It was only about a month ago that I wrote that Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, the extremist right-wing party, had “cleaned house.” Ahead of the forthcoming party congress he said that he would veto the nomination of the three current deputy chairmen in case they decide to run again, that he needs people who will support his vision of a new Jobbik. At that time all three were ready to defy Vona, and many observers were certain that Jobbik, like so many far-right parties before it, would splinter.
Why is Vona determined to change the image of his party? The official line is that Jobbik, which was founded as a youth group in 2003, is no longer “a teenager” but an adult. It is now so important that it might soon be a government party. And for such a role, a radical populist party that is variously described as fascist, neo-Nazi, extremist, anti-Semitic, anti-Roma, and homophobic is unacceptable.
The other reason, which Vona obviously doesn’t want to talk about, is the decreasing popularity of Jobbik. The party’s best year was 2014, when it received 20.22% of the votes, which meant support from over one million voters. Today, its support is hovering around 11-12%. Vona reasons that, despite the results of public opinion polls, Fidesz’s support is on the decline and that disappointed former Fidesz fans are reluctant to vote for “those communists” they hear so much about. An attractive alternative might be another right-wing party with an untarnished past.
Vona might be quite right about the declining popularity of Fidesz, which can be gauged by some of the more important by-elections, but the question is whether Jobbik voters are ready to support the kind of party Vona envisages. According to a recent Medián poll, 54% of Jobbik voters are strong and 15% are moderate anti-Semites. It is therefore doubtful that they would embrace a party that no longer incites against Gypsies or delivers anti-Semitic harangues.
For the time being, however, Vona managed to prevent a split in the party. The three former deputy chairmen, after initial threats of defiance, in the end quietly accepted their fate and Vona, unopposed, was reelected chairman of the party, though with only 80.5% of the votes. At least one of his deputies, János Volner, who has taken over the leadership of the parliamentary delegation from Vona, actually got more votes than the party chairman. So, there is a fairly large minority among the delegates who are not enamored with Vona’s plans.
What are these plans? According to Vona, Jobbik will become “a national people’s party.” It will be a large party that attracts voters from all segments of society, that doesn’t simply cater to subsets of the population but tries to satisfy the political demands of large groups of voters from all walks of life. With such widespread support, Jobbik will be able to stand for the rights of those who, with “quiescent roaring,” demand change.
Vona’s speech at the congress lasted 30 minutes. The 700 delegates apparently listened to it “in numbed silence.” Not once was his speech interrupted by applause. The speech was full of assurances, like “I know you are worried, I know you are afraid of change, but change is inevitable.” He tried to calm his audience’s nerves by assuring them that the change in the party’s direction is not really that radical because the term “national people’s party” was already in the party’s 2003 founding document. At the same time, he admitted that the program of this new party is far from ready. They have to define the meaning of a “modern conservative” ideology. They have to specify what they mean by “eco-social market economy,” “meritocracy,” “democracy built on value,” and a foreign policy based on the Russian-German-Turkish triangle. The party will have to pay more attention to Gypsy-Hungarian coexistence and the migrant issue. As is evident, all this is pretty vague. In the meantime Jobbik voters are watching the total reshaping of the party with skepticism or, in many cases, antagonism.
In the past Jobbik wasn’t only Euro-skeptic but promised to take Hungary out of the European Union as soon as they were in a position to do so. About a year ago Vona was still talking about the crisis of a sick Europe, which required Hungary to implement a three-stage strategy vis-à-vis the European Union. First, there should be a wide-ranging discussion about relations with Brussels, about the contracts signed by Hungary before its entrance, and in general about Hungary’s membership in the Union. Hungary should then demand a change in the constitution of the European Union. Third, there should be a referendum in which Hungarians could decide whether they want to remain in the European Union.
Today Vona seems to have an entirely different opinion not only about Hungarian membership in the European Union but about the elements that made up the cornerstone of Jobbik’s program.
After the congress reporters pressed him for more details about this new “national people’s party” and its tenets. A few days ago, during an interview on Inforádió, Vona came up with the surprising announcement that “leaving the union is not an important question because Europe will be changing in the next five to ten years and perhaps it will emerge better than it is now.” Regarding the migrant question, “it is a tremendous challenge for the European Union and might convince its politicians that they have to rethink some of its operating mechanisms.” As for NATO, he doesn’t think “it would be a rational idea to leave it … but we have to do everything in our power to avoid a conflict with Russia. Hungary must play the role of a bridge rather than of a satellite.” Finally, Vona no longer advocates that Hungary default on its national debt. At present there is no need for that either.
In 1993 Viktor Orbán attempted this kind of volte face by remaking the liberal Fidesz into a conservative party, and he succeeded. But the situation was very different then. MDF, under the weight of four years of governing, had collapsed and there was no other right-wing party to replace it. Today there is Fidesz, which still has a substantial following. Therefore, Vona’s attempt to remake his party in the hope of gaining support from disillusioned Fidesz voters seems unlikely to succeed on a large scale. But perhaps there will be an opening from the left. LMP’s chair Bernadett Szél announced the other day that her party is ready to work with both MSZP and Jobbik. That’s a first. I wonder what will come of it. Jobbik and LMP have at least one thing in common. Both are ardent enemies of global capitalism.