Season of Hate

European Union elections in Hungary have nothing to do about Europe

As the date for European parliamentary elections rapidly approach in Hungary, it’s already quite clear that the campaign this year, much like that of four years ago, has little or nothing to do with Europe. Instead, this year’s EU election, which is slated for June 7th, is merely an extension of domestic politics. Hence, the importance of the vote is not that it will determine how Hungary will represent itself in Brussels, but that it will be a barometer of sorts for upcoming national elections less than a year from now.

It goes without saying that a year is a long time in terms of politics and that a lot can happen between then and now. Still, if present trends are indicative of future public sentiment then the ruling Socialist party has plenty to worry about. Recently the governing party suffered a major defeat at municipal elections in the southern city of Pecs, losing by a margin of 2 to 1. The significance of this defeat is manifold. As the European city of culture of 2010, Pecs is supposed to be a showcase for the rest of Europe. Instead, the city seems to highlight corruption and disorganization. Also, if Katalin Szili, the current speaker of the national assembly and the most popular member of the Socialist party, running in a city that has traditional been a staunch supporter of the left, was convincingly routed by the right-wing Young Democrats (FIDESZ), then the government indeed has something to worry about. This massive defeat indubitably left the government reeling and licking its wounds.

Enough! Vote! New Direction. Campaign billboard of the right-wing FIDESZ. Not only does this campaign billboard lack substance, it also carries with it a dual meaning. On the one hand it alludes to the present Hungarian government and calls for change. On the other, it appeals to Hungary's growing number of euro-skeptics.

The importance of the municipal election in Pecs is not only in the result but the way in which it was conducted. No matter which type of election you look at in Hungary, whether it is municipal, national, or intra-national, election campaigns seem to be getting nastier as time goes on. Indeed, one can categorize the way in which elections are now contested in Hungary as ones full of hate. The municipal election in Pecs was a case in point: towards the end of the campaign the slander and irregularities from both sides were such that one could be mistaken for being in a Third World country where elections are often determined by which side is able to bully the other side into submission.

Sadly, this year’s EU elections seem to be more of the same. From the outset it became clear that the campaign would be dominated by an atmosphere of hate and frustration. Meanwhile, issues on a European level that Hungary must face rarely get mentioned – if at all.

A classic black/white, evil/good campaign image of the ruling Socialist Party. The left-side image simply states "I am not voting for the right-wing" while the right-side image states "I am voting for the left-wing".

Perhaps the most disturbing of all the different campaigns this year is the one being run by the so-called “liberals” in Hungary. Known as the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), fear and intimidation has been the focus of their campaign to the extent that they offer voters a simple choice: either them or a bunch of neo-fascists, skinheads, and hooded anarchists. This message was visually reinforced and ultimately got the SZDSZ into trouble when it became known that the image of a skinhead used on a number of billboards and posters was that of Tito Ortiz, a Mexican-American UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) world champion. Much to his shock and surprise, Ortiz was not aware that he was a racist Hungarian skinhead. This wasn’t the first time that the SZDSZ had contravened copyright laws and used people or symbols without permission. A few years ago during another political campaign the party unashamedly used the Red Cross symbol on their posters and billboards.

It goes without saying that as soon as it became known that Ortiz was featured as a Hungarian skinhead the SZDSZ removed all such campaign media. Even so, their new campaign strategy still focuses on the theme of fear and intimidation. This theme is also in line with the campaign of the ruling Socialists which is even more simplistic. Their appeal to voters is don’t vote for the right because they are in league with extremists.

Campaign poster of the Free Democrats featuring Tito Ortiz, a Mexican-American UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) world champion, as a Hungarian skinhead (these and other such posters and billboards have since been removed). The caption reads "Who decides about the law?" and "Who will be the third power? Although the SZDSZ regards itself as the "third power", it's numbers belies the fact.

