The advance of the far-right in Hungary's elections shows that zombie politics can potentially make a big impact in public life today.
The massive electoral triumph of the right-wing Fidesz party in yesterday's elections in Hungary has been overshadowed by the electoral breakthrough of the radical nationalist Jobbik movement. The success of this backward-looking, chauvinist party, which has gained seats in the Hungarian parliament for the first time, suggests that zombie politics can potentially make a significant impact on public life today.
Western observers make the mistake of depicting the success of Jobbik as symptomatic of the recent rise in support for far-right parties across Europe. Jobbik is presented as a Magyar version of France's National Front, or as an East European equivalent of Geert Wilders' Freedom Party. Even comparisons with the British National Party miss the point. Western European far-right parties are essentially protest movements that give voice to the estrangement of a significant section of society from public life. These movements often focus on one issue: immigration. Their support comes from people who experience everyday insecurities as a threat to their identities and way of life. A typical BNP supporter complains that his or her community is about to be, or has been, taken over by an alien culture, and demand a return to the British way of life.
In comparison to Jobbik, the Dutch Freedom Party comes across as relatively tolerant and liberal. Unlike Western far-right parties, supporters of Jobbik are not so much concerned about losing a way of life as they are with inventing one. Throughout history, Hungarian nationalism has been thwarted by military defeats and humiliations. The sense of loss that permeates the Hungarian national consciousness has fostered a mood of bitter resentment towards the intangible forces that 'frustrate' the nation. With the fall of the Communist regime and the changes brought about by the end of the Cold War, many believed that prosperity was just around the corner. Sadly, for many Hungarians, the promise of prosperity has not been realised. Eighteen months ago I talked to a 52-year-old fitter called Joska. Pointing his finger at the other customers in the bar in Szekszárd where we were drinking, he said: 'You see them – we are all losers.' When I asked him what have they lost, he paused, and then with a note of sadness said: 'Everything.'
I sensed the same feeling of melancholy bitterness when I happened to wander into a Jobbik rally a few years ago. What struck me was the intense, bitter hatred that dominated the proceedings. Although some of the speakers denounced foreign capitalists, and through euphemistic (and not so euphemistic) rhetoric pointed the finger of blame at Gypsies and Jews, their hatred appeared to be directed at anyone who was not a 'true Hungarian'. What seemed unusual to me was the feeling of restless anger, which seemed to be in search of a cause. Unlike at your average BNP meeting, many of the Jobbik speakers and activists appeared to be university-educated and relatively sophisticated operators. These were not eccentric malcontents standing on the margins of society, but articulate individuals who felt that they were giving voice to mainstream concerns.
The main impression I got from the rally, and from the other things I have seen and heard about Jobbik, is that this is a very modern movement run by aspirant and frustrated activists who are self-consciously reinventing the Hungarian past as a focus for populist mobilisation. Most observers have commented on the movement's cynical promotion of Gypsy crime panics and anti-Jewish conspiracy stories about a Zionist takeover of Hungary's economy. However, Jobbik's zombie politics is not confined to traditional anti-Semitism and anti-Gypsy racism – more broadly this is a movement committed to the cultural rehabilitation of Hungarian identity. It has tried to mobilise so-called Christian values in an attempt to construct an identity that links religion and nationality. Predictably, this cultural construction often appears as a caricature of itself. Members of the Hungarian Guard, Jobbik's paramilitary arm, dress up in traditional outfits usually worn by Magyar folk-dancers. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jobbik performs nationalism rather than lives it. In a Western setting, this would be characterised as the politics of identity.
Despite its electoral success, it is not yet clear whether Jobbik has the political capability to be anything more than an important radical extremist force. What the Hungarian elections do definitely signify is the discrediting and disintegration of the Hungarian political elite. It is the behaviour of the corrupt and self-serving post-Communist oligarchy that gave rise to the current political crisis in Hungary. In practice, 'regime change' in Hungary after the end of the Cold War often meant little more than the old Stalinist regime reinventing itself and privatising itself. In such circumstances, popular grievance towards those who are responsible for the injustices of the present can become seamlessly bound up with a demand for revenging the misdeeds of the past. It is the fact that many of the injustices that Jobbik appeals to are real ones which provides this party with the potential to gain influence in the future.