The man behind Jobbik’s rise

Forrás: Direkt36 - Németh Gyula

In 2009, a man in his early thirties, then working for a Hungarian IT company as a financial analyst, sent an e-mail to an address listed on the website of Jobbik. This was just after he had read an interview with Gábor Vona, chairman of the Hungarian radical right party. He found Jobbik’s outspoken style appealing so he decided to offer his help to the party. In the e-mail he explained how Jobbik could take advantage of his work experiences.

Six years later he was sitting in the same car with Gábor Vona while heading to a business conference. They have become close friends in the meantime and Vona often seeks his advice on various issues.

He has become one of the most influential people around Jobbik, though even some of the most experienced political observers do not know his name. He is called Richárd Forrai and even though he is not a member of Jobbik, he played a significant role in developing the party from a ‘do-it-yourself’ radical movement to a professional political organization, now ranking second in the polls. As a close confidant of Vona, he is in charge of coordinating municipalities headed by Jobbik, of improving business ties, and of strengthening Jobbik-leaning media.

Forrai’s broad responsibility is coupled with financial leverage. His companies have been awarded contracts worth of more than a million euros from Jobbik and its party foundation since 2010. Direkt36 has conducted more than twenty interviews and reviewed various documents in order to explore Forrai’s role, which provides a rare insight into behind-the-scenes operations of this enigmatic party.

The story told in 60 seconds:

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Becoming a friend of Vona

Although it took several weeks for Jobbik to answer Forrai’s email, eventually he got a positive response and in 2009 became a member of the economic policy working group.

After the European Parliamentary elections in 2009, which brought a political breakthrough for Jobbik with receiving 15 percent of the votes, the economic policy working group was considered the party’s think tank. The group was composed of around 10-15 members at the time including current vice-presidents János Volner and Dániel Z. Kárpát. The working group was responsible for devising the manifesto for the 2010 parliamentary elections, for strengthening the structure of the party, and for improving its business ties.

“We were glad to have Forrai as there were far too many nationalists and anti-capitalists working on economic policies, and hardly anyone with a business-friendly attitude from the private sector,” said one influential member of the group.

The now-37-year-old Forrai has indeed arrived from the private sector, but he didn’t leave behind an outstanding career. After graduating in finance from the College for Modern Business Studies, he spent nine years working at the Hungary-based multinational IT company, Synergon, rising to a mid-level position as a financial manager.

Fotó: Bielik István

Richárd Forrai – Photo: István Bielik

Forrai differed from the majority of the Jobbik members not only in his business-friendly attitude. “His political views were in contrast with a typical Jobbik supporter, he was rather liberal and apolitical. By the look of him he was a kind of cool, trendy guy. You would rather think of him as a businessman, not a politician. Everything related to the national radical subculture is out of his character, we laughed at these radicals already in 2010”, said a former politician of Jobbik.

Worked first, spoke next

At the beginning, Forrai’s main task was to support Jobbik giving advices on economic policy. He prepared economic analyses for the ideas in the party manifesto. He collected and structured data, and worked on underpinning political ideas with economic indicators. Forrai researched various economic issues such as the pension system, monetary policy, and foreign currency lending. Then he presented his findings to other members of the working group, and they decided how to present these to Jobbik leadership.

“His work was extremely useful; we could build on his analyses. He branded himself effectively during that time as he was among those few at Jobbik who worked first, spoke next,” said Zsolt Szabó who was the member of the working group. “The particular quality and quantity of his work made Forrai indispensable to the party,” added Szabó.

After the 2010 parliamentary elections Tamás Hegedűs, member of the economy policy working group and the deputy leader of Jobbik’s newly formed parliamentary group, introduced Forrai to Vona. Hegedűs was in charge of establishing the structure of the parliamentary group, and as a former advisor at KPMG he aimed to divide the party advisors into juniors and seniors. Forrai became a senior advisor, holding the official title of being the secretary of the parliamentary group. As it was a full-time position, he left his job at Synergon.

Based on the original concept, Forrai’s task was to coordinate the advisors behind Jobbik’s parliamentary group. Forrai was responsible for supporting the deputies by providing them with analyses, and supervising and coordinating this parliamentary research, and selecting suitable experts.

