Civil society under populist rule: perspectives and hopes

Democracy and civil society have a two-way relationship.

One the one hand, civil society through its diverse roles is an important contributor to upholding and improving democracy: its organisations (CSOs) act as channels and facilitators of citizen engagement, participation and activism, help educate the younger generations and provide services to vulnerable groups so that they can too practice and enjoy the fundamental and human rights that are due to all of us.

On the other, civil society needs a democratic enabling environment to thrive, composed of a stable and beneficial legislation, transparent and unbiased financing, structured dialogue with public institutions and a positive political atmosphere, among others.

These notions are – or should be – commonplace in Europe, however, across more and more countries we are observing various signs of shrinking civil space i.e. that one or more of the components of this enabling environment are being undermined, especially by conservative, populist forces leaning towards authoritarianism seeking to box in civil society.

It is not only governments who are at fault. People who benefit from the work of civil society may be complicit, too, either by not raising their voices against democratic backsliding or by supporting the politicians and political systems that work to restrict civic action.

A case in point in the EU is of course Hungary, where the right-conservative Fidesz led by Viktor Orbán recently accomplished its fourth overwhelming election victory in a row, securing a comfortable constitutional majority in parliament. This was achieved despite the efforts of the major opposition parties, which – learning the lesson of the earlier rounds – this time managed to act united, and through successful primaries held last autumn elected a candidate to run in a one-on-one competition against those of Fidesz in each district.

However, it proved to be not enough against the well-oiled campaign machinery composed of a strongly distorted and gerrymandered electoral system unfairly favouring the strongest candidate, overwhelming media dominance with at least 2/3 of the outlets directly or indirectly controlled by the government and parroting its propaganda, the practically unlimited campaign resources relying heavily on state coffers way above the legal limit, and generous welfare spending in the last months.

During the last weeks of the campaign, the war in Ukraine added another factor: after some initial hesitation the government quickly found its main message that Hungary must stay out of this conflict, remain “neutral” (in spite of its membership in EU and NATO) and implied that Fidesz is the only political force able to guarantee peace and security – without once condemning Putin’s aggression.

Naturally, the opposition must also analyse and draw the lessons from its disappointing performance, which came short of expectations. Besides their lack of resources (both financial and human), their persistent inability to overcome their differences and personal tensions and their weak understanding of voters’ motives are among the most obvious reasons behind their loss.

However, the opposition’s main failure was the lack of or weak analysis of Hungarian society, especially in the countryside, where old reflexes of paternalism and helplessness coupled with strong individualism, inherited from before 1989 persist. People look to the state for the solution to their problems and are unwilling to stick their neck out for themselves.

As recent surveys show, daily welfare and survival are the main (and only) issues occupying people’s minds in this area, where ideological messages about democracy or corruption don’t resonate. Fidesz was able to bank on these sentiments – its ‘agents’ are present everywhere as representatives of the various institutions, and to many they seem to be the only ones receptive to people’s problems (even if they don’t offer real solutions).

The opposition’s campaign mobilized a large voluntary and civic effort, and many independent CSOs engaged in some way, especially in election monitoring, fraud prevention and voter mobilization. They must now prepare for hard times to come: the government will certainly not forget the role they played, and further act to stifle the remaining voices of criticism and organizing.

It remains to be seen when and in what form repercussions will come – legislation, further cutting off resources, administrative overburdening, vilification or other – and whether the government will target individual organizations/persons or the civil sector as a whole, but under these circumstances the plain survival of the key organizations – the hubs keeping the “scaffold” of civil society together – is at stake.

Seeds of the democratic ethos needs to be sustained, so that there is a basis upon which it can be re-built, should times improve. At present, CSOs, groups and activists will need to keep together, forge even closer ties and partnerships not only to generate unity but also to provide much needed mental and moral support to one another. On the medium term, they will need to re-think and devise new strategies to (re)build constituencies and circles of supporters that can contribute to their resilience and help defend their space.

In the absence of strong allies at home, Hungarian CSOs can only rely on the broader European community both in terms of EU institutions and civil society partners. While civil society matters remain mostly the competence of the Member States, the Commission, the Parliament and the Court of Justice do have instruments to prohibit certain measures, as was the case with the 2017 act on “foreign-funded” organisations. While these need to be utilised in the future too, the institutions should also go further: give a stronger and better recognition to civil society as an important contributor of European democracy, a value and asset by itself, reveal and analyse the gaps and shortcomings of current instruments , and based on these, create a system of tools and measures that can provide a “safety net” to civil society in Member States such as Hungary.

Let’s call this a European civil society strategy or policy. While the EU is replete with such papers (and hence the Commission’s reluctance to develop one more), the adoption of this is the inevitable first step toward putting the case of civil society higher on the European political agenda.

This strategy could be a starting reference point for us, European civil and philanthropic actors, and it will be up to us to work towards implementing its proposed measures and recommendations that may range from the minimum standards of association legislation, thorough improved dialogue with EU institutions and more user-friendly funding mechanisms to a more pro-active EU citizen education framework.

We should engage with and advocate at both the European and the national levels first for the adoption of the strategy and later for its operationalisation as an act of solidarity across the continent among the more and less fortunate members of our community working in markedly different contexts but all for the same common good. Shall we go?


Vera Móra
Director, Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation

This article was originally published on