Can Europe Make It?

The ‘laboratory’ called Hungary: a challenge for understanding protest movements

There is a central Hungarian political paradox: it is the conservative governing party (FIDESZ) which has made successful use of the rhetoric of anti-establishment social movements in other countries, and which disposes of the means to do so. 

Andrea Pető Zoltán Vasali
20 January 2014

Peace March for Hungary, January 2012. ”We support this government. Our message to Europe: We will not be a colony !” Wikimedia/Derzi Elekses Andor. Some rights reserved.

One of the enigmas of present state of Hungarian democracy is the very limited public protest against different government decisions which, according to the report authored by the Green Party MEP Rui Tavares on behalf of the European Parliament Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs, are reconfiguring the institutions and infrastructure of democracy built after 1989.

This article is looking at the different recent Hungarian protest movements to claim that this enigma can be solved only if international research on democracy accepts that it is very difficult to identify the reasons of non-protest using the consensual analytical frame and terminology of research on social movements to describe the dynamics of trends in this “Laboratory” as Prime Minister Orbán referred to his electorate in London. However this attempt should be made, as the trends in Hungary might well be used by other European countries interested in successful crisis management techniques.

Specific conditions in Hungary

Since 2010, Hungary’s Christian-conservative coalition government, which has a two-thirds parliamentary majority, has successfully constructed its own state-funded (pseudo) NGO sector by means of a policy of centralization that aims, according to the government, to promote good government and efficiency.

The NGO sector established in this manner – including the Békemenet (Peace March) and associated organizations – is not based on liberal values and human rights. The Hungarian NGO sector, which had previously acted as a watchdog and voice for human rights values in accordance with the principles of liberal democracy, has been fundamentally transformed and it now struggles to respond effectively to the government’s most fundamental structural positionings, which have a broad support throughout Hungarian society.

Under such circumstances, it has become especially difficult to represent norms that contrast positively with those represented by the government and the political parties, to generate the necessary social cooperation, and then to put forward alternative policy options.

The consolidation of the Orbán government, one of whose aims has been to create a National Cooperation System, has profoundly affected social (NGO) activism in the country and has reinforced negative structural trends that experts had previously failed to spot.

The government, consciously instrumentalising the norms of democracy for its own purposes and reconfiguring the social contract for the benefit of its own voter groups, ran up against an initial wave of protests against government policies in 2010 and 2011. However, these civil society protests peaked in 2012 and 2013, since when activism has narrowed to the efforts of a small group of people who have sought to formulate the consequences and dangers of efforts by the government to undermine constitutional norms, and who have been able to draw onto the streets those social groups that are sensitive to such dangers.

The new electoral system and the centralization and politicization of the distribution of state funds have forced the actors who organized the initial street protests to approach opposition parties, as actors with a monopoly on political representation and resources. This development, however, is based on the acceptance of two premises: that the new electoral system is legitimate and that the imperative aim is to maximize the number of votes (for the opposition parties at the next election).

The groups in question, motivated by their wish to avoid the systemic disaster that would result from their rejection of these two premises, have jeopardized their own credibility, given that they previously employed an anti-establishment rhetoric and argued in favor of a new beginning.

Furthermore, they have now entered a public space where the norms of political expression leave very little room for alternative identity formation. Signficantly, the women’s movements (those with a human rights orientation), which watched critically as the new protest movements adopted without criticism the political elite’s male-dominated attitudes and positions, continue to value their independence from the political parties (despite earlier failures) and to uphold their watchdog function, relying principally on the institutional and normative power of the European Union. But as significantly, in the meantime however, they have been rather unsuccessful in expanding their social support base and network.

International themes and domestic developments

Since the political changes of 1989/90, social development models have only partially succeeded in arousing any interest in Hungary in the major problems addressed internationally.

Whether we are speaking of the uncontrolled influence over democratic states of the banks and other global financial actors, or of the ecological crisis that dates back to the 1970s, or of the issue of gender inequality, there has been no groundbreaking progress in the Hungarian NGO sector in terms of establishing standards and insisting on compliance with such standards.

We might even say that a critique of globalization – one that addresses both the ecological crisis and the objectives of the women’s movements and other anti-establishment groups – has had only a minimal effect on the domestic political agenda.

The strengthening – after 2006 – of racist and nationalist movements in Hungary offering anti-modernism as a viable alternative to neo-liberal democracy and the market economy, coupled with the failure of attempts to adapt the Third-Way social democratic model, led to the marginalization (or, indeed, capitulation) of the democratic values of the Third Republic of Hungary. Those actors who argued for the restoration of such values or launched a leftist critique of the weaknesses of the Third Republic in effect relinquished their social legitimacy.

