Nationalism in Hungary can be traced back to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, which involved a romantic vision of nationalism found in many European states. After the Austro-Hungarian Empire was destroyed in World War I, a new form of nationalism that mixed irredentist ideas with racial principles emerged, linking the philosophy to authoritarian and extreme right-wing political positions.
The new doctrine included three core tenets. The first involved the defense of "Greater Hungary," including regions that formerly belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary, and the rejection of the Treaty of Trianon — the peace agreement signed at the end of World War I that redefined Hungary's borders and shrunk the country by two-thirds. The second tenet was anti-Semitism, an ideology that was manifest most fully under Hungary's pro-Nazi government during World War II and also rejected other Hungarian minorities, most notably the Roma. Third, the extreme right was stridently anti-communist, similar to other far-right movements in Europe at the time.
After the fall of communism in Hungary in 1989, the country's far right was represented most prominently by the Hungarian Justice and Life Party, which revolved mainly around Istvan Csurka, a writer and politician. The party lost relevance as its leader aged and was essentially replaced in the mid-2000s by Jobbik.
Anti-Roma rhetoric is central to Jobbik. Statistics vary, but an estimated 700,000 Gypsies live in Hungary, making them the country's largest minority group. Most Gypsies live in poverty, with roughly a third unemployed, and far-right politicians often blame them for many of Hungary's problems. To a large extent, Jobbik has emerged as a single-issue party, with the "Roma question" at the core of its platform.
For example, Jobbik is constantly denouncing "Gypsy crime" and organizing protests against the ethnic group. In 2007, the party created the Hungarian Guard, a vigilante organization that claimed to be restoring order in the country. Bands from the group, usually small but occasionally numbering in the hundreds, would patrol small towns in Hungary, especially rural villages, and threaten and intimidate local Gypsy populations.
The Hungarian Guard was banned in 2009, but several similar groups still exist, including the New Hungarian Guard, the Civil Guard Association for a Better Future, the Hungarian National Front, the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement, the Defense Force, the Guard Motorcyclists and the Outlaw Army. These groups often work together and hold meetings and rallies — usually involving between 1,000 and 2,000 members — to organize protests and attacks against the Roma in reaction to crimes blamed on Gypsies. Between March and April 2011, several such vigilante groups patrolled the streets of Gyongyospata, a small village 85 kilometers (53 miles) northeast of Budapest, and harassed the local Gypsies for weeks. The Hungarian Red Cross intervened, moving Roma families to other villages to prevent the situation from escalating.
In response to the events in Gyongyospata, the Hungarian parliament outlawed vigilante patrols in May 2011, ruling that maintaining law and order was the sole jurisdiction of the state. Still, residual vigilante activism continued. In August 2012, the Outlaw Army led a protest of some 1,000 people in the town of Devecser, roughly 165 kilometers southeast of Budapest, during which protesters threatened local Gypsies and threw bricks at Roma homes.
Why the Far Right Has Succeeded
Jobbik's growth can be attributed to several factors. First, the party has attracted young people disillusioned by the political system in Hungary. The party emerged in 2002 as a student organization that criticized the disconnect between the country's leadership and Hungarian youth. In recent years, Jobbik has begun incorporating anti-globalization rhetoric into its platform, criticizing, for example, the presence of foreign investors in the country. This sentiment has proved attractive to Hungarians whose jobs or livelihoods have been threatened by the slowdown of the economy.
The party's rise in the late-2000s coincided with the decline of the socialist government of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, who resigned in March 2009 after a series of scandals and protests sparked by the European economic crisis. This led to the return to power of Fidesz — Hungary's ruling center-right party — while also affording Jobbik new levels of electoral success. Jobbik won 14.7 percent of the vote in European parliamentary elections in 2009 and 16.6 percent of the vote in general elections in 2010 (compared to 2.2 percent in 2006).
Jobbik is now the third-largest party in Hungary and among the most electorally successful right-wing parties in Europe. The party is the first in Hungary since the fall of communism to center its campaign rhetoric on the Roma, and it has been particularly successful in influencing Hungarian political discussion and agendas. Statistics show that many Fidesz voters sympathize with Jobbik, leading Fidesz to adopt some of Jobbik's issues — especially issues related to crime or the defense of ethnic Hungarians living abroad.
Possibilities for Additional Growth
Far-right groups and parties do not pose immediate threats to the political stability of Hungary. Jobbik has chosen to work within the country's political system, just as the Hungarian Justice and Life Party did in the 1990s, and thus faces the same social and political constraints as any other. Jobbik is simply not strong enough to threaten the political order.
The presence of vigilante groups — especially in rural areas — is alarming for the Hungarian government, and such groups' activities do not seem to have significantly decreased despite the passage of legislation against them. Moreover, they pose real and present threats to minorities. However, such groups are relatively small, and they too lack the political influence to threaten Hungary's political stability — at least in their current form.
Still, Jobbik is now far more popular than the Hungarian Justice and Life Party ever was; that its popularity has grown in relation to the severity of the European crisis means the party could strengthen further if the economic situation continues to deteriorate. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Hungarian economy is expected to contract by 1.6 percent this year and by 0.1 percent in 2013 (although unemployment has remained relatively stable — dropping slightly to 10.7 percent in the third quarter of 2012 from 11 percent a year earlier).
In short, Hungary's traditional parties must overcome a crisis of representation that favors extremist parties. The far right has deep roots in the Hungarian political landscape that have strengthened in times of economic crisis. To the extent that Hungary's mainstream parties fail to respond to social demands — especially if Europe's economic crisis deepens — Jobbik (or its heirs) could find still more room to grow.