Interview with Péter Jakab, president of Jobbik, the Hungarian populist movement, formerly radical nationalist: “We will only be able to bring down this regime with the help of the other parties”.
At the beginning of June, Ferenc Almássy and Nicolas de Lamberterie met the Jobbik Party president at the Hungarian Parliement in Budapest for the purposes of discussing their book about the latter’s party and its remarkable evolution over the last few years. Starting out as a radical right-wing nationalist movement to being in coalition with left-wing progressive parties with the aim of bringing down Viktor Orbán, the Jobbik Party has certainly been through some swift changes which seem, on the face of it, difficult to understand. Péter Jakab, who is quite the colourful and controversial figure best known for his blunt style of communication, both inside and outside of the Hungarian Parliament, now shares with Visegrád Post certain explanations on the evolution of the party he has led since January and discusses the recent departures of a number of the party’s Old Guard. More significantly, he also shares his strategy for toppling Orbán, which has become the ex-far-right party’s number one objective.
Ferenc Almássy: Mister Jakab, thank you for accepting this interview. Can you briefly tell us a bit about yourself? When did you start in politics?
Péter Jakab: I was born in an ordinary family in Miskolc in 1980 and, later on, I became a teacher there. There were few opportunities for work at that time and so I ended up in a school where nearly all the students there were gypsies living in very difficult conditions. Those students came principally from the surrounding villages. This was back in 2008 and it was whilst I was at that school that I decided to take a more active part in public life, having realised that I had been a witness to a reality of Hungarian society and that I didn’t wish my children to live through it. My experience with the gypsies’ plight and the impacts on the majority of Hungarian society naturally led me to join the party that was most outspoken on the subject. That was party was the Jobbik Party.
Ferenc Almássy: By subject, you mean the delinquency of the gypsy community, the so called “gypsy crime”?
Péter Jakab: That was how the press presented things at the time. For me, it was not a problem of delinquency which was the issue but rather a problem of cohabitation between Hungarians and gypsies and this question needs to be addressed one way or another.
Ferenc Almássy: The issue of the delinquency of the gypsy community, the “gypsy crime”, is once more in the press at the moment, following the tragic incident that took place in Deák Square recently. Mr. Toroczkai and his Mi Hazánk Party (editor’s note: right-wing nationalists and a breakaway group of Jobbik) were part of the demonstration that took place in memory of the two Hungarians killed by gypsies. You have said that the gypsy question, or rather the question about cohabitation between Hungarians and gypsies, was your main motivation to get into politics. Putting aside the criminality aspect, how do you see the problem of cohabitation between Hungarians and gypsies?
Péter Jakab: That question has remained unanswered due to a lack of political will. The gypsy community is not really the issue anymore. Today, there is a completely ravaged class of people that live in misery, having found themselves forced out to the outskirts of communities at a time where they are becoming peripheral economic stakeholders. Elections then become easy to rig because, in exchange of enough money to buy a few packets of dehydrated pasta, these people will go and put the appropriate mark on a ballot paper. If we take a look at the results of the municipal elections, we see entire towns impacted by such methods. The solution therefore needs to come from the politicians and they need to see to it that these people get access to some sort of aid. This doesn’t have to be in the form of financial aid but rather by passing appropriate legislation, giving access to education and work opportunities. Without these things, people will continue to struggle and offer their vote in exchange of a bowl of lentils.
As a teacher, I was not confronted by gypsy delinquency but by very difficult socialisation problems. You had certain 18-year olds who worked as loan sharks, who hardly knew how to read and write, earning a much better living than me. How many times did they tell me: “Sir, you are an idiot. You studied for 5 years to earn in a month what we, who have never studied anything and can barely read and write, earn in a day.” I saw this reality and having experienced it, I wanted to seek out those that, at the very least, were not going to push this problem under the carpet. In 2010, I joined the Jobbik Party and, that same year, was third on the party’s municipal list and only just got elected city councillor. I was then fired from my school.
Ferenc Almássy: For being a member of Jobbik?
Péter Jakab: For being a member of Jobbik, yes. I then became lead of the Jobbik group at the city council and, in 2014, I was number one on the party’s municipal list. I finished up in third place. From 2016, I became the party’s spokesperson.
Ferenc Almássy: At that time Jobbik had already started its transition into a populist party (editor’s note: the so called “néppártosodás”, literally transition into a people’s party). What are your thoughts on this process? Did you have a role in this metamorphosis?
Péter Jakab: I have always considered myself as a people’s politician. Considerations about what is right-wing, left-wing, Hungarian or gypsy have never interested me unlike the problems that need to be resolved. From this point of view, the transition of the Jobbik Party into a people’s party didn’t concerned me, on the contrary, since I always stuck to this line. Of course, within the internal workings of the party, this did have an impact. We were heading down some dead-end avenues, with certain people saying that we should define ourselves as a party of the radical right and that we shouldn’t like anyone else but ourselves. These people certainly don’t want what is best for this country. It seems that we always define who we are in opposition to others. Gábor Vona (editor’s note: leader of the Jobbik Party from 2006 to 2018), when he made public his intent to transform the movement into a populist party, specifically said that we needed to get out of our entrenched positions and start building bridges with others. For my part, this was a positive change that I wholeheartedly believed in.
