Understanding the Black Sheep of the EU:The Underlying Dynamics of Hungarian Politics
Earlier in September, Hungary achieved a turning point in politics as MEPs declared that “Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy”. Now, as rule of law procedures were triggered under Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, Hungary has lost access to a significant amount of EU-backed funds.
Though some within European politics believe this was the right move, its consequences are suffered by a politically isolated Hungarian population, not just its government. Nevertheless, Brussels’ efforts aim to influence Hungary’s government precisely by appealing to its population to act with their vote next election season.
Or at least that’s the plan.
As Brussels is perhaps all too aware, more than three million Hungarians re-elected the leading party in 2022. For many in Europe—both in and out of politics—the reasons for this are hard to grasp. To understand Hungary’s political dynamics and its potential pathways, one must observe the social construction of the country just as closely as its political and economic motions. After all, citizens are the one “rolling the dice” over their future.
Despite the last twenty years of cooperation with the West, most Hungarians still have a critical view over the initiatives, ideas, and attitudes of the “other side of the Wall,” in this case the western side. This sociocultural division, built up during and after the Soviet era, has not disappeared for some.
The EU places a strong emphasis on closing the gap of regional inequalities—like balancing out the development level of different member states. However, in the case of Hungary (and other post-Soviet states), these actions are not enough since the root of the problem lies within the perception of the Hungarian citizens. It takes time to demolish a deeply embedded conception which built up over hundreds of years among the society.
Just as an economic lagging behind cannot be solved in a couple of years (Hungary is still significantly less prosperous than the West), “updating” the viewpoint of an entire population (specifically the older generations who are currently in charge of the decision-making) requires a longer time-period. Even so, maybe other means of change.
Already, this ‘stuck-up’ mind-set of the people feeds the country’s problems. The contemporary political setting of Hungary is reinforced through both its society and its past. Even before the Soviet era, Hungary’s history involved a series of deeply disturbing events, from its occupation by the Turkish empire, through Austrian suppression, and straight into the horror of the first and second World Wars.
Eventually, the circle concludes with Communist occupation lasting until 1989, the fall of the well-known Berlin Wall. The trauma of being abandoned by the West—the Hungarian revolution of 1956 was encouraged by the West with promises that were never fulfilled with action—is deeply ingrained in the thinking of the ‘baby boomers’ generation (aged between 58-76). Consequently, the forty years spent under the umbrella of the Soviet Union created a setback not just for the economic dimension, but for the sociocultural as well.
That contemporary context has not changed much; today’s events are advancing much like those of the past. The only distinct fact is that now the oppression is not imposed from the external environment, but spread from within the heart of the country.
The historical background underpins the mind-set of Hungarian society. But there is another notion to consider: How can any loud voice rise against the current situation? Despite the authoritative oppression aimed at suppressing dissent, how is it possible that there are still protests taking place? This shows that not all Hungarians have sunk into pessimistic, history-influenced apathy.
Protests are, as a phenomenon in the capital city of Budapest, representative of “only” a fragmentation of the Hungarian population—about two million people out of a national population of about ten million. The national polls reveal a severe regional development disparity between the rural areas and more urban areas like Budapest. This data is not only related to the economic dimension, but also interrupts the social coherence of the country. For instance, a quarter of Hungarian households do not have internet installed and most of those households are situated in the backcountry. Consequently, those communities possess limited access to information; thus, their perception of the world and its affairs are distorted and biased due to the lack of diversity of sources that they are exposed to.
Unfortunately, this division results in a loss of social connectivity between urban citizens and the other 80% of the population, the rural inhabitants. It is a common reality of distant family branches (e.g. in case of young generation of relatives moving to cities from rural areas) to be torn apart simply as a result of the lack of understanding of each other’s perceptions. Urban people blame rural habitants of being too conservative and lagging, but invest little effort into recognizing their angle and aiding the rise of consciousness.
It’s important to consider that rural residents have minimal understanding of digital reality. Therefore, there is a tendency among them to treat cash as the only reliable way to spend and save. But, inflation then decreases the worth of cash. Explaining the notion of market tendencies—although useful—will not convince rural habitants on larger issues. This is where lack of patience and understanding easily destroy relations between left-right and urban-rural dichotomies.
