Tag Archives: women in politics

Hungary and gender equality: An abysmal record

Ignác Romsics, a historian best known for his work on the twentieth century, is a prolific writer who just published an ambitious book, a one-volume history of Hungary. Romsics has been making the rounds to publicize his book. During one of his interviews, he was asked about “the guiding principle of the Hungarian nation” in history. Is there some kind of “inevitability” to its fate? Romsics, without making any reference to politics or specifically mentioning Viktor Orbán’s name, had some harsh words to say about the romantic notion that the guiding principle of the Hungarian people is its “longing for freedom.” In Romsics’s view, “if there is such a thing as a guiding principle, Hungary in the last 1,000 years has been trying to follow the modernization efforts of Western Europe. Our gaze was always on the West; both our revolutionaries and our consolidators have followed European and not Asian models. Both Mihály Károlyi and István Bethlen were guided by this principle…. But despite continuous efforts, we have never managed to catch up with the advanced regions of Europe.” Here Romsics, who is considered to be a conservative historian, goes against everything the Orbán regime stands for. It seems that he, like other conservative thinkers, realize that their place is not on Viktor Orbán’s side.

I recalled this interview, which I read a few days ago, when I looked at another study by the European Commission, this time on gender equality. Two days ago I was decrying the fact that Hungary, in almost all comparative polls, ranks worst or close to worst among the 28 member states. It is depressing always to see Hungary among the same three or four East European countries, whether the issue is healthcare or the performance of 15-year-olds on PISA tests. Or, as we will find out, when it comes to the position of women and the societal attitude towards them.

A couple of years ago 444.hu got hold of a recording of an informal conversation between Viktor Orbán and university students at his old dormitory. A female student inquired why there weren’t more women in Hungarian politics. Orbán replied that, yes, some people claim that “women should be given more opportunity in political life,” but, according to him, Hungarian politics is built on “continual character assassination,” which creates the kinds of brutal situations that “women cannot endure.” Perhaps they could be used in diplomacy. An ambassadorship might be a safe place for a woman, but being a “mayor in a town that is a county seat is a soldier-like political task for a woman.” Of course, within Fidesz it is Viktor Orbán who decides which women are strong enough to be politicians since he approves all appointments within the party. Mighty few  qualify.

Gender Equality 2017 is a survey that was undertaken at the behest of the European Commission. It was published a few days ago. As everyone knows, the West is a great deal more progressive than the East. But even within Eastern Europe Hungary stands out as an extremely conservative country with societal outlooks stuck at the end of the nineteenth century. This is especially strange after forty years of socialism, when women were brought into every field of the working world. For instance, in the 1950s Hungary was way ahead of the United States, where women were largely excluded from such professions as medicine, law, and engineering.

The traditionalist, deeply conservative view of Hungarian society is  demonstrated by Hungarians’ answer to the following statement: “The most important role of a woman is to take care of her home and family.” Respondents had the option of either agreeing or disagreeing with this assertion. Bulgaria leads the way with 81% agreeing, but, don’t fear, Hungary is right behind at 79%. And 79% of Hungarians believe that “the most important role of a man is to earn money.” Given such an attitude, we shouldn’t be surprised that an overwhelming majority of Hungarians (87%) believe that “women are more likely than men to make decisions based on their emotions.” The EU average score is 69%.

The survey included two statements on women and politics. The first was about women’s interest in acquiring positions of responsibility in politics. The majority of Hungarians (57%) believe that women are simply not interested in politics. The EU average is 34%. The situation was even worse when Hungarians confronted the statement “Women do not have the necessary qualities and skills to fill positions of responsibility in politics.” Forty-one percent of Hungarians believe that women are simply unfit to fill political roles. Well, you could say, that’s not so bad. At least it’s better than 79% thinking that the most important role of a woman is taking care of the home and children. Yes, but Hungary, along with Romania, heads that list. Just to illustrate the seriousness of the situation,  only 20% of Poles and Slovenians are as backward as Hungarians. Sorry, but I consider that true backwardness.

Political analysts like to portray Viktor Orbán as the political genius who keeps his finger on the pulse of the nation. He knows “Kádár’s folks,” the saying goes, but I think it would be more accurate to say that he is one of them. It is unlikely that he keeps women away from power because he considers it to be politically advantageous. No, he does it instinctively because he truly believes that they are neither fit for nor interested in politics.

