Crisis accumulation and signs of revitalization in Hungary

Author: Ferenc Miszlivetz

Ferenc Miszlivetz, points out the current political crises as a chance to reconsider and reformulate the relationships between the Merchant, the Prince and the Citizen - and the “Trickster” the media. As new actors are needed can civil society deliver?


Back in 1990 Hungary was seen as the most promising country east of the Elba. After the annus mirabilis of 1989, the country was expected to set an example to other former Soviet satellites in transition throughout the region. After nearly two decades, the question has been raised of how Hungarians managed to make such a mess of it all. Why did Hungarians fail to retain and capitalize on the early advantage and positive evaluation that it initially enjoyed? Beyond Hungary’s borders – in London or Brussels, and in the new member states that Hungarians once spoke patronisingly about such as Slovakia, Romania and even in EU candidate Croatia, the same question is being raised.

The deterioration itself was neither sudden nor unexpected – there certainly were and are people who sounded the alarm, but their voices were not strong enough. Their concern did not crystallize into a coherent critique or lead to a wider social discourse which aimed to identify solutions. This is primarily a symptom of the weakness of civil society and democracy.

Hungarian society and the political and economic classes, which now have a democratic mandate to lead the country, were largely, and still are, unprepared for deep European integration. Instead of trying to understand and utilize the new opportunities opened up to their society and the Central European region as a whole, they carried on where the party state had left off. Regrettably, there were many areas where this proved possible. As a consequence, various disintegrated segments of Hungarian society stand helpless, baffled, increasingly frustrated and sometimes ashamed and angry when faced with the jumbled mess of issues surrounding the robust processes of European integration, globalization and social and economic transition.

The only exception to this general frustration is a small economic and financial elite, which has shown no long term vision for the country’s future progress as a whole. They have clearly not even come to appreciate how crucial, indeed, inevitable, it is to take social and political responsibility, even though this is becoming an ever more inalienable part of the day-to-day activity of any self-respecting multi-national company. The idea of partnership between the Prince, the Merchant and the Citizen has failed to touch the Hungarian political and economic classes to any significant depth. The relationship between the three major actors is more imbalanced in 2009 than it was 20-25 years ago.

Democratic Deficit: The Citizen Loses All
In any society where the rift between external, institutional forms of democracy and its inherent content is permanent and still growing, democracy is in crisis. This is the situation that faces Hungary today. An increasing number of Hungarian citizens think that the machinery of democratic institutions does not serve their interests. Consequently they do not trust these institutions, or the politicians who directly operate and control them. In these conditions, they do not participate, nor wish to participate, in the debates and actions that take place in the public arena. An opinion widely held amongst Hungarians is that, apart from a very few exceptions, members of the political class are motivated by their own interest in material gain and power. They do not believe that these politicians aim to defend and enhance the public good or that they, the citizens, do have enough power to influence them. A growing number of Hungarian citizens view the present form of democracy with fear, frustration or apathy, unable to identify with it at all. They feel like they have been abandoned. This is a particular fear of freedom and continues into a fear of poverty, which we could call a freedom-poverty syndrome.

The experience of freedom mingled with frustration and fear was not even ameliorated by EU accession in 2004. The
de facto solidarity of the European Union has diminished noticeably toward the former Eastern bloc countries. To a great extent this was caused by the Big-Bang nature of enlargement. Beyond striving to keep the costs of enlargement as low as possible, subjective factors such as the generally uneasy atmosphere of core European countries also created an unfavourable context for deepening enlargement and worsened the chances of the process becoming an issue for wider societal concern. Even in the mature democracies of Western Europe, the deterioration of the welfare state and the prominence of the negative impacts of globalization, such as increasing illegal immigration, fear of terrorism, etc., have caused an upsurge in inward-looking and xenophobic attitudes and a loss of interest in the ‘new democracies’. This means that only a few years after Eastern enlargement, a paradoxical situation has emerged - the rift between the East and West of Europe, which was expected to disappear both in a social and a social-psychological sense, seems to be widening.

