Divided Society

Hungary is deeply polarized, while the EU criticizes. Is democracy at risk?

According to Krisztián Ungváry, Hungarian society is deeply divided. Not only is there a cleavage between political forces on the left and right, but also between the political right wing and far right movements. These cleavages are deep enough for each side to deny the other its legitimacy. For Ellen Bos, this feature of Hungarian political culture is more problematic for democracy than the newly adopted constitution, which formally fulfills all democratic criteria. But it is questionable whether the constitution was decided on with broad cross-party consensus or just with the support of Fidesz.

The Hungarian media law caused controversy among the panelists. While Gergely Prőhle sees no negative consequences for the diversity of the Hungarian media landscape, Ungváry sees a threat to independent media. Another contentious issue was the rhetoric of Prime Minister Orbán, which is sometimes perceived as being critical of Europe. Ungváry expressed his fear that this rhetoric could force Fidesz into pursuing populist policies if the Hungarian population embraces its euro-critical tone. Prőhle emphasized that Hungary has profited to a large extent from European Union membership and Western investments. He disapproved of the anti-Western polemics pronounced by some groups during demonstrations.

Prőhle pointed out that the way Hungarians perceive the EU is equally influenced by the behavior of European and international institutions. Bos cautioned against excessively harsh criticism from abroad, which is not conducive to a fruitful inner-Hungarian debate. Ungváry called for the EU to define clear objectives and values that all member states should be judged by. The EU’s response to problematic developments in other member states, or rather the absence of comparable criticism, has diminished the credibility of European institutions.

Even if the panelists came to different conclusions concerning the political and societal developments in Hungary, they agreed that an objective discussion and precisely formulated criticism is more useful than emotional accusations. Prőhle wants philosophical contemplation on the state of Hungarian democracy to be replaced by discussions about concrete questions.

The panel discussion was organized by the Center for Central and Eastern Europe of the Robert Bosch Stiftung at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in cooperation with the German Association for East European Studies (DGO).

The event marked the beginning of a focus on Hungary at the DGAP. Over the next few months, similar discussions will take place on Hungarian domestic politics, constitutional reform, economic policies, and media policy.

12 March 2012
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Core Expertise region