Why do Hungarians tolerate the anti-democratic measures of the current government?

A couple of weeks ago an article appeared on Galamus.hu written by Zoltán Fleck, head of the department of legal sociology at the Law School in Budapest. After reading it, I decided that the topic was worth investigating a little more thoroughly. Fleck's question is: "Why don't most Hungarians stand up and protest the Orbán government's clearly undemocratic measures?" Most likely there are many possible answers to this question and Fleck doesn't try to go into all of them. He gives the most obvious answer: Hungarian society's commitment to democracy is very weak. Weaker than other East European countries that received their freedom and independence after the fall of communism.

Many international sociological polls attest to this fact. The Hungarian society's value system and norms are closer to those of the former Soviet republics than to Slovenia, the Czech Republic, or Poland. Most sociologists, political scientists, and historians who have studied the problem came to the conclusion that the culprit might be the relative freedom Hungarians enjoyed, especially in the last decade of the Kádár regime. Overwhelmingly, people were more or less satisfied with their lot. They didn't feel that they were being deprived of their political rights because they didn't have political ambitions in the first place. There was an unspoken understanding between rulers and ruled: the rulers will provide an acceptable level of well being as long as the ruled don't make waves. And they didn't want to make waves. They were satisfied.

Even the creative elite didn't complain. Just yesterday I heard a well-known playwright who had a weekly column in Magyar Nemzet (then a very different paper from what it is today) say that he never felt that he couldn't write about something. Of course, it is possible that today, 20-25 years later, he no longer remembers his state of mind in those days. Perhaps his inner censor worked unnoticed even by himself. However, the fact remains that there was relative freedom with a few taboo topics, but for the average person it was a fairly pleasant existence. And the stores were more or less full. If one compares that situation with life in the much harsher regimes everywhere else in the Soviet bloc it's no wonder that Hungary was considered to be "happiest barracks" among the satellites. Today's nostalgia is most likely connected to those days of "gulyás communism." Strong leadership and security went hand in hand. In some ways, this relative prosperity and freedom is the curse of Hungary today. The dividing line between "socialism" and democracy in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania was real and dramatic. In Hungary it wasn't.

The result is rather sad. Nothing seems to wake the population to the danger that might await democratic institutions today. The nationalization of private pension funds, changing the constitution right and left, attempts to restrict free speech are taken in stride by the population because Viktor Orbán promises law and order. Because there is the promise to free them from the hard choice between alternatives and from responsibility.

Hungarian society is, according to Fleck, "a society running away from freedom." He brings up as an example TÁRKI's World Value Survey which shows a great deal of confusion as far as societal norms are concerned. In addition, Hungarian society's lack of trust in institutions and in each other is substantial. They lack self-confidence, they refuse to stand on their own two feet, and they welcome the presence of a paternalistic authority. The picture that emerged from the survey was so disappointing that the researchers considered Hungary ill suited for "the development of democracy and the market economy."

A similar picture emerged from the 2009 Pew Global Attitudes project as well. It showed that reservations about democratic institutions and the market economy have in fact grown compared to the early years of the 1990s. When asked, 73% of Hungarians considered "a strong economy" more important than democracy. In the other three Visegrád countries (Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia) only 50% of the population held that opinion. Offered a choice between a strong leader and democracy, 48% chose the strong leader and only 42% democracy. The data show the Hungarians' attitude to be closer to that of Russians, Ukrainians, and Bulgarians. The situation is the same when the question was about the acceptance of capitalism. In Hungary 42% of the population viewed the change from socialism to capitalism unfavorably while in Poland and in the Czech Republic it was only 15%. Even in Slovakia only 24% preferred the socialist economy over capitalism.

All that is pretty discouraging, but the situation is even worse if we consider another rather disappointing data point. Eurostat conducted research concerning the willingness of adults between the ages of 25 and 64 to pursue "life-long learning." The average in the member states was 42%. In Austria and Slovenia, countries close to Hungary, 80% of adults decided to learn something new. In Hungary, believe or not, only 12%! Hungary is the worst in the whole EU. Second from the bottom is Greece, with 17%. It is especially worrisome that among highly skilled white collar workers the percentage is only 10%, a third of the European average. Among people with college degrees the situation is slightly better: 17%. Yet Hungary is the very last in this group as well. The European average is 55%!

