Outside Hungary, little attention has been paid to the knife-edge byelection yesterday that could have stripped Viktor Orban’s ruling Fidesz party and its allies of the “supermajority” that allows the government to ram through changes to the constitution.
And, also under the radar, paramilitary forces have returned to the streets, as a new hardline party – the Our Homeland Movement – pursues the traditional fascist twin-track strategy of streetfighting and electoralism.
Both the byelection and the boots on the streets illustrate important developments in Hungary, a country in the grip of the authoritarian far right that has become a model for the far right rulers of Poland and elsewhere.
The parliamentary byelection, in the 6th district of Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county, in the north of Hungary close to the border with Slovakia, was sparked by the death of Ferenc Koncz, an MP for Orban’s far right racist Fidesz.
The MP’s death meant Fidesz and its allied party, the rightwing Christian KNDP, was at risk of losing its two-thirds “supermajority” in parliament. That would have been a serious blow to Orban, who has used the “supermajority” to concentrate increasingly repressive and dictatorial powers in his hands. Koncz’s daughter, Zsofia, stood for Fidesz in the 11 October Borsod byelection.
But the Borsod byelection also stands as an indicator of just how rotten – and how far to the right – politics in Hungary have become.
Against Zsófia Ferenc, whose party has built its power base on anti-Roma racism, antisemitism and a crackdown against refugees, the main opposition candidate was László Bíró – a member of the fascist Jobbik party.
While Jobbik has attempted to modernise and clean up its image – which we look at in more detail below – Bíró is known as a particularly foul antisemite, who has referred to Hungarian capital Budapest as “Judapest” and attacked Charedi Jews on social media, saying, “My dog goes crazy when those with the lice-infested ‘sideburns’ pass by the house.”
Bíró is also known for anti-Roma racism, and has had to issue a denial that he was involved in the paramilitary Hungarian Guard, which staged a notorious demonstration in the Borsod County village of Hejőszalonta in 2011, saying, “The knife opened in my pocket. But I never pulled on a uniform.”
Roma activists and Jewish organisations in Hungary have spoken out to denounce Bíró’s candidacy.
But shamefully, Bíró was formally endorsed by all the main opposition parties in Hungary – the centre left MSZP, the green left Dialogue for Hungary, liberal green LMP, the Democratic coalition DK and the centre right Momentum.
In a bitterly ironic twist, the failure of Jobbik nationally to secure registration of its new leader with the electoral authorities meant Bíró could not formally stand under the banner of Jobbik, but instead appeared on the ballot paper as the candidate of all the other supporting parties.
It is appalling that supposedly left and liberal parties threw their weight behind Jobbik in this way. No serious antiracist or antifascist should support such a strategy.
But the move illustrates the grim state of politics in Hungary today.
Borsod saw three other candidates on the ballot paper. One was Erika Sóváriné Bukta from the “Democratic Party”, a pop-up outfit that emerged in time for the 2018 general election, disappeared again – along with its website – then suddely resurfaced in Borsod. It has previously been described as a “camouflage party”, working to divert votes from opponents of Fidesz.
Another candidate, the independent Ádám Toth, was ostensibly backed by the small leftwing Yes Solidarity for Hungary Movement. But Toth admitted to Hungarian media that he had also sought Jobbik’s nomination for the Borsod poll.
The remaining candidate, Gábor Váradi, is a Roma rights activist and member of the Roma Self Government organisation in Miskolc, the nearest big city to Borsod, and nationally.
Váradi offered a lone voice speaking out against both Fidesz and Jobbik, condemning Bíró’s antisemitism and the longstanding anti-Roma racism of Fidesz. This had left the substantial Roma community, which makes up 20-25% of voters in largely rural Borsod, living “in 18th century conditions”.
Fidesz mayors in the area had been threatening and intimdating Roma people to make them back Ferenc, he noted. And fascist paramilitaries of the Hungarian Guard had “already been seen here”.
When the Borsod votes were counted on Sunday night, Zsófia Ferenc had won the seat for Fidesz with 50.87% of the vote, ensuring its continued “supermajority” powers.
Jobbik’s Bíró – allowed to present himself as the only credible challenger by the mainstream parties who lined up behind him – took 45.9%.
The grim byelection came against a background of movement and change among the different elements of Hungary’s far right – Fidesz, Jobbik and the new Our Homeland Movement (Mi Hazánk Mozgalom, OHM) – and a return of violent paramilitaries to the streets, targeting the country’s Roma community.
On the streets
In May this year, two young men were tragically stabbed to death in a brawl in the centre of Budapest, the country’s capital. Both victims were supporters of Újpest FC, Budapest’s oldest football team, and one allegedly had links to the far right.
The tragedy rapidly developed into a hate-fest, with far right groups and pro-government tabloid newspapers claiming that the perpetrator was a young Roma boy.
