Behind the Facade: Jobbik’s rebrand is bringing electoral success, but its true nature isn’t hard to track down

Originally Published by Policy Network 30 April 2015. Original linked here.

Earlier this month, a candidate for Hungary’s radical-right party, Jobbik, won a by-election for a vacant parliamentary seat in Tapolca, Hungary. Lajos Rig’s victory is not only a first for a far-right party in Hungary, but, notably, his win is the first time a newer party, not involved in Hungary’s first democratic elections in 1990, has acquired such a mandate. Onlookers now question whether Jobbik has truly shed its extremist past or simply taken on a new guise.

Jobbik’s appeal seems to be on the rise. Recent Ipsos polls show support for it at 17-18 per cent, inching ever-closer to the governing Fidesz party on 21 per cent. Trying to shed its image as an extreme right or neo-Nazi party, Jobbik has recently labelled itself as “a principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party”.

Jobbik’s leader, Gábor Vona, claims that the appeal of his party rests on the fact that while the larger traditional parties, such as Fidesz and the centre-left Socialists (MSZP), continue to tackle problems from the previous century, Jobbik addresses 21st century issues in Hungary. On the Jobbik website, he wrote: “The Hungarian political arena will increasingly feature this fault line, while the political categories of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as ‘right and left, conservative, liberal and socialist’ will become emptier and emptier.” Jobbik has also said it would abandon its far-right origins and keep the country within the EU.

Jobbik’s aim is to move away from its previous branding as a self-declared ‘radical- right’ party, and create a new dynamic within the Hungarian political spectrum. It has been openly working to soften its image since 2013, continuing a more populist approach while trying to seem less aggressive and toning down its anti-EU, anti-Roma and anti-western associations. Campaign ads in the past few years have changed drastically (one showed its leader holding a kitten), while Jobbik events feature new pastel colour schemes, and campaign posters depict smiling youthful candidates.

Jobbik is not the first far-right party to successfully rebrand itself, hiding its more aggressive, nationalist or intolerant views beneath new rhetoric and a softer image. The National Front in France has led this trend, finding new support among mainstream voters that are disillusioned with traditional politics and ready for new approaches that appear to support the ‘citizen’ rather than the ‘rich elite’. In other words, populism.

Jobbik is not only trying to cater to the disillusioned in Hungary, of which there are many, it has also continued to grow its strong support base and network among younger voters. The party uses activist and grassroots approaches to its campaigning, as well as social media platforms and street mobilisation to appeal to the young. Its openly anti-elite platform and anti-corruption rhetoric also resonates increasingly with a younger generation which has grown up with the continued mudslinging between Fidesz and the MSZP, accusations of corruption and financial scandals. Newer parties like Jobbik offer the illusion of a clean break.

But, despite the attempts to rebrand, some of the most worrying aspects of Jobbik remain just a click away. As the Budapest Business Journal pointed out, even within Jobbik’s English webpage, anti-Semitic, anti-western and Zionist conspiracy theories are apparent, with the party openly stating: “We will stop hushing up such taboo issues in foreign policy [such] as the imperial practices of the European Union, the unjust wars waged by the United States, as well as the Zionist Israel’s efforts to dominate Hungary and the world.” In relation to Jobbik’s anti-western agenda, the party also supports closer ties with Russia, something which Fidesz has initiated, causing continued tension within the EU.

Jobbik also maintains strong ties with the various offshoots of the Hungarian Guard, a vigilante paramilitary group that was declared illegal in 2009 on the basis of its racist, violent and aggressive nature. The Hungarian Guard units (now mobilising under a variety of local pseudonyms) continue to act as non-governmental patrol groups in rural villages to protect the communities against cigánybűnözés or ‘gypsy crime’.

Will Jobbik be the main opposition party in the next elections? The answer remains unclear. The parliamentary elections are still three years away. Historically radical parties have tended to poll better during government’s mid terms, with voters feeling more comfortable indicating an extremist protest vote. But judging by the state of the liberal and leftwing parties in Hungary there remain few strong or credible opposition options. After a myriad of party splintering, new parties forming and the return of old political faces between 2010 and 2014, liberal-left voters remain uncertain and unconvinced about what is on offer. With Fidesz support also waning, Jobbik appears to be gaining from a weakening of the traditional parties.

The future success of Jobbik will rely not only on the sustainability of its rebranding but also whether the opposition parties manage to do a little rebranding of their own.

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