Fleck inquires at the end of his article: "What can we expect under these circumstances? Openness toward the world, toward knowledge is a prerequisite of democracy, especially in those countries where people are now learning the basics of democracy."

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Member

I’m not sure about the communism factor, I’m sure it has some bearing but more indirectly I think.
What I notice is that Hungarian cynicism tends to make people politically passive. Many Hungarians think that the sort of petty corruption that plagues their country is normal and believe that it is the same in other countries. They find it difficult to believe that other countries are any different and therefore believe that they will never be any different.
I think that cynicism about capitalism and western democracy was an objective of communist era propaganda. I’m not sure whether cynicism was as deeply ingrained in the pre-communist era – it would be somewhat ironic if it has come as a result of believing too much propaganda.

Szabad Ember
Guest

It’s pretty clear that democracies tend to be wealthier than non-democracies (although there are good counter examples), so the likelihood that the coming authoritarian government will hurt the economy (they may already be doing so) will, in the medium term, cause Hungarians to look for an alternative. Orban may have foreseen this, and put enough poison pills in place to ensure that whatever government that may be allowed to replace him will be hamstrung to the point that Orban will plausibly be able to say that things were better under his regime. I doubt that he will give up control voluntarily, but in order to stay in the E.U., he might have to do something similar to Putin: use a placeholder (like the LMP). Outside the E.U., Hungary’s economy is doomed, as I’m sure he realizes.

latefor
Guest

“When asked, 73% of Hungarians considered “a strong economy” more important than democracy.”
If “strong economy” means: full employment, better health care and education, higher living standards etc. than I would like to be one of those 73% of Hungarians who consider strong economy more important than democracy. You can not feed the hungry on “freedom of speech” and I find this survey pathetic. (strong economy vs democracy, hah!)

Kirsten
Guest
It appears strange to me that the rather passive acceptance of what is going on could be explained by the relative prosperity of the communist era. I wonder what might now resemble that period. To me it seems highly unlikely that the government can or does (or is perceived to) provide some “relative economic prosperity” compared with the neighbouring countries (in addition, no money from “the West” is now being provided as a reward for “being relatively more liberal”, quite the opposite, Hungary might now be punished for the actions taken by the Orban government so far). Also politically: what kind of “taboos” could be acceptable now that are similar to those of the communist times? I am also surprised that the argument of the relative prosperity during the Kadar years could hold true for the generation now aged 25-30 who cannot have too strong memories of those years. I was thinking about some other explanation because you, dear Éva, wrote some months ago a piece where you said that unfortunately the aristocracy had dominated the political life for too long. But if the aristocracy has had such an important place in the political life of Hungary and in the… Read more »
m
Guest

Democracy is today for Hungarians, it should be evident for all, is simply not first priority. Hungarians had no personal knowledge of democracy ever. They never learnt to value it from personal experience, with one exception. They came to learn the value of the freedom of speech.
Today they definitely don’t feel themselves free,(with every ground). This is their priority. They will not find it with O.V, not with the EU, not with the NATO. Where will they turn, when this becomes clear?

An
Guest
@Kirsten: I think you are right in that todays’s Hungarian governing elite (Fidesz- KDNP) do show some aristocratic attitudes combined with paternalism, attempting to recreate the aristocratic milieu of the 20s-40s in Hungary. But that’s not the reason why they garnered popular support, nor is the reason why the average Hungarian is not more protective of democratic institutions. I think this latter is fairly well explained by the theory Eva described above. Most Hungarians are hoping for a better standard of living and unwilling to accept (any more?) the restrictive economic policies that were eventually forced on the socialist governments. They would like to believe Orban that there is an alternative, and they are buying into the economic fairy tale of painless economic recovery by taxing the evil foreign corporations. And, yes, sadly, if they think they will live better, they can live with a little less freedom, as they did in he 80s. It worked so nicely back then. They don’t realize that easy foreign credit is not available now as it was back then to finance an increase of the standard of living in the country. And it will be a hard awakening when they realize that the… Read more »
Ujpesti fiu
Guest

