Like most countries in the region, Hungary hasn’t had it easy. Democracy wasn’t quite the fluffy experience the abstract western examples had seemingly shown. The economy was downright awful and for the first post transition decade, and along with the market economy came widespread existential angst, which had previously been the sad privilege only of dissidents. Even if fairly stable by regional standards, politics in the first few years was chaotic.
Yet for all the other textbook miseries we experienced during our difficult transition, the one hugely anticipated event that failed to materialise for the first two decades was a successful extreme right movement. The extreme right made a brief foray into parliament between 1998-2002, but the largely elderly MIÉP, out of the touch with everyday concerns of citizens, had hardly any allure apart from anti-semitism, which was not enough to build a movement on.
The EP election of 2009 and the national election of 2010 marked a major shift, however: A party called Jobbik -Movement for aBetter Hungary burst into the big leagues with 14.77% and 16.67% of the votes respectively, barely in third place behind the then governing socialist MSZP. In addition to its impressive overall showing, Jobbik finished second in quite a few constituencies in eastern Hungary. Suddenly, Hungary went from also-ran to major player among those countries burdened by a strong extreme right.
I could fill several columns about Jobbik, how it emerged and became as successful as it is, but let me focus on one aspect of the phenomenon: what makes Jobbik’s and the Hungarian extreme right stand out (though not necessarily unique) compared to their international counterparts. While Jobbik is the political expression of the extreme right, the movement itself and its social embededness is the relevant phenomenon here.
The Hungarian extreme right’s greatest success lies in gradually building a vibrant subculture that draws mainly young people. This subculture includes a vast network of extremist webpages and a few print publications. At the centre of this ‘media empire’ lies kuruc.info, which is among the most widely read portals in Hungary and boasts more Facebook ‘likes’ than most political portals that have a Facebook plugin. While its readership is always a subject of debate, it is true that it is among the most successful news portals in Hungary.
Jobbik vastly outperforms the largest leftwing opposition party, MSZP, among young voters, and also does significantly better than the youthful Green formation LMP. Nor is the profile of extreme right supporters necessarily similar to that of Western European extremist parties: Jobbik and/or extremist ideas are also fairly popular among students at universities and colleges, even the prestigious ones.
The extreme right is not only strong in the virtual sphere, however. It organises a wide variety of cultural and political events, most importantly concerts and festivals. Some of these events might strike even Jobbik supporters as uncool. Many of the music concerts, however, are truly popular, and while I am no music critic and can’t judge the quality, the fact is that some fairly popular bands in Hungary hew to the extreme right.
Quaint or not, these on- and offline fora are crucial in building modern communities when the traditional institutions of community building, churches, unions, political parties, etc., are obviously incapable of meeting the demand for community, and often not even particularly willing to try.
Jobbik’s youth movement is not only successful in terms of the numbers drawn, but more critically it may succeed in fostering enduring ties within the age group that will dominate Hungarian politics in the decades to come. Jobbik’s disproportionately young MPs strike viewers as bozos often enough – but not sufficiently so as to create the impression that they are on their way out. On the contrary, they are bozos that may well mature and become dangerous.
One of the best indicators for the size and commitment of the extreme right movement is that it also appears to work from a business perspective, not merely serving the standard extreme right paraphernalia. Kuruc.info itself boasts advertisements of various small businesses, many of which have no visible ties to extremist goods, such as travel agents, translation services and computer stores. (Kuruc.info also displayed logos by some larger corporations, though on press request all but one denied that they had requested the ads – the exception was the largest Hungarian-owned supermarket chain CBA, whose owners are known for their staunchly right-wing sympathies that occasionally enter their weekly ads).
Some of those dabbling in nationalist products do good business, too. Budapest boasts a ‘National Taxi’ company that is explicitly founded on a political basis and whose cars are decorated with a map of Greater Hungary. Several restaurants and bars openly cater to an extremist clientele. The women’s handball league – not an insignificant sports in Hungary – now also boasts a team that openly espouses nationalist ideology.
Lastly, the Hungarian extreme right’s greatest success is that it has managed to move many of its values into the mainstream. Many of the ideas that were considered ‘far’ or ‘extreme’ right a few years ago – irredentism, racism, authoritarianism – are no longer beyond the pale.
This comes at a political price for Jobbik: While Fidesz officially condemns racism, parts of the Fidesz-media (a more extensive network than Jobbik can hope to attain) often spout the same notions as the extreme right press – in fact, before the political rivalry between Fidesz and Jobbik became intense, the openly racist kuruc featured two columnists that work in the ‘mainstream’ right-wing media.
Fidesz clearly seeks to preserve a foothold among racist voters and thereby retains the loyalty of some potential Jobbik voters. This speaks to the prevalence of extreme right ideas in society.
The reason for providing this overview was not mainly to shed light on Hungary’s precarious state. The Hungarian extreme right is a relevant example also of building a successful movement in the modern age by creating virtual and real communities that provide their members with a sense of belonging and identity. This is a business mainstream political parties have mostly withdrawn from, even though there are indications that at least some of the voters still crave it. Jobbik’s success is a sad case in point.