The growth of the extreme right in Hungary

There is no question that the most burning issue in current Hungarian political life is the spectacular growth of the extreme right. Political Capital, one of those "independent" think-tanks József Debreczeni wrote about the other day, published a study in Hírszerző dealing with the "causes of the growth of the extreme right."

The authors mention five possible causes: (1) strengthening of a critical attitude toward the regime itself, (2) a shift toward the right in general, (3) growth of belief in a more authoritarian regime, (4) lack of trust in politicians, and (5) growth of societal antagonism.

As usual these categories are nebulous at best. What does "shift toward the right in general" actually mean? This to my mind is not a cause but the result of certain political and social changes. Or, what does "societal antagonism" mean? Perhaps it would have been better to dispense with this list and instead move straight to the details. They make more sense.

There is nothing new in the statement that Hungarian society expected too much from the change of regime. Most people believed that with the introduction of a "market economy" (they judiciously avoided the term "capitalism") Hungary would be an earthly paradise overnight. Just the opposite happened. About 1.5 million pople lost their jobs, inflation set in, and interest rates were sky high. The government tried to tell people that eventually everything would be better, but five years after the change of regime came the "Bokros package" that meant a 17% drop in real wages. Yet it did the trick and eventually life was getting better although living standards were still somewhat below the 1989 level. Between 2002 and 2006 living standards soared, but not because of the simultaneous growth of the Hungarian economy. Most of the goodies the government provided came from foreign loans. The country's financial situation became dire and something had to be done. A new austerity program had to be introduced just at the time that people were expecting further improvements in their lives. As soon as it became clear that people's expectations couldn't be fulfilled, the socialist-liberal coalition's popularity dropped precipitously. Way before the the leaked speech of Ferenc Gyurcsány in which he tried to convince the socialist parliamentary members that their old ways of "economic management," if you can call it that, couldn't be continued. No more raising living standards from borrowed money.

The beginning of real dissatisfaction can be dated to the summer of 2006 when it became clear that another round of austerity measures would be introduced. Admittedly not as stringent as those of Lajos Bokros but even a drop of a few percentage points set off the Hungarian publict hat was accustomed to economic benefits from the state. Their dissatisfaction with the austerity program was translated into disappointment with the democratic regime itself. According to data gathered by the European Social Survey, out of twenty-one European countries only in Bulgaria is dissatisfaction greater than in Hungary. With this general dissatisfaction came discontent with the institutions, the political parties, the politicians, the European Union. In turn there was an increased responsiveness to radical messages. What is especially worrisome is that young people are leery about the benefits of democracy. According to a survey, "Ifjúság 2008," less than fifty percent of young people (between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine) think that "democracy is superior to any other regime."

The extreme right began to flourish in this environment of discontent. While in 2004 perhaps 6% of the adult population belonged to the group, today, according to Political Capital, the extreme right has about a 13% "market share". This growth has a lot to do with the weakness of civic society. Again, according to the World Value Survey, Hungary and Bulgaria are at the bottom of the list as far as the activity of civic organizations is concerned. There is also a general suspicion about the democratic institutions, and one cannot even blame the Hungarians. It is enough to see the work of the prosecutor's office or the activities of the courts. One can hear constant complaints about the lack of law and order, often due to endless legal wranglings over the letter of the law. The police accordingly don't quite know what is lawful and what is not.

Intolerance has become stronger in the last few years than ever before. Or, it is also possible that while a few years ago people didn't think that it was acceptable behavior to make anti-Gypsy or anti-Semitic remarks in public, today there are no such compunctions. I found a chart in the study comparing political anti-Semitism in seven countries especially interesting. Participants were asked to agree or disagree with two statements. The first was that Jews have too much power in the business world; the second, that Jews are responsible for the recent global economic crisis.Political antisemitism The brownish colored column shows the percent of positive responses to the first question, and the grey measures positive responses to the second. Hungary has the highest values, followed by Spain, Poland, Austria, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.