I am not sure this is a purely Hungarian phenomena. For example, I could pose the question as to why do Americans put up with a system that gives billions to the military, billions in tax cuts for the rich yet, begrudges anything for health care, unemployment, or education. America has news networks that are so overtly political that any pretense at being “fair and balanced” is laughable. And yet, is there are sign of rage against this system? No. I suspect that somehow the majority of populations in democratic societies are rather docile and reluctant to challenge the status quo. The question I am suggesting is, “Is the current situation in Hungary where a population accepts a status quo that is manifestly not in its best long-term interests a purely Hungarian phenomena, or part of wider aspect of contemporary Western democracies?”

Mutt Damon
Guest

We should look at the past 20 years since the fall of communism. We had the lunatic right or the ex-commies to choose from. We kept the ex-commies for 12 years. FIDESZ had only 4 (this is is actually 16 years, I know, but I wouldn’t count the first 4 years, because that had to be naturally an anti-communist government).
So, I think we didn’t do that bad, did we? Maybe the problem is not the voters mind. Maybe the question is asked the wrong way. It should be “Why can’t we produce great politicians”? Why do we always end up with these clowns?
By the way are the Germans more committed to democracy? 80 years ago they didn’t seem to be ..

latefor
Guest

Kirsten, “no money from “the West” is now being provided as a reward for “being relatively more liberal”
In your opinion, Hungary was “rewarded” by the West for being liberal?
You can not be serious? Please explain. (I might be ignorant but have a great desire to learn.)

Ujpesti fiu
Guest

m. I take your point that Hungarians do not necessarily have a long experience with democracy in the modern sense. However I think we need to be careful not to to take from this that are somehow unsuited to democracy. No country or peoples are unsuited to democracy. Not necessarily western democracy of multi-parties, parliaments, etc, but democracy in the sense that all individuals and groups are free to participate to the extent they wish and that there are structures in place to balance competing demands for political power.
As a member of the EU, Hungary’s democratic requirements are those of a modern European democratic society: a free press, multi-party Parliaments, an independent judiciary, a competent and apolitical bureaucracy, an active civil society and so forth. The danger we all can see is that these foundations are being undermined by the current government. Nonetheless we must expect Hungary to abide by these norms and hold them to these standards, no matter how inexperienced the citizens of the country are in the democracy.

T. Sanyi
Guest
I think there are two questions related to this political passiveness: 1) Expectations towards the state. Do people believe the state is responsible for solving problems or rather each individual or the society? Should the state regulate as many affairs as possible or rather stay out. I think both options can work if there is a balance of realistic expectations. I once heard the sound bite: US citzens don’t expect much from the state and are not willing to pay for it. Scandinavians expect a lot from the state, but are willing to pay for it. Germans expect a lot from the state, but are not willing to pay for it. I’m afraid Hungarians might also belong to the latter category which is a bit problematic in the long run. 2) The perception of self-efficacy. Do people believe that they can achieve something by taking action. I once read a survey what Hungarians perceive to be important factors for personal success (unfortunately I didn’t find it not as reference). Personal performance was ranking far behind family, network and luck. I think this can be explained by what both, Eva and Kirsten said, as aristocracy as well as communism are systems… Read more »
GW
Guest

One important answer is that twenty years after the change of systems, the country has still not been able to organize a non-partisan Civics instruction in public schools based on a factual study of the constitutional structure, institutions, rights and responsibilities. While it is clear that the doctrinaire instruction of the socialist era has largely led to the present attitude that such instruction simply does not belong in the schools, that is no excuse for the general ignorance that this has led to.
A further problem is that Hungarians have little or no experience in citizen participation at the local level. Unfortunately, partisanship controls even the lowest local level of government, and instead of non-partisan expertise in questions of garbage collection or street signage, all decisions come from top down and are decided on party-line votes. A Mr Smith goes to Washington sort of democracy is simply not in the works here.

