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Jobbik: Looking East

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In the recent Hungarian elections in early April, the one party that increased its popularity with voters was Jobbik, the radical party that stands to the right of the Fidesz government. It increased its vote count from roughly 16 percent to over 20 percent. Jobbik is now the largest radical right party in Europe in terms of the percentage of appeal within the electorate. Jobbik often votes together with Fidesz on government policies, but not always. It has also garnered considerable negative press coverage in the West where it has been accused of racism and extremism.

During this election cycle, Jobbik toned down its messaging and ran as a more centrist party. "Now, for the first time, Jobbik has made real inroads into the prosperous trans-Danubian regions, when the conventional wisdom held that the party would remain confined to eastern Hungary, the poorest part of the country," writes Jan-Werner Mueller in The Guardian.

Jobbik parliamentary representative Tamas Hegedus believes the party did so well because, more than any of the other parties, it spoke directly with voters and not simply through the media. The electoral war between Fidesz and the main opposition coalition also helped Jobbik's numbers.

Hegedus places himself in the moderate camp of Jobbik. His resume puts him in a good position to be a bridge builder. He is a former member of the liberal party -- the Alliance of Free Democrats -- and he also served in the first Fidesz government in the office of the prime minister. An economist, he has worked in the private sector for the global consulting firm, KPMG. He is a thoughtful, urbane man who doesn't fit the stereotypes of Jobbik as a party of narrow-minded chauvinists.

His thinking on economic issues, not unlike Volen Siderov of Bulgaria's Ataka party, challenges the conventional wisdom of neo-liberalism. "According to the 'shock therapy' ideology, if we went through this process very quickly, there might be a sudden economic drop, but then eventually we would have great long-term development," Hegedus told me in an interview in his office in parliament last May in Budapest. "The first part happened, but the second part didn't. In three years, the GDP dropped 30 percent. The unemployment rate went from 0 to a million people. Inflation went up 30 percent. The country debt constantly increased. And most of the country's national property just disappeared."

The liberalization of the Hungarian economy benefited multinational corporations. But Hungarian companies lost out, with many of them disappearing during the transition years. "Because of the problems with privatization and liberalization, by the end of the 1990s, the number of foreign companies was much higher than of Hungarian companies -- even compared to other countries in the region like the Czech Republic or Croatia," Hegedus points out.

Perhaps his most unconventional views, which are now part of Jobbik's foreign policy, concern Turkey. Hegedus is the chairman of the Hungarian-Turkish Friendship Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. He and Jobbik see Turkey as a great economic and cultural opportunity for Hungary.

"This issue is a breaking point between us and the radical right parties in Western Europe," Hegedus argues. "For example, the Austrian Freedom Party wanted to initiate an EU referendum against the accession of Turkey. If there are one million signatures then it becomes a compulsory referendum for all of Europe. They asked Jobbik to join this, and we refused. For us, these eastern relations are more important than the relations with the European radical right parties."

This opening to the east is not confined to Turkey. "The countries I'm thinking of are China, Russia, and Turkey as well as the Central Asian countries," Hegedus concluded. "Jobbik has been the pioneer of this notion. But not so long ago, the government declared this its own policy too. Obviously we don't want a one-sided dependency on such countries. But there is a one-sided dependency now: 80 percent of our exports and imports are with the Western world, especially the EU countries and the United States. What we would like to have is a more balanced market situation -- a diversification of our export-import market."

We also talked about his Euroskepticism, his views on Roma, and the relationship between Jobbik and the Hungarian Guard.

The Interview

Your political trajectory has taken you from the Free Democrats to Jobbik. Do you feel as if this is an individual trajectory, or has a group of people followed a similar political evolution?

This has been more of an individual case. I was never close to left-wing liberalism. Within the Free Democrats, there was always also a conservative liberal side, which I felt close to at the time. This was the classic English type of conservative liberal. What changed in my thinking was that I felt that national identity was more important here in East-Central Europe. In luckier countries, some things are self-evident, but we have to struggle for them here. I find the organic development based on Burke and de Tocqueville very compelling, but it can only happen in countries where there haven't been big breaks. Here there was a 40-year-old dictatorship that destroyed such an organic development. There was a metaphor we used at the time -- many people know how to make fish soup out of a fish, but how do we make a fish out of fish soup?

You presumably had a choice which political party to choose after the Free Democrats. Why did you choose Jobbik instead of Fidesz or another conservative party?

During the first Orban government from 1998 to 2002, I was working in the Prime Minister's Office, not as a politician but as an expert analyst in economic policy, which made a great impression on me. I still believe that, until 2010, that was the most successful time for Hungarian politics. The whole transition process was unsuccessful. Only during these four years was there movement in the right direction. And we hoped that the country would be steered in the right direction after that. In 2002, both the hope and the process were destroyed. Obviously I had sympathy for Fidesz, but after 2002, their politics in opposition caused me great disappointment. Their opposition politics after 2002 was powerless and without conception.

At the same time I met the newly forming Jobbik's young leaders, and they had great power and creativity, particularly Gabor Vona who at that point was vice president. We became close. From 2002 until 2010, I wasn't participating in party politics, but I was following politics. I also had a personal relationship with Gabor Vona, and he asked me for my personal opinion. At that point, I felt myself halfway between Fidesz and Jobbik, and many of us were in that position. It was the same with voters. In 2010, prior to the elections, 800,000 people were uncertain about whether to choose Fidesz or Jobbik.

If I were a Fidesz member, I'd be in the more nationalist wing of the party. In Jobbik, I'm more in the center. I'm a kind of a bridge person. I have a good dialogue with the government members and the Fidesz party members. Within Jobbik, I push the party toward consolidation and more moderate politics.

What really decided my participation in Jobbik was when Gabor Vona asked me to participate in the parliamentary elections. I thought about it for a month. And then I said yes. He said in his offer that he was counting on my work within the parliamentary fraction of Jobbik. He needed someone to establish the structure of the parliamentary fraction from zero. In the first two years, I did this job as the deputy leader of the Jobbik fraction. In 2010, I was behind Jobbik's election program -- the writing and editing of it. As a professional, this was very interesting and exciting work for me. I was able to use my earlier experiences as a government advisor. Because of this earlier work, I had an overview of the ongoing economic and social processes.

You said that you thought that most of the transition went wrong, but that there was a correction in the first Fidesz government. What do you think went wrong in the transition, and what went right after that? And what is being done today that goes toward correcting the problems from 20 years ago?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.