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. 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.