The most influential figures in the United Opposition come from two parties that once challenged Hungary’s post-communist, liberal consensus. Now they might defeat illiberalism together.
The liberal equilibrium
After the fall of communism, Hungary embraced liberalism. Large-scale privatisation dominated the programme of post-communist Hungary’s first democratically elected government, led by MDF. In the nineties, the waves of privatisation continued under the coalition of the Socialists and Liberals. A young Viktor Orbán went from liberal to national-liberal in the second half of the decade but he did not shy away from the label nevertheless.
Though it was the socialist-liberal coalition that led Hungary to the EU in 2004 to the jubilation of the whole population, the accession was the triumph of the entirety of the country’s political class. For a significant period, nobody seemed to challenge the dominance of liberalism neither culturally nor economically.
This changed in the second half of the 2000s. As the political class completed its mission to join NATO and the EU and enthusiasm about liberalism and the status quo vaned, two parties rose to challenge the political consensus. One from the left and one from the right.
On the left, the challenge came from a newly formed party, LMP that in its name, set out to prove their thesis that “politics can be different.” LMP was Hungary’s first serious green party. There were efforts to ride the anti-communist, environmentalist protests of the late 1980s in the political sphere, however they failed miserably. The 90s saw the small “Green Party” being taken over by neonazis, discrediting environmentalism for years.
Then came LMP, built on the base of anti-communist environmentalists, left-wing thinkers, anti-globalists, and progressives who became disillusioned with what post-communist Hungarian politics offered. LMP, spearheaded by politicians who have since had distinguished careers, such as András Schiffer, Gergely Karácsony or Benedek Jávor, ended up in Parliament in 2010, gaining more than 7% of the national vote share, a stunning result for a party that at the time was only a little more than a year old. LMP offered something new in that it dared to criticise the mismanaged privatisation and had a more left-wing manifesto than any other party that got to parliament since 1990.
A more electorally successful, and more radical challenge to liberalism came from the right. Jobbik also challenged parts of the economic consensus of the post-communist period, however its critique was more cultural than anything else. Led by charismatic Gábor Vona, Jobbik communicated a heavily anti-EU message while engaging in anti-Roma racism and explicit homophobia. Its alliance with paramilitary organisations and Jobbik’s ideology that some would describe as ethnonationalism often resulted in an intimidating sight.
Some of Jobbik’s ideas were so radical that even fellow European far-right pirates refused to cooperate with them. In the 2009 European parliament elections, Jobbik received 14.77% of the votes, while in 2010 the party was catapulted to the Hungarian Parliament with a 16.67% vote share.
Years in the wilderness
However, it was not them but Fidesz that broke the liberal status quo. Viktor Orbán’s party broke with the liberal hegemony, silently at first, between 2010 and 2014. Then came 2014, when Viktor Orbán announced that he aimed to create an illiberal democracy in Hungary. The liberal consensus was broken, but it had nothing to do with either LMP or Jobbik.
As their main appeal in criticising the liberal status quo evaporated, it is no wonder that the two parties struggled to find their voice in the early and mid-Fidesz years. LMP suffered a seemingly fatal blow when in 2013, a faction including Gergely Karácsony, Benedek Jávor, and Tímea Szabó broke away from the party to form Párbeszéd which advocated the unity of the opposition from the socialists to Jobbik, an idea that seemed unthinkable at the time.
However, Párbeszéd struggled to maintain its opposition to the liberals; their main ally was Együtt, a party that was openly liberal in its economic policy. What was left of LMP did reasonably well in the circumstances, however they also lost their leader András Schiffer.
Fidesz’s illiberal turn threatened Jobbik as well. Slowly but surely, Fidesz implemented some of Jobbik’s policies and started to resemble their rhetoric. As a result, a large section of Jobbik’s radical-minded voters turned towards the governing party. Jobbik-leader Gábor Vona had no other choice but to start the mainstreamification of the party by striking a more moderate tone and expelling some of the radical figures from Jobbik. This, however, was not enough to gain power.
Though aiming to form a government alone, Jobbik, in the end only managed to gain 3 extra seats in the 2018 elections which ended in Vona’s resignation. Such was the potential prestige and hopes surrounding a “new wave” LMP-Jobbik alliance that weeks before the election, the news cycle was dominated by secret negotiations between them and whether they were ready to make a deal in some constituencies. They were not.
