Blurring Boundaries Hungarian Leader Adopts Policies of Far-Right

Internationally, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán likes to present himself as a champion of democracy. At home, though, he is implementing one policy after the other that is inspired by the right-wing extremist Jobbik party. Too often, Brussels downplays the problem.
Supporters of the Hungarian far-right extremist Jobbik party take part in a demonstration in October at an apartment complex housing many Roma families in Miskolc, Hungary.

Supporters of the Hungarian far-right extremist Jobbik party take part in a demonstration in October at an apartment complex housing many Roma families in Miskolc, Hungary.

Foto: ? Bernadett Szabo / Reuters/ REUTERS

The right-wing extremists in Hungary's Jobbik party like to advertise themselves as "honest, clean and genuine." The "juster" or "better" ones, as their party's name implies, place particular value on the authenticity of their party's political agenda. Still, they have a serious problem: Leading Jobbik politicians claim that members of the government coalition led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are constantly "stealing the issues and ideas" of the party and peddling them as their own.

There's a good reason why Hungary's right-wing extremists, who took 17 percent of the vote in 2010 elections, are frustrated. Orbán and his ruling majority have been veering further and further to the right. Indeed, hardly a week goes by these days in which politicians from Orbán's Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats) party or prominent party backers somehow publicly adopt a right-wing extremist stance.

For example, conductor Ádám Medveczky, a member of the pro-government Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts (MMA), recently called for something akin to an intellectual expatriation of the writers György Konrád, Péter Esterházy and Imre Kertész, the latter of whom won the 2002 Nobel Prize in literature.

Speaking about the three authors on the private television channel AVT, Medveczky said: "Whoever is born a Hungarian but damages and bad-mouths Hungarians when abroad can no longer be regarded as a Hungarian." MMA President György Fekete had previously expressed similar sentiments and demanded that no member of the academy should be allowed "to lack the genetic feeling of nationalism."

Blurring Boundaries

Rather than being some body of little consequence, the MMA is an unofficial culture ministry with far-reaching powers over cultural policies. Under Fekete's presidency, the MMA no longer subsidizes "unpatriotic" works. And, according to his interpretation, writers like Konrád, Esterházy and Kertész are unpatriotic. In fact, many on the Hungarian right view the lot as traitors for taking critical stances toward political circumstances in their homeland.

"There are no longer any clear boundaries between the thinking of Fidesz and Jobbik," says György Dalos, a prominent writer and political biographer. And what he says about cultural policies also applies to many other policy areas of the Hungarian government. Indeed, Orbán and his ruling party are implementing a major part of Jobbik's right-wing extremist platform. While some policies are toned down, others are adopted unchanged. For example:

  • When Orbán's government entered into power in May 2010, it passed a law declaring June 4 a "Day of National Unity" of Hungarians all over the world in commemoration of the Treaty of Trianon. The 1920 peace agreement deprived Hungary, one of the losers of World War I, of two-thirds of its former territory.
  • Statues of communists regarded as traitors were pulled down and, with Fidesz politicians in attendance, statues of Miklós Horthy were erected. The far-right leader of Hungary between 1920 and 1944 had a hand in the World War II deaths of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews.
  • The Hungarian National Core Curriculum (NAT) recommends the works of anti-Semitic writers from the interwar period. The media law requires journalists working for public media organizations to promote a national identity in their reporting. And the preamble of the constitution in force since 2012 evokes the spirit of the Horthy regime.
  • In a measure geared mainly toward members of the Roma minority, the government has made it necessary for citizens to perform volunteer work and allow their living spaces to be inspected for orderliness in order to receive social-assistance payments.
  • The rights of paramilitary militias have been bolstered. And, in a concession to Roma-haters, a right to use arms for self-protection on one's own property has been introduced.
  • Citing patriotic pride, the government kicked officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) out of the country in the summer of 2010. It introduced a financially worthless but vote-winning "crisis tax" that foreign companies have to pay. Lastly, using populist and anti-capitalist slogans, the government announced a loan moratorium in 2011 that was de facto only tailored for Fidesz supporters. The measure allowed private debtors to pay back foreign-currency loans from banks abroad in full at a set interest rate. Economics Minister György Matolcsy spoke proudly of the government's "unorthodox" economic policy.

On Wednesday, Orbán was in Brussels to speak with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and European Parliament President Martin Schulz about Hungary's economic policies and an ongoing procedure against the country for surpassing deficit maximums. Orbán presumably also had to answer questions about right-wing extremism, but only informally.

Brussels Downplays Extremism

Indeed, many politicians in Brussels either don't comment on or downplay the issue of right-wing extremism in Hungary. Take, for example, Wilfried Martens, the Belgian parliamentarian who heads the European People's Party (EPP), which also includes representatives from German Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Orbán's Fidesz party. In a tersely worded response to written questions, Martens said that Fidesz, as a member of the EPP, shares in the worries about extremism, and that Orbán has always "stressed the necessity of confronting this problem."

Only a few European politicians who share Orbán's center-right views venture to make clear statements on the issue. For example, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding, a member of the EPP from Luxembourg's center-right Christian Social People's Party, recently expressed outrage over comments made by the prominent Hungarian commentator Zsolt Bayer, a co-founder of Fidesz and close friend of Orbán.

Bayer sparked an uproar in early January when he wrote an article in the Fidesz-aligned, right-wing newspaper Magyar Hirlap about a New Year's Eve stabbing in a bar in Szigethalom, a town south of Budapest, in which Roma are suspected of involvement. "A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence," he wrote. "They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. … These animals shouldn't be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved -- immediately and regardless of the method."

No one in the Fidesz party leadership publicly condemned Bayer's article. A party spokeswoman said that since Bayer had expressed "his own opinion" as a commentator rather than as a Fidesz member, the party would not take a stance on it. And Fidesz communications chief Máté Kocsis even went so far as to say that anyone who criticized Bayer's article was "siding with the murderer" -- in other words, with the Roma -- even though no one was murdered at the stabbing in question.

Charges of Dishonesty

At the same time, a few weeks ago, Fidesz awoke the impression that it was planning to clearly distance itself from racial hatred. The apparent change of heart had been prompted in late November, when a right-wing member of the Jobbik party had demanded in parliament that "all Jews living in Hungary be registered," and that "Jews, particularly those in parliament and the government, be evaluated for the potential danger they pose to Hungary." Soon thereafter, on Dec. 2, Angal Rogán, the party's parliamentary flood leader, delivered a speech at a major anti-Jobbik demonstration in which he strongly condemned anti-Semitism in Hungary.

However, critics of Fidesz doubt that the party -- and Viktor Orbán, in particular -- is serious about wanting to distance itself from right-wing extremism, anti-Semitism and antiziganism, a term denoting racism toward the Sinti and Roma. Kristián Ungváry, a historian who has just published a 700-page book on the interwar years of the right-wing extremist Horthy regime, describes the party's policies as a "sham."

"The party speaks with two tongues," Ungváry says. "On the one hand, one distances oneself from right-wing extremism in order to maintain a good reputation abroad and because one notes that the political damage would be too severe. On the other hand, Fidesz pays tribute to anti-Semitic writers of the interwar period … or expresses right-wing extremist positions in regime-friendly newspapers because it wants to attract voters on the right."

Attila Nagy, a political scientist at Budapest's Méltanyosság Institute, also believes that the Fidesz won't turn away from more extremist stances. He admits that there is genuine outrage about right-wing extremism in some party of the party, but he adds that "this part, which backs a clearer pro-European course, is currently not a decisive one within the party."

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