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Hungary's political culture of illiberalism

Eszter Babarczy sketches the background to the victory of illiberal politics in Hungary.

Credits Text: Eszter Babarczy Translation: Peter Sherwood March 13 2018

Eszter Babarczy is a new media researcher, cultural historian, journalist, essayist, and translator, currently assistant professor at Moholy-Nagy University for Art, Budapest.

Ever since its change of political system in 1989 Hungary has laboured under a double burden that the Orbán government has been able to exploit: the tendency to passivity and a cynical attitude to politics. The tendency to passivity means that the citizens of Hungary think they cannot exert any influence over the political context of their own lives and have given up even trying to do so. This has resulted in the cynicism whereby evil political deeds fail to be met by the outrage that might bring about political change; corruption is known to be rampant but every political party or faction is considered equally corrupt – or to become so, were it to gain power

While there have been some spectacular protests in Hungary following particular ploys of the government – the slow strangling of the Central European University, or the harassment of civil organizations in the spring of 2017, for example – only in Budapest was it possible to bring more than a few hundred people out onto the streets. The Hungarian countryside is far more passive and far more at the mercy of powerful local political elites.

While Hungarians are not enamoured of the techniques employed by the government, which on occasion do not exclude intimidation, nor do they perceive them as being unacceptably outrageous. Political oppression or the conspicuous enrichment of the prime minister's immediate circle can be put down to the normal disgraceful behaviour of those at "the top of the heap", which it is necessary to tolerate in the interests of survival. Older folk merely continue to resort to the strategies they adopted in late-socialist Hungary: slotting into an appropriate network of connections is the key to getting by, and this is the culture into which younger people, too, are socialised.

Political passivity is so great that only participation in elections has had a relatively high profile; the majority neither wishes to nor dares to play an active role in politics. It does not wish to because it considers politics generally a dirty game, and it does not dare to because it can see that playing it may even put the family's livelihood on the line. Most Hungarians prefer to play safe.

Such a mentality can be exploited by the government's campaign against migration as well as George Soros. Migration is a potential source of tension, a threat to society, and the government's promise that it will protect Hungarians from it enjoys considerable popularity. It is easy to portray organisations that actively assist migrants as if they were plotting the permanent "settlement" in Hungary of hundreds of thousands, or even a million, refugees, since at the onset of the refugee crisis George Soros did indeed make a statement that could be interpreted in this way. Since Hungarians are generally not aware in any detail of the activities of Soros and the organisations he supports, the government's message could be challenged only by what remains of the independent press. However, one of the major commercial television stations and all of the regional press, as well as the majority of the radio stations, are in the hands of Fidesz members or sympathisers. The antagonism between the capital and the countryside is thus continually reproduced.

The contrast with the time of the financial crisis a decade ago is notable: the Hungarian economy is thriving, with unemployment remaining stubbornly high only on the peripheries of society and among the Roma population; otherwise there is, if anything, a labour shortage. If a family were to compare its prospects today, under the present Fidesz government, with its situation before 2010, it would not be too unhappy. On the other hand, voters seem far less aware of the fact that even by comparison with the surrounding countries the Hungarian standard of living is in steady decline.

Perhaps, if the political opposition were less divided, there might be a chance of Viktor Orbán losing the election, since those who are dissatisfied are more likely to be motivated to turn up to vote. At present, however, the opposition would be at a disadvantage compared with Fidesz even if the parties of the left joined forces for the election: they would have to coordinate their strategy with right-wing Jobbik in order to pose any real problems for the party in power. But no one would seriously support such a strategy. On the other hand, the "revolution" that is sometimes touted by the government's critics presumes that no one has anything to lose anymore. Yet, at this moment in time, Hungarians still feel that it is not impossible to keep their personal prosperity afloat, provided they navigate the waters carefully.

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