Barely three months after its official formation Hungary’s new green party, LMP (Lehet Más a Politika / Politics Can Be Different) has managed to entrench itself on the country’s political map. Standing in coalition with the small Humanist Party, LMP obtained 2.6 % of the votes, coming in fifth place, well before the liberals, who have reached an historic low and may well disappear from the political landscape. This green success was overshadowed, however, by the unexpectedly strong showing of the radical right. Jobbik, a neo-nationalist extra-parliamentary party promising to put an end to “Gypsy crime” and the machinations of a notoriously corrupt political elite, achieved a spectacular 14.8 %, placing this “new force” right behind the socialists (MSZP) who came in second with 17.4 % of votes cast. Although FIDESZ, the centre-right opposition party achieved first place, its score (56.4 %) fell below previous prognoses, which expected it to capture up to two-thirds of available seats. Finally, MDF, a small neo-conservative party managed (somewhat unexpectedly) to hang on to its seat in the European Parliament.
If we compare the results with those of 2004 (see table below) it is evident that we are witnessing a dramatic restructuring of the country’s political landscape. Instead of having two mammoth and two small parties, we now have one mammoth, two medium-sized, and one small party in the European Parliament. Moreover, the position of these parties has also changed. While there used to be two parties on the left of spectrum and two on the right, the centre-left liberal party has all but disappeared and the mammoth socialists have shrunk to half their previous size. This amounts to a devastating defeat for the left – comparable to that in Poland in 2005 – which has been punished by voters for its incompetent economic policies (which have rendered any form of counter-cyclical crisis management impossible), its corruption, and its failure to respond to the dramatic deterioration of relations between Roma and Magyars in the country’s economically depressed regions.
The condemnation of the political elite and the rise of Jobbik
Jobbik’s resounding success is directly related to the malaise which has come to dominate Hungary’s political climate since the turn of the millennium. The overwhelming majority of citizens perceive politics as convoluted, distant, and unaccountable, and politicians to be more and more incompetent, self-serving and “all alike”. This perception affects electoral behaviour as increasing numbers of non-aligned and disillusioned voters either simply do not bother to participate or open up to new, more radical alternatives. Jobbik’s simple messages, “common-sense” solutions, and discourse stressing the need to humanize capitalism appear to have resonated with the concerns of young urbanites craving true democracy and a sense of community, as well as with the mass of disenfranchised rural citizens living in economic insecurity. Thus, many voters saw in the party a vehicle for sending a strong message to the leaders of both political camps: “Pay attention (to our problems) or face the consequences (of our anger)!”
Knowing that during the national elections of 2006 the party (running together with the overtly anti-Semitic MIÉP) managed to obtain only 119 000 votes (compared to 427 000 in last week’s election), it is highly plausible that a significant proportion of its current voters came from FIDESZ and the Socialist Party. Jobbik managed to seduce these voters by demonstrating that it was the only party prepared to speak out and step up against “Gypsy-crime”, a potent metaphor amalgamating the material woes and fear of downward mobility experienced by the lower middle and working class in a time of crisis, and their growing intolerance towards “idleness” and “welfare scrounging” in economically depressed areas. The party called into life a paramilitary organization with clear symbolic connections to the Fascist Arrow-cross movement (which was responsible for the murder of thousands of Budapest’s Jewish citizens in 1944-45), the Hungarian Guard, whose members marched into villages riven by ethnic tension to “restore order”. These infamous marches have plunged Roma communities into terror and prepared the ground for the violent attacks of recent months against innocent families, including fatalities.
Jobbik should thus be seen as a Janus-faced neo-nationalist force catering to both protest voters and the militant xenophobic right whose quarrelling factions it has managed to unite. The threat it poses lies not only in its ability and willingness to spawn social unrest and distrust: If FIDESZ (which has shown a propensity to follow Berlusconi’s tactics whilst in power) attempts to contain the radical right by engaging in rightist discourse and practices itself, this could lead to a decisive shift in Hungarian politics, resulting in a renewed “culture war” and the further dismantling of the “left hand” (social rights and services) of the state and the strengthening of the “right hand” (law and order). Nonetheless, Jobbik’s dual character and heterogeneity make it vulnerable to attacks from the centre-left and centre-right. Moreover, further actions of the semi-autonomous Hungarian Guard could easily scare away the protest voters, who make up a significant proportion of its current electorate.
The left in disarray
As stated above, the European Parliamentary elections resulted in a dramatic defeat for the left. Both the liberals and socialists, lacking in vision, meaningful solutions, and credible figures, led a largely negative campaign playing heavily on fear of the “Fascist threat” looming over the country. Citizens who in previous elections (2002 and 2006) had supported the social-liberal coalition proved immune to this kind of manipulation this time around. Many of them chose to stay at home or support one of the smaller parties (probably MDF or LMP in cities and Jobbik in rural areas and the northeast). This has been particularly damaging to the liberals, whose left wing (supporters of human rights and ecological ideals) has deserted to LMP and whose right wing (supporters of the free market) has joined MDF.
The socialists are in no better position. The leftist turn propounded by some may prevent the rise of a new political force left of the Socialist Party and simultaneously curtail the advance of LMP (whose more radical stance on global capital and commitment to preserving the achievements of the European welfare state have attracted quite a number of left-of-centre votes). Yet it is surely impossible to achieve such a conversion from Mr. Gyurcsány’s pragmatic Blairism to a more militant leftism in the 11 months that separate us from the parliamentary elections. According to media reports, this has led some socialist politicians to contemplate the possibility of actively helping the growth of LMP, which appears to be the only credible political force capable of occupying the vacuum on the left side of the political spectrum.
The emergence of the greens
The 75 000 votes captured by the coalition of LMP and the Humanist Party constitute the second-biggest surprise of these elections. The party managed to convince a number of people on the left and right of its commitment to “liberating the political field” and creating greater transparency and more room for participation in politics. Although its programme also targeted citizens living in smaller cities and rural areas, the modes and style of communication adopted by LMP tended to resonate with the ethos of young, highly-educated urbanites, a constituency which had tended to vote liberal (or socialist) in the past. Nevertheless, it received more than half of its votes from outside the capital. This shows that if the party is capable of achieving a greater presence in smaller cities and the countryside, it may be able to attract supporters from both the left and right in the near future.
So far it has managed to achieve this – and this is a crucial factor in its early success – by building a strong common environmental and anti-neoliberal economic platform and promoting issues of common concern to voters on both the left and right: Corruption and the democratic deficit, citizens’ health, sustainable development and green jobs. However, the party has until now largely evaded such hot potatoes as policy toward sexual minorities, drug policy, and euthanasia. If its members and leadership prove capable of forging a common (presumably “softly liberal”) position on at least some of these so-called “cultural” issues and come up with a credible programme for reintegrating the “deeply poor” (amongst whom Roma citizens represent a distinctive sub-group), there is a real chance that the party will be able to enter the Hungarian Parliament in 2010.
Kristóf Szombati is the international relations coordinator of LMP
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