Billy
Guest

Kadar’s folk. 🙂

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kirsten: “it might be rather easy to accept some “natural” hierarchy”
I also think that the problems go back way beyond the Kádár regime. The ready and often unquestioned acceptance of authority is certainly older than the Kádár regime. But excessive reliance on the state is certainly a newer addition to the “sins” responsible for the current state of affairs.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Ujpesti fiu: “No country or peoples are unsuited to democracy.” Well, as blanket statement you might be right but there are countries which at one time or other in their development might be ill-suited for democracy. Let’s take Afghanistan or Iraq. You think they are ready? Or was Russia ready for democracy in 1917? Or Hungary in 1918?

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

T. Sanyi: “has still not been able to organize a non-partisan Civics instruction in public schools based on a factual study of the constitutional structure, institutions, rights and responsibilities.”
Yes, this is really a terrible situation. Apparently young people are woefully ignorant about the basic functionings of democratic institutions.
Yes, it is understandable that after socialist indoctrination they wanted to depoliticize schools and universities but they went too far.
In American universities party politics are present. One can join the Young Republicans or the Young Democrats and often there are parties unique to the institution. At Yale there is the Political Union where young political hopefulls can debate and take active part in party politics.
In Hungary political activity is forbidden at the universities. Yet, Jobbik started at ELTE! I would have a few ideas what Hungarian university administrators could do to remedy this situation.

Joe Simon
Guest

Readers of this Blog should realize that the problems facing Hungary go well beyond the present government. FIDESZ may fail ultimately but it will not be due entirely to its supposed moral and political shortcomings and turpitude. The problems are almost intractable. I will never forget the taxi driver in Budapest. ‘Uram’ he said, whether a government by neo-socialists, nationalists, liberals, or even Jews, nothing can help this country. Well said.

Erik
Guest

It’s for the same reason most Hungarians aren’t really interested in getting rid of corruption: They’d rather just want until their team is in charge and enjoy lording it over those out of power. Rinse, later, repeat…

John G
Guest

I don’t understand what all the mystery is about why Hungarians are reluctant to embrace a western styled democracy. A nation whose entire history essentially boils down to resisting outside forces, a nation whose culture and language is an isolated island in a sea of unrelated languages and cultures has long ago learned and has in its genes ingrained that survival depends on maintaining the integrity of the tribe. Hungary as a political fact today exists only because of this aspect of the national psyche.
This fact has finally been stated clearly and without evocation by a leading politician just recently. Commenting on the situation of the homeless and the government’s plans on re-integrating them into society the new Mayor of Budapest said that individual rights have limits and the needs of society as a whole (közösség)is to be a primary concern in formulating plans for the future. I believe that while he may have only commented on the situation regarding the homeless this philosophy is in fact the basis of anything the current government is doing. And why opposition as yet is so weak in Hungary to the dismantling of institutions that protect individual rights.

Kirsten
Guest

@latefor: I hope that it will be correct enough, but what I meant was that after the oil-price shocks in the 1970s, Hungary started to accumulate debt in hard currency (due to a number of reasons). As it still was a communist country with a non-convertible currency, such deals needed a lot of preparation and goodwill on both sides (loans of this sort are often somehow backed or supported by government institutions or international institutions such as the IMF). That is why I meant that “the West” was more open to extend loans to Hungary (Poland, Yugoslavia…) in the 1980s when that helped disintegrate the Communist bloc. Now there is no such benefit from lending money to Hungary, the forint is a convertible currency and the Hungarian economy is a market economy within the EU. I hope that this explains better what I wanted to say.

Kirsten
Guest

@Mutt Damon: “By the way are the Germans more committed to democracy? 80 years ago they didn’t seem to be ..”
It is a bit frightening that you chose this comparison, although it also sometimes comes to my mind. One would not hope that the road to democracy in Hungary need be so rocky and costly for the world as the German one. I guess that now there is a part of the German society that is really devoted to democratic values, but that came after a thorough re-education by the allies (and still there is no guarantee). So…

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kirsten: “Now there is no such benefit from lending money to Hungary, the forint is a convertible currency and the Hungarian economy is a market economy within the EU. I hope that this explains better what I wanted to say.”
It was clear to me first time. Yes, Hungary easily got money from western banks because the West wanted to loosen up the Soviet bloc and Hungary seemed to be the weakest link with its “soft dictatorship.”