Dealing with deficit
Even if the sense of accumulating loss is not conscious on a day-to-day basis, it lurks in a permanent sense of frustration, having a negative impact on the collective subconscious of society. Beyond the sense of being abandoned, Hungarian society feels trapped. Society is frustrated by a self-destructive sense of helplessness, and aggression and apathy are only enhanced by the fact that society sees no way out of the present situation in the near or distant future.

Social cohesion and integrity is at an absolute low point in Hungary today. The middle-class is weak and powerless, this weakness has many other components, but two of them tower above all the others. As the gates of freedom open wider and the challenges of globalisation and European integration shed light on the truth, the lack of knowledge and competence appears more shocking than ever. This is also true of the lack of a sense of responsibility that should come out of a feeling of belonging to a community. In other words, besides a democratic deficit, Hungary now also has to reckon with an intellectual and moral deficit.

Failing to look in the mirror
Because Hungarian society did not take a look in the mirror at the moment of political change, it has not had the experience of democracy and freedom associated with 1989. The old and new political powers did not deem it necessary to lay the ethical foundations for a Third Hungarian Republic and for Hungarian democracy. Hungarian society and, within that, the embryonic forms of a potential civil society had neither the strength, nor the experience, nor the culture to force this to happen. Thus, the process which came to be termed the democratic transition was nothing more than the transfusion of the thought and behaviour patterns of the past regime into the world of democratic institutions.

If a society is unable to imagine that it can break out from a detrimental situation, it will never overcome that situation. For such a "vision" to come about, a society must be able to visualize itself as a political community. Without this vision it cannot make a success of the res publica, the affairs of the public.

Today the Hungarian Republic has become in many ways a formality, an empty shell, which owes more protection, legitimacy and content to the EU’s boundaries and institutions than to the sense of responsibility, commitment and mutual solidarity of its citizens. The worst absence is that of the common good, which in a dictatorship is declared from above, but after the dictatorship is over should be re-formulated by democratic means. This is something that was lost in the fervour of the redistribution of power and wealth that continues today. Instead of building a common good, the common bad  has been accumulating during the past three decades – something that everyone can see and feel, smell and touch but which no one is willing to take upon themselves. In fact dismantling the public bad requires as much collective action and identification as the construction of the public good. The two are inseparable.

Hungary, similar to other countries in the region, is now in a danger zone, in a borderline position. As Elemér Hankiss put it, “Central and Eastern European societies have grown far too entangled with their own problems. Their short-sightedness causes them to stay blind to the wider context”.[1] Amid the chaotic conditions of liminality, the pressure to create a new order may bring about the disintegration of society and cause “distortion in its members’ mental structures and patterns of behaviour.”[2] “The society in question may sink into such profound crisis that regeneration comes only after a long time and at the cost of great difficulties, and only if the society is willing to undergo rejuvenation.’[3]

Hungarian society may irrevocably lapse into insignificance and disintegration unless the dangers are comprehensively recognized on a broad social scale. This needs to be followed by active programs, like the genuine renewal of institutions, of economic behaviour, the behaviour of political parties and civil society networks.

The increasingly oligarchic nature of political parties has led to the emergence of a hierarchic and impenetrable system of mutual political dependency which easily repels any external or internal criticism as well as any initiative aimed at purification or renewal. The oligarchs themselves use the politically correct rhetoric of reform, dialogue and renewal that conforms to EU standards, so they are not easy to contest on the level of simple everyday discourse. Nor do we see much determination to contest them either on behalf of the centralized or the commercial media which has its own affiliations to respect.

In the 21st century the central principles informing social organization and governance are network and collateral organization, permanent flow, the integration of a growing number of people in local, regional and supranational decision-making, of interdependence. It is impossible to break out of the present situation. Hungary needs to accept, understand and learn to apply these principles in order to preserve and present its deepest culture, values and traditions.

