4 Ideas to overcome polarization in Hungary

By Vesz­na Wesse­nauer.

Over the past years, Hun­gar­i­an pol­i­tics have changed rather dras­ti­cal­ly, as the 2016 Democ­ra­cy Index of the Econ­o­mist Intel­li­gence Unit demon­strates. How­ev­er, Hun­gary is in good com­pa­ny: not one region showed an improve­ment on its aver­age score. Although West­ern Euro­pean democ­ra­cies also expe­ri­enced dete­ri­o­ra­tion, East­ern Europe wit­nessed a par­tic­u­lar­ly strong demo­c­ra­t­ic back­slide recent­ly. The most remark­able blow was dealt to the democ­ra­cies of Hun­gary and Poland, where illib­er­al, right-wing pop­ulist forces have come to dom­i­nate the polit­i­cal scene. These devel­op­ments call into ques­tion the process of democ­ra­ti­sa­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the case of Cen­tral and East­ern Europe, where the tran­si­tion to democ­ra­cy does not seem to be an unequiv­o­cal process any­more. In Poland and Hun­gary, the increas­ing attacks on key demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions, like an inde­pen­dent judi­cia­ry, fair and free elec­tions, a strong civ­il soci­ety, and an inde­pen­dent media, cou­pled with an unprece­dent­ed lev­el of xeno­pho­bia, fur­ther rein­force these con­cerns. The demo­c­ra­t­ic back­slide in these coun­tries is heav­i­ly dri­ven by the polar­i­sa­tion[1] of the socio-polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment, orches­trat­ed most­ly by right-wing polit­i­cal actors. Hungary’s case is dis­tinc­tive in Europe since both the gov­ern­ing Fidesz par­ty and its biggest oppo­si­tion, the Job­bik par­ty, are right-wing pop­ulist forces. This makes the work of democ­ra­cy pro­mot­ers espe­cial­ly chal­leng­ing as they have to oper­ate in an envi­ron­ment where their val­ues are being sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly under­mined by the major right-con­ser­v­a­tive polit­i­cal forces.

Although democ­ra­cy is cur­rent­ly being chal­lenged in many ways, it is still defend­ed by many actors, actors who are in need of bet­ter respons­es to strength­en demo­c­ra­t­ic resilience. This blog post aims to iden­ti­fy the most impor­tant chal­lenges to be tack­led by civ­il soci­ety actors when safe­guard­ing the open demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety and civic engage­ment in Hungary.

Hungary’s inward-look­ing soci­ety is a fer­tile ground for polarisation

Hungary’s auto­crat­ic past is still trace­able in the society’s pater­nal­ist reflex­es, sub­or­di­nate mind­set, lack of inter­per­son­al and insti­tu­tion­al trust, and the absence of civic activism. Hun­gar­i­an soci­ety is con­sid­ered as ratio­nal and sec­u­lar, yet also closed and inward-look­ing.[2] Hun­gar­i­ans rate civ­il lib­er­ties as less impor­tant com­pared to nation­al and eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty and their lev­el of polit­i­cal engage­ment is tra­di­tion­al­ly very low. Diver­si­ty in gen­er­al finds lit­tle sup­port in Hun­gary and Hun­gar­i­ans have low lev­els of trust on the indi­vid­ual lev­el.[3] As a con­se­quence, social net­works[4] tend to be weak with­in the Hun­gar­i­an soci­ety, active com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment is low as well as con­fi­dence in one­self to influ­ence pub­lic mat­ters.[5]

These char­ac­ter­is­tics make the Hun­gar­i­an soci­ety an espe­cial­ly fer­tile ground for polit­i­cal polar­i­sa­tion by obstruct­ing pub­lic debate, plu­ral­ism, and open­ness. One way to stop fur­ther alien­ation from one anoth­er would be to build trust in each oth­er. Start­ing on the com­mu­nal lev­el would be one way to slow­ly acti­vate engage­ment and a sense of com­mu­ni­ty belonging.

