Jobbik was once considered to be the greatest threat to Hungarian democracy – now it is part of an alliance trying to save it

Mohács, a town with a population of 17,000 near Hungary’s border with Croatia – where 26-year-old Hungarian-German Patrik Schwarcz-Kiefer has won the United Opposition’s Primaries representing the right-wing party Jobbik – is a unique place. The town and its surrounding villages still have a significant German and Croatian population, living evidence of Hungary’s multicultural past. 

The United Opposition’s Primaries represent six parties with diverse political views working in unison to oust Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party. Rather than competing against one another in 2022’s election, an alliance of green parties LMP and Párbeszéd, the liberal Momentum, the Hungarian Socialist Party, Democratic Coalition and the right-wing Jobbik Party will have a common candidate in each constituency and run on a single national list. 

Progressive parties cooperating with Jobbik would have been unimaginable ten years ago. So would a Jobbik candidate running on a platform to improve the lives of ethnic minorities in Hungary. In the late 2000s, the Party’s now-defunct paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard, regularly marched in Roma-populated settlements to intimidate the locals. Some Jobbik politicians used antisemitic tropes. 

But things in Hungary have changed a lot since Jobbik first entered Parliament in 2010. The same year, Viktor Orbán came to power with a two-thirds majority, allowing him to rewrite the constitution and begin to dismantle the rule of law in Hungary. He created new and distorted election rules that heavily favour Fidesz and shut down several independent media outlets. In the eyes of many, Hungary is no longer a democracy but a hybrid regime. 

Fidesz has transformed from a centre-right party to an anti-democratic nationalist party. Jobbik, meanwhile, travelled in the opposite direction. Its MPs in Parliament regularly articulate their dismay about the erosion of democracy and in 2020, they elected Péter Jakab as their leader – a person of Jewish heritage who used to teach in a school for disadvantaged Roma children. 


Post-Communist Rebellion

University students founded Jobbik in 1999 as a debate club giving voice to a broad range of views on the contemporary Hungarian right, before creating it as an independent party. 

Alongside the student activists in metropolitan Budapest, young right-wing people were developing a subculture in the countryside. This was a generation growing up post-communism, where a botched and overenthusiastic commitment to privatisation had led to a million people losing their jobs throughout the decade. Young people in rural Hungary were seeking the direct opposite of the country’s newfound pro-western status quo. 

Newly available radical right-wing texts led them to a concept known as ‘turanism’. This creed “preached the Asian origin of the Magyar tribes who arrived in the Carpathian Basin in the late 800s,” explained Rudolf Paksa, a historian specialising in the Hungarian right. “According to turanists, Hungary’s place is in the East, not the West.” 

Nationalist musicians started to incorporate turanism into their work, reaching a new ‘national radical’ audience – perfect for Jobbik’s burgeoning political identity.

A recording in October 2006 of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitting that the Socialist Party had lied continuously for the past four years led to the national radicals feeling vindicated in their opposition to the new Western, democratic order. During widely-televised protests, a group of radicals, led by László Toroczkai stormed the headquarters of the public broadcaster. 

In the wake of the protests, Jobbik’s leader Gábor Vona started to appeal to the national radicals’ sentiments. By opening up to this subculture, he hoped Jobbik could attract young people drawn by nationalist rock songs and neopagan aesthetics. In late 2008, Vona asked the leaders of the Sixty-Four Counties Movement, which to this day openly advocates racism, to help Jobbik in the upcoming elections.

By the late 2000s, national radicalism had become Jobbik’s defining identity. Inflaming anti-Roma racism, the Party’s main message was to stand up against “gipsy-crimes”. It worked: Jobbik came third in the 2009 European elections and the 2010 national elections.

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Realpolitik or Poetry

Following its electoral success, Jobbik faced new competition. Fidesz quietly started to implement some of the far-right party’s suggested policy proposals. This included writing a new constitution and becoming increasingly critical of the European Union. The Fidesz Government also announced the “Eastern Opening”, aiming to establish closer ties with Russia and West Asian countries. 

A combination of its extremism and Fidesz adopting a harder-right policy platform, Jobbik’s polling numbers started to stagnate. To grow the Party needed to change. Initially, this change was confined to its rhetoric: with more extremist statements replaced by positive messages. 

“I really welcomed this process because I knew we would not be able to solve the problems of Hungarian society if we alienated the majority of the population,” Jobbik’s Vice President, Róbert Dudás, told Byline Times. Dudas joined the Party in 2009 and will be the United Opposition’s candidate in his native north-eastern constituency in 2022. 

The new tactics paid off. In 2014, Jobbik won its first constituency seat, indicating that the new direction was worth pursuing. By 2015, the change moved from rhetoric to practical policy-making – with Gábor Vona blocking prominent individuals from the radical wing of the party from running for leadership positions and stating that those who were seeking Nazi romanticisation should look elsewhere. Though not always successful, the Party also attempted to recall some of their radical politicians from prominent positions. 