In seeking to determine the extent to which Occupy Wall Street (OWS) influenced the development of the opposition protests and movements in Hungary, we would need to highlight two fundamental problems: first, the domestication in Hungarian politics of the topics addressed by OWS; second, the modification of OWS original goals and objectives. Simplifying, we may say that the movement launched in New York in September 2011 arose primarily as a response to the lack of democratic controls (and distributive norms) in the world of finance.

This message was not new in Hungary, as various alternative and environmentalist movements (e.g., Védegylet [Protect the Future], the name of which derived from a 19th-century ethnocentric consumers movement, which had promoted Hungarian goods within the Habsburg Empire) had earlier employed similar themes to draw people onto the streets at the time of the WTO talks.

Of course, such movements cannot be classified as mass movements and, regrettably, they failed to influence in a meaningful way public debates at the time. Even so, their message was “present” in Hungarian politics – an achievement in itself in an east central European society undergoing a drawn-out process of transition. It should also be noted that this political current was a factor in the choice of President for Hungary in 2005.

Worth highlighting is the importance of statements made by the presently governing party (Fidesz) on topics related to the financial system, for these stated positions have served to limit acceptance in society for messages like those of the OWS movement. Over the past four years, the governing party has used their political mandate to portray the banks as the “major culprits” in the foreign-currency loan fiasco. In an increasingly impoverished society, there is inevitably a tendency to accept the simplified portrayal of such complex issues as a “battle between good and bad” with the government as the norm-owner of the “good”.

By 2013, the result in Hungary was that public discontent manifested in street protests became limited to actions by the “devizakárosultak” [victims of foreign currency] (i.e., people who had taken out foreign currency loans in the hope of more favourable interest rates, but who were struggling to make their repayments after the value of the forint plummeted).

Apart from a number of student occupations at universities, almost nothing was left of the critical objectives represented by the OWS movement. Among the social movements that may currently be regarded as significant actors in Hungary, we should highlight the Facebook group “One Million for Press Freedom in Hungary” (Milla), the Student Network (HaHa), and the Hungarian women’s movements – all of which need to be analysed, if we are to fully justify our argument.


From the outset, the Milla demonstrations drew attention to the violation of the separation of powers, to the reduction in the transparency of decision-making, to the need to defend public non-governmental forums, and to the restrictions placed on basic democratic rights.

Public consternation at the power aspirations of the Orbán government after 2010 gave an impulse to the Milla movement, whose stated ambition was to become an NGO initiative that would serve as a counterweight to Fidesz and that would be politically independent and enjoy mass support.

Given the limits of our analysis, we cannot describe in detail the rise and fall of the Milla movement. However, based on the previously defined criteria, we can assess its achievements and its effect on social movements in Hungary. The critical messages of Milla in the initial phase of its development drew attention to the dangers of the measures implemented by the Orbán government, most of which have now been highlighted to the international community. Practical instances of this are the Tavares Report on the state of fundamental rights in Hungary (June 25, 2013), as well as the inquiries and hearings launched by the European Commission and by the European Parliament.

The Milla movement also strove to sustain its mass appeal by strengthening diversity and offering support to NGO activists. Despite the polarization of public life in Hungary and the Milla movement’s marginalization by the Orbán government’s National Cooperation System, the initiative achieved several important successes in what is a fundamentally apolitical and passive social milieu. In the space of 18 months, it reached the peak of its popularity, articulating major social and political issues. The question arose, however, as to whether (or to what extent) it would be able to maintain its independence from the political parties.

Apart from this and its diversity, there was something else that was jeopardised as it turned out: the NGO character of the Milla movement. Thus, in 2012, it was impossible to say whether the established and newly-formed leftist parties, the Greens or the Liberals would end up benefiting from the “people power” unleashed by Milla. When Milla subsequently joined the party alliance “Együtt-PM” led by Gordon Bajnai, who had served as a minister in the Socialist-Liberal government and subsequently – after the fall of that government – as prime minister in the interim government of experts, it seemed that the issue had been decided. We now see the strength and uniqueness of the Milla movement crumbling in the face of the failure to form a political party.


The history of the Student Network (HaHa) goes back much further than the series of protests held in the 2012 academic year against the abolition of a guaranteed number of state-funded university places. It is no accident that the organization has been compared in the international press with the 1968 movement, as university students constitute its support base.

Indeed, even though many university students in Hungary have right-wing or far-right sympathies, HaHa still managed to mobilize significant numbers of students for events held jointly with the official students’ representative body, the HÖOK.

