8 min read — Opinion | Hungary

Hungarian Public Opinion: The Separation of People and State

The policies of Hungary have increasingly isolated major sections of Hungarian public opinion from Fidesz’s positions. Here we shed light on the lesser known but equally noteworthy tools used by the Fidesz government to influence, and at times censor, opinions of Hungarians.
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By Noa Bulyovszky

April 8, 2024 | 22:00

As a Hungarian, biases inevitably influence my style of writing. Nevertheless, it is crucial for internationals, especially Europeans, to consider the points raised in this article because the behaviour of the government diverts attention from the wellbeing and living condition of Hungarians. The country lags behind other European nations in terms of quality of life and cost of living, as the government fails to control inflation and increasingly restricts personal freedom. Though upholding the rule of law is vital for a liberal democracy, one must not forget that the policy-effects of Hungary’s government outlined in this article cause harm on the individual level too.

Hungary has a seemingly cyclical history where the cries of its people is ignored by the government, and we are in the middle of another circle. During the Cold War, Viktor Orbán emerged as one of the most prominent advocates for the freedom and rights of Hungarians, eventually leading to his election as Prime Minister for the first time in 1998. Throughout his premiership, he pursued an agenda much different to his contemporary beliefs, including the preparation of the country for EU membership. After losing his re-election in 2002, he became a member of the opposition until 2010, when he rode the wave of popularity of the corruption scandal of the then-Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány.

Orbán has been re-elected three times since then, making him the longest-serving head of state in the European Union. Despite being a fixture of European leaders, his self-described style of governance, “illiberalism,” stands out from that of the other 26. The objective of Hungary’s illiberal democracy has not been (relatively) good governance, but the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of Fidesz associates. Maintaining their status requires Orbán and his party to manipulate public opinion to a significant degree.

The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how the Orbán government has systematically taken over public discourse using tools highlighted throughout, including ‘national consultations,’ the freedom of press and the persistent ignorance of protests.

In recent media cycles, Hungary’s opposition to Russian sanctions and Ukrainian aid has been a topic of heated discussion in Europe. After all, the country voted in favour of and supported the Union’s initial efforts vis-à-vis Russia and Ukraine, so what is the reason behind the sudden heel turn? The government’s answer: they are acting upon the opinion of Hungarians expressed in the national consultation regarding sanctions.

National consultations in Hungary are surveys akin to referenda but without binding effects. The state sends them out with content and structure that implicitly leave people with only one reasonable answer, essentially manipulating citizens into helping further legitimatize Fidesz’s agenda.

In 2022, questionnaires were distributed to measure public opinion concerning Russian sanctions. Responses were sent in by 1,4 million citizens, with an overwhelming majority – 97% – rejecting sanctions affecting oil, gas, or foodstuff, among other necessities.

But of course, that’s not the full story. Hungary’s voting population is approximately 8.2 million, so the consultation’s responses contained answers given only by 17% of the voting population – if it were a referendum, participation rates below 50% would make it immediately invalid. There were no boycott efforts, so low participation reflects possible voting apathy; Hungarian voters deem the consultations unnecessary because responding does not result in meaningful (or binding) change. While the opinions of those who answered the questions cannot be disregarded, it goes without saying that it is ingenuine and unfair for the government to claim that it is following the wishes of its constituents when a significant majority of the population has not expressed such sentiments.

Fidesz’s use of the 2022 national consultation show that they are willing to take the results as a stamp of approval and use it to legitimise their actions despite it not being representative of the values of the constituency. In a liberal democracy, if the government is unwilling to engage with its people’s opinions in good faith, those people have a possibility to resort to the free press.

However, according to a 2019 report, close to 80% of all media in Hungary is owned by people closely associated with the ruling party. Because of such circumstances, Fidesz holds significant leverage to dictate what topics gain coverage and in what light. Journalists are restricted from conveying information, especially views of the opposition. Adding fuel to fire is Hungary’s complex political arena, where, rather than a dominant alternative to Fidesz, the opposition is highly fragmented. Moreover, the most visited “opposition” news outlets publish stories criticizing smaller parties, while sites associated with Fidesz stick to writing about the party’s policies in a favourable and supportive light, regardless of the topic.

It is difficult to say how much the situation in the media unequivocally represents a difference between the opinions of citizens and members of the leadership. However, negative effects of the control easily manifest in the voting patterns across the country. For example, in rural areas, Fidesz and Viktor Orbán are the only names people recognize in politics and they are mainly aware of anti- immigrant and anti-EU talking points. Those who have access to alternative sources of information are far more likely to be dissatisfied by the government and are able to express their views via recourse to protests and strikes.

Thousands of people taking to the streets to demonstrate their willingness to fight is something that cannot be silenced except through physical aggression. Yet, unlike media suppression, physical aggression is a double-edged sword as state-employed violence has the potential to not only damage the reputation of the leadership but also indirectly oust governments.

There are countless examples of Hungarians fighting for their freedom and independence throughout history, a tradition which has continued into the 21st century. Since 2010, there have been several mass movements for various causes, with various outcomes. Some demonstrations, like the one against Internet tax has been successful with the government scrapping its proposal while others, such as the one against the Status Act – which does not remedy the glaring problems of the public education system and erodes many of the rights of public educators – was unable to deter the Parliament from passing the legislation.

I would like to highlight the most recent protest due to its peculiar nature and it being one of the largest gatherings in recent Hungarian history. The protest was organized not by any opposition party or movement but by influencers, YouTubers, and musicians, with a main goal of displaying a peaceful show of force inspired by the recent pedophile scandal and directed to framing the failure of the political system to protect children from abuse in the line of the government’s politics.

On the one hand, the demonstration showed that many citizens disagree with the current government and are ready to voice their convictions. On the other hand, it highlights the lack of a coherent, organized opposition. Moreover, the protest did not lead to any significant change in the status quo, because the former President resigned days before and other Fidesz politicians reverted to equating pedophilia to homosexuality.

All the aforementioned is but a glimpse into the tools and methods used by the Hungarian government to manipulate public opinion as well as ignore and, at times, supress dissenting voices – in clear violation of the (liberal) democratic principles of governance. Moreover, Orbán’s non- ceasing grip on power has proven that these tactics – used for more than a decade now – have yielded overwhelming success for his agenda. What’s worse, such malign success could motivate other European leaders with similarly populist agendas to follow suit in a strategy that has already been proven to work. Indeed, there is no doubt that this phenomenon has the potential to spread across Europe.

Though seemingly gloomy, illiberal agendas still have the potential to be reverted. The case of Poland can offer a glimmer of hope for Hungarians as the latest elections saw the defeat of the populist Peace and Justice party. Though Poland’s erosion of the rule of law is comparable to Hungary’s, it does not go as far. Thus, efforts in Hungary need to be much more overwhelming and only through effectively organized opposition can democratic governance regain leadership.

Disclaimer: While Euro Prospects encourages open and free discourse, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of Euro Prospects or its editorial board.

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