Democratic backsliding and civil society response in Hungary

Since 2010, under the government of the right-conservative Fidesz party, Hungary has experienced a serious backsliding in democracy and the rule of law, raising European and international concern. In its striving to achieve boundless power, the government has systematically dismantled the institutions of checks and balances, through such means as limiting the competences of the Constitutional Court and generally weakening the judiciary, curbing press freedom through media regulations and control of ownership, and taking central control over public education. This is coupled with a lack of transparency in public spending, the building of a clientele of government-friendly oligarchs and a weakening of social policies, leaving the vulnerable completely helpless. In this atmosphere, civil society organisations (CSOs) are among the few remaining independent voices that are not under the direct control of the ruling elite.

First round: the EEA/Norway grants controversy

In response, the general weakening of democratic institutions has included efforts by the government to shrink civic space, in order to weaken CSOs and frighten them from speaking up. Hungarian CSOs have been operating in an increasingly hostile environment for the past six to seven years, as shown, among others, by the downward trend of the USAID CSO Sustainability Index in all aspects, including the legal environment, financial viability and CSO advocacy. The first wave of high-profile attacks was observed in 2014 to 2015, and centred around the management of the European Economic Area (EEA) / Norway NGO Grants Programme, an important source of funding for civil society in the less developed European Union (EU) member states. While the scandal – which broke out just two days after the general elections in April 2014, which brought the second victory for Fidesz in a row – initially seemed to be a conflict between the donor countries of the programme (Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway) and the Hungarian government, its underlying motives soon became obvious when the Prime Minister’s Office published a list of 13 CSOs it considered ‘problematic’ or unwanted. This included all the major human rights, anti-corruption, gender and LBGTI organisations. The harassment of CSOs - the managers and grantees of the programme - included media smear campaigns, with high-ranking government officials making vilifying statements on a weekly basis, tax inspections and investigations carried out with a questionable legal basis, and publicly voiced criminal accusations, and went as far as a police raid on the offices of the foundations managing the grants, led by the Ökotárs Foundation. The raid was later found by the court to be groundless, and therefore illegal.

While the EEA/Norway Grants controversy was resolved in late 2015 through a bilateral agreement between the donors and the Hungarian government, the government’s approach to independent CSOs, particularly those fulfilling advocacy and watchdog roles, remained unchanged. This was also apparent when the migration crisis hit Hungary during the summer and autumn of 2015, which saw thousands of asylum seekers camping in the main railway stations in the capital, Budapest. CSOs providing services to and generally helping these people were called ‘foreign agents’ not serving the national interest, a notion first voiced by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in his famous speech on illiberal democracy in July 2014.

Shock therapy for civil society

At the same time, these attacks have highlighted some long-standing weaknesses of Hungarian civil society, which experts have warned about for years without much impact. In the preceding decade CSOs enjoyed a relatively stable working environment, in which their income structures were dominated by state, and particularly EU Structural Fund grants. While this allowed CSOs to carry on with their basic activities and services, in turn it also discouraged innovation and the search for alternatives, leading to a ‘business-as-usual’ mode of operation, and - in retrospect - stagnation. In the relative abundance of funding, most CSOs did not feel the need to build their constituencies and circle of supporters, to really reach out to the broader public. As a result, broad segments of the general public had - and still have - no real grasp of what civil society is about, what its roles and functions are and why CSOs are important for democracy. This was clearly shown by the weak public response to the harassment campaign: although demonstrations were organised after the police raid at Ökotárs, these did not manage to draw more that 1,000 to 2,000 people to the cause.

While there had been earlier warning signs - for example, the funding environment has changed drastically from 2011 to 2012 and onwards, with state sources cut back significantly and their distribution mechanisms completely overwritten - the series of attacks caught CSOs unawares, but finally drew acute attention to the need for renewal, and most importantly for proactively communicating CSOs’ causes and the work they do for the public good. CSOs have a long way to go to promote active citizenship and to mobilise people to take issues into their own hands, starting from the basics and from the grassroots level, in a society characterised by apathy and passivity.

The attacks also highlighted the need for coalition building and self-defence: CSOs realised they need to speak up on their behalf with a unified voice, because no one else will do it in their stead. Stemming from the above-described history, there was little previous cooperation within civil society (apart from some issue-based networks such as that of environmental CSOs). Many CSOs did not even realise that they are part of something bigger, a sphere where there are things that bind them together.