The loss of Jobbik’s charismatic leader sent the party into freefall; a group that wished to return to the party’s radical roots, led by László Toroczkai, seceded after the elections and founded Mi Hazánk. In the 2019 European elections, Jobbik only managed to gain one seat, producing the worst EP result in the party’s history. Jobbik seemed to be on the verge of collapse. Meanwhile, LMP also struggled with internal conflicts; the most prominent figures in the 2018 campaign, Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy, were suspended from the party and eventually left to sit as independent MPs.
They also produced the worst result in the party’s history in the 2019 European elections as they did not win a single seat. Párbeszéd, meanwhile, also lost its only sitting MEP, Benedek Jávor after making a bad deal with the socialist party. It seemed like the new-wave opposition parties of the 2000s were going to disappear into history books.
Then something changed. In the spring of 2019, the opposition announced they would be running together in the local elections that autumn. An alliance was formed from the socialists to Jobbik, the very plan Gergely Karácsony and his Párbeszéd comrades advocated when they left LMP. It is no surprise that they were the ones to make the most out of the plan.
Despite polling only at 2-3%, their leader managed to stand as the candidate in the perhaps most important (and most winnable election) in 2019. Gergely Karácsony stood for the mayor of Budapest, while other members stood in prestigious districts as councillors and even mayors.
Jobbik meanwhile managed to bag valuable mayoral candidacies outside Budapest as the only right-wing force in the otherwise left-liberal opposition. The opposition’s plan paid off. For the first time in years, they came out triumphant after winning the Budapest mayoralty, several districts in the capital, as well as a number of countryside cities and towns.
The former LMP man who has been advocating the plan for the past decade has become one of the most powerful politicians in the country, while Jobbik was positioning itself as the natural alternative for the people in the countryside who oppose Fidesz.
The united opposition will use the same receipt in 2022. The six parties will hold primaries later this year both for their prime ministerial candidate as well as for individual candidates in constituencies. Karácsony, who announced his prime ministerial ambitions in May is set to win the primary. The second most popular leader in the polls is Jobbik’s leader Péter Jakab, who managed to wake Jobbik up from its slumber.
The party now appears as the most popular political party in some polls largely thanks to Jakab’s successful media appearances and stirring Jobbik in a new direction: long gone is the far-right worldview or 2018’s moderate conservatism. Jakab’s Jobbik is a more folkish, radical democratic populist group that manages to retain the energy of 2000’s Jobbik without the alienating far-right rhetorics or policies. As crucial as Karácsony is in the opposition’s mission to convince moderates and unite the country, Jobbik and Jakab will have a crucial role to play in selling the alliance’s vision to the people in smaller towns and those let down by the government’s lacklustre economic aid during the Covid-crisis.
Thus despite Fidesz’s narrative that voting for the opposition means voting for the return of post-communist liberalism, the two most crucial and influential figures in the Opposition are from the two liberal-critic parties of the 2000s. It is no surprise then, that the two parties are the ones who seem to be shaping the alliance’s manifesto.
Although the exact content of their programme remains to be decided, its basic foundations laid out last year indicate that the alliance would favour an economic policy significantly to the left of Fidesz; they vary of challenging Orbán in the cultural sphere and are not advocating for gay marriage or the more humane treatment of immigrants but their economic policy is crystal clear. It is a challenge to the last leftover of post-communist, liberal Hungary; Fidesz’ neoliberal economic policies.
Karácsony announced his candidacy by forming a movement called “The 99 Movement”, which already seems to be using the now popular left-wing rhetoric of the 99% vs 1%. Jobbik’s Péter Jakab also regularly stresses the economic inequality in the countryside in his parliamentary speeches. LMP and Jobbik were the first parties to challenge Hungary’s liberal equilibrium. Now, they are the ones who are leading the charge to restore part of its political culture but destroy the last pieces left of its economic legacy. Perhaps it was always meant to be this way.
Environmentalism and interventionist economic policies are more acceptable now than they were in the 2000s and so is Jobbik’s (more mainstream version of) nationalism. These two parties planted the seeds of their success in the 2000s while fighting against the liberal consensus. In 2022, they might beat illiberalism by harvesting them.
By Ábel Bede
Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and has two degrees in History from Durham University. He specialised in Central Europan history and has been contributing to Kafkadesk since 2019. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!