One of the most interesting phenomenons in current Hungarian politics is the increasing radicalisation of the conservative Fidesz government and the attempt of the far right Jobbik to recast itself as a mainstream party. Controversial governmental initiatives on topics like the death penalty and immigration may do well to decelerate Fidesz’s unpopularity, but in the long term, they run the risk of legitimising Jobbik.
The radicalisation of Fidesz
In the past few months, the Fidesz government brought up two topics that shocked the public in Hungary, at least those to the left, and the European Union. The first one was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s suggestion back in April that it was necessary to keep the issue of the death penalty on the agenda, reacting to a crime incident in the town of Kaposvár (southwest Hungary), where a twenty-one-year-old tobacco shop assistant was stabbed to death by a robber for a mere twenty-two thousand forints (less than hundred euros).
The other topic was caused by the recent influx of immigrants to Hungary, in reaction to which the government launched its anti-immigration campaign. Part of this campaign was a national consultation in April when a biased questionnaire, linking migration and terrorism, was sent out to the public (an unofficial translation is available on the website of the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary). Orbán was also among the first representatives of Member States who opposed the European Commission’s migrant quota, calling it an insane idea, and managed eventually to get an exemption for Hungary to take on more migrants.
While the remark on the death penalty is likely just empty talk since it goes against basic European values of respect for human dignity, as far as the anti-immigration campaign is concerned the government seems to be willing to go much further by implementing some unprecedented measures. Most recently, in July, it started erecting a fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border in order to prevent migrants from entering the country.
It has long been argued that in order to seduce Jobbik voters, Fidesz has been cherry-picking demands from Jobbik’s party programme. In this sense, there is nothing new under the sun. However, the currently raised topics – the statement on the death penalty, and the methods chosen to curb migration – represent a step away from the conservative position, as we have known it so far in Hungary, and goes deep into the favourite territory of the radical right.
Jobbik going mainstream
Meanwhile Jobbik has become the second strongest political force in Hungary. The party’s leaders have realised that if they want to grow further, they have to reach out to the mainstream, which means toning down their anti-establishment rhetoric, and not blaming gypsies and Jews incessantly for the woes of the country. Earlier it was only in the capital that Jobbik softened its messages while in the countryside it allowed itself the rougher, Roma-bashing rhetoric. But now the toned-down campaign has been scaled up to the national level. Just compare Jobbik’s electoral campaign videos in 2010 and 2014 and you will see the contrast even if you do not speak a word of Hungarian: the former has dramatic background music and shows the protests of the Hungarian Guard, whereas the latter is a happy, forward looking campaign featuring families and a golden retriever wagging its tail.
The strategy has seemingly paid off. In the 2014 national elections, Jobbik increased its support to a record 20 per cent of total votes and the civilised profile has been carefully managed ever since. The party has launched, for instance, a video campaign in which high-level leaders of the party commit themselves to renewal and going mainstream. There is also some evidence of stricter party discipline with respect to Jobbik MPs making racist statements – the case in point is Gergely Kulcsar, who was forced to apologise for disgracing the Holocaust memorial in Budapest; such measures were unthinkable earlier. Jobbik MPs are also using their favourite mantra of ‘gypsy crime’ less and less, and talk about ‘politicians’ crime’ instead which is their term for corruption. The party has most recently reformulated its sceptical stance towards the EU too: it is no longer an opt-out that they propose but following in the footsteps of British Prime Minister David Cameron, merely a renegotiation of the founding treaties.
But why now?
While Jobbik has managed to grow stronger by switching to a softened campaign, Fidesz, up to now, has only lost popularity. According to various polls, in the past year, the popularity of Jobbik has increased in average by five per cent (depending on the particular poll one looks at), while that of Fidesz has decreased by eleven per cent. These preferences have also been put to test in three interim elections since 2014, all of which were lost by Fidesz. Certainly, the most fatal defeat was the second one in a district in Veszprém, as a result of which Fidesz lost its supermajority in Parliament this February. Two months later, Fidesz was defeated again by Jobbik in the district Tapolca in a region which has traditionally been not even a far-right stronghold.
The explanation for the trend that voters turn away from Fidesz might lie in a series of unpopular government measures, such as the introduction of a new toll road system around Budapest, the Sunday closing of retail shops and a proposal for an internet tax (withdrawn after street protests). The leaking of a US travel ban list which featured the head of the National Tax and Customs Administration and nine other high profile bureaucrats (still anonymous) have also put the spotlight on the country internationally. There were further corruption cases about party and even family members of Viktor Orbán: leading lavish lifestyles during business trips, having much larger villas than reported in their income declarations, or shady public procurement tenders on infrastructural projects. Meanwhile, there were signs that certain policy areas are in a state of emergency. Hundreds of health professionals protested in Budapest for weeks in the spring in order to call attention to impossible work conditions, and the media has been filled with coverage on rising emigration trends, as Hungarian citizens, particularly the youth, are unsatisfied with their life prospects in the country.
The government does not have to respond to all the details of these problems right now because they are overshadowed by the hysteria around the death penalty and the perceived threat from immigration. From the government’s perspective these are very fortunate topics to emerge because they resonate well with the majority of Hungarians. This is not surprising, just ask the average citizen in any country if they wanted more immigrants or not in their neighbourhood – what would the answer be? People tend to take their frustrations out on the most vulnerable. Popular sympathies are probably just as low if not lower regarding measures that aim to rehabilitate offenders into society.
In the case of immigration, it does not even help that small leftist parties or the media criticise the stance of the government. It is well known from media theory that, when people have strong opinions about certain issues, the media are only able to make something the topic of discussion, not to influence people’s opinions. So if the media pays much attention to refugees, what happens is that people’s convictions about the saliency of the issue just get confirmed, but people will not alter their beliefs, as they would in the case of an issue which they know nothing about (for example, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). All this is very comfortable for Fidesz. The party leaders can breathe again, they have regained control in politics and it is they who again set the agenda nationally, and to some extent even in the EU.
A dangerous game
Having said that, Fidesz is treading on dangerous ground even if it manages to stop its falling popularity. By adopting a radical position to get votes from Jobbik, it is contributing to the legitimisation of Jobbik’s demands. Until now Fidesz has not attacked Jobbik on ideological grounds in any significant way. Its main tactic has merely been to dismiss Jobbik by labelling it ‘neo-Nazi’. But if Fidesz keeps using the same rhetoric as Jobbik, there is a danger that this label will soon lose its meaning.
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Gábor Csomor studied Politics and Society (BA) at the Anglo-American University in Prague, the Czech Republic and Political Science (MA) at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. In 2012, he was a research fellow at Political Capital Research and Consulting Institute, where he studied strategies to counter right-wing extremism. Since 2013, he has worked as a junior analyst at the Budapest Institute for Policy Analysis. Gábor’s main interest lies in social policy, extremism and minority issues.