Strangely, when Hungarians were faced with the statement “Politics is dominated by men who do not have sufficient confidence in women,” 82% of them agreed, the highest score among all member states. Hungarians, when it comes to women and politics, seem to have a somewhat schizophrenic attitude to the whole question. On the one hand, women should stay at home and take care of the family and, on the other, the men who are in charge of their affairs don’t really represent their interests. The majority (61%) of Hungarians realize that “political gender equality has not been achieved” in their country.

With a political leadership that not only wouldn’t reflect and exploit present prejudices but would try to bring the country more in line with the West, toward which Hungary has allegedly been striving for a thousand years, the abysmal standing of Hungary on the issue of gender equality could be shaped over time to conform at least to the European Union average.

November 27, 2017

Fidesz and gender inequality

A fascinating article appeared yesterday in 24.hu about József Szájer’s voting habits in the EU parliament. István Ujhelyi, an MSZP member of the EU parliament, noticed that Szájer, who is one of the nine vice-chairmen of the European People’s Party (EPP), often refrains from voting, although he is the one who instructs members of EPP to vote for or against an issue. Szájer explained that he, as vice-chair of EPP, in order to avoid self-contradiction, refrains from voting when the Fidesz caucus within the EPP cannot support the delegation’s majority decision. Thus, from Szájer’s non-votes one gets a fair idea of how often Fidesz members stray from the majority opinion. The resulting count revealed that in the last two years there have been 58 occasions when Szájer had to resort to this practice, which means that for the EPP leadership the Fidesz caucus must be a royal pain in the neck. It’s no wonder that a few months ago there was talk of their expulsion from the delegation.

A careful study of those issues on which Fidesz went against its own delegation is by itself a fascinating undertaking. No one will be surprised to hear that many of the contrary votes were about issues connected to migration. But the Fidesz delegation also went against the majority opinion on anything related to Turkey. Fidesz members didn’t quite dare to vote against the resolution condemning the repressive measures introduced by President Erdoğan; instead, they consistently abstained on all issues related to Turkey. The same was true of any piece of legislation connected to the rights of NGOs.

József Szájer at work / MTI / Photo: László Beliczay

Given the Orbán government’s views on migration, its outright friendly relations with Turkey, and its antagonism toward NGOs, none of these “nay” votes or abstentions is surprising. What is startling, however, is the Fidesz MEPs’ consistent anti-women stance. Fidesz MEPs either vote against or abstain when gender equality is at stake. In April of this year they abstained when the European Parliament approved the Arena report on female poverty. They did the same when it was the question of the Kuneva report on domestic workers. They also abstained on accepting the Honeyball report on sexual exploitation and prostitution. All this hasn’t gone unnoticed, and István Ujhelyi learned that the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee (FEMM) will send a delegation to Hungary soon to learn more about the situation on the spot. A similar delegation visited Poland just lately, and therefore I assume that the trip to Hungary is not far off. I should mention that FEMM has only one Hungarian member, Jobbik’s Krisztina Morvai.

Here are some of the women-related issues on which Fidesz members voted “nay” or abstained: (1) supporting girls’ education in the EU, (2) the implementation of the principle of equal opportunity and equal treatment of men and women in matters of employment and occupation, (3) the enforcement of gender equality in the work of the European Parliament, (4) strengthening gender equality and women’s rights in the digital age, (5) preventing and combating human trafficking and defending the victims, (6) the development of labor market conditions favorable to a balance between work and private life, (7) the promotion of gender equality in mental health and clinical research, (8) the Report on Equality between men and women in the European Union—2014-2016, and (9) the Report on EU subsidies for promoting gender equality. As you can see, they wouldn’t even support the fight against human trafficking or research on the mental health of women.

What emerges from this list is a consistent and deliberate government policy against anything that would promote gender equality. It is not just Viktor Orbán’s ambivalent feelings toward women in politics, as expressed a couple of years ago at his meeting with students. And it is certainly not the delicate nature of women that would make them unsuitable for political life in Hungary, as Orbán claimed at the time. It is a hard political decision. As long as Viktor Orbán and his ilk are in power in Hungary, the situation of Hungarian women will not improve. Mind you, as far as the number of women in politics is concerned, the situation wasn’t exactly rosy even before 2010. Their numbers in parliament have been hovering around 9-10%. Hungary is close to the bottom of a list of 189 countries comparing the percentage of women in the legislative process. It is among countries like Gambia, Samoa, Botswana, and Belize. Nothing to be proud of. But at the same time Hungarians, on the whole, share Viktor Orbán’s belief that the reason for the scarcity of women in parliament is their unsuitability for the profession.