Nicolas de Lamberterie: So you were not one of the people pushing for this change?
Péter Jakab: I am a man of the people but also a radical. Not in terms of extremism but in terms of shedding light on problems. I like to call a spade a spade, including within parliament.
Nicolas de Lamberterie: Were you part of the instigators of this change to a populist party? Did you have any influence in this process?
Péter Jakab: It is Gábor Vona that decided this change and I just followed it for it suited me. I felt that I was in phase with what was happening within the party.
Nicolas de Lamberterie: The migrant crisis completely changed the Hungarian political landscape. Back at the start of 2015, the Fidesz Party was quite low in polls whilst the Jobbik Party was reaching a landmark peak with almost 30% of voting intentions. There had been the internet tax, the Simicska scandal and then the migrant crisis. Fidesz managed to exploit the latter, changing its communication and therefore getting a much needed second breath. From that point onwards, it appears that Jobbik’s change started to accelerate. In 2016, you became the party’s spokesperson. Looking back, how do you judge this period?
Péter Jakab: We decided to go for the centre whether it be in our communication or party culture whilst Fidesz went for the extremes.
Ferenc Almássy: Some might disagree and say that it was purely a tactical decision, governed by pragmatic electoral opportunism, for it was difficult for you to exist playing the anti-immigration card whilst Fidesz, who were in power, had all the necessary tools at hand to exploit this situation and get something out of the crisis.
Péter Jakab: That’s true yet we didn’t have any other choice…We had to be able to represent all Hungarians for that is the right thing to do. I have always been a supporter of the notion that politics isn’t all about tactical calculations but also about what is right and what is wrong. Not that long ago, the Jobbik parliamentary group made a mistake and voted wrongly regarding the legislation that enabled internal surveillance. We could, like politicians do, have said something like “we’ll tell you why we aren’t wrong and why it is a good thing” but I said that it was better to recognise our mistake. So, in heading for the centre ground, Jobbik is heading in the right direction even if, from a purely electoral point of view, it will not be profitable for us. We could have made more sensational announcements to rival those of Fidesz, which might have had an impact in the 2018 elections but we wanted to address all Hungarians. Our change into a populist party was necessary and a herald of cooperation between opposition factions at the local elections of October 2019.
Ferenc Almássy: Those local elections were indeed a turning point in Jobbik’s history. For a certain time, the party took centre stage and was going up in the polls with the slogan: “Neither Fidesz, nor the left”. There then was a transition period that led to the change into a populist party and seeking the centre ground. But how were you able to then cross the Rubicon, so to speak, and start cooperating with the political left-wing and the progressive liberals?
Péter Jakab: That’s because of Orbán’s regime. His actions are so intolerable that we are forced to…
Ferenc Almássy: I’m sorry, let me rephrase that. What was the thing that Fidesz did that pushed you to decide that you were now ready to cooperate with Ferenc Gyurcsány (editor’s note: the ex-liberal prime minister between 2004 and 2009 and current chairman of DK, an opposition party and long-time scourge of Jobbik)?
Péter Jakab: Not with Gyurcsány but with all Hungarians. That was the process with a democratic system…
Ferenc Almássy: There must have been a tipping point…
Péter Jakab: Yes, in 2018, when it became evident that we couldn’t do it on our own. We will not be able to stop this regime if we are not capable of cooperating with others. The 2018 elections were our wake-up call to democracy and to sit down with others, even if our views differ dramatically, and seek out common ground where we can collaborate together. The voters expected us to do this in 2018 but we were not yet ready to undertake such a thing then. I’ll say it once more: We made a mistake and we acknowledge that it was a mistake. Consequently, we have changed and it is with this change that we were about to see that 4 million Hungarians had a mayor in the opposition in October 2019.
Nicolas de Lamberterie: But for your point of view, how is the Orbán system undemocratic?
Péter Jakab: It’s a hybrid regime. There are elections but the democratic institutions are not working. We can already question whether the elections are clean or not for how do these people get access to correct information? There are pro-government media outlets that would be incapable of surviving in a free market if it were not for the government supporting them indirectly. And then there are the opposition media outlets, who could survive in a free market if only people had the money to use them. Since the people can’t afford them, and since the government doesn’t support them, they will end up going under. Those people living outside the cities, of which many don’t have internet access, are making decisions based on incorrect information. I could also mention the state of the justice system, of the corruption that would need to be weeded out, if only the office of general prosecutor wasn’t in the hands of people loyal to Fidesz. There is no separation of powers. Fidesz controls both the legislative and executive branches of government and we are at a point where the executive can even by-pass parliament. That is exactly what the legislation regarding emergency powers (editor’s note: abolished on 17 June 2020) was all about. The media are controlled by them as are the courts. This is what we are up against.
Nicolas de Lamberterie: Another important question concerns your geopolitical change. The Jobbik Party was a trailblazer with regards to opening up to the East, which Fidesz has since taken up much like other Jobbik policies. Márton Gyöngyösi, Fidesz’s shadow leader and EU MEP, was in Donetsk as an observer during their elections in 2014. Before becoming Jobbik chairman, you commented that because of Viktor Orbán’s opening to the East, Hungary could become a Russian colony in 15 years. How can you explain this switch in position?