In the aftermath of the murders the fascist OHM organised an unauthorised demonstration in front of the National Roma Self-Government building in Budapest.
Eyewitnesses report that platform speakers raised the racist notion of “Gypsy crime” and demanded a halt to Roma integration programmes, arguing that the money saved should be used to re-establish the gendarmerie – the hated police force that carried out anti-Jewish policies under authoritarian ruler Miklós Horthy in the 1930s and 1940s.
The OHM demo then marched down to the site of the killings, to join a 3,000 strong protest by football hooligans. Mingling among the protesters were contingents from hardcore violently racist paramilitary group the Outlaws’ Army (Betyársereg), the Hungarian offshoot of Generation Identity and other fascist groups.
The crowds chanted anti-Roma slogans alongside football songs. This protest and its composition have clear parallels with the street movement that erupted from 2017 to 2019 around “Tommy Robinson” (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) and the Football Lads Alliance (later the Democratic Football Lads Alliance) in Britain.
The events in Budapest are part of a growing racist movement against Hungary’s Roma community that has developed against a backdrop of anti-Roma racism stoked by Orbán’s government.
In January, after a long-running case, a Hungarian court awarded criminal damages to Roma families in the town of Gyöngyöspata, whose children had been forced to attend segregated schools.
Orbán, who had opposed the legal challenge, then announced that he would hold a “national consultation” on the Gyöngyöspata case, in an attempt to mobilise racist opinion and thwart similar attempts to secure Roma rights.
Over the past 18 months far right paramilitary gangs have staged “night patrols” in Budapest and the city of Szeged. Gangs of thugs in paramilitary uniforms tour Roma neighbourhoods harassing and threatening people. These “patrols” also target drug addicts and homeless people.
Toroczkai and the OHMLászló Toroczkai, who spoke at the Budapest demo in May, is the self-proclaimed leader of the OHM and a key figure in the far right in Hungary. He was a founding member of the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement (Hatvannégy Vármegye Ifjúsági Mozgalom, HVIM), an ultra-nationalist and irredentist youth movement.
HVIM organises the annual Magyar Sziget festival, a cultural and political gathering that has attracted more than 10,000 activists, including past delegations from the British National Party, Golden Dawn from Greece and the French Front National (now Rassemblement National).
Toroczkai joined Jobbik sometime in 2007-8 and in 2013 he was elected mayor of Ásotthalom in southern Hungary, near the border with Serbia.
Ásotthalom has become a laboratory for putting warped fascist theories into practice. We reported on the small town two years ago. There were warning signs at the entrance to the village saying LGBT people and Muslims were not welcome.
The council in Ásotthalom has introduced measures banning the construction of mosques, the Muslim call to prayer, and religious clothing such as the hijab, niqab and burqa.
During the 2016 “refugee crisis”, Toroczkai formed a private armed border security force that illegally deported refugees entering Hungary. It is widely believed that ex-BNP leader Nick Griffin lived in the village in 2016 – he certainly encouraged Christian white nationalists to move to Ásotthalom.
Toroczkai became Jobbik’s vice-president in 2016 and stood in a leadership contest in 2018. He was the candidate of choice of the most extreme rightwing elements of the party.
Toroczkai rejected the modernisation strategy adopted by Jobbik and called for the paramilitary Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda) to be reformed.
He also wanted the party to adopt a more openly anti-Roma and anti-migrant platform. Toroczkai received 46.2% of the votes in the internal election, narrowly losing to the leadership’s preferred candidate Tamás Sneider.
Toroczkai, along with three former Jobbik politicians – István Apáti, Erik Fülöp and János Volner – split from the party to form the OHM. The new group won 3.3% of the vote in Hungary’s 2019 European Parliament elections. In local elections, also held last year, the party managed to win eight seats in county assemblies.
Last year the OHM organised a 300-strong anti-Roma parade in the town of Törökszentmiklós, 80 miles east of Budapest. A leading member of the fascist party told several hundred supporters that it was a “demonstration for order”, against “Gypsy crime” and that the country needed defending from “Gypsy terrorists”.
In May 2019, the party formed the National Legion (Nemzeti Légió), supposedly a uniformed “self-defence” group. Toroczkai says the aims of the legion are to “teach self-defence, basic military skills and defend Hungary”. It is clearly modelled on Jobbik’s Hungarian Guard.
Toroczkai models the OHM on Jobbik’s early phase of development, between 2003 and 2013. This era saw Jobbik move from the political fringes to become Hungary’s third largest party. Between 2007 and 2013 Jobbik’s main political focus was on its campaigns against so-called “Gypsy crime”.
With some success, Jobbik was able to racialise crime and portray all Roma people as “criminals” and “benefit cheats”. Its racist rhetoric was reinforced with violent and provocative marches conducted by the Hungarian Guard, which was banned in 2009, but was reestablished after Jobbik circumvented the law by renaming the paramilitary organisation.