For their part, the right-wing has been focusing its campaign on removing the present government from power. As with the left, there is little in terms of substance or EU issues. Indeed, most on the right have become wary of the EU with some even taking a hostile stance toward Brussels. Many feel that the present financial crisis has been made worse by the EU which has treated Hungary and other Central and Eastern European countries as nothing more than colonies: on the one hand, the region provides the raw material and labour required by western Europe to keep their economies afloat and, on the other, the region is a vast market to which goods (many of which are low quality or old) can be easily dumped.

Unlike the left, however, the political right in Hungary is much more fragmented and hostile to one another. In fact, most right-wing parties in Hungary spend their time and energy against those on the same side of the political spectrum as opposed to those on the other side of the ideological divide. This is especially true of the radical parties, which view one another with contempt and suspicion. Thus, although the Hungarian Truth and Life Party (MIEP) run by the writer Istvan Csurka and the Jobbik Party headed by the lawyer Krisztina Morvai share the same political space both vehemently hate one another with each accusing the other of being an agent of the Jewish-Bolshevik-left.

Ironically, the same also holds true for quasi-paramilitary organisations in Hungary, such as the Hungarian Guard. The original Hungarian Guard, which was formed at the end of August in 2007, split a year later because the then leader, Istvan Dozsa, felt that the organisation was moving away from its original purpose and was becoming nothing more than a puppet organisation of the Jobbik Party. Without a doubt this split came at the same time when Morvai became head of the Jobbik. While members of the “alternative” Hungarian Guard regard Morvai as a Jewish implant, the Jobbik point to the fact that Dozsa’s father was a member of the communist worker’s militia. As far as the Jobbik is concerned, Dozsa is an agent-provocateur working for the left with the intended aim to discredit the right, as exemplified by his group’s recent anti-Semitic and anti-Holocaust statements.

An anonymous billboard calling for new elections immediately. This picture was taken shorlty after Gordon Bajnai replaced Ferenc Gyurcsany as the head of the government.

Whether the Hungarian left is somehow involved in fragmenting the Hungarian right as some claim is a moot point for many. Most people are simply concerned about the immediate future. Thus, economics has more of an influence on them rather than politics. This is because the financial crisis has hit Hungarians especially hard; according to some estimates, up to 10-15% of the population are at risk of losing their homes because of bad debts.

As a result of this, it appears that the campaign strategy of the left is falling on deaf ears. According to recent polls, a mere one in ten is concerned about the extreme right, with an equal number even prepared to vote for the Hungarian Guard if it were a political party. On the other hand, over half are worried about their financial security. Sensing this, the main opposition party, the FIDESZ, has decided to tap into this resentment and have subsequently adopted a more populist stance.

Given all this, it should come as no surprise, that the EU election campaign in Hungary has been dominated by domestic issues. Although the main political parties are mostly to blame for this, part of the problem also has to do with the EU itself. European institutions are still considered remote by a vast majority of people, and in times of crisis most are naturally more concerned about the immediate environment that surrounds them. Not only this, but as many migrant workers who went west in search of better living conditions return home because there is little or no work in other parts of Europe, the so-called “European Dream” has turned out to be nothing more than a sham to many.

In addition to this, the EU election process in and of itself renders EU politics as distant and inaccessible. There is no chance for grassroots democratic change as the entire process is rigged in favour of incumbent political forces since only established parties can participate in the election. Furthermore, there is no sense of accountability since there isn’t a direct link between EU politicians and voters. In other words, the notion of a European constituent doesn’t even exist.

This is why the EU can never be like the US on a political level. In the case of the latter, it not only has to do with the process of electing a member of congress; it also has to do with a unique socio-political culture. In the US the idea of “writing to your congressperson” is not unusual. In Europe, this is an alien concept since a European citizen doesn’t even know who their European parliamentary representative is.

Along these lines, it’s hard to see how EU elections can be about anything except domestic issues, peppered with a few references to Europe or the EU here and there. Moreover, as election campaigns in Hungary increasingly become contests of hate, this poisoned political atmosphere has gradually had an affect on civic discourse relating to Europe and the EU. As a result, Brussels is seen by many as one of the primary causes for the dire situation they currently find themselves in. For them, the notion of a united Europe is further away now than ever before. (John Horvath)