Péter Jakab: We saw the opening up to the East as a way to establish economic partnerships…The government, however, believes it is not economic partnerships that are needed but wants to use Putin-style political methods to stay in power and, in exchange, grants certain economic advantages. For example, Viktor Orbán has built a media empire and we see that the Paks-2 nuclear-power station extension is being built by the Russians, or the Putin Bank will be operating in Hungary in the way of a state within the state. In Egypt, Eximbank is going to give credit to the Russians to build waggons instead of Ganz, an Hungarian company. So we can see with dismay that the government is offering all sorts of advantages to Russian businesses, even if it is to the determent of Hungarian ones. Let’s take another example, the train line between Budapest and Belgrade. How is it financed? With Chinese money. Then, of course, there is the presence of Lőrinc Mészáros (editor’s note: oligarch described by the opposition as the Prime Minister’s straw-man to better control the economy and investments into the country). We need economic partners but what we don’t need is to be economically dominated or take up other political models. We believe that Viktor Orbán has changed our opening up to the East into a submission to the East whilst abruptly closing doors in the West…
If the European Union got its act together, then he would no longer be welcomed there. But we see that he is still tolerated by those folks because he supplies their countries with cheap Hungarian labour. When you hear that the German Chancellor congratulating Viktor Orbán…
Ferenc Almássy: We are speaking about billions of Euros invested in Hungary. There German automobile industry would no longer function should cooperation with Hungary suddenly stop. It would notably be a heavy blow for Bavaria. They are dependent on each other.
Péter Jakab: In the Western World too, economics are considered more important than the commitment and confidence in democracy. They have no real interest in democracy and as long as Viktor Orbán protects their economic interests, and he does by offering tax rebates or financial packages to multinational corporations, they will tolerate what is happening in Hungary.
Ferenc Almássy: Aren’t all these things part and parcel of international politics?
Péter Jakab: Sure but is it not then hypocritical to have things like the Sargentini Report, which says that it’s no good to do such things, that you get your hands slapped and then nothing happens because money ultimately talks.
Nicolas de Lamberterie: Can we agree to say that up to this point, the process of changing to a populist party has now been completed?
Péter Jakab: Absolutely, we can say that the change has been achieved.
Nicolas de Lamberterie: So, if you say that they were all willing participants to this change, how do you explain the exodus of members and officials from the Jobbik Party? Why leave a party that they actively sought to change now that it has happened?
Péter Jakab: It is not a question of disagreements regarding ideology but rather a question of methodology. I demand a high level of performance from our politicians. I expect them to be disciplined, that they tow the party line and that they work hard. Some are not used to that or don’t want to tow the party line and thus, seek out other political parties or become independents. But again, it is not a disagreement in terms of ideology even though they like to say on social media that Péter Jakab does not wish to discuss national identity questions in order to attract left-wing voters. It would almost look like something that Fidesz propagandists would have thought up because it’s just wrong…For me, someone can’t be a patriot just because he waves a flag but rather it is because he considers himself to be part of a nation of where the government seeks to exclude some of its citizens.
Ferenc Almássy: And now? What is your strategy for 2022 and the legislative elections?
Péter Jakab: Our goal is to change the government and proclaim a new vision for the future of the country. Our mission has two objectives: firstly, we have to get our position accepted across the opposition parties that in each constituency, there is a single opposition candidate facing Fidesz. If we can get that proposition accepted, then the elections will benefit the whole country with a change of government.
Nicolas de Lamberterie: So Gábor Vona’s proposition of having two electoral lists is a non-starter?
Péter Jakab: No it isn’t. I actually think that it is the best proposition. The matter is still open and we need to discuss the best way forward to get anti-governmental voters to vote for us and change the government. In this way, Jobbik voters and left-wing voters will have someone to vote for and we can also hope to convince disappointed Fidesz voters to vote for us. We have to make this work and I believe that the opposition is wise enough to come to an agreement, in much the same way that we managed to find an agreement for the local elections. Secondly, we need to decide what are the national and professional necessities needed to rebuild the country. It is not enough just to change government, but you also have to build something better than what has been done for the last ten years.
Ferenc Almássy: Let’s imagine that Fidesz are a minority in parliament in 2022 and that the anti-Orbán coalition, including Jobbik, have a majority. How would you form a government? How would you be able to cooperate with Mr. Gyurcsány and all the other parties? How would you guarantee that Jobbik aren’t left out of a coalition government?
Péter Jakab: If a well-supported Jobbik is left out of a government, then the government will fall. A well-supported Jobbik is the guarantee that a government may function in a respectable and operational manner. It is our duty to bring those that choose such a dishonest path to see reason.
Ferenc Almássy: Even by cooperating with the new opposition, which then would be the Fidesz?
Péter Jakab: We wish to work with Hungarians, with honest and respectable people. As for the rest, I have little interest if those people are from Fidesz or not as long as they are honest. I do concede that it will be quite difficult to find them, yet we would seek them out.