Rights and Values in Hungary 2018 - 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

final Hungary picHungary’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.

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

The views expressed are her own.


[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, http://old.tarki.hu/adatbank-h/kutjel/pdf/a896.pdf.

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


Young Hungarians 2018 - Passive supporters of democracy

By Csaba Molnár and Veszna Wessenauer

Young Hungarians may not be politically active, but most of them support an open society, according to research by the Open Society European Policy Institute and d|part

daniel spase 548428 finalMost young Hungarians aren’t interested in politics or activism, yet they are deeply committed to democratic values. This pattern has been consistent over the last ten years, although little is known so far about what 18-to-24 year- olds think about specific closed and open society values.

Reports on political participation have shown that youth in Hungary doesn’t like the current political system, but isn’t willing to undertake action that could change it. So how does one capitalise on young people’s support for democratic societies to encourage them to articulate their commitment? This is one of the big challenges ahead.


A more detailed view of young people and open society values

The Hungarian educational system may offer classes in civics and democratic values in the curricula, but not in a way that encourages debate or discussion on social and political issues. Instead, Hungary’s highly centralised public schools are old-fashioned and apolitical, and this may explain why young people are relatively unconcerned about social issues, public affairs and democracy.

Our Voices on values survey reveals that most people aged 18 to 24 evaluated many of the attributes listed as less essential for a good society than the older generations, regardless of whether or not they were open or closed society attributes. For example, they are the least supportive of banning the public practice of non-Christian religions, and they are also the least supportive of an open society attribute, namely that everyone should be allowed to practise their religion freely.

FIGURE 1: Ranking of open and closed society attributes

Some attitudes to open society values were often specific to the younger age group. The figure above shows how different age groups assessed open and closed society attributes. Red in this heat map stands for more, and blue for less important items for each age group. Young respondents showed little interest in closed society attributes, although they did echo the prevalent anti-immigration sentiment in Hungary.

Young Hungarians also shared the prevalent view that majoritarian democracy, or democracy in which the majority decided, is a good thing. This is hardly surprising, as Hungarians have had little experience of liberal democracy.

The heat map shows that all age groups value freedom of speech, but have little concern about extending religious freedom to non-Christians. Younger respondents were more interested than older generations in freedom of the press, and also in equal treatment for new immigrants.

Young people in Hungary value freedom of expression above all other open society values. There may be an easy explanation for this, as free speech was considered one of the main elements of the new political regime and has become a symbol of democracy. It has always been considered a particularly important civil liberty and has lately become more valued still as it is considered under threat.

figure 2

FIGURE 2: Comparison of Trade-off decisions between whole sample and 18-24 year-old respondents

Despite the prevailing overall mood of hostility to immigrants, young Hungarians believe in their equal treatment, although they see this as the least important open society value.  On the other hand, their responses to closed society values shows they are far less nationalistic than older generations. These attitudes are complex, but on the whole they are closer to open society values.

What does this tell us about the discourse on open society In Hungary?

The survey results imply that anti-immigration sentiment and a strong emphasis on traditional Christian and national values are significantly less important to younger respondents. They feel that a good society requires freedom of expression, free media, political pluralism and political dialogue. This differs from the current government’s argument about what makes a good society.

Although young respondents generally evaluated open or closed society attributes as less important than did older age groups, their strongest commitment is towards open society values. Hungary’s young people have the potential to become the most vocal and consistent promoters of an open and democratic society.


The authors would like to thank Attila Bátorfy for the Tableau data visualisation. 

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



Who’s afraid of Viktor Orbán?

By Victoria Kupsch, Lena Herbst & Ros Taylor

OrbanHungarians have re-elected Viktor Orbán’s party, Fidesz, which received 49 percent of the popular vote, giving him a fourth term as prime minister. By his own account, Orbán and Fidesz have transformed Hungary from a post-communist state struggling with austerity measures to an outspoken and newly prosperous member of the European Union. As he put it in 2010: “Strong faith helped our nation to always get back on its feet after devastating tragedies, crises, and wars, and never, not even in the most depressing moments of our history, let us give up our freedom and independence”.

But Orbán’s ascendancy has come at a high price. Orbán has embraced a vision of ‘illiberal democracy’ that confounds his opponents. He has undermined democratic institutions with an assault on the checks and balances of power, and pilloried ‘dangerous immigrants’. His next target was the EU itself; his party led a “Stop Brussels” campaign in 2017 with unprecedented false claims, including that the EU was keeping taxes and energy prices high.

According to Attila Juhász, the deputy director of Political Capital, a leading research institute based in Budapest, Hungarians are not notably Eurosceptic. But Orbán’s emphasis on nationalism and tradition strikes a chord with many voters:

“Compared to Western European nations, Hungarians consider civil and political rights to be less important. They are less active participants in everyday politics, they are less tolerant of opinions diverging from the views of the majority, and they consider self-expression to be less important.”

For these Hungarians, “Orbán’s populist rhetoric conveys that he wants to protect Europe and Hungary from immigrants coming from outside the EU, as well as the bureaucracy of the Union and the mainstream political elite.”

Similarly, Hungarians are not especially Christian. In Europe, only the Czech Republic has more atheists. Yet Orbán has been able to instrumentalise religion - using his influence over various branches of the Church - in order to contrast Hungary with other nations. Fidesz officially recognised Christianity in the preamble of the widely criticised renewed Hungarian constitution in 2011: We recognise the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood. We value the various religious traditions of our culture.” In this way, belief in the nation is substituted for traditional belief in God.

