In early January, after Hungary’s conservative government passed a controversial new constitution that opponents say jeopardizes the country’s standing in the European Union, tens of thousands of protesters flocked to the streets to vent their anger. “We’re offering a new kind of resistance,” opposition MP David Dorosz said. The lawmaker, like many in the country, viewed the protests as a watershed moment for a new generation of Hungarians, many of whom had previously been apathetic about politics.
Although Hungarians have a long tradition of resistance (the 1956 uprising that was eventually crushed by Soviet troops, for instance), decades of communist rule left behind a culture of fatalism and a belief there is little the common man can do to influence the ship of state. But this attitude seems to be changing among the young, and the catalyst is Prime Minister Viktor Orban‘s increasingly autocratic government.
After winning a historic mandate in the 2010 elections, Orban and his Fidesz party launched an ambitious program of legislative reform that included a new media act and the revised constitution, which critics say threaten free speech and undermine the independence of the central bank and judiciary. Foreign leaders and rights groups have taken the government to task over the moves. During a visit to Hungary last year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called “for a real commitment to independence of the judiciary, a free press and government transparency.” And growing dissatisfaction among Hungarians finally brought people into the streets. Many of those who gathered in front of Budapest’s opera house on Jan. 2 were progressive-minded young professionals and university students, but analysts say they had an unlikely ally: supporters of the right-wing Jobbik party, an anti-Roma extremist group that has risen to become a political force in Hungary — and has attracted a growing number of young people itself.
In other parts of Europe, the extreme right tends to draw those who are poor, not highly educated and living on the fringes of society. But in Hungary, it appears the opposite may be true. In a recent study conducted by the British think tank Demos and Hungary’s Political Capital Institute, researchers surveyed more than 2,200 “fans” on Jobbik’s Facebook page to get a sense for who is backing the party. Even though users of Facebook tend to be young on the whole, the researchers were still surprised by how many highly educated supporters the party had: 36% were students, 22% had university degrees and 6% had postgraduate or professional degrees. “Jobbik’s Facebook fans are more likely to vote, more active and more likely to protest” than the national average, says Jamie Bartlett, a senior researcher with Demos. “Its supporters are linked to music, clothes, fashion and festivals that are all part of Jobbik’s culture. These links are something we don’t see in other [Western ultra-right] parties.”
The biggest question for the researchers was why such educated and politically aware young people would be drawn to a far-right party that former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany once dismissed as “neo-Nazi” yet still managed to win 17% of the vote in the 2010 elections. One answer may be simple good marketing. According to Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital Institute, Jobbik is doing a better job of appealing to Hungary’s youth through the use of websites like Facebook and iWiW, a Hungarian social-networking service, and by organizing concerts and music festivals. “Right now Jobbik is the only party that speaks the rhetoric of the young,” Kreko says.
Jobbik’s young supporters are also motivated by more than just economics — national identity and a perceived threat to Hungarian culture are also big concerns. One disturbing finding from the Demos–Political Capital Institute study was that 20% of 16- to 20-year-old Jobbik supporters cited anti-Roma sentiments as their reason for being online fans. Eva Farkas, a 26-year-old law student in the eastern city of Miskolc, tells TIME that she supports Jobbik because it is working for “the Hungarian homeland.” “Radical changes are necessary to create this homeland. Real democracy is needed, which is based on the support of decent working people,” she says.
Of course, Jobbik isn’t the only political movement picking up tech-savvy, young supporters these days. The LMP, or Politics Can Be Different, party emerged from obscurity in the past election to become the third largest opposition party in parliament. “Young people are open to us because they’re open to new ways of doing politics,” says Timea Szabo, an LMP member of parliament. And another progressive group called One Million for the Freedom of the Press has attracted 95,000 Facebook members since launching in December 2010. Last October, the group organized the largest anti-Orban rally to date, drawing 70,000 people to the streets on the 55th anniversary of the 1956 revolution, and paying for it by collecting small donations on Facebook. The organizers also distributed “press passes” at the rally, urging people to become citizen journalists and post stories online as a way of standing up for press freedom.
Szabo says she believes Jobbik is a youthful fad — and a passing one. “I’m not too worried it because I trust voters. Jobbik hasn’t been able to achieve anything they have promised … Their anti-E.U. message isn’t working. They are not effective in parliament, and people will see this sooner or later.” However, Jobbik has at least realized there’s a sea change in Hungarian politics at the moment: with so many young people suddenly becoming politically active, the future of the country may belong to the party that’s best able to energize and mobilize them. After years of being an afterthought to Hungarian politicians, the youth — and their votes — suddenly matter.