Hungary's Autocratic Regime and Society's Third Sector

01/12/2016 03:00 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2017

The prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, established himself as a youthful orator when he joined with the emerging political elite of his society in a mass rally in 1990 that chased the Soviet occupiers from his native land. Fascinating, is it not, that this young activist could become elected repeatedly to the highest office in his land, and now exercises power that might shape his country and, indeed, his region, in vital and progressive ways? But no, Orban at 52 now follows Vladimir Putin as a mentor, speaks of protecting Europe from the Muslim hordes in the name of Christianity, encloses his country in barbed wire to keep out the threat of a migrant invasion, and enriches himself, his friends and family with financial perquisites of power that flow from a money stream provided by a feckless European Union. Law professor and political scientist Mate Szabo, in his essay "From Anticommunist Dissident Movement to Governing Party," powerfully shows how the young Orban learned the lessons he now practices in power from the regime he sought to overthrow in the 1980s.

When I first arrived in Hungary as a Fulbright Specialist, and then came to reside there as a co-located American citizen, I thought of Orban as a strayed democrat--one who would surely come to see the light of serving his fellow citizens from the powerful post he had been provided. But more recently, I have come to see him as just another political boss. Living under Orban differs most from living under the Democratic Party machine in Camden County (New Jersey) by dint of the more overt venality of the Hungarian leadership and the more visible allegiance it demands. Both the Camden I knew and the Hungary I experience exhibit corruption, electoral manipulation, and the granting (or denial) of employment conditional upon the pleasure of the boss.

My recent co-edited book, The Hungarian Patient: Social Opposition to an Illiberal Democracy, describes the many third sector movements that have sought to speak truth to Orban's power. Such efforts, however, tend to be trumped by the Orban regime in a simple and yet powerful way--they are simply not given recognition. As communications theory notes right up front, a healthy process requires both senders and receivers. In Hungary, only those senders who deliver messages (usually involving large economic ventures) that directly challenge the power of the regime are recognized, but this reception comes at the cost of losing privileged place in the regime, and being entered onto blacklists for future contracts and employment. Opposition political parties are widely seen as loafing through their paces, their leaders securely tucked into the pockets of the regime's soft practices of control. There's no need in Hungary to oppress or jail the opposition; ignoring most of them, while coaxing those who can be bribed into acquiescence, more than suffices for the task.

When the Hungarian regime moves excessively to control or repress the advocacy that is exercised by Hungarian civil society, it exposes itself to the opposition from beyond its borders, as the police raid of the Okotars organization showed in 2014. Not only did this action threaten the further reception of philanthropic funds from outside the country, but it also inspired the usually somnolent judicial system of the country to refrain from further insult to civil organization autonomy. Orban seems committed to reducing pluralism within the Hungarian polity, society, and economy to a minimum, and to controlling as many organizations as remains to perform the bidding of himself and his key associates. Hungary's resultant social structure thereby increasingly takes the form of Kornhauser's "mass society", its power centralized and its social relations largely confined to the extended family and the café.

The massive flow of migrants and refugees through Hungary in 2015 further illustrated the split between the Hungarian government and the civil society organizations of the country. The government treated the influx of late-summer migrants as an illegal annoyance, often hindering the efforts of individual volunteers and civil society organizations from providing assistance to persons in dire need. But the response of the Hungarian third sector was substantial, as businessman and blogger Richard Field notes in a powerful article on Fear and Loathing in Hungary. Most striking in this case was the ability of the Hungarian prime minister, and former third sector activist, to turn his back toward, and indeed attack quite frontally with his troops, fellow beings in quite desperate need.

The American experience may not be entirely different from that of authoritarian Hungary. Political attacks such as those on the nonprofit Planned Parenthood organization or various gay rights initiatives indicate the perilous state of third sector advocacy. Campaigns of billionaires like Donald Trump and a variety of wealth-backed candidates provide Robert Kuttner's "Everything for Sale" hypothesis a significant test in their effort to purchase the presidency of the United States. Preoccupied with the global challenges of depression, terrorism, migration, and war--President Obama has struggled to hold the ground of participation and a fair distribution of income, much less wealth and power, during the first seven years of his administration.

Throughout his term in office, Obama, through his State Department, did assert his role by standing up for civil society independence in countries like Hungary and Ukraine. Earlier in his term, the American charge d'affaires in Budapest, Andre Goodfriend, won widespread admiration among democracy supporters. His abrupt return to Washington for "personal reasons" coincided with the appointment of Ambassador Colleen Bell, and was marked by a video featuring his memorable meeting with the Hungarian tax chief--an event set up by one of Orban's television networks only to backfire upon the regime. Goodfriend's candor and willingness to observe, and interact with, oppositional forces in the country was both remarkable and salutary for participants in these movements.

Bell remained largely silent during her initial months, but spoke out forcefully in a speech delivered at Corvinus University in Budapest in October, 2015. Criticizing a number of flaws in Hungarian democracy and governance, Bell noted that "wherever governments introduce restrictions on civil society organizations, to restrict the space for voices that might differ, we do not see a truly free society." The Ambassador's observation was underlined by the release of the 2015 Legatum Prosperity index, which gave Hungary low marks on both "social capital" and "individual freedom".

Orban responded to the Ambassador without addressing the content of her criticism of his society: "This is already realpolitik. This is already naked national or imperial interest." Hers was one statement he could not afford simply to ignore, but neither did he choose to engage her on the content of her critique.

The Orban experience suggests that politics is not all that different when the supreme leader emerges from a background in third sector leadership. The temptations and demands of power assume, inexorably and probably inevitably, their precedence over any particular values or experiences associated with prior third sector lives. So small victories must be celebrated: To friends of Hungarian democracy, the expression of active interest on the part of the American government, however limited its impact, can only be welcomed as a sign that the President, through his State Department appointees, recalls his roots in civic participation and action.

A third sector capable of speaking truth to power requires a base in a vibrant philanthropic tradition, a strong and active civil society, a pluralist organizational world, a modicum of respect for differences in opinion and lifestyle, and the confidence to speak from a truly independent base. (See the books cited below.) Within such a third sector, organizations may not only give voice to public issues, but can also take the space to explore a wide range of solutions that address, ameliorate, and (hopefully) even resolve pressing social problems and issues.

REFERENCES FOR FURTHER READING

BOOKS ON THE ROLE OF THE THIRD SECTOR
Habermas, Jurgen (1984). Theory of communicative action, trans. Thomas McCarthy, Boston: Beacon Press.
Szabo, Mate, "From Anticommunist Dissident Movement to Governing Party." in Klandermans, Bert, and Cornelis J. van Stralen (2015). Movements in times of democratic transition. Temple University Press.
Kornhauser, William (1959). The politics of mass society. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Parsons, T. M. (1966). On the concept of political power. In R. Bendix & S. M. Lipset (Eds.), Class, status, and power (2nd ed., pp. 240-265). New York: Free Press.
Van Til, Jon. (1988). Mapping the third sector. New York: Foundation Center, 1988.

BLOGS THAT ADDRESS THE POWER OF THE HUNGARIAN REGIME (in English)
Hungarian Spectrum, a monumental daily blog by Yale's Eva Balogh
Congress of Baboons, a new effort seeking to rekindle Central European traditions of satirical commentary

ON-LINE NEWSPAPERS THAT ADDRESS THE HUNGARIAN REGIME (in English)

Budapest Beacon
Contains special section on civil society.

Budapest Sentinel