Regarding its aims, the organization was established with a view to offering alternatives to what it termed ‘erroneous government policies’. But, as an organization it has managed to function on the basis of grassroots democratic principles. It has even established a free university where, among other things, the sexism present within the movement itself, and in universities and other areas of academic life has been debated.

Most importantly perhaps, HaHa succeeded in reaching out to other social and professional groups, thereby establishing solidarity and cooperation among the various NGO initiatives (Hálózat a Tanszabadságért [Network for Freedom in Education], Szülői Hálózat [Parents’ Network], and Oktatói Hálózat [Lecturers’ Network]).

That is to say, even though the Government’s communication strategy – in the absence of any real counter-argument or readiness for negotiation or cooperation – sought to write off HaHa as a movement with links to the leftist-liberal parties (Együtt-PM) and to call into question the organization’s representative legitimacy, HaHa’s supporters – both teaching staff and students – managed to set the domestic political agenda through street demonstrations in the cold of winter and through their occupation of university buildings.

If we define the criteria of mobilization within the OWS framework as the making of anti-establishment statements, the occupation of spaces, grassroots democracy, an absence of formal leadership, spontaneous events, and the use of creative symbols, then we should also include in this group the street demonstration that turned violent which took place in 2006 in the aftermath of the leaking of the then prime minister’s “secret” speech.

The protests culminated with the occupation of Hungarian Television’s headquarters with a strong anti-establishment agenda. This, however, proves our assertion that under Hungarian conditions, caution must be shown when applying international norms and criteria as analytical categories.

The women’s movement

The same also applies to the women’s movement. Although we might think that the principle of gender equality as a norm only became a factor in decision-making since Hungary became a member of the EU, this is far from the truth.

In Hungary party voting preferences influence women’s political mobilization. After 1989, women’s NGOs with a human rights orientation rejected any direct links with political parties; they wished to serve as watchdogs, while also consulting with the liberal party. After the liberal party (and its support base) was “invisibilized” in Hungarian politics, this type of women’s activism found an ally in the Green Party (LMP), which also has mostly an urban middle-class base.

The pillarization of the Hungarian political system was also mirrored in the representation and articulation of women’s interests at the NGO level. The most effective way to get access to resources and policy making has been to cooperate with a particular party and to avoid bipartisan action on women’s issues (domestic violence, participation in politics and the economy) that are – or should be – above the logic of party cleavages.

The very weak women’s NGOs in Hungary constitute three separate umbrella organizations: socialist, liberal, and conservative-religious. In June 2013, these three umbrella organizations signed a declaration demanding parity on national party and European Parliamentary election lists. The term “parity” was chosen in lieu of “quota,” a term that carries heavy ideological baggage. (Moreover, the last bipartisan action seeking the adoption of a quota law in Hungary had already failed at the time of the leftist-liberal government, despite the support of several conservative women MPs.) This declaration, signed by the three umbrella organizations, seemed to have created a new space for articulating the demand for more women in politics.

But what seemed to promise a success story did not end well. When the declaration became known, the conservative umbrella organization ousted its successful and popular leader and withdrew its support for the Hungarian Women’s Congress, which was held on November 11, 2013, based on the very successful Polish example of women’s congresses enabling women’s movements to change the political framework.

It has also declined to participate in the conferences on women’s participation in politics organized by the OSCE and CEU. The declaration was only the second attempt since the Roundtable Discussions in 1988-1989 to redefine public interest across party lines. But it has failed due to party cleavages. Heti Válasz, a major conservative weekly, published a “fact-finding” article in August 2013 about how foreign entities, including the Open Society Institute and the Norwegian Embassy, were financing anti-government propaganda by way of women’s NGOs in Hungary.

Hungary has a low ranking on the Gender Equality Index. The recent CEDAW Report warned that nearly all fields of inquiry have remained largely ignored by the government. In the EU, Hungary is at the bottom of the list in terms of women’s participation in politics. As an analysis of the electoral system proves, the new electoral law for the 2014 elections, with the introduction of more single majoritarian districts, will further diminish the number of women in politics from 9% at the moment.

In short, the movements investigated by us have sought to generate activism in a social context where voters are difficult to activate even at the time of elections, and, as surveys indicate, have a minimal knowledge of politics (and so can easily be influenced). Further, the value system remains closer to that of the East European authoritarian regimes. It is important to emphasize these points, because the successes and failures can only be assessed and understood within these larger frameworks.

For this reason, it is particularly important that such domestic initiatives as Milla, HaHa, and Női Érdek [Women’s Interest] have devoted significant energies – based on international examples – to maintaining their diversity and openness and to developing grassroots internal democratic structures, as a means of guaranteeing their long-term success.

