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Populism merges with the far-right: welcome to Hungarian politics

The Hungarian civil society plays a crucial role in countering radical rhetoric, yet populists trends blur boundaries between a mainstream that is leaning ever more to the far-right and radical right-wing ideologies.
Voxeurop

It’s Viktor Orbán‘s ruling Fidesz party that, since being kicked out of the European People’s Party in March 2021, has vacillated between joining the populist-radical European Conservatives and Reformists Group or the far-right/populist Identity and Democracy Group.

In Hungary, even further to the right of Fidesz, there are not one but two “real” radical right parties with modest public support. These are the Jobbik party (1% of voting intentions according to the latest Republikon poll) and its offspring, the Mi Hazánk movement (6%). It should be noted, however, that the pollsters have ushered in a new era with the asteroid-like appearance of Péter Magyar on Hungary’s stagnant political horizon.

The ex-Fidesz member businessman and ex-husband of ex-justice minister Judit Varga promised to run in the 9 June elections. Magyar announced his party mid-April, taking over from someone else who had already pre-registered as the nomination period for both the European and local elections had passed. Magyar also announced his list of MEP candidates under a fast-track procedure.

Despite all this last-minute activity, Magyar is polled by the Republikon Institute to have 15% support if he decides to stand in the elections. The latter would undoubtedly have an impact on the chances of radical right parties gaining or losing seats in the European elections.

“Nothing will change anyway”

Nevertheless, Hungarian politics is one of the most charged and radicalised in Europe. The recent demonstrations have only limited links to radical right movements or parties. Rather, they should be seen as a civil society response to the general disillusionment and political fatigue brought on by the feeling that “nothing will change anyway”.

First, there was the wave of protests organised by online influencers this spring. It was attended by large numbers of supporters with no clear party preference who took to the streets of Budapest to protest against the handling of the so-called “paedophile scandal”. The one that led to the resignation of the county’s President Katalin Novák and the aforementioned minister of justice.

The influencers’ protest targeted a single act of the government, which was not inherently radical or far-right, but rather perceived as a political misstep, and aimed to reform the child protection system. Subsequent demonstrations were organised by Péter Magyar. While Magyar comes from the right side of the political spectrum, there are no extreme elements in his program thus far. 


‘Despite being scapegoated by the far-right for numerous problems, civil society remains more popular than the traditional opposition parties’ – Zsolt Nagy, political analyst


Both phenomena aimed to rally the entire society and did not seek to align with any far-right party or ideology. Magyar has yet to present a party or political program but so far, he seems not to be opposing the stance of Fidesz on migration for example. He intentionally uses topics and messaging that seem to unite voters. He does not seem to take onboard progressive policies that could offer real alternatives to the Hungarian governments’ solutions.

Radical messages do not resonate enough

Asked about the role of civil society in countering radical rhetoric and actions in Hungarian politics, Zsolt Nagy, a political analyst at the Brussels-based think tank Democratic Society, told Voxeurop: “Despite being scapegoated by the far-right for numerous problems, civil society remains more popular than the traditional opposition parties. This popularity has enabled them to effectively counter radical narratives and actions over the last decade. 

Cooperation between these actors has been evident, with joint campaigns and support for each other’s initiatives. For example, they organised marches for Roma rights in the early 2010s and protested against a neo-fascist festival in 2023. One particularly effective action was the alternative voting approach during the 2022 referendum. Civil society actors called for a boycott and encouraged voters to abstain from both the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ options in response to a referendum that proposed restrictions on sexual minorities in the name of child protection.”

Another important aspect is their legal activism – Nagy adds that they are concerned about the harm being done to refugees, particularly Muslims seeking to enter the country via the southern border. Organisations such as the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and Migration Aid have filed numerous lawsuits in defence of human rights against neo-fascist groups, radical local governments and even the Hungarian state itself.

In searching for the roots of the hopelessness of Hungarian society in recent years, an interesting finding comes from a joint study by the Hungarian think tank Political Capital and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. The authors argue that the reason why the far-right in Hungary has not been able to further expand its support base among voters is that the boundaries between populist and far-right political messages are becoming increasingly blurred. 

In practice, this means that traditional right-wing parties adopt and legitimise far-right views, thus contributing to the radicalisation of the political mainstream, and that hard-line far-right parties moderate their rhetoric in order to appeal to a broader electorate. In the case of Hungary, the public’s meme-like joke goes something like this: Hungary’s pro-government media and its affiliates sometimes present such a “mixed reality” that it’s hard to distinguish whether it’s the latest joke of the Two-tailed Dog Party or the real political message of the Fidesz masterminds.

Nagy is quick to point out that “Hungarian civil society is generally opposed to radical right-wing ideologies and raises its voice against them whenever possible. These ideologies often target sexual and racial minorities, oppose vaccination and question ties with Western alliances such as the EU or NATO” – messages that do not usually resonate with Hungarian voters.

“Mi Hazánk’s programme embraces these elements, prompting a wide range of civil society members, from human rights advocates to health NGOs, to unite against populist voices. However, their efforts are increasingly challenged by the implementation of radical proposals by the Fidesz-KDNP government,” Nagy explains.

Two-way mainstreaming

More broadly, political scientists warn that the dangers of populism, referred to as “two-way mainstreaming”, suggest that the radicalisation of the political mainstream and the acceptance of far-right elements as mainstream could become more widespread. This could destabilise the political system and increase social divisions, while fuelling mistrust in democratic institutions.

An interesting indicator of social change in Hungary is provided by the Demand for Right-Wing Extremism Index (DEREX), based on the European Social Surveydatabase. And although its database has only been updated until 2017 – an increase in societal demand has played a significant role in the strengthening of institutionalised far-right movements in Hungary over the past fifteen years – the index has been fed with data.

Overall, statistics show that Hungarians lead European nations in prejudice and social chauvinism, and are among the leaders in fear, mistrust and pessimism. The data underline that among young people over the age of 15, there was an extreme increase between 2002 and 2010, and that the country still ranks high among European nations.

György Folk

With the support of the Heinich Böll Stiftung European Union
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