Joe Simon
Guest

People are lethargic and apathetic.
‘This country had lost all battles and wars in the last 5OO years’ so writes the American Ambassador in his recent book on Hungary. Mohács, the defeats of Rákóczi, Kossuth, the two world wars and of course the trauma of 1956 are all there in the Hungarian collectice psyche. I think this is one explanation.

Kirsten
Guest
Dear Éva, latefor asked what I meant, therefore this extensive explanation. But I would like to ask you a question. In the recent book of Paul Lendvai he says that during the Kadar regime, most people were also engaged in the “second economy” (this is how he calls it in German), and the deal between the people and the regime was that the state did not interfere much in what they did and earned in this second economy. Could not that have produced an attitude towards the state of the kind: “they provide some basic necessities, and we do the rest but only for ourselves”? It is a similar argument as you wrote above but “passive” then has a different meaning (different from what I understood before). My impression is not that Hungarians are passive in that they expect too much of the state or the government (there are constant suspicions, and also there is and needs to be a lot of own initiative, simply to earn enough for life, but when possible without paying taxes in the “first economy”). Could “passive” then be interpreted as that the state or society is not taken seriously enough (people got used to… Read more »
latefor
Guest

Eva/Kirsten-
Thanks for the explanation.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kirsten, about the second economy. Lendvai is right and most likely you’re right too. There was another aspect of this second economy. People constantly had to find loopholes in order to circumvent the rules and regulations and that taught them to be cagey. They took this acquired knowledge along to an entirely different economic setup after 1990 where there were such nasty things as personal income tax, for example.
As for the passivity. There was an understanding between the leadership and the population. “We leave you more or less alone as long as you don’t poke your noses into the affairs of the state. Turn inward, take care of your family, make sure that you prosper, build a weekend place and spend as little time as possible on anything else.” In return, the regime provided rising living standards and relative freedom.
The problem started when the state no longer could keep its part of the bargain.

restrainedpartisanship
Guest
restrainedpartisanship

Hi!
First, I want to thank you very much for this very good blog! I sadly remember the day I found it two month ago. Sadly, because I just found it then. How much better would I´ve been informed all the years before..
The question rised by you (respectively by Fleck)in this blog entry is probably one of the most fundamental ones, if you try to understand Hungary. I´m pondering about the answers everyday and I considered a lot of them, but I won´t find any fully convincing. Which means: I don´t understand it (Hungary).
However, also if the answers would be given, the new question would have to be: how to change it? This question is much harder then the first.
Good luck everybody!

pachysandra
Guest

Is it possible that people don’t care because of cognitive dissonance? What about this?
1. I voted to Fidesz.
2. Of course, I am clever. Why should I think anything else of myself?
3. Clever people always make clever acts.
4. So, voting to Fidesz was a clever thing.
5. Is it possible that Fidesz does something bad to me? No way! That would mean that I made a bad decision previously and I was silly. And of course I am not silly! QED
I don’t know if it’s true or not, but sounds like something logical…

Mutt Damon
Guest

@pachysandra Yes, It is very well possible that the people who voted for Orban don’t want to admit yet (to themselves) that they made a mistake. It’s probably too early.
It could be that Hungarians don’t care if Orban turns out to be Hungary’s Pinochet as long as he fixes the economy. I wonder how long will it take until the reality kicks in …

Member

T Sanyi said this:
“I think this can be explained by what both, Eva and Kirsten said, as aristocracy as well as communism are systems where it counts to what group you belong and that there is an elite on top deciding, but maybe also with some kind of “caring” paternalistic attitude.”
I think that this is an interesting point. What group you belong to may be more important that what principles govern the country.
In other words it could be the situation that many people are not keen on the current changes, but do not want to speak out and incur expulsion from the group with power.

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