The majority of the leadership of Jobbik believed the party was poised to take power at the next general election.
In order to widen its electoral appeal, Jobbik undertook a modernisation strategy from 2013. It now defines itself as a “Christian, conservative, centre-right, socially sensitive people’s party”.
There is no doubt that Jobbik has undergone a significant transformation. It has mothballed the Hungarian Guard, claims it wants to work with Roma people, apologised for its antisemitism and junked its more aggressive anti-capitalist and irredentist policies.
This year’s election of Péter Jakab as party president shows the transformation Jobbik has undergone. Jakab is open about his Jewish heritage and the fact that his great-grandfather died in the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Only seven years earlier, Jobbik MEP Csanád Szegedi had to resign from the party when it was revealed that his mother’s family was Jewish.
But the modernisation strategy has not brought about the electoral gains the leadership had sought. Jobbik lost two of its three MEPs’ seats in last year’s European elections, while in the local elections Jobbik stood on lists with anti-Fidesz centrist parties, with mixed results. But Jobbik mayoral candidates, standing as independents, did win in the cities of Eger and Dunaújváros.
The Borsod byelection exposes some of the tensions that lie behind Jobbik’s attempted clean up. Bíró, along with the rest of Jobbik’s members, has a long history of antisemitism and anti-Roma racism – despite Jakab’s election, there is no change in personnel.
And despite gaining the support of the mainstream parties for his candidature, Bíró still did not win.
Jobbik is rudderless at the moment – and the paramilitary forces of the OHM and the dramatic rightward shift of Orbán’s Fidesz government are undermining its base. It is unclear whether Jobbik can sustain its new incarnation as a modernised, more “respectable” and purely electoral party by making the gains it needs for its membership and support base to stick with it.
Of the 26 MPs elected on the Jobbik platform in 2018, only 17 remain with the party.
The other nine ditched the Jobbik banner when the OHM was formed, and although at present they are formally “independent”, avoiding the need to stand for re-election, they include the three key political figures who formed the OHM with Toroczkai.
It is now the OHM, with its clutch of MPs and its street movement, that is maintaining the traditional fascist twin-track strategy.
Meanwhile Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz finds its position bolstered by its success in the Borsod byelection, with its “supermajority” intact. Since its election to power in 2010, Orbán’s far right Fidesz government has become more and more authoritarian, undermining the power of the courts and independent media.
Orbán has adopted extreme anti-migrant measures and targeted Hungary’s Roma population to gain electoral support.
He is also keen to tap into antisemitism. Orbán drafted the notorious “Stop Soros” laws – a package of measures criminalising anyone who helps migrants or asylum seekers.
The laws are named after US-Hungarian philanthropist George Soros, who is Jewish, to reinforce the antisemitic conspiracy theory that Soros is responsible for immigration into Europe. Fidesz also uses attacks on Soros as an election campaign theme.
The “Soros” motif is now a popular antisemitic trope for the far right across Europe, the US and beyond.
It was Fidesz’s sweeping election victory in April 2018 that first gave it the “supermajority” that allows it to pass any legislation it wants – and, crucially, to make constitutional changes.
In the winter of 2018 the government passed a law compelling workers to work 400 hours of compulsory overtime a year. To rub salt into the wounds, employers did not have pay the overtime wages for up to three years. Mass protests erupted on the streets, uniting all the main parties – including Jobbik – against the Fidesz government.
The demonstrations broke down some boundaries: it was wonderful to see young Roma activists marching with their ethnic Hungarian counterparts. The government was shaken by the protests, which carried on into January 2019 and ended with the main parties calling for an electoral front to beat Fidesz.
But since then, Orbán has used xenophobia, anti-Roma sentiment and antisemitism to shore up his government. He has also used his two thirds majority and the Covid-19 crisis to introduce an emergency powers law that allows him to rule by decree – indefinitely.
The state now has the power to jail people for up to five years if they promote “false facts” about the virus or “interfere” with a quarantine or isolation order.
Orbán also wants to introduce a new law to end gender recognition rights for trans people and make it a legal requirement for passports and ID cards to revert to the sex of the holder at birth.
Overnight Orbán has transformed himself from an authoritarian leader into a dictator. Nowhere in Europe is the far right in all its guises as electorally strong as in Hungary.
In the 2019 Euro elections the combined vote of Fidesz, Jobbik and the OHM was more than 62% of the total votes cast.
The strategies and tactics deployed by the far right are not static and are in a constant state of flux. While Jobbik is modernising its image, Fidesz is now Europe’s most authoritarian party. Throw into the mix the return of paramilitarism in the form of the OHM and other groups and the situation is toxic – persecution and the threat of violence aimed at Roma and Jewish people is real and dangerous.
Some of the material in this article was first published in Searchlight magazine, Autumn 2020 issue.