This was not an easy task: funded as a grassroots movement and being a new parliamentary party, Jobbik had not had a credible team of experts. The whole organization was very poorly developed, the allocation of tasks in the parliamentary group was often decided on an ad-hoc basis, sometimes during random chats in the corridor of the Parliament.

According to Forrai, Jobbik then looked like a start-up. “At a newly established company everybody does everything. Everybody makes coffee, picks up the phone, holds external meetings, or acts as a receptionist. Our parliamentary group was such kind of a new organization, we had to develop it,” said Forrai to Direkt36.

At this evolving organization, Forrai was the all-round fixer due to the limited number of affiliated experts. According to an influential member of Jobbik, even today, there are only 8-10 people who had had a serious career in the private sector before joining the team of Jobbik. According to this source, Forrai is one of them, thanks to his 9-year-long experience in the private sector. What also made him unique was that almost all the other influential people around Jobbik became MPs, which meant that barely anyone stayed behind to do the important but low-profile background work.

According to anonymous sources, Forrai was elected to coordinate this work simply because he was the brightest among those Jobbik members and associates who did not become MPs. Forrai, as he explicitly stated various times, did not wish to become an MP because he preferred to stay in the background.

“We reviewed everything including budget issues in Zugló [14th district in Budapest], parliamentary amendments of the state budget, and property sales in the 6th district [of Budapest]. When a warning came out of the blue, for example local Jobbik organizations and councillors showed us documents implying corruption, we went there and reviewed them,” Forrai told about this background work. Forrai regularly visited various towns in Hungary in order to provide assistance to local Jobbik organizations. “Our professional network aimed to support local councillors was not strong enough then,” stated Gábor Szabó, director of Jobbik.

“They traded information in both ways”

According to a previous member of the party’s local organization in Debrecen, the second most populous Hungarian city, Forrai used to visit them every other month accompanied by his friend and driver, József Király, known simply as Giraffe, one of Vona’s bodyguards. “They traded information in both ways. If a topic related to the city popped up at the parliament, we always consulted with Forrai. He also helped us with local investigations. He was pretty smart in researching in company registers, we scrutinized together many local firms,” stated the source from Debrecen.

András Filó, former local councillor of Jobbik at Szentendre municipality, had a less fruitful interaction with Forrai. After submitting an interpellation to the mayor of Szentendre in 2012 due to the allegedly inadequate reconstruction of the main square, Forrai initiated a personal meeting with Filó. “He said that he is a senior advisor to Gábor Vona, and wants to meet me as he got to know about my interpellation. He wanted me to withdraw it, saying otherwise consequences will follow. I refused to comply with his request. Next day, Vona initiated to recall me from my elected position and I was fired from heading the local Jobbik organization,” explained Filó, who remained a councillor despite Jobbik’s request. However, he could not clarify why Forrai wanted him to withdraw his interpellation. According to Forrai, Filó lied as he didn’t ask Filó to withdraw the interpellation, he was there only to listen to Filó’s plea, and he hadn’t even known about the interpellation. In response to this, Filó said that he stands by his original claims.

Nevertheless, in the meantime it became clear that Forrai could not perform all the tasks as a senior advisor of the parliamentary group. One of Forrai’s close colleagues at that time cited two major reasons. First, Forrai spent too much time with helping Lajos Kepli, a Jobbik MP. Kepli made efforts to save a coal power plant and then he covered the red mud disaster at Kolontár, in both cases supported by Forrai’s analyses. Secondly, according to the former colleague, Forrai started to get direct orders from Vona, which took most of his time away from his original tasks.

“Ricsi Forrai” is in his office

According to people close to Vona, he is an unusually suspicious character. It is hard to gain his trust but Forrai quickly became one of Vona’s closest confidants. Based on multiple conversations with politicians from Jobbik, this small circle includes, in addition to Forrai, Márton Gyöngyösi, a Jobbik MP who is in charge of foreign policy, Zoltán Lázár, lawyer and councilor in Szolnok, Tamás Lázár, Vona’s bodyguard and councilor in the Kispest district of Budapest, and Pál Losonczy, a PR expert in charge of Jobbik campaigns.