Hungarian women don’t fare well in general. The European Institute for Gender Equality, an EU agency situated in Lithuania, published its latest report on gender equality in the European Union. Since 2005 three such reports were published, and the report noted that progress in this area has proceeded at a “snail’s pace” in general.

The report ranked all 28 states on an index score from one to 100 in terms of work, money, knowledge, time, power, and health. It also looked into the issue of violence. Sweden heads the list with an overall score of 82.6, followed by Denmark (76.8), Finland (73), and the Netherlands (72.9). At the bottom is Greece with a score of 50. And where is Hungary? Second to last with a score of 50.8. Over time scores increased in most member states, though some were stagnant (Czech Republic, Lithuania, Finland, Slovakia). There were, however, a few that managed to lose ground: Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Spain, and the UK. The 2017 interactive equality index is available online.

Hungary’s low scores were predictable, as was the fact that in the last few years Hungarian scores have decreased. The worst score Hungary received was in the political, economic, and social power category. Here are some figures: for women’s political power Hungary received a score of 14.3, while the EU average is 52.7. That put Hungary last on the list. The same is true of women’s social power (20.9). Hungary did somewhat better in the economic sphere, where the EU average is 39.5 and Hungary received a score of 22.1. That better score, however, didn’t make up for the very low scores in the other two categories, and thus Hungary ended up at the bottom of the list with an overall score of 18.7 as opposed to 48.5 for the 28 member states.

It is depressing to see Hungary at the bottom or very close to the bottom in comparative lists. It is especially jarring in light of the constant bragging of Fidesz politicians about the fantastic achievements of the country. I wonder when the people of Hungary will notice that something has gone very wrong and that a better future is not likely any time soon.

October 14, 2017

A woman prime minister for Hungary?

A surprising number of listeners, mostly men, to György Bolgár’s call-in program on Klubrádió keep suggesting that what Hungary needs today is a woman as prime minister. My first thought was that the reason for this unexpected enthusiasm for a woman to lead the country is the undeniable failure of the Hungarian political elite in the last 25 years. Female participation in politics has been negligible, so politics is associated with the male gender. Perhaps disillusioned voters think that with more women in high political offices politics itself would be transformed into something more civilized and less corrupt.

Regardless of whether Hungary had a conservative or a liberal-socialist government, women never made up more than 10 percent of the country’s legislators. With that figure Hungary is dead last among all member states of the European Union. Currently the percentage of women in the lower houses of parliament in the European Union is 29%. The goal is 40% by 2020. With the exception of LMP, Hungary’s green party, there has been no concerted effort to encourage women to enter politics and promote their careers.

In the last 25 years only two women were chosen to lead their parties: Ibolya Dávid of the by now defunct Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF) and Ildikó Lendvai of the socialist party (MSZP). At the ministerial level, again regardless of whether the government was conservative or liberal-socialist, the number of women was very small or nonexistent. Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz has had the worst record in this respect. The first Orbán government did have one female member, Ibolya Dávid, but her appointment was forced upon him by the coalition agreement signed by Fidesz and MDF. Once he was free of any such encumbrance, he had no desire to see a woman near the apex of power. Moreover, he doesn’t want to see too many of them in parliament either. Of the 114 Fidesz MPs only eight, or 7%, are women. We mustn’t forget that all MPs are handpicked by Orbán himself.

Sometime in the spring of 2015 Viktor Orbán paid a visit to his old college dormitory to have a chat with the current students of the famed birthplace of Fidesz. In the freewheeling conversation that followed, which was later leaked to the media, Viktor Orbán shared some of his thoughts on women and politics. I devoted a whole post to this topic, in which I summarized Orbán’s ambivalent attitude toward women in general and women in politics in particular. He characterized Hungarian politics as savage and said its main weapon was “character assassination.” Therefore, women should be spared this pain. Perhaps they are better suited to becoming ambassadors because in that position women “are not torn to pieces.” So, Orbán, by not allowing women into the political arena, is doing them a favor.

The other day “Integrity Lab” released a study based on polling of the public’s attitudes toward women politicians, which was most likely inspired by Hillary Clinton’s nomination to become the first woman president of the United States. If she is elected, three women–Angela Merkel, Theresa May, and Hillary Clinton–will have a substantial say in which direction the western world heads.

