BUDAPEST (JTA) — A Hungarian far-right party, Jobbik, catapulted from the fringes of political life to grab nearly 15 percent of Hungary’s vote in European Union parliamentary elections, sending shock waves through Europe’s fourth-largest Jewish community.
Having come in third in the voting in Hungary, Jobbik is likely to acquire a significant parliamentary presence in Hungarian elections scheduled for next year.
While the far right made gains in EU parliamentary voting elsewhere on the continent, Jobbik’s success was extraordinary. It was the first time the party had run for the EU Parliament and showed that Jobbik, which had run in local elections mostly on joint tickets with Hungary’s main rightist opposition party, Fidesz, is a potent political force on its own. Fidesz won 56 percent of the vote Sunday, while Hungary’s ruling Socialists suffered a crushing defeat, garnering only about 17 percent.
Many Hungarian Jews are now asking: How could this happen?
George Konrad, a Hungarian Jewish intellectual and author, blamed Fidesz leader Viktor Orban for encouraging the far right in the hope of absorbing Jobbik’s supporters into Fidesz’s populist camp.
"Orban has miscalculated and created a political monster," Konrad said.
Budapest, with some 80,000 Jews, has the largest Jewish population of any Central European city. Some play an important role in Hungarian political life, and Hungary has a relatively low level of anti-Semitism compared to other European countries.
But with the economic downturn hitting Eastern and Central Europe particularly hard, old stereotypes about Jews have been revived. In Hungary, as elsewhere in Europe, far-right parties have gained.
“The crisis generated by the recession is about discrimination, inequality, xenophobia, racism, violence and repression,” Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International, said upon release of the organization’s 2009 world report.
The Jobbik party — a Hungarian word that means both “better” and “further to the right” — is led by Gabor Vona, 30, a former high school history teacher. Though he denies being a racist, Vona says the party keeps an “open mind” about the veracity of the Holocaust.
Krisztina Morvai, 46, who led Jobbik’s list of candidates in the EU parliamentary elections, will hold one of the three seats won by the party. Articulate and passionate, she is a former Fulbright scholar from the University of Wisconsin and a well-known author and human rights lawyer who teaches law at a prestigious university in Budapest.
Morvai also has earned attention for remarks seen as disparaging Jews. In March, a German magazine reported that it had discovered a speech by Morvai in which she advised the "liberal-Bolshevik Zionists" to "start thinking of where to flee and where to hide.” In the run-up to the EU election, she sparked outrage with an obscene, anti-Semitic post in an online forum. Morvai also has accused Israeli leaders of war crimes.
The Hungarian Alliance of Jewish Communities has called Morvai’s invective obscene and openly anti-Semitic.
During the EU parliamentary campaign, the election offices of Jobbik were secured by units of the Hungarian Guard, a far-right paramilitary organization.
Jobbik’s campaign, which featured the slogan "Hungary for Hungarians," was based on whipping up fear among foreign bankers, industrialists and journalists. The party said it sought to “rescue” the nation from a political elite that has sold out to “enemies within our midst,” which many took to be thinly veiled references against Jews and other minorities, notably Roma, or Gypsies.
“The greatest surprise is that two decades after the collapse of Soviet power, a bright young generation of East Europeans should now put its faith in the tired anti-Semitic stereotypes that were current here a century ago,” said historian Rafael Vago of Tel Aviv University. “I see the gravest danger in the consequent infiltration of racist perceptions and hate speech into political and civil discourse.”
Vago noted that in a 300-yard stretch along a central Budapest avenue, he found several infamous and long-discredited anti-Semitic pamphlets on sale by at least three newspaper venders.
The favorite target of the Jobbik-allied Hungarian Guard has been the Roma. At least seven deaths of Roma by thugs armed with firebombs have been reported, and terrified Roma have taken to guarding their rural communities from nighttime assaults.
Though it boasts fewer than 1,000 members, the Hungarian Guard enjoys significant popular support in the country.