Forrai and Vona used to play football together with other people affiliated with Jobbik, including Tamás Lázár, Losonczy and György Szilágyi, an MP. Also, their offices were also fairly close to each other. As a former vice-president of Jobbik recalled, he learned about the growing influence of Forrai when he more and more often heard that Vona is busy because he is in his office with “Ricsi Forrai”.

Fotó: Bielik István

Looks like a businessman, not a party official – Photo: István Bielik

Sources from Jobbik say that a reason for the close relationship between Forrai and Vona is that they share certain characteristics. “Ricsi [Forrai’s nickname] resembles very much to Vona, and Vona likes those who are similar to him. Both of them are pragmatic and have good problem-solving skills,” said an advisor of Jobbik. He added that both Vona and Forrai could be characterized as feminine due to their behaviour and soft appearance. In contrast with Vona, however, Forrai is less charismatic. He is rather conformist, and loyal, primarily to Vona. “For Vona it’s absolutely important to be loyal, someone he can trust,” said a former advisor of Vona.

According to sources close to Jobbik, Forrai is solely liable to Vona, while he has hardly any contact with other members of Jobbik’s leadership. “I thought it was very important to perform all the tasks which he requested,” Forrai explained the evolution of his relationship with Vona, which he also described as friendship.

He made Vona’s dream come true

In October 2011, Forrai founded a think tank called Iránytű Intézet (Compass Institute) which was an important step in the process of building a network of organizations and companies around Jobbik. Forrai did not have any previous experience with pollsters so he ran the institute as a manager, while the researchers were selected from the internship program of Jobbik. One exception is Judit Szabó, Gábor Vona’s sister-in-law, who has been Forrai’s assistant since 2013.

The idea of founding a polling institute close to Jobbik was raised even before 2011, and according to sources, the concept came from Vona. Important strategic inventions, like the foundation of the paramilitary group Magyar Gárda, have been frequently attributed to Vona, who also tends to adopt ideas that proved to be useful for the governing party Fidesz. Founding an own research institute is a good example for the latter as the concept behind Iránytű was similar to that of the think tanks close to Fidesz, such as Századvég or Nézőpont. “Gábor Vona had been thinking about setting up a similar institution, something less formalized, but I did it eventually,” explained Forrai. He said that there was a need for an organization like this as many experts did not want to work directly for Jobbik, but, according to Forrai, they were willing to work for the think tank.

Iránytű Intézet is more and at the same time less than a traditional polling firm. While it is less visible in the media and in the professional arena than other pollsters – due to the unfair though improving treatment of mainstream media, according to Forrai –, their research plays a major role in defining the strategy of Jobbik. The party’s campaign strategies are often driven by Iránytű’s polls.

The first notable challenge for Iránytű was the by-election in Tiszavasvári in 2012. Tiszavasvári was the sole city ruled by Jobbik, called by Gábor Vona as the party’s model city. However, due to the resignation of two city councillors, a by-election was held. This was a defining moment for Jobbik as this was the first time they could test the new image that later gained prominence in the 2014 elections. This so-called ‘cuteness campaign’ included images of politicians posing with pets.

As Iránytű’s polls suggested that voters identified mayor Erik Fülöp with trustworthiness, this was the first campaign in the history of Jobbik when the party was presented as a ‘calm power’ instead of promoting radicalism. “Iránytű worked hard during the campaign, they analysed the city very well, their campaign worked well, and Jobbik easily won the elections. This was the time when Forrai made a hit with the board,”stated a former leading politician of the party.

Party director Gábor Szabó stated that Forrai impressed him with the accuracy of his analyses. Szabó used to think of opinion polls as “pranks by liberals” and priceless, but they proved their worth for him for the first time at the Tiszavasvári election.

Later Iranytű’s methods have become more sophisticated. Local campaign directors constantly seek Forrai’s advice on campaign messages and voters’ profiles. Even the nation-wide slogans are determined by the polls of the institute. According to a former Jobbik MP, Forrai stated back in 2010 that Jobbik should use a more moderate tone and target less radical voters. A couple of years later the polls of his institute played a major role in softening Jobbik’s approach.