Source: Aftenposten, Norway

Source: Aftenposten, Norway

Considering the low numbers of female politicians in Hungary, the Hungarian public is quite open-minded on the subject. The first surprise was that 51% of the population believe that the socialist-liberal parties should name a woman as their prospective prime minister while only 30% would disapprove of such a choice. The rest (19%) have no opinion.

The enthusiasm for a socialist-liberal prime minister naturally varies by party preference. The most baffling result is the relatively low percentage of LMP voters who would support the idea of a female prime minister (43%) as opposed to those (38%) who would not welcome such an outcome. These figures are mystifying because LMP believes in a 50-50 quota system. In the five-member LMP parliamentary delegation there are two women, and if six of them had been elected, there would have been three women. The leadership is in the hands of co-chairs, a man and a woman.

The other surprise is the less than enthusiastic endorsement of a female candidate by the voters of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK). Only 50% of them would support the idea, compared to 57% among MSZP voters and 65% among the smaller democratic parties (Együtt, PM, MLP). The explanation, I assume, stems from the standing of the party leader, Ferenc Gyurcsány, in the eyes of his devoted followers. Jobbik voters, as far as their attitudes toward a female candidate are concerned, are more enlightened than their friends in Fidesz. Thirty-eight percent of Jobbik voters would accept a woman as prime minister. A mere 15% of Fidesz voters would.

Only 12% of the population think that the reason there are so few women in politics is their unsuitability for the profession. This is heartening, even if a rather large percentage (22%) of Fidesz voters share their leader’s skeptical view of women’s suitability for the job. This 22% is especially glaring if we compare it to 11% of Jobbik, 12% of LMP, 3% of DK, and 12% of MSZP voters.

So, Hungarians are on the whole not as disapproving of women in high positions as one might have suspected on the basis of the very low female participation in politics and the present government’s attitude toward women. On the other hand, other widely held views might negate this somewhat optimistic assessment of the situation. For instance, Hungarians totally reject any kinds of quotas, especially the kind that would give preferential treatment to certain groups. This is one of the reasons that the path to higher education is often cut off for Roma youngsters. To promote the entry of women into politics would need a conscious effort, most likely some kind of hard-and-fast rule when it comes to the allotment of party positions. That would mean that a number of ensconced male politicians would have to give up their places, a move that would undoubtedly be fiercely resisted.

It’s nice to dream about a female prime minister for Hungary, but at the present I am hard-pressed to come up with a candidate with the necessary experience and stature. I can think of only five well-known women politicians: Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP), Ágnes Vadai (DK), Erzsébet Pusztai (Modern Magyarország Mozgalom, earlier MDF), Kinga Göncz (MSZP, former foreign minister and member of the European Parliament) and the still very young Ágnes Kunhalmi (MSZP). The Hungarian democratic opposition should work very hard to include more women within their ranks and to mentor and promote them so they would be prepared to hold top positions in the parties and in a future government. Otherwise, Hungarians will not have a female prime minister any time soon.

August 7, 2016

Viktor Orbán and women in politics

For about a week there has been a lot of talk about an informal conversation that took place in March between Viktor Orbán and the students living in the dormitory in which Fidesz was born 27 years ago. 444.hu, a popular internet site, has a complete audio recording of the talk. The editors published a detailed summary of what transpired between the prime minister and the students in two installments. The first part, which appeared on October 6, dealt with Viktor Orbán’s ambivalent feelings toward women in politics. It is a well-known fact that Viktor Orbán, and hence the Fidesz leadership, isn’t comfortable with women in political situations. Especially not when he has to deal with them on an equal footing. The only woman who ever served as a minister under Viktor Orbán was Ibolya Dávid, and her appointment was not of Orbán’s doing. It was forced upon him as the result of a coalition agreement. And we know how that relationship ended. Orbán swore that he would ruin her, and he has pretty well succeeded.

The other topic of the conversation was his own political future, about which I will write tomorrow.

Women in politics is a fashionable topic

This was the way Viktor Orbán introduced the topic. Some people claim that “women should be given more opportunity in political life.” The choice of words is significant. It would be men who as a gift would allow women to have more of a voice in politics. And for one reason or other Viktor Orbán decided against giving them this opportunity. The scarcity of women in parliament as well as in government is glaring. All of the ministers are men, and of the ten ministries there are no women undersecretaries in five. Of 61 undersecretaries only seven are women. In the 199-member parliament there are only 19 women, 9.5%. In the Fidesz parliamentary caucus the situation is even worse: only 7% are women.

