Hungary Post-Election Woes and Rising Fascism

HungaryYesterday Hungary had its national elections. Post-election, two major factors have shaped its political landscape: Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-of-center Fidesz party won a landslide re-election through questionable means. And, the far-right nationalist opposition party, Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom, which means “the Movement for a Better Hungary,” gained significant seats in Parliament. By many counts, Jobbik is viewed as a fascist party. Both Orban’s re-election and Jobbik’s rise in power arouse the concern of Hungarian citizens living in the capital of Budapest. They are close enough to observe woeful changes. Those living in smaller villages in Hungary do not have this vantage point.

Beyond the distinction between those in the capital and the rest of Hungary, some close to the issue note that Fidesz has had the capability to pit Hungarian citizens against one another, even within families, and between friends and colleagues. The election was a new low point for the leftists, who were pushed out of office in 2010. Some Hungarians worry that, without a credible challenge to his dominance, Orban has accumulated too much power. In many countries where elections are democratic, the votes of family members may cancel one another. However, the situation in Hungary is more extreme, with family members protesting not merely on policy issues, but on whether corruption reigns or is defeated.

Orban came to power in 2010 and helped to bring Hungary out of the European economic crisis. Throughout the country, there are murmurs of appreciation for the creation of jobs, reducing personal income tax, and broadly cutting household utility bills. Those close to issue, however, note that Orban’s only agenda is his own power, tilting his country’s politics to the right, and that the economic efforts are only “feel-good measures.”

Fidesz’s policies have not been consistent. While claiming to be staunchly anti-Communist, he has recently signed a contract with Russia to have them build nuclear power plants in Hungary, despite the cost and human risk. The result will be further dependence on Russia, not less. Those responsible for Orban’s reelection see him as a champion of Hungary’s national interest, and see it as favorable that Orban is a public dissident against Communist rule.

To those affected by them, Orban’s policies are seen as unpredictable and hostile measures – in particular against big business. There have been frequent changes of policy, especially in terms of taxes. Continuation of changeable policies could affect Hungary’s forint currency. Without steady partners, Orban is seen as a maverick. Despite surprisingly little censure from the European Union, economists worldwide say that Orban may have scared off international investment that it needs to sustain its long-term growth.

Moreover, although Fidesz widely disputes it, many in Hungary say that Orban did not win fairly for several reasons: In a reverberation from 1933 Germany, Orban has taken steps curtailing democracy, freedom of speech, and the legal system. For example, he changed the election system to his advantage, whereby a 44 percent win (which Orban received) would garner two-thirds of Parliament seats.

Contrary to Hungarian law, Orban set up only Fidesz members in high positions of all branches of the government. By many accounts, he compromised media freedom, meaning that those in the countryside only have access to the Fidesz government-controlled radio, television, and news agency. And, with the win of a two-thirds majority, he was able to change the Constitution. In echoes of erstwhile totalitarian leaders, Orban referred to his comprehensive election victory, saying that the significance of this triumph cannot yet be fully understood.

While Orban is enjoying the afterglow of his reelection, the other party that made huge gains, Jobbik, is positioning itself as the most extreme of all of Europe’s far-right parties. Jobbik’s name is a play on words. Jobb means both better and right (direction). Thus, the meaning of the word is better choice and move to the right. A similar English play on words might be Right Choice for a right-wing group.

Jobbik’s public platform is job creation, being tough on crime, renegotiating state debt, and holding a referendum on its membership in the European Union. It has another agenda, however: While calling itself neither fascism nor racist, its actions are strongly anti-Semitic and against the Romani, or Roma – a diasporic ethnicity, originally of Indian origin, living in Europe and the Americas.

The relationship between Orban’s Fidesz and the Jobbik party led by Gabor Vona, is complicated. Fidesz leaders are careful to run the fine line between appealing to their constituents and not appearing to overstep the bounds too far to the right. However, in some regards, there are many similarities between the two parties: Both have acted in racist ways, even though Jobbik takes liberties that are clearly extreme to the point of fascism. Thus, Jobbik’s rise in election votes has caused a sense of woe to those comparing yesterday’s post-election results with those of fascist regimes of yesteryear.

Most of the criticism of Orban from the European Union’s Parliament has come in relationship to his not speaking out against extremist speeches, as well as riots and rallies. Meanwhile, violence against ethnic minorities is increasing. Orban insisted at the World Jewish Congress in 2013 that Fidesz is not anti-Semitic and that he will not tolerate hate. However, the line between Jobbik and Fidesz is not clearly delineated. And, Orban has not directly addressed Jobbik’s fascist policies.

An example of Jobbik’s actions models its flagrant disregard for history and complete disrespect for the Jewish victims and survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. Six months ago Jobbik members presented a statue at a church in downtown Budapest, commemorating Admiral Miklós Horthy, the Hungarian military commander during World War II who oversaw the deportation of nearly 440,000 Jews to Nazi death camps. This action was not censured by Fidesz.

The Jobbik member responsible for this action is Márton Gyöngyösi, whose response to opposition is to question how Jews have the right to talk about what happened during World War II. He cites as his reason that “Israel has a Nazi regime.” He brushes aside questions about the deportations to death camps, saying that it happened 70 years ago, and people should “get over it, for Christ’s sake.” He continued that he finds such questions outrageous. This is understandably unsettling to Hungary’s Jewish population of approximately 120,000 out of nearly ten million, or 1.2 percent of Hungary. In contrast, in 1933, Hungary had the second-largest Jewish community in Europe, with 445,000 people.

Fidesz has made many rapid and thorough governmental changes. Since it first came to power in 2010, it has passed over 350 laws. Critics claim that Hungary’s democracy is becoming undone. Civil service is being replaced by party loyalists, checks and balances are being eroded, the legal system is no longer independent, and the Constitution has been rewritten without consultation of any party other than Fidesz or Hungarian citizens.

Among other changes, the new Constitution announces Hungary to be a Christian nation, it determines that life begins at conception, and, despite a 2009 law providing registered partnerships to same-sex couples, it specifies that marriage is between one man and one woman. While this is not fascism per se, it is repressive.

How could all of this happen in a democratic society and a developed country that is part of the European Union? Those Hungarians feeling post-election woes point to division and therefore, weakness, of the democratic opposition that caused the election loss. The rise of totalitarianism and fascism has roots in hate, and is seen by some as an answer to economic difficulty. Time will tell the future direction of Hungary. Its government is something to keep in sight.

By Fern Remedi-Brown

New York Times
BBC News
Politics.HU, Excerpted via Boston Globe
Tablet: A New Read on Jewish Life
The Boston Globe Editorials
Personal conversations with Gergely János, Budapest, April 7, 2014

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