The Party even replaced its Russian-friendly ideas in its 2018 manifesto with a campaign for a common “European Minimum Wage.” Vona insisted the Party had never been an antisemitic or anti-Roma party, although he acknowledged “bad tendencies” which he was prepared to apologise for. Speaking at the Spinóza Theatre in Budapest – widely associated with the city’s liberal establishment – he sought to sell himself as a moderate and sophisticated conservative.

Some believe Jobbik’s change was purely realpolitik. The real reason is likely more poetic. Despite never winning an election, Jobbik was a successful political party. Many of its flagship policies and its critical attitude to liberal democracy ended up being fully embraced by Fidesz. Unlike other radical parties, Jobbik got to experience the world it wanted to create. 

This led its leaders to realising the dire consequences of that very world they wanted to achieve.

Some party figures admitted this openly. Vona himself stated that he had only been a child during communist rule, therefore he did not appreciate living in a democracy enough. Experiencing the alternative to the form of governance he criticised so much changed his mind. 

Schwarcz-Kiefer seems to agree with this assessment. “Jobbik said a lot of things which Fidesz later implemented,” he explained. “In practice, they turned out to be totally unacceptable ideas that take Hungary in the wrong direction.”

However, many doubted Vona’s intentions and Jobbik did not manage to convince enough moderate voters – not least because the Party still had a considerable number of far-right figures within its ranks. The result was a disastrous showing for the opposition in 2018, with Fidesz gaining its third two-thirds constitutional majority. Vona stepped down as leader.

The defeat led to an attempt by the radical, spearheaded by Toroczkai, to regain control over the Party. Instead, the radical wing seceded to establish a new group known as Mi Hazánk. Schwarcz-Kiefer explained he essentially had to completely rebuild Jobbik’s Mohács branch in 2018 after the bulk of the membership either joined Mi Hazánk or left politics altogether.  

In what Dudás calls a “membership-swap”, many ordinary members followed the departing radical leaders. But new moderates joined Jobbik. They were either convinced by Vona’s resignation (though Jobbik’s politicians are sceptical of this assessment) or the departure of the radical wing. 

With Vona’s projected moderate conservatism having failed, the Party had to reinvent itself yet again. 


Rural Communities and Rising Migration

A clue to understanding what Jobbik now stands for can be found in the Party’s results in the United Opposition primaries where politicians like Schwarcz-Kiefer and Dudás have enjoyed success in rural areas. 

According to Schwarcz-Kiefer, there are villages in his constituency that, in the past ten years, lost up to 40% of their populations due to migration. He attributes this to the lack of jobs and community life. While he condemns communist atrocities, these are communities that have some apparent nostalgia towards the rich social and economic village life under communist rule.

Schwarcz-Kiefer blames Hungary’s post-communist political elites for neglecting villages. “During the privatisation process, people tried to selfishly take as big of a slice from the local industry as they could,” he told Byline Times. “A generation grew up who had seen their parents suddenly become unable to sell their goods.” 

Dudás, whose constituency faces the same problems, agrees. “People in the countryside feel genuine nostalgia for socialism because, though it was unsustainable, it offered a predictable future for them,” he explained. “In the current system, they don’t have that.” 

Under Viktor Orbán’s Government, the slow death of villages only accelerated. “Building an outdoor gym in an ageing village without properly functioning roads will not solve anything,” says Schwarcz-Kiefer.

Jobbik’s new target audience of disaffected villagers who lost out after communism’s collapse is not dissimilar to the national radicals of the early-2000s. 

However, while the radicals attacked the cultural status quo, Jobbik now clearly focuses on material issues and economically left-wing solutions. The Party’s messaging tends to focus on the low minimum wage and the price of petrol. Jobbik’s new slogan, “The Party of the Countryside”, clearly shows the demographic they are after.

In the 1990s, the Party of Independent Smallholders articulated the same mission and was an important and regular presence in Parliament. Its demise is partly responsible for the popularity of extremist messaging in the Hungarian countryside which was left without genuine political representation. Jobbik is now trying to fill that void.

Jobbik’s relationship with its past remains complicated. Occasionally, past discriminatory comments of older members are uncovered by the media, leading to an apology. In more extreme cases, they are asked to step down from their positions. Schwarcz-Kiefer, a more junior figure in the party, openly states that he would have left Jobbik if it had not changed. However, despite the departure of extremists and a coherent new ideology, the leadership is reluctant to completely denounce Jobbik’s past. 

There are no records of Dudás expressing extremist ideas publicly. The ideas his wing fought for eventually prevailed in the party, therefore he seemingly has nothing to gain from sugar-coating the past. Yet, even he stands by the leadership’s narrative that Jobbik has never been an extremist party, just tolerated extremist individuals who tainted its reputation.

This may be because the moderate conservatives disillusioned with Fidesz and who joined Jobbik in its radical days are not yet willing to face their guilt about the extremism they allowed to foster in their ranks. It is also possible that Jobbik simply doesn’t want to lose the voters who have supported them since the 2000s. According to a recent survey, 16% of Jobbik voters claim that they vote for the Party because they have always done so.

Whatever the case, next year in small towns and villages, Jobbik will have a quintessential role to play in the attempt to reestablish the western-oriented, democratic Hungary they once rebelled against.

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