Fidesz’s path to dominance began in 1989, when it was founded by students as a liberal counterpart to the communist “Alliance of Young Democrats”. But after disappointing election results in 1994, it transformed itself from a liberal to a nationalist-conservative party. The gamble paid off. With only a few setbacks, Fidesz and Orbán have dominated Hungarian politics since 2000. In 2011, he reformed the electoral system to benefit the strongest party: under the pre-2011 system, according to Juhász, Fidesz would rarely have been able to secure a majority in parliament. He was even able to form a coalition with the anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage Christian Democratic People’s Party (KNDP) in 2014 in order to retain his parliamentary majority (since lost) and hold on to the premiership.

Almost effortlessly making the point that Hungary had only been a stable country since he became prime minister, Orbán used his re-election in 2014 to praise China, India and Russia: “We are doing our best to find ways of parting with Western European dogmas, making ourselves independent from them.” A democracy, he told Hungarians, “is not necessarily liberal”.

This is the root of Orbán’s finesse. In his worldview, illiberalism is something to be proud of - indeed something to strive for. After 2014, he was able to transform criticism of his illiberality into a compliment.

This may sound extraordinary to some outside Hungary. But as Juhász explains: “For many Western Europeans the idea of building an illiberal democracy is absurd and a violation of democratic values, but for many Hungarians this is exactly what they want.” The country’s systemic corruption and the assault on checks and balances are the basis for Orbàn’s power.

This is where international NGOs, philanthropists and the EU come in. Although public support of EU membership among Hungarians is still relatively high, observation and criticism from international organisations is an obstacle to the creation of Orbán’s illiberal Hungary. (“These are not civilians coming against us, but political activists attempting to promote foreign interests”, he said in 2014.)

The result was the Hungarian Parliament Bill T/14967 on the Transparency of Organizations Receiving Foreign Funds (June 13 2017), which requires NGOs receiving foreign funds over a certain yearly threshold to register and label themselves as such organisations on their website and in their publications.

Although his stance on immigration has played successfully on public fears, healthcare and corruption are now more salient issues and might be a critical factor in deciding whether Orbán’s party will prevail in the long-term. For now – and in spite of a record high turnout – Fidesz, by obtaining 133 of the parliament’s 199 seats,  suceeded in securing a “super-majority” and a third term for Orbán.

Look more closely and the economic miracle is decidedly partial. While joblessness has fallen and wages have been rising in the past two years, there is little will to improve the lives of the three million Hungarians who have fallen behind. Public spending, says Juhász has been redirected towards pensioners and the middle class so as to limit political dissent. Those who are unhappy with the regime often leave to work abroad. The opposition is portrayed as divided, civil society is largely disengaged and Orbán has no obvious challenger.

The glorious future Orbán promises will have a considerable impact on the rest of Europe. (“Go for it, Hungary! Go for it, Hungarians!” he declared earlier this year.) He regards Austria, the UK, the Visegrad nations and Russia as allies and has emerged as the spearhead of a powerful group of right wing nationalists from South-Eastern Europe. By contrast, the EU can seem too rule-based, too slow and too orderly to challenge a Union made for cooperation among like-minded democracies – and with another term in office ahead, therein lies the main challenge for the EU and the future of the open societies in Europe.

Attila Juhász is a political scientist and the Deputy Director of Political Capital. 

Victoria Kupsch is d|part's project lead for the Voices on Values project.

Lena Herbst is a Social Sciences student at the TU Braunschweig and was an intern at d|part from February until May 2018.

Ros Taylor is Research Manager for the LSE Truth, Trust  & Technology Commission, based in the Media Policy Project within the Department of Media and Communications at LSE.


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





4 Ideas to overcome polarisation in Hungary

 By Veszna Wessenauer 

flickr Paolo Margari INOver 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.

The author of this article, 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, Veszna Wessenauer.




Greskovits, Béla. “Rebuilding the Hungarian Right through Civil Organization and Contention: The Civic Circles Movement.” Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, 2017. http://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/47245/RSCAS_2017_37.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.

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. http://www.tarki.hu/hu/research/gazdkult/2013/2013_zarotanulmany_gazd_kultura.pdf.

Tóth, István György. “Bizalomhiány, Normazavarok, Igazságtalanságérzet És Paternalizmus a Magyar Társadalom Értékszerkezetében.” TÁRKI, 2009. http://www.tarki.hu/adatbank-h/kutjel/pdf/b268.pdf.


[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), http://www.tarki.hu/adatbank-h/kutjel/pdf/b268.pdf.

[3]Tóth, István György. “Bizalomhiány, Normazavarok, Igazságtalanságérzet És Paternalizmus a Magyar Társadalom Értékszerkezetében.” TÁRKI, 2009. http://www.tarki.hu/adatbank-h/kutjel/pdf/b268.pdf.

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

[5] Tamás Keller, “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), http://www.tarki.hu/hu/research/gazdkult/2013/2013_zarotanulmany_gazd_kultura.pdf.

[6] Tóth, István György. “Bizalomhiány, Normazavarok, Igazságtalanságérzet És Paternalizmus a Magyar Társadalom Értékszerkezetében.” TÁRKI, 2009. http://www.tarki.hu/adatbank-h/kutjel/pdf/b268.pdf.

[7] Béla Greskovits, “Rebuilding the Hungarian Right through Civil Organization and Contention: The Civic Circles Movement,” Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, 2017, http://cadmus.eui.eu/bitstream/handle/1814/47245/RSCAS_2017_37.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y.