It’s time to turn our attention to the right-radical Jobbik party, the bogeyman of some naïve West European observers who are convinced that it is the real threat to Hungarian democracy and not Viktor Orbán’s government. Some of us who are more familiar with the workings of Fidesz know better. While Fidesz was rapidly moving to the right, Jobbik, in order to distinguish itself from the government party, moved toward the center. This change of strategy, however, hasn’t paid off. Jobbik, which in March 2015 had almost caught up with Fidesz in popularity (18% versus 21% in the electorate as a whole), is today a shadow of its former self. It has lost about half of its supporters.
So, one would have thought that Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, recognizing the failure of the policy, would change course and go back to the far-right ideology that made Jobbik popular in the past. Yet, judging from his speech delivered last Saturday in front of approximately 2,000 people, there seems to be no change of strategy in sight. On the contrary, if possible, the party chairman sounded even more moderate than at any time before.
I have to admit that this was the first time I had the patience to listen to a Vona speech in its entirety. He is actually a very good speaker. That was surprise number one. The other surprise was the well-dressed audience and the absence of the nationalistic garb Jobbik politicians and followers have been infamous for. Apparently there were a few of the old extremist types present, but they were in the great minority. Gone were the old historical flags, including the red-and-white striped so-called Árpád flag, named after the first Hungarian ruling house, which was once favored by the extreme-right Arrow Cross Party of the 1930s. In fact, this Jobbik gathering didn’t even have the dozens of red, white, and green flags that we are accustomed to from Fidesz’s mass meetings. Instead, in the background were red and green bridges that will allow Jobbik supporters to visit the “other side” of the Hungarian political divide. Instead of political warfare, Vona wants to build bridges and unite all those who believe themselves to be the victims of Hungary’s twentieth-century history. Those who still bemoan the injustices of Trianon, the sins of communism, and the lost security of János Kádár’s regime.
Those present reported that the Jobbik audience can’t really be roused by this new moderate program. The people who were originally fired up by Jobbik anti-Semitic, anti-Roma rhetoric are not enamored with the idea of building bridges to leftist voters. As Origo’s journalist reported, an older man at the end of Vona’s speech said: “It was a good speech, but I don’t agree with many of his points.”
What is the essence of this new course? If I understand it correctly, Vona envisages a party in the center of the political spectrum that wants to attract not only disappointed Fidesz voters but also those who are currently uncommitted, most of whom, as we know from public opinion polls, sympathize with the left. But can that kind of approach, especially the party’s decision to court potential leftist voters, possibly succeed? I personally doubt it. I am also not at all sure whether a strategy based on extolling the virtues of “civic” Hungary, a society based on middle class values, which Vona announced, can succeed. This formula was tried back in the 1990s by Fidesz, only to be abandoned and forgotten. It was brought back to life recently by Gábor G. Fodor’s revelation that “civic Hungary” was simply a “political product” to be sold to the naïve electorate. It was also useless, I believe, for Vona to talk about “real national consultation” as opposed to the kind the Orbán government offered to the electorate. Why would Hungarians be more excited by “national consultations” conducted by Jobbik than they have been by the ones offered by Fidesz?
Vona spent a fair amount of time on the two sectors, education and healthcare, that are in serious trouble. Jobbik sees opportunities here, especially since, as last year’s by-election in Tapolca showed, a healthcare issue can mobilize the locals. Since the Fidesz mayor of Tapolca supported closing the hospital and the Jobbik deputy-mayor stood against it, Jobbik’s candidate won. It was a lesson to be learned on both sides. It further strengthened the view in government circles that “reforming” healthcare is deadly and that it should be left undisturbed. In the last year, however, it has become obvious that the problems in the sector are too great to be ignored. Although in the last few days the revolt brewing among teachers in the country’s elementary and high schools has dwarfed complaints from the doctors and nurses, both areas are potentially dangerous for Fidesz.
For the problems in education Fidesz alone is responsible. Most people were convinced that it would be a cinch to pacify the teachers, but they turned out to be wrong. The teachers are threatening a strike. Any party worth its salt should keep a very close eye on developments in both the healthcare and the education sectors. If Jobbik could make headway here, it would get a much-needed lift. I suspect that Jobbik party activists are already hard at work contacting dissatisfied teachers in their neighborhoods. Whether other parties are paying enough attention to the ever-growing dissatisfaction of educators and healthcare workers is not at all clear.