Why you should care

Neo-fascism and neo-Nazism are influencing politics in an EU member state, bringing anti-Semitism and radical nationalism to the forefront. Again.

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Uniformed youths toss works by “poisonous” Jewish writers into a fire; a lawmaker urges parliament to register Jews as security risks; paramilitary units come to the aid of villagers who claim Roma stole their chickens; and communities erect statues of Miklos Horthy, a former Hungarian leader and close ally of Hitler.

These sound like scenes from the 1930s, but this is modern Hungary, and one man stands out for his role in opening public discourse to hatred once again. What’s more, he’s pushing for an exit from the EU, alliances with states like Iran and an end to foreign investment in Hungary.

Gabor Vona … has achieved movie-star status amongst supporters by putting a fresh face on an old brand of nationalism.

His name is Gabor Vona, and the 35-year-old has achieved movie-star status amongst supporters by putting a fresh face on an old brand of nationalism. His Jobbik Party resonates with many Hungarians, having won more than 800,000 votes and 47 of the 368 seats in parliament in 2010, making it Hungary’s third-largest party. Now Vona and his party — anti-immigration, anti-Roma, anti-gay and anti-Semitic — look to win more seats this spring.

Vona’s Vicious Vitality

Having studied history and psychology at university in Budapest, Vona became interested in Hungarian culture early on, reclaiming his grandfather’s name, Vona, to replace Zázrivecz, a Russian name handed down from his step-grandfather.

Vona has since carved a niche as a defender of Hungarian culture, noting that “[w]e are special here in Europe, but not because we are the most anti-Semitic nation, but because even if all of Europe is at their feet, even if all of Europe licks their feet, even then we will not.”

Hungarian culture, land and money is under attack, and Vona is their defender.

Vona’s charisma comes across in every blustery speech. A former teacher, he’s a strong and natural orator, says Erin Saltman, a project officer at the counter-extremist think tank Quilliam. “He doesn’t have a very authoritarian feel to him … He’s kind of your average nice guy who attended a very good university,” Saltman says, having observed Vona at a Jobbik summer camp a few years ago.

Hungary has a reputation as an enthusiastic EU member-state that overcame history to join a democratic Europe and liberal market. For Hungarians disillusioned by economic crisis and austerity measures, however, things look different. They see Hungarian history through a prism of persecution, first at the hands of the West, when they lost two-thirds of their territory after World War I, then by the Communists during the Cold War. Now Brussels intrudes. Hungarian culture, land and money is under attack, and Vona is their defender.

Teaching Young Dogs Old Tricks

Jobbik was a youth movement under the conservative ruling party, Fidesz, until it was ousted from power in 2002. Radical nationalists fizzled and Jobbik filled the vacuum, forming a party with an eye on political, social and economic radicalism. Only this time radicalism was in the hands of the youths.

Some of these youths are poorly educated or marginalized skinheads, but Jobbik has excelled at radicalizing youths in university settings. “There are large Jobbik followings within the universities, which goes against radical right stereotypes,” says Saltman.

Vona took the helm of Jobbik in 2006, the same year riots were sparked by the socialists admitting they had lied to get into power. As Fidesz regained power, Jobbik enjoyed a meteoric rise, culminating in its parliamentary success in 2010.

Flag in red, green and white with marchers along during the day

A Jobbik guard holds a flag in front of the podium.

Source Corbis

While galvanizing the youth, Jobbik rebranded old-fashioned “scapegoat” rhetoric by coining “gypsy criminality,” giving people someone to blame for petty theft. This diverted attention away from the more polarizing anti-Semitic rhetoric of the past and reintroduced discrimination into the public discourse.

Communism outlawed but did not eliminate anti-Semitism, and in a country that has never had an open discussion about its role in the Holocaust, old hatreds persist. And Vona, first subtly and later more openly, has reframed old stereotypes, giving anti-Semites a voice.

“They’ve mainstreamed these discourses now, and anti-Semitism has really only come back in the last couple of years now that it’s more ‘safe,’” Saltman explains.

The ruling Fidesz Party enjoys a two-thirds majority in parliament at the moment, which means it doesn’t need Jobbik support to legislate. Yet Jobbik has still managed to wield influence by popularizing nationalist agendas. To retain voters, Fidesz adopted some of Jobbik’s nationalist rhetoric and initiatives, such as trying to extend citizenships to ethnic Hungarians living in former Hungarian territory lost after World War I. Last year’s constitutional changes, which empowered the state over the banks and tried to cap the power of the courts, left many wondering where Jobbik’s influence stopped.

The EU responded in kind. “Fidesz goes as far as it can within the framework of European law,” says Dr. Anton Pelinka, a professor of politics and nationalism studies at the Central European University in Budapest.

Hungary’s Uncertain Future

Economic downturn, unemployment and the questionable political situation have led to an increasing number of Hungarians fleeing the country. As many as 500,000 left over the past few years, and more would like to leave, with nearly a fifth of Hungarians reporting they would prefer to live elsewhere.

But Hungary is still a thriving democracy and for all of Vona’s fans, there are plenty of opponents, not to mention millions opposed to hatred. A majority of Hungarians favor membership in the EU, and EU policies mitigate Vona’s influence. The EU, as Pelinka points out, is the only thing preventing Fidesz from swinging further into the nationalist camp to retain voters.

Man with painted face and protest poster during the evening outdoors

Hungarians attend a demonstration after parliament voted for government-backed constitutional amendments, in Budapest March 11, 2013.

Source Laszlo Balogh/ReutersCorbis

Experts doubt Jobbik will secure many more seats in parliament than in 2010, but a potential 16 to 20 percent of the national vote is significant. Fidesz is expected to retain its majority in the next parliament and shut Jobbik out of a direct governing role.

Still, Vona’s populist nationalism and his ability to drive the debate and influence ruling party policy mean that his star is likely to continue rising over Hungary. And should Fidesz decide to question the EU’s authority, Hungary’s political climate could slip further into the extremist camp very quickly.

Asked if he is worried by Vona, Pelinka says he is “not completely pessimistic.”

“But if I were a Hungarian Roma or Hungarian Jew,” he adds, ”I think I would be scared.”

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