The rise of Iránytű also indicated how Jobbik’s ambitions have grown and how the party applied professional tools in its efforts to achieve this. As party director Gábor Szabó put it, after some point it is characteristic to “big parties” to conduct polls, and not to build party strategies on personal gut feelings.

Business links

Forrai was not only active in solidifying Jobbik’s professional background, but also in broadening its business ties.

Similarly to other parties, Jobbik also intends to establish links with actors from the private sector. This happens usually behind the scenes, through informal channels. Initially, Pál Tián, a former advisor of Vona, was in charge for this kind of networking. However, Forrai inherited Tián’s position in 2012 due to the latter’s fallout at Vona, as several party insiders confirmed. “Taking care of the external relations assumed absolute trust, and Forrai worked under the auspices of Vona, but not the party board,” said a former close associate of Vona.

As an unnamed executive of a Hungarian company told Direkt36, he was approached by Forrai in 2013 to introduce himself and also to invite me to the Jobbik’s party congress. “He said that he is personal representative of Vona with the task to vitalize Jobbik’s social connections and liaise with the companies and supporters close to the party. He asked me to join this network,” said the executive. Forrai said that he did not remember such meeting but he added that of course occasionally he used to invite “like-minded people” to events.

Forrai told Direkt36 that he meets companies almost exclusively with the purpose to attract business contracts. According to him, he doesn’t serve Jobbik’s interest by meeting these companies directly, although Forrai’s firms, for example Iránytű or Magyar Hírek, publisher of the Jobbik-leaning weekly Barikád, have close ties with Jobbik. Another signal of the close relationship between the companies and Jobbik is that Forrai always informs Vona if he meets a company as the director of Iránytű.

It appears, however, that it is hard to find clients from the private sector for Forrai’s companies. According to our calculation, all of Iránytű’s revenue by 2014 comes from Jobbik and its party foundation. Barikád magazine hardly runs any advertisements. Forrai argues that this is because potential advertisers are afraid from Fidesz. He explained that he hired a sales assistant for two months for Barikád who contacted more than one thousand companies but none of them decided to advertise in the magazine.

However there are examples for companies seeking relations with Jobbik. Levente Murányi, former vice-president of Jobbik, told Direkt36 that in 2012 Tesco invited Gábor Vona to a meeting in their headquarters, but finally Forrai and himself went there. According to Forrai, Tesco presented their regional supplier forums with the aim to attract more Hungarian small enterprises. Forrai assumed Tesco wanted to show that they are eager to provide assistance for Hungarian products to reduce their rejection by the society. Tesco said that they could not tell any information about this meeting.

Traveling around the country

With the headway of Jobbik, Forrai’s roles have further expanded. At the 2014 municipal election, Jobbik won the election in several major cities such as Ózd, Tapolca and Devecser. “The huge number of victories came suddenly,” said Gábor Szabó. Due to these challenges Szabó and Vona put Forrai in charge of investigating the allegedly corrupt cases of the former city leaders and of assisting the handover.

Prior to his formal appointment Forrai had already overseen Jobbik-led municipalities. Forrai already attended, for example, the council meeting of Tiszavasvár in June 2011 as a financial advisor, according to the minutes. Forrai said that the records might be wrong because he had no contract with the municipality so he could not be labelled as “financial advisor”.

“Fundamentally Iránytű is responsible for defining the operational and strategic management for the Jobbik-led municipalities, and to inform them about the actual political trends. This is mostly performed by Forrai who visits these places on a weekly basis,” said a source close to Jobbik. According to a former member of Jobbik in Debrecen, Forrai visited the local organization in order to convince them about the new strategy of Jobbik targeting voters in the centre. Forrai claimed that giving advice to Jobbik-led municipalities upon request was done in the context of his work as a senior advisor at the parliamentary group from 2012. “There is a complete team for that whom I help occasionally, even though formally I’m not part of it,” he said.

As many party members pointed out, the growing number of Forrai’s positions indicates one of the most serious challenges of Jobbik, namely the lack of experts. This explains why Forrai has to travel personally to the countryside for a local issue, or why he has to give advice directly to a local campaign. “He is completely overloaded, but simply there is no one else to trust in,” said a politician. “If there are some good draft horses, we pack them to death,” said Gábor Szabó, party director.

For information on companies, we used the databases of Ceginfo and Opten.