Women are too delicate

Orbán tried to justify this state of affairs by referring to the unique nature of Hungarian politics. According to him, Hungarian politics is built on “continual character assassination,” which creates the kinds of brutal situations that “women cannot endure.” He neglected to add that this type of political culture, if you can call it that, was introduced by Viktor Orbán himself. In fact, he had the gall to bring up the horrible attacks that Mónika Lamperth (MSZP), minister of interior who was also in charge of the police between 2002 and 2006, suffered at the hands of the Fidesz opposition. He added, which really boggles the mind, “and still we are a more cultured lot according to our own estimation.” So, the character assassinations came only from MSZP and SZDSZ. An interesting view of the past few years.

Political savagery in Hungary and the United States

Hungarian politics can only be compared to that of the United States. Well, I guess if someone’s political adviser is Arthur J. Finkelstein, who is known as the father of negative campaigning and character assassination of political opponents, one’s view of American politics might be somewhat colored. Therefore, says Orbán, it is not at all surprising that there are very few female politicians in the United States.

None of these woman politicians are from Fidesz

None of these politicians is from Fidesz

The students did bring up a few well-known names, like Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, and Madeleine Albright. Orbán quickly put an end to this list when he announced that Albright’s tenure as secretary of state was a long time ago. So I guess it no longer counts.

Of course, the students most likely didn’t know how many women are in President Barack Obama’s cabinet because it is in stark contrast to Viktor Orbán’s governments. Out of the twenty cabinet posts seven are held by women. While in the Hungarian parliament the percentage of women is under 10%, in the United States it is 20%. Yes, not great, but still twice as large as in Hungary.

Desirable female politicians according to Viktor Orbán

During this gathering Viktor Orbán had a hard time coming up with any female Fidesz politicians worth talking about. When students, I gather young women, pointed out that perhaps the women’s perspective might be an important addition to politics, he enthusiastically agreed: “Of course, of course, of course.” But when it came to finding “talented Fidesz woman politicians,” he was in trouble. I must say I share his assessment. It is hard to understand this paucity of impressive female politicians in Orbán’s party, but I guess that one reason, perhaps the most important one, is that the macho Fidesz leadership doesn’t want independent, bright women in the inner sanctum of this male world. I just read in Bálint Magyar’s latest book, A magyar maffiaállam anatómiája (2015), that “before the 1994 elections Fidesz administered psychological tests to those running for parliamentary seats in order to filter out candidates that were too independent.” And that was more than twenty years ago when Fidesz didn’t have the kind of reputation it has today. If independently-minded people in general are not tolerated, one can imagine what the leadership thinks of such women. The leadership certainly doesn’t want to deal with them.

Most likely this aversion to working with women on an equal footing is the reason that such third- and fourth-rate women are appointed to positions of great responsibility, women who are incapable of doing a half-decent job. The best example here is Rózsa Hoffmann, who made an incredible mess of Hungarian education, mind you with the effective help of Viktor Orbán himself. But who was chosen to replace Hoffmann? Mrs. Czunyi, Judit Bertalan, a woman who reminds me very much of Hoffmann herself and whose year in office has been rocky. There have been rumors that Orbán is dissatisfied with her performance. But according to Orbán’s latest, she is a possible prospect for higher political office. “She is a very talented politician, not just among women, but in general.” I doubt that too many people share Orbán’s admiration of the woman. Perhaps she managed to capture Orbán’s heart with a Facebook note at the time of the national election last year: “Without a true companion even Viktor Orbán wouldn’t be capable of such achievements in the interest of the country, the Hungarian nation, and Hungarian families. Thank you, Anikó Lévai!” who is of course Orbán’s wife.

Women in diplomacy and local politics

The prime minister was madly looking for more prominent Fidesz women because he must have realized that there were mighty few. He found “one or two women in diplomacy.” In his opinion an ambassadorship is a safe position for these delicate women where they can build up their political personae and where they can gain political capital. These are positions where women “are not torn to pieces.”

After further scrounging, he came up with one larger city, Kecskemét, that has a woman mayor. “As you can see, the supply is not great,” he said. As if women were simply not interested in these jobs when we know that he is the one who approves all mayoral candidates. “To carry on as mayor in a town that is a county seat is a soldierlike political task for a woman.” One wishes he were not so protective of the delicate psyches of women. Perhaps then there would be at least a semblance of equality between the sexes in Hungarian political life.