Finally, one mustn't forget about Jobbik's "genius" in building a mass movement. Surely, Vona and his friends hit the jackpot when they decided to make the Gypsy question the central theme of their propaganda. Anti-Gypsy feelings are strong and widespread. According to some studies perhaps 85% of Hungarians find the Gypsies an undesirable ethnic group. In addition to adopting a successful central theme, Jobbik also managed to create an institutional network. A great help in this regard was another of their brainstorms: the Hungarian Guard. With the help of the Guard Jobbik could pose as not so much a party but as a civic, grass roots movement. Before August 2007, that is before the establishment of the Hungarian Guard, Jobbik had practically no local chapters. As soon as the Hungarian Guard appeared on the scene Jobbik spread like wildfire, and by now it can boast almost 180 local chapters. In its membership three groups are overrepresented: young people, villagers, and inhabitants of the northeastern counties of Hungary.

The authors of the study do not predict long-term success for Jobbik. Once an extremist movement becomes a party and participates in the political processes its weaknesses are exposed. Soon enough it becomes obvious that it doesn't have instant remedies. That the movement's simplistic answers to complicated issues don't work. And then comes the disappointment of their followers and a waning of their popularity. This was the case with the Arrow Cross Party after 1939 and MIÉP after 2002. It may also be the fate of both Jobbik and Fidesz.

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Eva- I think it is in itself a bit extreme to call FIDESZ a far right party. Orban and FIDESZ clearly play up their populism and nationalism, but they as far as I can tell avoid much or the symbolism of a far right party. I agree with you that in power much of his popularity is likely to fade, as their are no easy answers and his answers will ultimately make things worse. But FIDESZ is not Jobbik nor MIEP, as much as you would like to portray them as such. By the way, it seems to me that far right populist movements thrive when in part the existing establishment become totally out of touch and incompetent. It is impossible to understand the rise of Jobbik without looking seriously at the serial failures of MSZP and SzDSz. Even liberals like me have no faith in the system and the politicians! Just look at the deal done the other day between MSZP and FIDESZ to take away the licenses of the two most popular commercial radio stations and give them to shadow companies of FIDESZ and the MSZP. This is banana republic stuff. The PM may have complained, but it… Read more »

Interesting observation… but why are you in the least bit surprised? What you, and almost everyone else here fail to appreciate, is that in essence for Dr Balogh: ANY “Right” is “far”-Right. (Can you imagine her talking of the “extreme”-Left, or “ultra”-Liberals? Of course not.)
People, just get it into your heads, that her ideal result in the 2010 election would simply be a continuation of this MSZP / SZDSZ monstrosity… preferably with an increased majority for the pair of them. Please stop fooling yourselves otherwise.
Find me any statement in this blog that contradicts either of these assertions and I will happily chomp down on this nice Homburg I got last week.

Sackhoes Contributor

A small correction: on the chart showing the level of anti-semitism, the last colums are for the United Kingdom, not the United States, as you state.

Eva Your follow up comment is something I can largely agree with. I am sure a good % of FIDESZ voters would if FIDESZ were not contesting the election vote for far right parties, and this is disturbing. It is also true that FIDESZ is if anything on economic/fiscal policy more of a left wing than conservative party, which from my stand point is quite tragic. On foreign policy (not that this matters in Hungary) the party is very aggressively nationalistic concerning the near abroad, but hardly has a view point similar to other European conservative parties on broader foreign policy issues. In sum, I do not believe FIDESZ has a coherent set of policies. AS a governing party it will likely fail because there will be no philosophy to rely on. The Party will jump around trying to find the populist and temporarily popular position, and it wont work. Finally, FIDESZ’s position reminds me a lot of what is happening in the radical side of the U.S. Republican party (represented by people like Glen Beck on Fox news). They are not traditionally conservative but populist. They do not believe in free markets and a strong internationalist view of foreign… Read more »
Jimmy the Tulip

You deffinitely need new pair of glasses. Throw out those ones with rosy filters on it….