High lev­el of polar­i­sa­tion of the socio-polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment is hin­der­ing trust and cooperation

A key char­ac­ter­is­tic of Hun­gar­i­an soci­ety is the high lev­el of polar­i­sa­tion between groups with dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties. Trust in insti­tu­tions and the assess­ment of how rules are being respect­ed are depen­dent on the (per­son­al) ben­e­fit gained from them, someone’s polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tion, and the lev­el of sup­port for the gov­ern­ment in pow­er.[6] This is the con­se­quence of an arti­fi­cial war-like atmos­phere between sup­port­ers of dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal camps. Since the begin­ning of the 2000s, polit­i­cal actors delib­er­ate­ly cre­at­ed, main­tained, and deep­ened ide­o­log­i­cal divi­sions with­in soci­ety to con­trol and mobilise their own vot­er base by depict­ing the oth­er camp as the ene­my. In this “cold civ­il war”, pol­i­tics func­tions as reli­gion, and evolves around sym­bols rather than sub­stance. As a result, fol­low­ers of polit­i­cal forces are blind­ly fol­low­ing and believ­ing their lead­ers, which fur­ther under­mines inter­per­son­al trust and the abil­i­ty to coop­er­ate with fel­low citizens.

By cre­at­ing inno­v­a­tive and appeal­ing ways of par­tic­i­pa­tion and sup­port­ing cit­i­zens in find­ing ways to make their inter­ests heard and bet­ter rep­re­sent­ed, polar­i­sa­tion might start to decrease.

Mass migra­tion fur­ther esca­lates the lev­el of polit­i­cal polarisation

Fidesz is divid­ing the polit­i­cal are­na into “pro-nation­al” and “anti-nation­al” groups: any­one ques­tion­ing a posi­tion tak­en by the gov­ern­ment is auto­mat­i­cal­ly con­sid­ered as “anti-nation­al” and depict­ed as a “for­eign agent”. The gov­ern­ment instru­men­talised the refugee cri­sis for a scare­mon­ger­ing, xeno­pho­bic, and scape­goat­ing cam­paign, exploit­ing fear, increas­ing the nation­al/an­ti-nation­al divi­sion, and ampli­fy­ing nation­al­is­tic feel­ings in order to secure its polit­i­cal posi­tion. This has led to the growth of a more eth­nic­i­ty-based, fear dri­ven, nation­al­ist nar­ra­tive of “us vs. them” where pro­mot­ers of an open soci­ety and democ­ra­cy are con­sid­ered as “them”.

Mass migra­tion has fur­ther polarised soci­eties all over Europe and the Hun­gar­i­an gov­ern­ment delib­er­ate­ly induced this process. The harm caused by the scare­mon­ger­ing cam­paign calls for the cre­ation of com­mu­ni­ties which are based on actu­al per­son­al con­nec­tions instead of fear. A start­ing point could be the cre­ation of a healthy nation­al iden­ti­ty which is based on what con­nects Hun­gar­i­ans, instead of what divides them.

Being vis­i­ble and active­ly present in soci­ety is an effec­tive way of constituency-building

Civ­il soci­ety in Hun­gary evolved rapid­ly and devel­oped promis­ing­ly after the fall of Com­mu­nism. How­ev­er, it has become depen­dent on the state and dis­con­nect­ed from soci­ety. More­over, in post-com­mu­nist Hun­gary, the devel­op­ment of NGOs and civic move­ments has been char­ac­terised by asym­met­ric trends. Civ­il soci­ety actors pro­mot­ing left-lib­er­al val­ues were bet­ter endowed due to inher­it­ed strengths, yet their dom­i­nance was soon over­shad­owed by right-wing and far-right civic actors.[7] Civ­il soci­ety actors pro­mot­ing an open demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety became pro­fes­sion­alised with strong advo­ca­cy skills and wide recog­ni­tion among pol­i­cy mak­ers. Their pri­ma­ry focus was to achieve their goals through mon­i­tor­ing social, legal, and polit­i­cal devel­op­ments. It depend­ed on the pro­file of the NGO whether its work also includ­ed build­ing a strong social con­stituen­cy, i.e. it was not an over­ar­ch­ing fea­ture of these NGOs. Their coun­ter­parts, on the oth­er hand, the far-right and right-wing civic actors pro­mot­ing an exclu­sivist nation­al iden­ti­ty and a closed soci­ety, man­aged to take deep­er roots in soci­ety, cre­at­ing strong com­mu­ni­ties by pro­vid­ing their sup­port­ers with a sense of belong­ing through focus­ing on the nation­al identity.