This, for example, is what Női Érdek [Women’s Interest] did when, on November 30, 2013, the conservative women’s movement, Magyar Asszonyok Érdekszövetsége [Interest Association of Hungarian Ladies] awarded its annual prize, the Golden Grain, to a journalist who is known for her denial of the Holocaust and for other extremist views.

When seeking to establish, as researchers, what practical (policy) solutions the initiatives under investigation have proposed to the problems we have raised, we should recognize that an important dividing line occurs in both political parties and NGOs between those prepared to risk giving their support to a critique of the same liberal democracy that has been the butt of Fidesz’ antagonism (with its establishment of an alternative to such liberal democracy) and those who are not, as long as the criticism offered by this anti-modernist and communitarian alternative is based on such a wobbly theoretical framework. But NGOs tend to be more reluctant to give up the illusion of independence.

Conclusions: agenda setting and the international context

Hungarian women's congress 2013

Hungarian women's congress, 11 November 2013

As we argue, social protest movements in Hungary have developed in a specific manner. The country’s NGO sector is weak and vulnerable in terms of both public support and funding. The presence of the Peace March movement has transformed the interpretative framework for this pro-government initiative – which currently enjoys a level of mass support that is unprecedented in Europe, thereby demonstrating very clearly the extent of the crisis in those democratic norms that elsewhere might be expected to be the basis of those initiatives analyzed above.

It should be noted that, despite the achievements of the movements here under investigation, the discourses at European level on multiculturalism, social integration, and equal opportunities have tended to appear in Hungarian public consciousness only after their translation into Hungarian. This in itself underlines a Hungarian political paradox, given that it is the conservative party (FIDESZ) which has made successful use of the rhetoric of anti-establishment social movements in other countries and which also disposes of the means to do so.

A good example of this is the OWS movement, where the issues were not really new, but the dynamics were different. In the case of HaHa, its development has been significantly influenced by the experiences of movements in other countries (like Croatia), even though international issues were not the subject-matter of its protests. The case of Milla does have an international perspective, for media independence and the application in the EU countries of the democratic norms formulated in the Copenhagen Criteria have featured in its various protests and are unavoidable. The Women’s Congress copied the model of the Polish Women’s Congress, but those women who are mobilizing 75% of the female population did not participate.

It remains an interesting and open question whether and to what extent Hungary’s domestic movements will be influenced in their development by initiatives elsewhere in Europe that have taken up the fight against corruption and social tensions.

As far as the leftist and liberal women’s movements are concerned, the question is not only the manner in which they can represent international norms (such as gender equality), but also how they evaluate and react to the fact that their political influence has not grown in the post-1989 period, while gender inequality has increased to unprecedented levels in all fields.

The conservative women’s movement in Hungary, with its focus on the primacy of the family and its denial of freedom of choice and structural discrimination, has found a rival in the field of mobilizing women in politics. Far-right fundamentalist gender politics, also based on the politics of care and placing the family in the centre, seeks in the long run to absorb the political space for conservative women’s politics, while uniting all these political forces under the rhetoric of hostility to communist oppression.

This is evidenced by the award given to a neo-Nazi journalist by the conservative women’s umbrella organization. The rhetoric of a victorious neoconservative politics after 1989 asserting positive images of proud women as mothers and wives has left the emancipatory leftists on the backfoot, as their rhetoric is a defensive and negative one.

Having failed to critique the basis of neoliberal politics, human rights-based women’s movements remain prisoner to progress in a non-progressive era. Cas Mudde in his recent article advocated that intellectuals should “spill down” their ideas to society and thereby build up a class consciousness capable of promoting a social democracy that can replace the neoconservative model in the US.

Mudde is right to argue that political parties are not up to the task of creating a new identity politics, as they are the products and representatives of an old-identity politics regime. However this suggestion proves that political scientists are still prisoners to the aufklarist/enlightenment paradigm. What happens if instead, these ideas, which are being “spilled down” mostly by the state as the major actor are not only questioning the democratic infrastructure but setting up an alternative to democracy that has remained tragically unnoticed so far.

It seems, at present, that the success or failure of this new political model in the European Union “Laboratory” called Hungary, that was established in response to the crisis that arose out of the response to globalization and to Hungary’s exemplary transition, will not depend on the application of norms derived from social reactions.

Rather, people will base their judgment on whether or not the social crisis is overcome, which in itself bears the possibility of a new kind of long-term political model – one that Kim Schepele has referred to as the birth of the “Frankenstate” – one which could easily be cloned for other national contexts in the years to come.

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