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SSEES Research Blog


A showcase of research from UCL's School of Slavonic and East European Studies staff and students


The force that is Fidesz

By Sean L Hanley, on 25 March 2013

Peace March for Hungary 2012.01.21 (9)

Photo: Derzsi Elekes Andor via WikiMedia Commons

Hungary’s governing party Fidesz has recently consolidated changes to the constitution, media laws and electoral constituencies. Yet despite international criticism and tough economic times, Hungarian opposition forces are divided while Fidesz and the radical right party Jobbik remain electorally buoyant. Erin Marie Saltman examines the enduring strength of the Hungarian right and the obstacles facing its opponents.

In Hungary 15th March is a day with a deeply resonating political legacy. The day is a national holiday, created in remembrance of the 1848 revolution when Hungary’s iconic poet revolutionary Sándor Petőfi stood on the steps of the National Museum and read his Twelve Points demanding freedom of speech and national political liberties from the Habsburg Empire. Today Petőfi has become a malleable political symbol of revolution and change for government and opposition alike, with both groups moving to celebrate his legacy.

The conservative Fidesz government sees itself as personified in the Hungarian revolutionary tradition, calling the huge electoral majority that put it into power in 2010 a ‘voting revolution’ –  an opportunity for Hungary finally to rid itself of its history of oppressive powers, first the Habsburgs and then the Communists. In Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s national speeches, there is now wariness towards the assimilating and constricting measures of the EU and IMF, asking whether these international institutions bear the same hallmark of oppression. Backing the government, which still holds a strong lead in polls among decided voters, are throngs of dedicated supporters holding ‘peace marches’ and rallies to show their continued support.

The main concern of domestic opposition and international onlookers remains the increasingly enlarged capacity the Fidesz government to restructure the Hungarian state. Most recently on 11 March  President János Áder signed into law the Fourth Amendment  to the Hungarian constitution, adding a fifteen-page amendment to the forty-five-page document. The constitutional court had ruled against many of the proposed additions, which worryingly mirror some of the larger issues flagged in radical right party Jobbik’s 2010 Manifesto.

Some of the most controversial changes in the Fourth Amendment include:

•    Defining a family as a man, woman and their children. The basis of defining a family is marriage, excluding single parents, unmarried partners and gay couples. Equal recognition of same-sex unions has been edited out of the constitution.

•    Students receiving financial support for their university degrees will be forced to stay within Hungary for a period of time to work. The state has taken more direct control of the financial management of universities.

•    It is illegal to sleep or set up camp in public spaces, making homelessness illegal.

•    The government has redefined which churches in Hungary are officially recognised, taking official status away from several hundred churches.

•    Election campaign resources will be limited including a restriction limiting political advertising only on public media (thought to be largely run by government sympathizers).

•    The death penalty is not explicitly banned by new constitution.

•    Women’s reproductive rights are not explicitly guaranteed.

In addition to these changes, Hungary’s Constitutional court can now no longer refer back to its older rulings before January 2012, wiping out twenty years of constitutional case law on human rights protection. Moreover, by April 2014 Fidesz will have named nine of the fourteen Constitutional Judges. Strong criticism from the Council of Europe, the Venice Commission, EU, IMF and US State Department seem to have caused little pause for reflection.

Together 2014

Attempting to unite opposition is the movement Together 2014 (Együtt 2014), which aims to bring together online activist groups, political parties, trades unions and NGOs. Together 2014, which announced itself as a movement in October 2012 and recently declared itself a political party, was founded by combining the efforts of ex-Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, its figurehead, with two of Hungary’s largest grassroots opposition movements, Milla and Szolidaritás.

The goal of Together 2014 is to unite all opposition forces to overcome Fidesz’s hegemony. But hurdles are already becoming apparent, with the recent snow in the streets of Budapest, which led to the cancellation of Together 2014 demonstrations on 15th March, only the tip of the iceberg.

While all opposition movements and parties agree that Fidesz is unhealthy for Hungary, diagnosing the illness is much easier than prescribing a cure. Milla, using Petőfi’s portrait with a large censorship strip over his mouth as one of their icons, was founded through online activism bringing large crowds into the streets against the curtailing of human rights. Yet committing to the new political force goes against the views of a core group of their founding members. Made up of poets, activists and Budapest-based intellectuals, they have continued distrust of politicians as a whole, making some Milla supporters reticent to rally behind another potentially corrupt and ‘political’ figurehead.

Other political parties have also shown potential support, but left their intentions undefined. The Socialist Party (MSZP) and the splinter party Democratic Coalition (DK) have been supportive but vague in their rhetoric, unwilling to fully hand the reins over to another party with such new foundations.  The Green party LMP has also been divided over the decision to unite. The party has now split, with half its members joining Together 2014 and the other half remaining staunchly opposed to joining forces linked with the ‘old political elite’. In this unsettled state the opposition spectrum in Hungary continues to fracture and multiply. Student activist group HaHa stands alone in its anti-government protests and demonstrations. Rumours of yet another new opposition party, this time run by ex-Finance Minister Lajos Bokros, continue. Yet while opposition is in flux, the strong mandate of the Fidesz government continues.

But although decided voters are largely maintaining their support for Fidesz, there is an ever-increasing public disillusionment with the nature of Hungarian politics and politicians. Over 50% of the population is undecided or does not support any political party. Speaking with a Together 2014 representative who is a reformed Fidesz supporter – from the days when Fidesz was a young pro-European liberal party –  it is clear that two things need to happen if any united opposition is to have a chance in the 2014 parliamentary elections: opposition efforts need to expand beyond the capital Budapest into the villages and counties and disillusioned voters need to be reinvigorated into the political process, because there is no democracy without a demos.

Erin Marie Saltman  is a PhD candidate at UCL-SSEES. Her research focuses on the socialisation and political  engagement of young people in Hungary.

This piece was first published by Policy Network and is reproduced with permission.

Gordon Bajnai spoke at UCL on 11 March 2013. Video highlights and an audio podcast of the event can be found here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL


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