Inside Hungary's anti-Semitic right-wing

BUDAPEST, Hungary — From the looks of its leafy, downtown campus, Budapest's Karoli Gaspar University appears an unlikely venue to hatch a racist, far-right party.

Hungary’s cosmopolitan capital boasts an array of academies like Karoli Gaspar, stocked with international faculties and polyglot student bodies from the globalized, internet-savvy generation that is expected to lead EU-member Hungary deep into the 21st century. This expectation was a certainty until European and national elections over the past year catapulted a neofascist party into Hungary's limelight. Perhaps most stunning about the watershed 2010 vote was that nearly a quarter of all young people (ages 18-29) voted for the far-right party Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary).

In April's nationwide election, Hungary lurched dramatically to the right, with Jobbik capturing 17 percent of the vote. A maverick newcomer to Hungarian politics, the ultranationalist, explicitly anti-Semitic Jobbik traces its beginnings to the history departments of two universities: the privately owned, Calvinist-oriented Karoli Gaspar and the prestigious, state-run Eotvos Lorand, Hungary’s biggest and oldest university. The party came to life there seven years ago as the creation of a cluster of nationally minded Catholic and Protestant history professors and students tasked with bolstering the Fidesz Party’s planks with nationalist historical arguments.

Even though the deepest bastions of Jobbik's support are in Hungary's poor northeastern cities, places suffering from deindustrialization and high unemployment, Jobbik scored surprising well among young people and college students, tapping a deep reservoir of illiberal prejudice. But more than anything — and perhaps a grim bellwether for the region — they say they voted far right out of profound disillusionment with politics-as-usual in Hungary, once the wunderkind of central Europe’s democracies, which joined the European Union in 2004.

I stopped by the Karoli Gaspar to see what Hungary's college kids today are thinking. In the lounge, an innocuous bunch of barely 20-something students were huddled over a cafeteria table piled with books. Four of them voted for Fidesz party, which took office earlier this month. Their reasons for voting Fidesz: the grim economy, government graft and underfunded higher education.

One of the crew, a Budapest native named Nora, said she favors Jobbik: "The Gypsies are a real problem here. They don’t work, don’t vote. Jobbik has a program for this," she said. "The Gypsies won’t get any state support unless they work." She added approvingly that Jobbik backs the death penalty, part of a law-and-order platform that targets Gypsies, or Roma, about 6 percent of the Hungarian population. One of the Fidesz voters at the table, Gabor, said he would consider voting Jobbik in the future, depending on how it matured over the next few years.

The students struck me as anything but fanatic. They were shy, soft-spoken and thoughtful. Their biggest concern, they all said, was getting jobs once they graduated with their new, U.S.-inspired bachelors degrees, a product of EU harmonization policies. Many of their recently graduated peers, they said, hadn't managed to land positions in the crisis-battered economy. Just about everybody these days, they said, has university degrees. It's no longer a ticket to a job.

Andras Biro, a political science lecturer at Corvinus University in Budapest, said he can identify Jobbik loyalists in his classes by their loud red, white and green T-shirts, representing Hungary’s national colors.

"What’s most disturbing," he explained, "is that they are the most intellectual among the student body. They are the ones who can really think and write good papers."

When Biro sits down with these students to talk with them about politics, the same issues inevitably crop up: Hungary’s political elite did nothing over the last 20 years, they tell him. "They say that these leaderships represented the interests of the western Europeans, of the EU, and not Hungarian interests," Biro said. "These kids, they are disillusioned with absolutely everything, including capitalism. That’s why they want radical change, but they're not going to the left."

Unlike old-school rightists, the young leadership of Jobbik has put a modern, high-tech spin on old ideas like a greater Hungary, anti-Semitism and authoritarian politics. Its flashy website is translated into four languages and is aimed at a young, technologically-savvy generation. On the internet, Jobbik talks about the "cowboy capitalism" that has ruined Hungary and the anti-Hungarian policies of the European Union.

"Jobbik is very modern party," said the Budapest-based, English writer Adam LeBor, whose most recent novel, "The Budapest Protocol," deals with the far right in Hungary. "It has a really professional PR strategy and highly sophisticated branding. Yet at the same time it is anti-modernist in that it rejects globalization and internationalism."

The fact that so many educated, young, urban Hungarians cast their votes for the far right was one of the election’s shockers. Yet surveys show that Hungary's student bodies are fertile soil for right-wing ideas. One such study, conducted by the well-known Hungarian sociologist Maria Vasarhelyi, found that history students in particular harbor anti-Semitic and anti-Roma prejudices. Fifteen percent of students take racist positions, while one-third of history majors are anti-Semitic. Thirty-five percent believe that criminality is in Gypsies' blood and 60 percent said that Gypsies themselves are responsible for the prejudice.

According to the university professor and constitutional lawyer Andras Pap, it is these racist and generally xenophobic ideas that the right wing and the far right play upon to win votes.

"The young people, including high school students, here are much more conservative and right wing than older generations. They're open to this kind of rhetoric," Pap said. "What's so very troubling is that there's no consensus here that these kinds of views are extremist, even Holocaust denial. They're seen as acceptable and open to debate. This is the real success of the right as they made it possible in the first place."

Importantly, Jobbik didn’t come to power — nor, most likely, will it ever. (Today it’s the second largest opposition party in the Hungarian parliament.) While Fidesz’s nationally minded populists regularly hurled anti-EU taunts at the ruling socialists when out of office, once victorious they paid homage to Brussels as anticipated, particularly in light of the fact that Hungary will take over the rotating EU Council presidency in 2011. Hungary won’t be exiting the EU anytime soon.

The fact, however, that Jobbik emerged from graduate school think tanks and scored so well with the "Facebook generation" raises profound questions about the foundations of liberal democracy in Hungary. And though Hungary, in the election’s aftermath, stands out at as the region’s black sheep, the context for Hungary’s rightward swerve — and its disenchanted youth — is duplicated in many post-communist countries across the region. These populists of different stripes, some as far right as Jobbik, are forces to be reckoned with on the political landscape.