This may well be the heaviest price and the one which is most difficult to pay for the years that have been lost, for the ever-growing ineptitude and the resulting tensions and failures. To break with the paternalistic, authoritarian traditions and short-sighted visions of Kádárism and other, earlier forms of feudalism, to stop the habit of placing short-term individual self-interest above all else and protecting it to the infinite, to break resistance to long-term thinking in broad perspectives (“what’s the point, we’re not the ones to decide anyway”), to break with the culture of unreliability, pretension, miscommunication, false facades and deliberate suppression of achievement – these are all tasks that are waiting to be completed. Hungary won’t get far with the muddling through mentality of “we’ll survive this, too, somehow, like we survived everything else”. What it does lead to is the emergence of a lasting divide within the EU between the centre and the periphery, to structural dependence and subordination. This way Hungary may stake out its own long-term position.

The relationships between the Merchant, the Prince and the Citizen, as well as of the “Trickster”[4] who stands between them – the media – also need to be reconsidered and reformulated. This is a challenge which urgently demands answers on all levels of governance, economic and social life. This must be done within the framework of local communities, and on regional, European and global levels.

Nearly twenty years after the political turnabout, Hungary now needs a new social contract and must lay down the ethical, political, institutional and intellectual foundations for its 21st century democracy. There is no chance for a stable democracy unless it is built from below. It is, therefore, essential, that profound changes take place in the attitudes, consciousness and behaviour of society. Democracy needs debate, increased self-confidence and a thorough consideration given to common affairs. The forms, frames and means of democracy need to be based on renewed and increasing social participation, many-sided discourse, and an open and constant search for consensus. This is a time-consuming process, particularly as the problems have accumulated and been left untreated. After gaining conscious awareness, the process of self-therapy can begin.

Hungary needs a new age of reform. Facing up to the facts and the resulting process of self-therapy may be aided by spontaneously organized forums or increasingly rich networks of civil society, and enhanced opportunities for communication. Even so, the emergence of a new social consensus is a complicated and difficult task that cannot take place without profound insight, tireless efforts at alignment and a genuine openness to compromise.

The strange revitalization of civil society
2006 can be described as a demarcation line in the history of the state-civil society relationship in Hungary. After years of dependence, marginalization and being entrapped by political (left-right) polarization, subsequent waves of self-mobilization started in 2006. This occurred after the re-election of the Hungarian Socialist Party and the leaking of the prime minister’s “lie speech”. In this speech, the prime minister, who was also the party president at the time, acknowledged in a rather vulgar and emotional speech at a closed party meeting, that they were re-elected with the help of lies about the economic and social state of the country.

After the leak, people started gathering spontaneously in front of Parliament demanding the resignation of the prime minister. In the absence of a proper response, and also due to the lack of any dialogue, the spontaneous protests continued and included the use of anti-Semitic and anti-globalization slogans. Some of the protesters used ancient Hungarian symbols, which had been abused by the Nazis during WW II, such as the flag of Árpád. The ruling left-liberal coalition, with the support of the vast majority of the media who focused on the right wing radicals, reproduced the old dichotomy: the protesters were proto-fascist populists tacitly supported and encouraged by the right-wing parliamentary opposition whose intention was to “bring politics to the streets.”

The political crisis has deepened and enhanced the lack of trust in fundamental institutions such as the Parliament, the police and in democratic institutions generally. By 2008, the deterioration of social and political trust, the growing anomie, the unfruitful relationship between a weak state and a weak civil society, culminated in a sort of genuinely “original crisis accumulation”. The global financial and economic crisis hit an already crisis-ridden and weakened country, adding new elements to the process of crisis accumulation. Surprisingly, the period of preparation and campaign for the European Parliament election motivated previously dormant elements of civil society. A second wave of self-mobilization took momentum: hitherto inactive or inward-looking local NGOs organized themselves into civil roundtables, demanding more influence in local governmental decision-making; internet web-portals offered their assistance in connecting the separated small civil society networks to each other, providing the vision of a new “network society”, that is a network of networks. Set courageously against the manipulative official “wisdom” that there is no more space in the political palette, so there is no chance for a new political movement to become a real political player, young people organized two new political groupings: The Humanist Party and Politics can be Different (LMP- Lehet Más a Politika). These new democratic, liberal and pro-European movements are the signs of a healthy social immune system in the light of a robustly dynamic extreme right breakthrough.

