Hungary held its municipal elections on October 13, 2019. The results surprised the nation, as Fidesz, a party that fed off the myth of invincibility, lost several key areas, most prominently the seat of the mayor of Budapest. Although the opposition and the regnant Fidesz party applied starkly different communication strategies, one topic featured in both campaigns: antisemitism.
The elections were a historic moment for the Hungarian opposition. For the first time since Fidesz gained power in 2010, parties and groups that are averse to the current power-structure formed coalitions in a number of electorates.
The hodge-podge of entities supporting a single opposition candidate locally were very dissimilar and required quite an effort to set aside their grievance for each other.
For instance, the socialists are often hated for being the direct descendants of the communists, Democratic Coalition draws ire, as its leader, Ferenc Gyurcsány, was a highly unpopular Prime Minister (then on a Socialist ticket), and the apathy and scepticism towards Jobbik stemms from the party’s far-right, racist and antisemitic past.
Despite the apparent incompatibility of left-wing, progressive liberal, right wing, and nationalist parties, their desire for a change amalgamated their forces and showed up considerable strength as evidenced by the results. However, they also left themselves open for various vectors of attack.
Fidesz’s campaign communication strategy focused on showing the inaptitude of the opposition candidates, depicting them as blundering clowns – as opposed to the calm and dignified Fidesz politicians, who supposedly act professionally. On a sub-level, left-wing politicians were attacked for their corruption during socialits government.
The pro-government media machine wasn’t loath to point out the antisemitic past of Jobbik quite often. Jobbik moved more and more to the political center over the years, and the most militantly antismetic politicians resigned from the party as a result to form a new group, but some remained.
One such faithful politician is Márton Gyöngyösi, who gained notoriety several years ago, by wanting to make a list of Jews as they might pose a national security threat.
Gergely Karácsony, the oppostion’s candidate for mayor of Budapest, who, in a surprise, won the elections, claimed at a TV show during the campaign that the Jobbik politician’s statement “wasn’t a Nazi thing”. This unfortunate declaration was also picked up and amplified by the Fidesz propaganda, along with sentences from other parties, such as Momentum, that can be interpreted as having antisemitic undertones.
Fidesz has always been very careful to project an image of a party that fights antisemitism, and has a good relationship with Jewish groups – both nationally and internationally, as well as with Israel.
The governing party communicated, mainly internationally, that only they are able to stop the then radical Jobbik, a pledge they uphold. Under Fidesz, the Jewish culture is booming in Hungary, and – as opposed to international trends – the number of antisemitic attrocites has dicreased in the country.
However, Fidesz’s philosemitic image is somewhat injured by the party’s militant anti-Soros campaign. Giant billboards through hungary warned that Hungarian born Jewish-American billionaire, Geroge Soros, is hell-bent on undermining Hungarian culture and interest by forcefully settling in migrants.
The propaganda machine depicted him as an evil, money-grubbing banker who, as part of the EU’s conspiracy, is working against the government. The whole imagery was reminescent of anti-Jewish propaganda pictures from the 1930s, and fidesz suffered accusations of antisemtism.
Despite most people not associating Mr. Soros with Jews, and the government’s otherwise generally friendly disposition towards Jewish culture, the international community, most prominently the EU, often criticizes Prime Minister Orbán for his actions, casting a shadow of antisemitism over the government.
During the municipal election campaign, the opposition pointed out these condemnations from abroad, but focused mainly on the corruption in the governing party. While the anti-Soros campaign may not have been antisemetic per se, it drew from the same fears and conspiracy theories antisemitism does.
It is a form of populism, with not clearly defined borders, however, in effect it seems not to be antisemtic. That is not to say that Fidesz doesn’t have a problem, despite the Jewish renaissance currently undergoing in Hungary.
One politician backed by Fidesz who run and won at the municipal elections was Oszkár Molnár, infamous for his antisemtic utterances in the past. Less subtle is the government’s biased take on history.
Jewish groups have voiced their concerns over the whitewashing of history, from waiving responsibility over the killing of Jews in World War II to the veneration of antisemitic figures as national heroes or the inclusion of figures with debatable reputation in the curruculum for schools, such as authors who are accuced of being antisemites.
Nevertheless, the picture is more nuanced than this, and the position of certain people in history or in literature, should be debated. This, unfortunately, is not happening in Hungary to an adequate enough level.
The truth is, antisemitism wasn’t really an important factor in the elections. Both sides of the political spectrum defended themselves by accusing the other of being antisemitc.
All in all, it was a charade put up mainly for the international community, and to some extent to scare voters into choosing one side over the other.
Politics aside, although antisemitc atrocities in Hungary are decreasing, antisemitism is still very much present in the society. The country has a lot of work to do to be credible in its fight against these hateful sentiments.