Second round: stigmatisation of foreign funding

After a relatively quieter 2016, the anti-CSO campaign heated up again at the beginning of 2017, when the government announced its plans to ‘regulate’ the ‘foreign funding’ of CSOs. Under the guise of ‘transparency’, the goal was obviously to restrict access to or exert control over funds available to CSOs independent of the Hungarian government - just as had been the case with the EEA/Norway Grants NGO Programme. By this time advocacy and watchdog CSOs had been virtually cut off from domestic public sources, particularly human rights defenders or those that work on politically sensitive issues, such as drug use and homelessness, and as such speak up about and criticise specific policies. Thus, they had to rely - aside from private donations - on foreign philanthropic sources. Therefore these became the focus of the new wave of attacks, generally aimed at stifling independent voices.

As one Fidesz party speaker, Szilárd Németh, put in in early January 2017, “These organisations must be pushed back by all means, and I think cleared away.” This was later reinforced by the Prime Minister after the proposed new legislation was submitted to Parliament. He stated that: “And these organisations, they all unambiguously take position against the Hungarian government and the migration policy supported by the Hungarian people, then we cannot hesitate longer, and I said transparency must be enforced.” 

The Act on the Transparency of Organizations Supported from Abroad was eventually passed in mid-June 2017 and entered into force two weeks later. It prescribes that associations and foundations receiving more than 7.2 million HUF (approx. US$27,000) per year must register at the court as ‘foreign funded organisations’ and use this label on their websites and all publications. Organisations failing to register - after repeat calls to comply - may be fined (between US$3,300 and US$3,700), and as a last resort the court may initiate the elimination of the organisation. Faith-based and sport associations, as well as party and public foundations, are exempted. The act leaves the definition of ‘foreign support’ very broad, practically covering all financial and other contributions that do not go through the Hungarian state budget or are not donated by Hungarian private persons, regardless of the source and whether public or private.

Civil society strikes back

Already, back in 2014, CSOs directly attacked during the EEA/Norway Grants controversy had come together and started to build a self-defence coalition. However, this quietly passed away as the conflict came to an end. In retrospect, the attempt was perhaps too ambitious in terms of immediately creating a highly institutionalised structure and strategy, instead of allowing time to learn about one another’s organisations, approaches and interests, and slowly, step-by-step, develop a consensus mode of cooperation.

In early 2017, major nationwide CSOs were better prepared and learned the lessons of the past. In January, about 30 large organisations, among them those working on human rights, gender, community development and environmental issues, started to meet and discuss regularly. Of this a coalition later named Civilisation was born, and it remains active up to this day. Civilisation first came out publicly with a joint statement in mid-March 2017 condemning the government’s plans for new legislation as unnecessary - since CSOs are legally required to report on their funding sources annually anyway – as well as stigmatising and therefore damaging. The declaration went on to say:

“Hungarian society needs the work of civil society organizations. We do diverse and irreplaceable work for the public good and for democracy: provide space for citizen organizing and a framework for joint action in the fields of culture, education, health, environment protection or advocacy among others. We help citizens to represent their interests, to participate in public matters and to exert control over the political powers together. (…)We deal with issues that don’t receive attention from others. We stand up for ourselves and for one another.”

This declaration was later signed by around 270 CSOs from all around the country - big and small, urban and rural alike.

As the concrete text of the legislative proposal became public in early April 2017, the coalition geared up, organising a mass demonstration in Budapest, where the ‘civil heart’ which later become its symbol was introduced. The coalition held a silent protest action during the session of the Parliament’s Justice Committee that discussed the draft, and a ‘civil picnic’ in front of Parliament before the law was passed. In addition, Civilisation called for a letter-writing campaign to members of parliament (MPs), organised a joint petition of artists and writers and sought international solidarity. Civil Society Europe collected expressions of support from more than 500 CSOs from all over Europe, while philanthropic donors under the umbrella of the European Foundation Centre issued their own joint declaration. This is just to mention the main expressions of support, aside from the critical opinions and position papers issued by intergovernmental bodies concerned with democracy and human rights, including the Council of Europe, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. All these had no tangible impact, as the law was passed with only minor, cosmetic changes, but it meant a lot for the affected CSOs, who knew that they were not forgotten or alone in their struggles.