The metropolitan perspective forgets that “what we already know determines what we are able to learn”, as the author Joshua Foer writes. Thus, a resident of a town who grew up in a traditional environment will consider cash reliable until a subtle and slow change sweeps through the community and integrates new norms. But this usually happens slowly. In addition, most people are not a driver of change. Merely, this division is further deepened on the motion of mutual disrespect between the geographically scattered levels of society.
Supplementary to this horizontal classification of the social groups, there is a vertical layering as well. Understanding social classes is fundamental to oversee their relation to the current regime. Historian Tibor Valuch distinguishes three elite classes (political, economic, and cultural elite), the “class of means”, the middle-class and the marginalised.
The political elite drastically transformed after the regime change of 1989; however, the last thirty years were adequate time for new and solid political elites to formulate. These elite have shaped the political landscape of Hungary for the last 15 years. Considering recent discoveries on corruption, this class greatly overlaps with the current economic elite.
While the middle class is intrinsically hard to characterise, it has been held to be the core of a well-functioning society. During the 1980s, socialism created a broad middle class in Hungary; regardless, they were in the “proletarian” class when comparing their living standard to a global level. This explains that leftover Hungarian tendency to accept this struggling way of life. Unfortunately, after the regime change of 1989, most of that middle class moved even further down in terms of social classification. As a result, the contemporary Hungarian middle class shrunk and, some would argue, almost ceased to exist. Again, this highlights the idea of an incoherent societal structure which leads to an inconsistently formed nation (from both an economic and political angle as well). Additionally, the current regime directly bombards that still existing small fraction of the middle class with regulations. Naturally, this is not by accident, as mentioned the middle class is historically the layer of the society which generates new trends, demands and above all: change.
Today, 13 per cent of Hungarian society lives under the national poverty line; at the same time this also means that two out of three Hungarians live under the Paneuropean poverty line. Unfortunately, more and more households are falling under the poverty line as a result of the current external circumstances (higher energy prices and growing inflation, to name a few). In recent years, the rural society’s orientation towards the governmental party was attributed to their unawareness regarding the action-consequence relations in politics. It happens that the current government’s effort to fulfil the interests of this class is enough for them to vouch for them repeatedly. This is a highly important notion to be accepted since only this way the motive of the lower class is understood and could be changed.
Coming back to the question of loud voices and protests, it is now evident that the societal divisions does not allow for a broader action to materialise itself in the country. Since officially the political system is democratic in Hungary, the electoral process is declared to be legal. Consequently, even if Budapest is turned up-side down by the narrow middle-class, their achievements are going to be limited due to the social ceiling and geographic restraints.
While the lower class is not necessarily manipulated into acting against their own needs, they do seem to influence the Hungarian audience. The role of common enemy is placed on the European Union by Hungarian political circles. The society is continuously bombarded with advertisements setting the EU as the scapegoat for governmental failures. Nevertheless, according to the Eurobarometer, the perception of the EU among the society is relatively highly placed. This could be explained by the deception that lies within the terminology. It is clearly set that the EU only could be referred to as “Brussels” in a negative setting. Behind the scenes, politicians are on their way to set an agreement with the EU about receiving the crucially needed RRF. In front of the ‘audience’ the show of the scape goat is put on - with the single change of one term: from EU to Brussels. Zoltán Somogyi, sociologist explained that the propaganda is not about Brussels, the government does not want to influence there, they focus on the dynamics inside the country.
Despite this lengthy explanation, the thought chain of Hungarian voters remains a patchwork of understanding. Regardless, it hopefully abstracts the perception of it from the Western centralised view–even more so, from the judgement of the scarce politically educated critics in Hungary. It is clear: Hungarians' perception of welfare society must be changed or even created. Nevertheless, it is going to be a hard task under the current government that is supplying most of the population with reasonable (to a Hungarian standard) living conditions and will continue to do so in the coming years.
The political leverage is slipping out of the hands of democratic states and potentially into the hands of right-wing groupings. For any minds practised in international relations it is not surprising – the recession eras (like the one the world is living through right now) are historically linked to the emergence of extremists. C. M. Gibson writes that alienation, grief, and anger are the drivers of extremism. Democracies might not actually be able to fully deliver the healthy prosperity to humanity that leaders might promise Nevertheless, the radical movements that have repeatedly emerged to oppose democratic systems usually tend to fade away. Time will show if Hungary’s current radical political movement falls under this pattern
by Lili Zselyke Lévai