As a direct consequence of the lack of capacity and willingness of authorities to deal with the deepening problems such as poverty, unemployment and discrimination of a growing and more assertive Roma population, tensions among the Roma minority and non-Roma majority have grown into violence and even murder in the most under-developed parts of the countryside and in some of the larger cities in eastern Hungary. The Hungarian Guard found its legitimacy as a guarantor of security of non-Roma village inhabitants. Marching in uniforms similar to Hungarian Nazis in WW II, they reinforce fearful images rather than social reconciliation. Backed by the Hungarian Guard, Jobbik (“More Right”, or “The Better One”) launched an unexpectedly successful campaign and will have 3 MEPs to the European Parliament; meanwhile the liberals (SzDSz) have completely fallen out. The most likely explanation for the breakthrough of the extreme right is that they are directly addressing the Roma issue. In other words, Jobbik is gaining votes from all of the other parties who were unable to address a burning social and cultural problem, not because they are speaking about solving it or handling it.

The rapid, landslide changes in the political arena are not yet over. There is a growing vacuum between the well-separated world of the political “elite” and the rest of society. Whether new democratic groups can fill up this empty space supported by a dynamic civil society is an open question. Certainly, politics can be different, and today the overwhelming majority of Hungarian citizens believe that it should be different. What proportions and democratic quality these alternatives will take depends a lot on the networking – self-mobilizing capacity and organizational effectiveness of civil society. We will soon learn how much democracy has matured in the two decades of uneven and imbalanced transition, and whether a new and healthy balance can be made between the major players.

[1] See Elemér Hankiss, “Transition and Liminality: Possible interpretations of the transformation processes in Eastern Europe,” €urozine, 2007 July 26,


[2] Ibid.


[3] Ibid.

[4] For a theoretical elaboration of the relationshsip between the four big players, see the excellent dissertation by Jody Jensen, Globalizing Governance in a Multistakeholder World (Budapest: Corvinus university, 2008).

Prof. Ferenc Miszlivetz is a director of the Institute for Social and European Studies, and Jean Monnet Chair at the European Centre of Excellence, Dániel Berzsenyi College in Szombathely, western Hungary. He is a Scientific Adviser for the Institute of Political Sciences at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He holds a Ph.D. in Twentieth Century European History and a doctorate in International Relations from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. From 2001 to 2003 he was a member of the SSRC steering committee on Global Security and Cooperation research project. In 2000 he was principal investigator in the European cross-border research project “Preparity” –Structural Policy and Regional Planning Along the External EU Frontier to Central Europe: Preparing for Eastern Enlargement. He has lectured at many European universities and institutions, including: the University of Bologna, Wissenschaftszentrum für Sozialwissenschaften (WZB) Berlin, Columbia University, the University of Vienna, the University of Salzburg, Babes-Bolyai University and has been very involved in European Integration issues throughout his career. In 2005 he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Hungarian Republic for international research and professional activity. His main research interests focus on: social movements, emerging civil societies and participation, new political parties and human rights in Eastern Europe during the transition period, European integration, European security and Eastern enlargement of the European Union. His most recent publication in English is The Languages of Civil Society. Europe and Beyond (with Jody Jensen)

This paper is published as a contribution to the discussion of the Trust for Civil Society in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE Trust) Civil Society Forum. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the CEE Trust or its funders. Copyright © 2008 CEE Trust. All rights reserved.


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