On March 15th, tens of thousands of people filled the streets of Hungary's beautiful capital Budapest, ostensibly to celebrate the 162nd anniversary of the 1848-1948 revolution and War of Independence. Among the many events commemorating this anniversary across city, a multitudinous political rally for the far-right party Jobbik garnered the most attention, as restless young supporters showed up sporting Hitler-like mustaches and army fatigues to hear the party leader Gábor Vona threaten retribution against corrupt lawmakers and "gypsy criminality." With a parliamentary election coming up on April 11th, this increasingly popular nationalist party is sending a shock through minority communities in Hungary.
Some observers say we shouldn't worry about Jobbik. The party is making an effort to portray itself as a normal, mainstream conservative party, but this thought disappears whenever Vona speaks in public. One of his favorite refrains is that "Hungary is for Hungarians," and that the country must be stoutly defended from outside "foreign speculators," often pointing to some imagined evil agenda of Israel in Central Europe. He has drawn up a long list of enemies (including the United States), and said he would shut down several television stations once in power. Given that the party is linked with the violent paramilitary brigade "Magyar Gárda," which was banned last summer, these promises of violence are not just idle talk.
So there is a potentially threatening anti-Semitic political sentiment rising once again in Hungary -- what else is new? Well it seems that this time things are different, as Jobbik is feared to headed toward winning as much as 20% of the vote in the upcoming April elections, giving them a significantly powerful block in Parliament capable of great damage.
Considering the widespread alarm recently displayed following Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front party comeback in France which netted less than 12% of the national vote across all regions, we are looking at a situation which could be twice as worse -- with Jobbik's militaristic rhetoric and hate speech several notches above Le Pen's brand of anti-immigrant xenophobia.
Hungarian and Central European Jewish communities are on red alert. Writing for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Ruth Ellen Gruber interviews the academic Andras Kovacs of the Central European University: "Jobbik frequently uses anti-Semitic rhetoric, not directly but through code words and references, as well as symbols and appearances. (...) This is frightening for the Jewish population." Kovacs continued, "Loud verbal anti-Semitism can lead to a very polarized and intense atmosphere, which in turn could facilitate, for example, anti-Jewish street violence."
One example of the symbols appropriated by Jobbik has been the the flag of the Árpád Stripes, frequently carried by their supporters at rallies and often among the outlawed Hungarian Guard themselves. Though the origin of the flag has a deeply convoluted historical roots going back to the foundation of Hungarian national identity, it is most well known to remind people of the Arrow Cross Party, which for seven months in 1944-1945 formed an alliance with the Nazis. Whether or not the Arpad Stripes are an emblem of fascism may be up for debate, but for some the implication is clear.
Photo by Flickr user Jo Peattie (Creative Commons)
The political gains of Jobbik are no accident, however, as dismal governance and poor economic management by the ruling Socialists (MSZP) party widely opened up the political field for certain victory for the center-right party Fidesz, which made a decision early on to run on almost no campaign, and ambiguously slide toward the majority vote. However few were able to predict just how strongly Jobbik would be able to pick off the Fidesz margins and overpass the left's share of the vote -- thanks in part to apathy and lower turnout. The current political concern is whether or not Fidesz will have to tilt further to the right and appeal to some of Jobbik's base - though the party has ruled out any ruling coalition with the extremists. Oddly, the future of Hungary's parliament will depend in large in the many voters who have chosen to stay home, or those willing to make a last minute switch to Fidesz to avoid more seats for Jobbik.
Even if the nationalist sensation currently subsuming Hungary did not feature the trappings of racism and anti-Semitism, the rise of Jobbik bodes ill for the country's young membership in the European Union and its democratic and institutional future. Gábor Vona has pledged to "radically" reorient the country's foreign policy toward the East, meaning that Moscow would gain control over a critical Central European state and look to continue its energy exploitation of the country which began under the defeated socialist Ferenc Gyurcsány, while hostile relations with Brussels, Washington, and the IMF are unlikely to help return Hungary to the path of economic growth and institutional stability.
To get a sense of the turning tide in Hungary, look no further than the treatment of Mayor of Budapest Gábor Demszky, a former anti-Communist hero, who was booed and harassed by angry crowds before his speech on the March 15 National Day. "The more seats Jobbik wins in parliament, the worse for the Hungarian nation and the more vulnerable Hungarian democracy will become," he said, summarizing the central concern of this election.
Both Europe and the international community would do well to consider Demszky's warning very carefully.