It is about more than civil rights

By Vesz­na Wesse­nauer.

Research by the Open Soci­ety Euro­pean Pol­i­cy Insti­tute and d|part shows con­fu­sion among Hun­gar­i­ans about the mean­ing of demo­c­ra­t­ic values.

Hungary’s checks and bal­ances have been steadi­ly erod­ed since Vic­tor Orban’s sweep­ing elec­toral vic­to­ry in 2010. Civ­il lib­er­ties, the media and aca­d­e­mics have been under threat, and demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions demot­ed to exec­u­tive bod­ies of the rul­ing Fidesz party.

And yet pub­lic opin­ion has bare­ly protest­ed, instead offer­ing pas­sive sup­port to anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mea­sures. In the 2018 par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, Fidesz con­sol­i­dat­ed its posi­tion with two-thirds of the seats, although thanks to the pecu­liar­i­ties of the Hun­gar­i­an elec­tion sys­tem, they gained less than half the votes. So, do Hun­gar­i­ans not care about their civ­il rights, and if they do, why aren’t they defend­ing them?

Most of the respon­dents to our Sit­u­a­tion Room sur­vey said that fun­da­men­tal rights were essen­tial for a good soci­ety. But a clos­er look at their replies revealed often con­tra­dic­to­ry atti­tudes towards demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues and rights. And when faced with a choice between cit­i­zen rights or a sta­ble out­look on cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal issues, they gen­er­al­ly chose the latter.

Free speech, or con­trolled speech?

Top of the list of the fun­da­men­tal free­doms Hun­gar­i­ans val­ue is free­dom of expres­sion. Some 94 per­cent of respon­dents con­sid­ered it as very or absolute­ly essen­tial for a good society[1], and 86 per­cent believed the media should be allowed to crit­i­cise the government.

And yet half (51 per­cent) agreed with the state­ment that “gov­ern­ment must ensure that media report­ing always reflects a pos­i­tive image of Hun­gary”. For most respon­dents, free media does not pre­clude gov­ern­ment control.

Whose views does gov­ern­ment rep­re­sent – major­i­ty, minor­i­ty, or maybe both?

The sur­vey results indi­cate con­fu­sion about the mean­ing of demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues — free speech, an inde­pen­dent civ­il soci­ety, respect of fun­da­men­tal rights – and how they are applied.

The vast major­i­ty (90 per­cent) thought that the views of the gov­ern­ment should always rep­re­sent those of the major­i­ty, while 84 per­cent thought that all polit­i­cal views should be reflect­ed in par­lia­ment. A size­able major­i­ty (78 per­cent) con­sid­ered both con­vic­tions as essen­tial for a good soci­ety. Demo­c­ra­t­ic roots are still rel­a­tive­ly shal­low, as most Hun­gar­i­ans do not con­sid­er that a major­i­ty-ruled democ­ra­cy means a closed society.

These incon­sis­tent and some­times con­tra­dic­to­ry atti­tudes towards demo­c­ra­t­ic prin­ci­ples may explain why Hun­gar­i­ans have tol­er­at­ed the cur­rent demo­c­ra­t­ic back­slid­ing. They don’t always recog­nise anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mea­sures because they aren’t always clear about the nature of democracy.

Democ­ra­cy must be learned

The man­ner in which com­mu­nism fell in 1989 may explain why Hun­gar­i­ans have a con­fused under­stand­ing of democ­ra­cy and fun­da­men­tal rights. The tran­si­tion to democ­ra­cy occurred peace­ful­ly, with­out civ­il strife. Infor­mal civ­il soci­ety move­ments pushed for demo­c­ra­t­ic change but most Hun­gar­i­ans did not mil­i­tate for their rights, per­haps because they had no recent tra­di­tion of this.

The new post-com­mu­nist polit­i­cal lead­er­ship guar­an­teed demo­c­ra­t­ic rights, but the sys­tem was vul­ner­a­ble. Despite ini­tial enthu­si­asm for democ­ra­cy, most Hun­gar­i­ans were soon more pre­oc­cu­pied with eco­nom­ic security.[2] The com­mu­nist sys­tem had guar­an­teed eco­nom­ic secu­ri­ty, or at least the illu­sion of it.

Join­ing the Euro­pean Union in 2004 was seen by most Hun­gar­i­ans as a step towards greater afflu­ence, even if the offi­cial rhetoric was about meet­ing the EU’s demo­c­ra­t­ic stan­dards. But dis­ap­point­ment and frus­tra­tion soon replaced hope. The 2008 eco­nom­ic cri­sis, the left’s polit­i­cal fail­ure, and the rise of the far-right all con­tributed in Hun­gary to the weak­en­ing of demo­c­ra­t­ic values.

After 2010, and the con­sol­i­da­tion of anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic mea­sures, the gov­ern­ment start­ed to exploit fears about the econ­o­my and secu­ri­ty. The absence of shared val­ues or of a clear soci­etal vision pro­vid­ed fer­tile ground for extreme polit­i­cal polar­i­sa­tion and pop­ulist messages.[3]

Their his­to­ry makes Hun­gar­i­ans par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned about eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty, and it would take a huge effort and a strong polit­i­cal com­mit­ment to change this. Younger Hun­gar­i­ans are most recep­tive to a more open dis­course, as they seem deeply com­mit­ted to democ­ra­cy, even if so far they have been polit­i­cal­ly inert.


[1] Respon­dents were asked to eval­u­ate the impor­tance of state­ments for a good soci­ety. We list­ed the state­ments as either clos­er or open soci­ety attrib­ut­es. These labels were unknown for the sur­vey respondents.

[2] Zsuzsa Ferge, “A Rend­sz­erváltás Nyerte­sei És Veszte­sei,” 1996,‑h/kutjel/pdf/a896.pdf.

[3] Domonkos Sík, Demokratikus Kultúra És Mod­ern­izá­ció — Állam­pol­gári Szo­cial­izá­ció 20 Évvel a Rend­sz­erváltás Után, L’Harmattan kiadó, 2014.

Vesz­na Wesse­nauer is an ana­lyst and project man­ag­er at the Polit­i­cal Cap­i­tal Institute.


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

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