The most recent expe­ri­ences of civ­il soci­ety organ­i­sa­tions (CSOs) pro­mot­ing human rights and democ­ra­cy show that open­ing up towards the local pop­u­la­tion indeed has a pos­i­tive effect on how their work and the val­ues they rep­re­sent are per­ceived in soci­ety. Despite all the polit­i­cal attacks, many CSOs have not retreat­ed but have looked for coun­ter­strate­gies and rethought the way they work instead: they expand­ed their activ­i­ties beyond pro­fes­sion­al func­tions to include a more active role in build­ing a social con­stituen­cy and local com­mu­ni­ties. This is some­thing one might con­sid­er as an unwant­ed pos­i­tive effect of the gov­ern­men­tal cam­paign against CSOs.

Enhanc­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic resilience requires democ­rats who are will­ing to speak out in sup­port of their lib­er­ties. Reclaim­ing the space for cit­i­zen­ship par­tic­i­pa­tion on local lev­els is essen­tial in this process and com­mu­ni­ty organ­is­ing is poten­tial­ly an effec­tive tool for it. This way, pro­gres­sive civic activism could pros­per and local com­mu­ni­ties could become more powerful.

Mak­ing the civic expe­ri­ence more acces­si­ble and vis­i­ble is key in address­ing polar­i­sa­tion and mit­i­gat­ing populism

I demon­strat­ed that Hun­gar­i­an soci­ety is char­ac­terised by lack of trust, alien­ation, polit­i­cal polar­i­sa­tion, and fear. Instead of help­ing soci­ety over­come these fea­tures, polit­i­cal forces have tra­di­tion­al­ly tend­ed to focus on their own ben­e­fits. How­ev­er, late­ly, the exploita­tion of these char­ac­ter­is­tics has become the core ele­ment of the cur­rent government’s strat­e­gy, embod­ied by its hate and fear­mon­ger­ing cam­paign. In this socio-polit­i­cal envi­ron­ment, stick­ing to the vision of an open demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety requires new approach­es, active voic­es, and stronger engage­ment than ever.

Recog­nis­ing the new chal­lenges, many CSOs are aim­ing to strength­en their com­mit­ments towards their mis­sion, mak­ing their work more acces­si­ble and vis­i­ble in local com­mu­ni­ties, and fos­ter­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic civic iden­ti­ty through active engage­ment. These civ­il soci­ety actors are gate-crash­ers of illib­er­al pop­ulists. Instead of retreat­ing, they con­tin­ue to safe­guard the open, demo­c­ra­t­ic society.

Vesz­na Wesse­nauer is an ana­lyst at Polit­i­cal Cap­i­tal, a pol­i­cy research and con­sult­ing insti­tute in Budapest.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

[1] By polit­i­cal polar­i­sa­tion we mean the divi­sion of soci­ety into sharply oppos­ing groups based on ide­o­log­i­cal views, val­ues, iden­ti­ty or beliefs. High lev­el of polar­i­sa­tion means that mem­bers of the same group agree only with each oth­er and com­plete­ly ignore or dis­cred­it the views of those belong­ing to the oppos­ing group.

[2] István Györ­gy Tóth. “Biza­lomhiány, Nor­mazavarok, Igazság­ta­lan­ságérzet És Pater­nal­iz­mus a Mag­yar Tár­sadalom Érték­sz­erkezetében.” TÁRKI, 2009.

[3] ibid.

[4] By social net­works we mean net­works con­nect­ed through reli­gious, nation­al, eth­nic, and moral links.

[5] Keller, Tamás. “Értékek 2013. Biza­lom, Nor­makövetés, Az Állam Szerepéről És a a Demokrá­ciáról Alko­tott Vélemények Alakulása Mag­yarorszá­gon. „A Gaz­dasá­gi Növekedés Társadalmi/Kulturális Feltételei” c. Kutatás 2013. Évi Hul­lámá­nak Elemzések.” TÁRKI, 2013.

[6] István Györ­gy Tóth. “Biza­lomhiány, Nor­mazavarok, Igazság­ta­lan­ságérzet És Pater­nal­iz­mus a Mag­yar Tár­sadalom Érték­sz­erkezetében.” TÁRKI, 2009.

[7] Béla Greskovits, “Rebuild­ing the Hun­gar­i­an Right through Civ­il Orga­ni­za­tion and Con­tention: The Civic Cir­cles Move­ment,” Robert Schu­man Cen­tre for Advanced Stud­ies, 2017.

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