votes using data collected at a very local level (the polling place). It doesn’t depend on the problems of opinion surveying about past voting intentions, but uses a set of statistical techniques widely used across the social sciences and beyond. It is widely used to explain movements of votes between elections in Hungary’s neighbours. For a basic explanation of the method and information on how it has been used in Austria see: http://www.sora.at/de/start.asp?ID=3 (in German), and http://www.sora.at/en/start.asp?ID=428 (in English). My two criticisms are: 1. I think they needed to find a way of separating new voters from non-voters in 2006, and therefore setting the beaviour of new voters as a question in their analysis. I can see why they didn’t do this as it requires an analysis of the numbers of registered voters by polling place, and some information on demographic trends. I don’t think it would have changed much in their assessment of the relative shifts of votes… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Guest
I do not know when the Hungarian elections of 1939 were held. If they were held before September in of that year, then Europe was at peace if it was after September then Europe was involved in a war. We therefore cannot compare the situations in 1939 and 2009. In 1939 the countries then under National Socialist rule appeared powerful and successful. This would not have gone unnoticed by the Hungarian population many of whom would have wished that their country was also powerful and success. At that time, I believe, Hungary was known as a land of a million beggars. People blamed the banks and bankers for this problem. In their minds all banks were run by Jews and therefore many of the country’s ills of the blamed upon the Jews. (This of course was not true.) Ferenc Szálasi, and the Arrow Cross Party were very anti Semitic and must have played on this. From what my late wife told me, the membership of the Arrow Cross Party was mainly of Swabian origin. It would be interesting to compare the voting patterns in 1939 with the majority ethnic grouping in the various constituencies. In 2009 Jobbic played the race… Read more »
Mark
Guest
Odin: “From what my late wife told me, the membership of the Arrow Cross Party was mainly of Swabian origin.” I think you need to be careful with this, in that it bears the traces of the ways in which the MÉP used an Arrow Cross proposal (the so-called Hubay-Vágó amendment)on the rights of minorities to discredit the far-right as unpatriotic. My impression is somewhat different. In 1938-9 the growing prestige of Nazi Germany produced a sharp turn to the right – a belief that social reform combined with racist measures against Jews and Roma would solve Hungary’s problems. This trend produced different results in different communities. In ethnic German villages in western Hungary it produced a radicalization of that minority that served as the basis for Volksbund activism. Elsewhere it produced an upsurge in support for the Arrow Cross – often, especially in the western border regions, the Arrow Cross could organize on the basis of Magyar fear of incorporation into Germany, while the Volksbund could advance on the basis of ethnic German reaction to the Arrow Cross organizing. It is quite interesting to note that villages which had functioning Volksbund organizations during the early 1940s generally didn’t have… Read more »
Gábor
Guest
Odin: “From what my late wife told me, the membership of the Arrow Cross Party was mainly of Swabian origin.” Yes, as Mark already noted, this is rather a political spin in order to discredit the Arrow Cross and the Germans at the same time. But while many politicians and mainly intellectuals were suspicious regarding the Germans in Hungary (inculding prominent figures from the populist movement) and to portray the Arrow Cross as a mere tool of Germany’s imperial inerest was seen as a clever action against both of them, Szálasi himself was an admirer of the Fuhrer but never thought of simply imitating him, nor an unconditional submission to Germany’s will. Rather he was sure of himself as an equal of Hitler, he always considered his movement as the rightful leader of Hungary and the Carpathian Basin, withouth any direct influence of Germany. Even though – in the light of the events – it seems ridiculous, he tried to negotiate with Hitler in December, 1944 quite confidently, firmly believeng in his own mission. (I suppose this is behind the “great discovery” a year or two ago presented by László Karsai: Szálasi was not eager to provide the remaining Jews… Read more »
Mark
Guest
Gábor: “Otherwise, there was no clear ethnic pattern in the Arrow Cross votes in 1939. Strange situatuons occured.” One has to remember that electoral behaviour was conditioned by the role of elections within the political system. Hungary in 1939 was not a democracy, but an authoritarian state which allowed manipulated, yet competitive elections. The ruling party and the state apparatus were tightly integrated; they set the rules, and pulled out all the stops to ensure that their candidates were elected. In short, it was more comparable to the situation in contemporary Iran or Belarus, in that there was never any danger – whatever the level of support of an alternative – that the ruling party could be removed. Outside Budapest and the big cities this meant that the contests were strongly conditioned by local circumstances. The attitudes of the local officials – either at county level, or that of főszolgabiró (some of whom sympathized with the Arrow Cross)- could be crucial in ensuring that a candidate got on the ballot; that the gendarmerie would not arrest a party’s activists for distributing leaflets; or that it could hold campaign meetings. Much might depend on the stance of local landowners. Getting to… Read more »