Something momentous happened today in Hungarian party politics. Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, got rid of three of his most radical deputies: Előd Novák, István Szávay, and István Apáti. In addition, he made it clear to Mrs. Lóránd Hegedűs, wife of the anti-Semitic, extremist Reformed minister, that she shouldn’t even try to put her name forward as a member of the executive board because he has veto power over candidates. Instead of these far-right extremists Vona would like to see successful Jobbik mayors in the party leadership. The young mayor of Ózd, Dávid Janiczak, has already indicated that he will support the chairman.
Other Jobbik leaders in the provinces are outraged at Vona’s attempt to rid the party of people like Előd Novák. It took Tibor Ágoston (Debrecen) only “one sleepless night to come to a decision: [he] support[s] Előd Novák as a candidate for chairmanship of the party.” Ágoston’s name may be familiar to those who follow Hungarian politics closely. He is the Jobbik politician who was recently fined 750,000 ft for Holocaust denial.
All three radical politicians are ready to defy Vona who, according to the bylaws, does have veto power over the nominations.
Historically, far-right parties have a tendency to crumble. For years I have been predicting (either incorrectly or prematurely) that the same fate was awaiting Jobbik. Such an event most likely wouldn’t make a tremendous difference in Hungary’s political landscape if the current system didn’t consist of a two-pronged opposition: from the far-right and from the left. Each of about the same strength at the moment.
In order to understand the rationale behind Vona’s move we have to go back to Viktor Orbán’s concept of central power. I devoted a whole post to this notion, which is really the cornerstone of Fidesz’s political system.
Jobbik was founded in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the party’s popularity started to mushroom, until in 2010 it received 16.36% of the votes. In 2014 Vona’s party did even better, with 20.69% of the votes.
Sometime in 2008/2009 Orbán realized that Fidesz had a fantastic opportunity. It faced an opposition that was split between far-right and left and that could never form a common front against his party. The political situation resembled that between the two world wars when the “government party” faced noisy right-radicals whose idols were Mussolini and later Hitler and a handful of Social Democrats and liberals on the left. Obviously, the two groups couldn’t join forces against the “government party.” Orbán recognized that Fidesz was similarly well positioned in the new political landscape and would likely have a very long tenure.
Vona is trying to change that landscape, which, if he succeeds, is not good news for Fidesz. Although Vona keeps insisting that Jobbik can defeat Fidesz single-handedly and form a government in 2018, I doubt that he actually believes in such an unlikely scenario. If he is a rational human being, he can only think in terms of some kind of coalition with either Fidesz or with the left-liberal groups. In both cases, he would have to change his colors and show that Jobbik is no longer a far-right extremist party but a right-of-center party able to be part of a coalition government. He seems to be quite confident that he will be able to keep the troops together even if Jobbik sheds its anti-Semitic, extremist image.
We have no idea what Vona’s game plan is. Fidesz commentators believe that he will make a deal with the left-liberals, which would undercut Orbán’s notion of “central power.” Magyar Idők, the government organ, is certain that Vona is moving closer and closer to the left. In a sarcastic editorial Péter Szikszai writes: “What will the next step be? Are they contemplating using the Hungarian Guard to defend [Budapest] Pride that will be held on the anniversary of Trianon? Will they offer settlement permits to migrants at Röszke? Will they abandon the theory of the Hungarian-Sumerian relationship? Will they demolish Horthy’s statue? Or, will Vona attend the meeting of the Assembly of God (Hit Gyülekezete)?”
Another notorious right-winger, Ferenc Szaniszló, who works for the pro-Fidesz Echo TV, also believes that Vona is planning to leave the right-wing fold. As he puts it, both Fidesz and Jobbik have changed a lot in the last few years. Fidesz started off as “an extremist liberal party” which moved first to the right of center and “later to the right,” while Jobbik “used to be a combative right-wing party which moved slowly toward the soft right and from there to the right-of-center.” And he adds the following significant sentence: “This softer reassuring force might be more attractive, but if Fidesz can take over the role of Jobbik, then what is the use of Jobbik?”
What do Fidesz officials think of this new development? They naturally would like to see Vona fail in his endeavor. They claim to have polls indicating that Jobbik in the last year or so lost a number of its more radical followers. They consider it a grave mistake for Vona to turn his back on his radical base because this might lead to Jobbik’s losing its political prowess. Pesti Srácok, another government sponsored internet site, is also certain that Vona will fail in his task. The provincial leaders are behind those radical politicians Vona just got rid of. He will fail just as Ibolya Dávid of MDF failed when she moved closer to the left.
What Vona has done is certainly a gamble, although he seems confident that the majority of Jobbik’s voters and sympathizers are behind him. But when, according to Medián, 54% of Jobbik voters are strong and 15% are moderate anti-Semites, I doubt that getting rid of the most anti-Semitic Jobbik leaders will endear Vona to Jobbik’s electorate.
Fidesz, however, is worried about him because they fear that Lajos Simicska is one of Vona’s supporters. Magyar Idők’s editorial, quoted earlier, makes that clear. “What Vona’s plan is we don’t know yet. Perhaps he would like to make his party more attractive to those entrepreneurs who are disappointed in Fidesz,” adding “(didn’t I say that politely, Lajos?)”.
I myself can’t see at the moment how Jobbik and the socialist-liberal opposition could create a common front against Orbán’s autocratic rule.