Jobbik, the “Movement for a Better Hungary,” a radical nationalist political party with anti-European, anti-Semitic, and anti-Roma positions, is now officially a major player in Hungarian politics. Jobbik’s narrow victory last night over Fidesz at a by-election in the city of Tapolca is historic and carries enormous symbolic importance.  For the first time, Jobbik has managed to defeat the governing center-right party in a single member-voting district, where electoral rules are toughest for small parties. The message sent by the election is that Viktor Orbán’s majority party, despite its strong grip on power, can now not only be challenged but also defeated by forces on its right. Support for Jobbik is far more than a visceral reaction by disillusioned anti-establishment voters: the party has energetic grassroots support, articulate and not-so-radical talking heads with a well-honed message, supported by a professional political and civic organization that is solidifying its position in Hungarian society. In other words, Jobbik appears to be a permanent fixture in the Hungarian scene; as such, it is crucial to understand the bases of its support rather than dismissing it as a fluke.

So how popular is Jobbik and who are its supporters? According to a March poll by IPSOS, Jobbik has the support of 18% of the general population, as compared to 21% for the ruling party, Fidesz. In a country of ten million, the difference amounts to only a few hundred thousand votes. Jobbik has also overtaken Fidesz as the party favored by unemployed voters, with 23% to Fidesz’s 17%.

While one might hypothesize that a radical nationalist protest party would gain its support primarily from uneducated, ill-informed, or reactionary voters, this is not the case with Jobbik. On the contrary—the party counts on significant support from young, well-educated voters and is the highest-polling party among the 18-30 year old cohort. In fact, before Jobbik was officially founded as a party in 2002, it was a youth association at the Eötvös Lóránd University (ELTE) in Budapest, with roots in high school youth groups. The party recruited from the university student government and targeted its message at students and young people. This bears eerie similarities to how Fidesz started in the late 1980s.

Jobbik’s meticulous focus on and success in traditional and new media coupled with an extremely effective countercultural marketing strategy is part of the reason for its steady support. Jobbik boasts a well-developed online presence that reaches a young audience. A 2012 Demos survey of Jobbik’s Facebook fans found that they tended to be primarily young, well-educated men. Jobbik’s outreach to young people goes beyond mere political messaging: they benefit from a well-developed nationalist subculture that includes online news portals, weekly magazines and various other print publications, political rock bands, traditionalist and countercultural fashion brands, self-defense and shooting classes, alternative savings methods, arts and crafts classes, patriotic summer camps, alternative forms of education for all age groups, and even nationalist-themed music festivals. Jobbik is indeed a “movement” rather than just another party. And for a movement, they are making steady progress into mainstream politics.

As the Tapolca election shows, Jobbik is reaching beyond its original core group of supporters and is successfully casting itself as the main alternative to the ruling party, Fidesz. Like other far-right parties in Europe, it tries to mask the more racist and violent elements of its philosophy and to appear to be a radical but respectable opposition movement. Jobbik is aggressively attempting to move to the political and social center-right by capturing Hungary’s considerable pool of pessimistic and unhappy voters. András Kovács of Central European University notes that “quite a wide array of different social groups tend to accept anti-establishment views in present-day Hungary, and Jobbik draws support from these various social groups.”

A 2009 poll by the Pew Center showed a dramatic drop in the number of Hungarians who, twenty years after the fall of communism, approved of the changes that had occurred in Hungarian society: only 56% expressed approval of the transition to democracy, and only 46% approved of the transition to a market economy. Jobbik plays on this by invoking the myth of the “stolen transition,” according to which Hungary’s post-communist development was hijacked by self-serving and venal elites. Even Fidesz has attempted to exploit this message with its talk of a “second regime change” or a correction of the transition—somewhat incongruously, given its own role in the fall of the communist regime. As a party that has never governed the nation, Jobbik has an anti-establishment purity that a governing party can never retain. Jobbik has not been “tainted” by corruption, which is present in all political parties which have governed in the past 25 years.

This is especially relevant today given the sinking support for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government. Jobbik has successfully siphoned off voters from Fidesz, and given the fractured nature of the left-wing opposition, Jobbik is now the main opposition party, though Fidesz still seems to consider the political left to be its main adversary. This is partly because Fidesz has a hard time landing blows against a party that, in certain respects, is quite close to itself politically. Like Sarkozy’s UMP faced with the Front National in France, Fidesz has sometimes tried to co-opt its challenger’s far-right positions; but while for the UMP this primarily meant a shift in rhetoric, Fidesz has in some cases enacted elements of Jobbik’s platform or used rhetoric intimately connected to Jobbik’s ideology—for example, anti-immigration policies, giving dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania, and the “Eastern Opening” foreign policy shift. Apparently, this has not been sufficient to stymie Jobbik’s rise, as the Tapolca election and the parliamentary elections last year have shown. As support for Fidesz slips, Jobbik will try to continue its success in filling the gap. If the mainstream parties want to halt or reverse this trend, they must recognize that Jobbik’s advance is not just the result of chance or the mistakes of its competitors: it comes thanks to a counterculture that is far more powerful than the official institutions of the party itself.

–Joshua Dill is a Pannonius Fellow of the Common Sense Society. He holds a degree in German and European Studies from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. 

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This blog is provided by the Common Sense Society of Budapest as an online, English-language platform for the publication and exchange of diverse and differing perspectives about Hungarian politics, economy, and culture. The views represented here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of CSS. The Common Sense Society does not receive funding from any government entity or political party.