What's at stake
Attila Mráz, expert on political liberties, writes about the challenges facing social and critical Hungarian NGOs at the time of the general election campaign.
Attila Mráz is a human rights defender, political philosopher, and an expert on political liberties, from Budapest
What are the challenges facing the Hungarian civil sphere in 2018 in the run up to the general election? What opportunities remain to leading NGOs for human rights, diversity, and equality in a legal and political climate where supporting diversity and standing up for more vulnerable groups is regarded with ever less tolerance? And what difficulties will organisations supporting such vulnerable groups encounter after the election? These questions are worth asking not because the survival and flowering of a diverse public domain is a self-evident good, but because a vigorous society is one of the most important factors in ensuring that critical voices can be heard, and because such societies are the last bastions of neglected minorities.
Civil organisations targeted by the campaign
The imminence of elections anywhere always increases the pressure on NGOs. It has long been obvious that the period preceding the 2018 election in Hungary would be accompanied by ever-fiercer attacks on independent organisations in the public sphere. This is partly because opposition parties have continued to weaken and fragment, and partly because, lacking an effective political opposition, the government has naturally decided to focus its attacks on independent organisations whose human rights activism has been the only effective way of driving legislation.
Organisations that openly criticise the government make a wonderful target for the government PR machine. Their activities, which entail helping refugees and checking the processes for dealing with them – agencies such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights and Migration Aid – lay them open to the charge of acting as representatives of foreign interests primarily because some of their income is financed from abroad. This is the case with, for example, Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (Hungarian Civil Liberties Union). For years now the government and its legislative arm has been seeking to present migration and foreign influence generally as critical threats to Hungarian society, its ‘solution’ being to raise physical and ideological walls against them. The smearing and obstructing of civil organisations and their work fits perfectly into the package of such solutions.
But the problems outlined above are not solved by these methods. They result in governance and legislation tailored to suit communication requirements. It is, for example, difficult to imagine that ‘migration’ can continue to be presented as a crisis when barbed wire and policing render the so-called ‘transition zones’ where refugees are, unlawfully, kept prisoner, and where official procedure is prepared to accept only one claim for refuge per day. The police, in their turn, have recorded very few border arrests in their weekly reports from January to February 2018. Despite this the government has once more extended their so-called ‘migration crisis’ measures across the whole of Hungary. And this – a process that has now continued for two and a half years – has led to increased nationwide police powers that enable police to demand that anyone, without due reason, be obliged to show their ID and be physically searched. There is good reason to suppose that the point of such measures is not a matter of public interest but an attempt to intensify the government’s hate campaign by ratcheting up the mood of crisis in the run up to the elections.
As the NGOs become ever more the targets of the election campaign it becomes ever more difficult for them to execute their civil responsibilities. As OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) observers noted back in 2014 it was impossible for them to check the mechanics of the voting process and the counting of votes in Hungary in the proper legal manner.(Only foreign states and international organisations may delegate observers.) The increasing difficulty of independent, politically unaligned observation of elections is not peculiar to Hungary but is evident worldwide. In Hungary, however, the ineffective opposition and the weaker power of an ever less diverse press, make it possible for election results to be accepted without any civil oversight.
Prospects and Challenges after the Election
There is no point in trying to divine the future. We can’t tell how far the election results are likely to bear on the situation of critical voices in the public sphere. There are however a few effects we can see right now. The government has already proposed what is generally referred to as the ‘Stop Soros’ law, a law that will come before parliament – as things stand – only after the election on April 8, 2018. We don’t know how far the proposed law is merely one element in the election campaign and how much of it is likely to be carried through.
In any case, a representative part of the package is an amendment proposing that any organisation sponsoring, planning, or in any way supporting entry into, or longer residence in the country should require official ministerial permission to go about its work. But which organisations will be deemed by the government to be offering support “in any way”? There’s not much doubt about that: it will be whatever organisation the government considers culpable. In other words, if this is more than simply a campaign strategy, anyone who stands up for minority rights, or criticises the government will find itself in a really difficult position. This will leave all minorities without defence, even those without state support and depending entirely on civil aid, from our Roma fellow citizens, the handicapped, through to people held in police custody and those with HIV.
To sum up, attacks on NGOs are not isolated phenomena in Hungary. They are part of a co-ordinated process in which a range of institutions, starting with universities, churches, and the press, but also including anyone voicing critical opinions or demanding basic human rights at work and in daily life becomes a government target. At stake here is not only to defend the spectrum of loud, critical voices acting in the civil sphere – that is to say organs of democracy – but the rights and dignity of our most vulnerable fellow citizens during the election period and after it.