(JTA) — The extremist Jobbik party may have come up short in Sunday’s election in Hungary, but that doesn’t mean the country’s far right isn’t celebrating.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz party won in a landslide, riding a wave of rhetoric and policies that have set Hungary apart from the rest of the European Union for its veneration of pro-Nazi collaborators, anti-Semitic politicians and propaganda campaigns that critics say amount to racist incitement against Jews and other minorities.
Orban has taken Fidesz out of centrist blocs and partnerships. In a campaign speech last month, Orban inveighed against an “enemy” that is “not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”
Such words, once considered unthinkable for a European leader, were “laden with anti-Semitic imagery,” Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman wrote last week.
Orban last year led what many of his critics consider a campaign of incitement against George Soros, a Hungary-born American Holocaust survivor who funds many left-leaning groups and causes, including the facilitation of immigration from the Middle East to Europe. The campaign included billboards featuring a picture of a grinning Soros and the slogan “Don’t let him have the last laugh.”
In December, a lawmaker for Orban’s party, Janos Pocs, posted on Facebook a picture of a dead pig accompanied with a phrase that can be translated either as “This was Soros” or “It was his turn.” Pocs denied his post was a reference to Soros.
In parallel, Orban has said he seeks to make Hungary an “illiberal society,” referencing Turkey and Russia as his template for a future Hungary. He dismissed Jewish objections to state-funded imagery that critics said ignore the collaboration by Hungarians in the Holocaust.
Sandor Lezsak, the deputy speaker of the parliament and a Fidesz lawmaker, said in January that he would attend a commemoration service for the Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy, though he canceled under pressure. In July, Orban himself counted Horthy, whose government was complicit in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews, among the nation’s “exceptional statesmen.”
Orban claimed territory once more closely associated with Jobbik, a xenophobic movement that the World Jewish Congress has termed “an extremist party promoting hate.” But in the lead-up to the election, Gábor Vona, its leader, risked splitting the movement with his attempts to mainstream, deradicalize and distance the movement from anti-Semitism in a bid to take Jobbik from the opposition and into the government.
The kinder, gentler Jobbik emerged for the first time as Hungary’s second-largest party in Sunday’s election, but with only 26 out of 199 seats in parliament. With less than half the votes that Jobbik received in the 2010 election – its best showing – Jobbik trailed Fidesz by 113 seats, or 24 percentage points. This means Orban, now heading into his fourth term in office, can afford to keep Jobbik out of power for years to come.
“As Jobbik attempted to appeal to the center, Fidesz has successfully pandered to the ultranationalist fringes,” said Karl Pfeifer, a Viennese Jewish journalist who grew up in Hungary and is an expert on that country’s complicated politics and history.
“They’ve essentially switched places in one of the most spectacular maneuvers I’ve ever seen,” he told JTA. “Both Orban and Jobbik are wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Despite the presence of anti-Semites and hardcore nationalists in its ranks and among its founders, Fidesz was nonetheless a center-right party in the 1990s. Back then, it was even a part of a centrist European political bloc with member entities like the United Kingdom’s center-left Liberal Democrats and the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Under Orban, Central Europe’s largest Jewish community — Hungary has approximately 100,000 Jews — enjoys a safer environment than many other Jewish populations in Western Europe. Orban’s government officials like to cite this in defending their country’s refusal to let in immigrants from the Middle East.
The radicalization of Fidesz “is a sign of how mainstream these once-taboo views have again become in parts of the continent,” Francis Wittaker, digital editor for NBC News in London, wrote Sunday. “Such language is now commonplace” even for a leader whose country is a U.S. ally and a member of the European Union and NATO, Whittaker noted.
Leaders of far-right movements in Europe – part of a rising force that since last year alone have made unprecedented gains in elections in France, Austria, Holland and Italy — celebrated Orban’s clinching of more than 49 percent as a victory for their cause.
“Large and clear victory by Viktor Orban in Hungary: The inversion of values and mass immigration promoted by the European Union have once again been rejected,” Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, wrote on Twitter.
And Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch anti-Islam Freedom Party, wrote: “Congratulations Viktor Orban with this excellent result. A well-deserved victory!”
Their enthusiasm for Orban’s politics is shared by far-right activists like Tatjana Festerling, a founder of the German Pegida anti-immigrant movement who was kicked out even from that hardcore organization for suggesting that asylum seekers should be shot if they attempt to cross the German border. In 2016, she told JTA that Orban is the European politician she respects the most.
As Orban made inroads into the ultranationalist constituency, the radical Jobbik party attempted to move in the other direction and compete for mainstream voters.
These attempts included reaching out to Jewish communities, to whom Jobbik in 2016 sent Hanukkah greetings for the first time. And Vona himself last year said the party now respects Israel’s right to exist.
Both gestures were major departures from the rhetoric of a party whose second in command, Marton Gyongyosi, called during a 2012 speech in parliament for compiling a list of Jews as threats to national security and whose website in 2016 called for fighting “Zionist Israel’s quest for world domination.”
Whereas all the leaders of Hungarian Jewry dismissed Jobbik’s overtures as lip service, they did generate serious tensions within Jobbik, where some resented Vona for his “betrayal,” according to Dániel Róna, a political science researcher from Hungary who has written extensively about Jobbik.
After the elections, “there will be a reckoning” inside Jobbik, Rona told JTA at an event in Budapest in November titled “Are Europe’s Jews Safe?” that was organized by the Hungarian Jewry’s watchdog on anti-Semitism, the Action and Protection Foundation.
Jobbik’s troubles are of little comfort to sociologist Andras Kovacs, who has charted the development of Jewish life in Hungary for decades because “the radicalization of Fidesz is as very worrisome development,” he said.
Yet this reality does not prevent Kovacs and many other Hungarian Jews in Budapest from belonging to one of the world’s most vibrant communities, he said.
“In my personal life, I’m fairly insulated from this situation, which I see in polls and in reports,” he said. “I live in relative safety in Budapest, see friends, carry out my research. You might call it a bubble.”