The passing of the law closed the first chapter in the history of Civilisation, but did not mean its end. To the contrary, in the summer of 2017, the participating organisations launched a longer-term strategic process. About a dozen of the organisations directly affected by the ‘foreign funded’ act publicly boycotted the stigmatising legislation, and up to now, none of them have suffered any direct legal consequences. Twenty-three members of the coalition submitted a joint complaint to the Constitutional Court in August 2017, and later also to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Both procedures are pending.

Another important outcome of the strategic process was the decision that the coalition should help promote the cause of civil society and build a positive image of CSOs, particularly in rural areas. Just like in practically every other area, a large gap between the civil society of Budapest and the rest of the country may be observed. Rural CSOs operate in difficult environments, often in relative isolation, where the day-to-day struggle for survival and dependence are the dominant factors, as state institutions and local governments are often the main employers. As the future is very uncertain, many don’t see the merits of making any efforts towards professional development or learning new approaches. This is the case especially at the local level, where citizens rarely stand up for their rights or join forces for the public good - in Hungary, only about 5 to 10 per cent of the population is a member of a CSO - and those who do may suffer repercussions. The generally low level of trust is a major obstacle against citizen mobilisation and activism, but the tools and means are often missing as well. Due to the lack of a real democratic culture and traditions, people are simply not equipped to work together and participate. Instead, many just wait and hope that ‘someone will do something’. The vast majority of smaller and especially rural CSOs remained more or less silent during the attacks on their Budapest-based counterparts.

In order to change this, helplessness and apathy must be overcome first. To this end, Civilisation members, coordinated by Ökotárs, organised a series of ‘Civil Evenings’ in six major rural towns during the autumn of 2017. At these open events, representatives of local CSOs and the general public could meet with and learn about the work of the major human rights, civil education, community development and environmental organisations, through rapid presentations, as well as hold forum discussions on key local topics and issues. This effort to broaden the network of the Civilisation campaign, and reach out to and involve more of the smaller groups operating in smaller towns, remains a key and ongoing strategic direction for the future.

Third round: the ‘SS’ package

The government’s anti-CSO campaign went still further in early 2018 when plans to develop a legal package supposedly to curb illegal immigration, dubbed ‘Stop Soros’, were announced. Philanthropist billionaire George Soros and his concept of open society has for a long time been a target of propaganda. However, the campaign focusing on his person and alleged ‘plans’ to import millions of immigrants to ‘Islamise’ Europe became especially intensive during the second half of 2017, in the run-up to the April 2018 general elections. The official communication - using the huge conglomerate composed of public and pro-government media outlets - did not refrain from fake news, distortions and lies to drive their message home, in order to create a fear of immigrants and drive up hate, xenophobia and conspiracy theories. The tactics worked: in April 2018 Fidesz won the elections again with a two-thirds majority. This result has again shown the deep division within Hungarian society, which is polarised on political party lines, with neither side really willing to enter into dialogue with the other.

Immediately after the victory, the old-new government made clear that it will use its power first against Soros and ‘his network’, and that it will keep up the anti-immigration hype, which many had thought was merely a campaign stunt. The new version of the Stop Soros law, submitted to Parliament at the end of May 2018, turned out to be markedly different from earlier drafts. Measures intended to directly restrict CSO operation and funding have been dropped, and indeed the new draft doesn’t even mention CSOs directly. Instead the bill seemingly aims at criminalising the provision of assistance to asylum seekers, including legal aid and the provision of information, by threatening people giving such support with prison time. The probably intentionally opaque wording of the draft leaves much space for arbitrary interpretation, and of course the measures go against international law on several counts, including the right to a fair trial, to equal treatment and to seeking asylum. According to statements, the government hopes to have the bill passed just before the summer 2018 break - therefore its implementation and fate is something for the future. CSOs, including the Civilisation coalition, must also rethink their strategy towards this legislation - but we can be sure they won’t remain silent and will continue their struggle for democracy in Hungary. 

The article was written by Veronika Móra, director of Ökotárs - Hungarian Environmental Partnership Foundation, and was published by CIVICUS.