By Eunsun Cho
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continues to worry many international observers by holding fast to a strict anti-refugee and anti-immigrant position. Using a variety of antagonistic expressions against refugees and immigrants, Orbán has ordered the construction of a 110-mile fence along the country’s southern border, set up billboards to warn immigrants not to take Hungarians’ jobs, and decided to accept zero refugees after a vociferous opposition to the EU’s recent schemes on relocation and resettlement. Meanwhile, the country’s far-right, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic party, Jobbik, is quickly gaining ground. The party is now poised to gain 28 percent of the total vote if the next parliamentary election were to be held tomorrow.
For the media and political elite in Hungary and abroad, Orbán has become an easy target for criticism. Opposition politicians are prompt to condemn the Prime Minister when he takes new anti-immigrant action. Timea Szabo, co-leader of Dialogue for Hungary, has said, “[Orbán] takes policies of the radical right as a model,” while MSZP (the Socialist Party) has called the billboards “revolting” and accused Orbán of “[promoting] xenophobia from public monies.” Various Western media outlets readily produce a flurry of articles on Orbán’s latest anti-immigrant and anti-refugee remarks, while citing the rise of Jobbik as a proof of mounting radicalism.
It is true that Orbán is mobilizing a great level of aggressiveness against ethnic minorities, and recent electoral successes of the far-right party do reflect a worrying trend. These media narratives, however, misrepresent Hungary’s current political dynamics in two ways. First, these recent trends hardly signify anything new or surprising in Hungarian politics. The anti-immigrant rhetoric is generating a strong response from the public only because there existed a widespread and deeply ingrained sentiment in the first place. Second, what Jobbik actually represents is closer to the Hungarian public’s growing disillusion with politics than to a sudden subscription to racism and xenophobia.
Even before the landslide victory of Fidesz (Orbán’s party) in the general election of 2010, public opinion in Hungary had been visibly skewed toward racial and ethnic intolerance. According to annual surveys conducted by Tárki, a Hungarian social science research institute, the percentage of people with a strong anti-refugee attitude ranged from 24 percent to 34 percent throughout 2002 to 2011. Yet even among people who would selectively accept refugees, between 62 and 79 percent would not let in asylum seekers who are Roma, Arab, Romanian, African, or Chinese. Even if they have never heard of a certain ethnic group — the imaginary “Piresian” in this survey — more than 60 percent are still unwilling to accept refugees of that ethnicity.
The situation is especially dire for the Roma population. According to Eva Balogh, former professor at Yale University and editor of Hungarian Spectrum, most of the Roma population lost their jobs after 1990 and have lived on pitifully small amount of public assistance since then. She says, “As far as public acceptance of the Roma is concerned, I don’t think that there has been any change during the 1990-2015 period. Over 75 percent of Hungarians have negative feelings toward the Roma.”
Even before Orbán uttered his first anti-immigrant remark, several incidents have raised the specter of ethnic violence that plagued the country during World War II. In 2007, a nationalist group called the Hungarian Guards was organized. Despite their uniform strongly reminiscent of the armed force that collaborated with the Nazis in killing Hungarian Jews, the Guards had successfully attracted several thousand applicants. In 2008 and 2009, a serial killing of Roma people alarmed the nation over resurgence of ethnic tension.
In this context, it is tempting to say the upsurge in the public support for Jobbik signifies the unmasking of xenophobia in Hungary. However, a far more influential catalyst for the growth of Jobbik is the public’s disillusion with Fidesz and MSZP. During its rule, MSZP was bogged down by its own political and economic blunders, including lies about the state of the economy before the 2006 election and a colossal failure in managing the economy. After replacing MSZP in 2010, Fidesz disappointed voters by adopting policies that severely weakened checks and balances between government institutions and attempting to curtail freedom of speech.
An Ipsos poll from January 2013 shows that, although 63 percent were dissatisfied with Fidesz, 66 percent were also discontent with MSZP. In return for the waning support for Fidesz, voters without a party preference increased from 31 percent to 36 percent.
In the midst of this quagmire, Jobbik became a comparatively more reasonable option for voters, even for those who do not agree with the party’s openly xenophobic platform. Traditionally, xenophobic tendencies have been significantly lower among those who received high school education or higher and those under 40. However, support for Jobbik is steadily increasing among young and highly educated voters. As of 2013, high school and vocational school graduates and people between ages 18 and 29 took up the largest percentages of Jobbik supporters.
Endre Sík, a senior researcher at Tárki, thinks Jobbik’s keen political strategy also contributed to its own rising popularity. “The Jobbik is ‘street smart’… They were able to contact people directly, especially when the youngest and the oldest generations are very grateful for being heard, for being taken seriously.”
Given this context, what one should really worry about the rise of Jobbik is how much the Hungarian public has lost confidence in existing political establishments, rather than any growing popularity of racist sentiments.
For many, it is easy to place the blame squarely on Orbán and it might be somewhat more comforting to think Jobbik duped the public with its inflammatory rhetoric than to admit MSZP and Fidesz failed to effectively lead the country in the eyes of many voters. Yet merely pointing fingers at those who stand to gain the most by provoking xenophobia will not eradicate the problem. In fact, as Sík and Balogh both point out, no political party has bothered to pay enough attention to the issue of ethnic tensions.
The currently unbalanced spotlight on the ability of extremists to influence the public will only empower them to be even more brazen in their presentation. Rather, in order to tackle the problem of ethnic tension in Hungary, one must first acknowledge its deep roots in Hungarian culture as well as its influence on larger political trends. It is only through frank, thorough, and accurate assessment of the problem that Hungarian people will understand its actual causes, engage in an open dialogue on the issue, and eventually enable themselves to push for solutions that best suit Hungary’s unique situation.
Eunsun Cho is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of European People’s Party]