Although my first week (of a study year) in Budapest has been filled with mundane tasks of internet installation, sim cards and university course registration, it was not uneventful.
The city is covered in political posters for the local elections on 12 October. These elections are not without controversy — the date for them was only set in late July, and they follow a change to the electoral law brought about by the ultra-conservative Fidesz majority government to ensure they will win the Budapest elections more easily, an area that is a traditional stronghold of its leftist oppositions.
Under the new election system only parties capable of nominating a candidate for mayor in at least 12 out of the 23 local councils would be allowed to receive “compensation votes”, and smaller parties will get fewer seats. The smaller leftist parties have been forced to form a coalition.
This does not bode well for next year’s national elections; many believe this coalition is forced and untenable. It is also predicted that this clear abuse of the electoral system will give Fidesz a clear majority. Challenges in the Constitutional Court have been frustated by Fidesz-appointed justices who make up the majority of the body.
Meanwhile Jobbik, an explicitly fascist party, and the second strongest party in Hungary (probably as big as all the left parties combined) is growing in popularity. Walking around Budapest it is not unusual to see Jobbik posters, from fly posters to paid billboards in major metro stations.
Among other things Jobbik argue that Jews are a “national security risk” (a few years ago their presidential candidate described Jews as “lice-infested dirty murderers’); they want detention camps for Roma “deviants”, attack pride marches, and have an SS wing — the New Hungarian Guard, who were recently ordered to disband, though it is unclear whether this has happened.
At one busy metro station I saw a man wearing a Jobbik hoody, with no outward reaction of shock or disgust from anyone walking by.
I met up with a friend of a friend, a Jewish Hungarian man Mordecai, now based in London, who grew up in the 7th district of Budapest, traditionally the Jewish quarter but now the centre of edgy tourist nightlife. He took me to a meeting of Hungarian activists, who were setting up a social centre, and offices for leftist groups, in the 8th district (an relatively poor area heavily populated by Roma people, who make up 8-10% of the population and are frequently the targets of horrific abuse). Although parts of the meeting were translated for me, it was interesting to see similarities with London activism: consensus organising hand signals being used, discussions about when a group decision should be taken, or individual decisions made.
On the way home Mordecai bumped into a friend, a famous Hungarian actor, who could no longer find work in any Budapest theatre. The actor had been working on a play at Új Színház (the New Theatre) in 2012, but following the election of Fidesz, the mayor of Budapest sacked the director, and appointed Jobbik supporter György Dörner in his place. Dörner vowed to reverse what he described as “degenerate, sick, liberal hegemony” in Hungary by stopping production of “foreign garbage” to concentrate on Hungarian plays, including those by open anti-Semites and advocates of the Jewish conspiracy theory.
When Dörner was introduced to the company, this actor punched him square in the face, and was subsequently banned from working in any Budapest theatres. This despite the fact that his most recent film, in which he had the main role, was winning international awards.
Although Fidesz’s electoral manipulation keeps Jobbik further away from electoral control, there should be no consolation sought from it. Fidesz and Jobbik prop up each other. When Jobbik occupy Roma villages, intimidating residents, and burning houses to the ground, Fidesz lets it happen; the presence of Jobbik makes Fidesz seem less extreme.
Although Fidesz is the party pushing austerity measures, and Jobbik builds its base by offering nationalist economic alternatives to they are both based on what they describe as “Christian values” — social conservatism, political conservatism, anti-Semitism and anti - Roma racism.
Mordecai tells me that both Fidesz and Jobbik are funded by Putin. Whether this is true or not, it is a persistant rumour in Hungary, shaping how these parties are perceived by many Hungarians. It is clear that there are strong political ties to Russia, with Orbán (Fidesz prime minister) recently claiming that “the wind is blowing from the East”.
Mirroring the Russian annexation of the Crimea, Orbán has been calling for autonomy for “ethnic Hungarians” in southwest Ukraine; many Jobbik members are vocal supporters of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea; Jobbik president Gabor Vona was recently invited to speak at Moscow State University by Kremlin-connected right-wing Russian nationalists, meeting many members of the Duma whilst he was there.