For 12 years, many in Hungary have been waiting for a miracle. Day after day, week after week, month after month, the majority of society that does not support Fidesz has been waiting for someone or something to come along that finally, unequivocally shakes the foundations of the Orbán regime.
Since April 2010, when the current holders of power were first given the constitutional mandate to govern by a democratic election, countless large-scale demonstrations against them have taken place in the capital, Budapest. Yet the regime is still in place. Moreover, in April 2022, it received authorization from society to continue governing with a constitutional majority for the fourth consecutive time, this time with a larger-than-ever majority. This ostensible contradiction needs to be understood if a viable alternative with a chance of victory is to emerge in Hungary, which is becoming increasingly autocratic.
Hungary is a medium-sized country in Europe with a rapidly-ageing population. Hungarian history is replete with significant revolutionary events that are lessons to other nations. Let us think of the spring of 1848/1849, the civic revolution, or – what is perhaps most well-known internationally – the revolution in the autumn of 1956. These events all grew out of street protests, specifically through youth and student movements, to become iconic, red-letter days for a generation and for the entire history of Hungary. This is why the sight of large crowds of young people on the streets in Hungary always carries overtones that point beyond the current situation and annoy the incumbent political power.
Hungarian society, however, is passively resistant and quietly tolerant, rather than rebellious and turbulent, due to its political socialisation and its political culture. What a young person learns through his or her family and school socialisation to this day is that, on the one hand, politics is something distant, unattainable and unchangeable, something in which ordinary people have no say and, importantly, are unable to have a say. On the other hand, they also learn that it is good for them to distance themselves from politics as much as possible, just to be on the safe side. “If my mouth doesn’t speak, my head won’t ache.” So goes the Hungarian proverb. Every international comparative study shows that Hungarian society, including youth, shows the lowest level of interest in politics in Europe, and its sense of internal and external political efficacy (its ability to influence political decisions and the degree to which it actually acts on that ability) is one of the lowest. It is, at the same time, also the most individualistic and the most materialistic society in Europe.
Ever since 2010, the Orbán regime has deliberately strengthened rather than weakened these deep-rooted, decades-long processes with regard to political participation. One of the first measures taken by the regime was to transform the media structure, first by placing public media at the service of a ruling party that resembles a state party, and then by creating a closed media structure controlled from above, which presents a Fidesz-generated reality to the public. In 2011, a two-thirds majority passed the Act on National Public Education, bringing about the greatest overhaul of the primary and secondary education system since the 1989/1990 regime change, a system that had previously operated largely by political consensus.
It is important to note that this new law also represents a radical change in the way the education system is viewed as a whole as reflected in its name.
The strictly ideology-neutral education system that emerged after the 1989/1990 regime change, which always struggled with serious resource deficiencies and structural problems, was built on the premise that its most important goal was to provide children and young people with the knowledge they needed to understand an evolving, changing world as efficiently as possible. Child-rearing was considered the job of parents, so the education system’s socialisation functions became rather fragmented. The intention of the Orbán regime, however, is to ensure its own long-term survival, and it has now made socialisation in that vein the core principle of the education system. In a somewhat simplistic way, the important thing is not what students know, but whether so-called “diffuse loyalty” – i.e. the full, unconditional acceptance essential for the regime – develops as part of their value system. Just as it was in the decades of state socialism, the Hungarian education system is now once again ideologically grounded, managed top-down, and regime-centred. Such logic implies that neither the teacher nor the student is important, because the aim is not to impart 21st-century knowledge and democratic civic attitudes by hiring committed, motivated teachers who are well-paid, but to engender loyalty to the system that provides the ideological basis for the regime. Even if such loyalty does not take root, the school system must at least prevent the development of the ideals of resistance and critical thinking. “If my mouth doesn’t speak, my head won’t ache.” Again, this is what the proverb advises, and the intimidated, underpaid, burnt-out teaching staff live by it.
Let us now cite some very recent data that illustrates the fundamental problem of the Hungarian education system. While the Czech Republic spent the same amount as the OECD average on its education system (all three levels) in 2019, according to the Education at Glance report Hungary spent at most 70-80% of that average, moving the country to the bottom third of the group. The Hungarian situation for teachers is even more dismal. The report shows that in 2021, compared to the population with a tertiary education, Hungarian primary school teachers’ real wages were in the bottom batch of the OECD countries. The most severe problem is that even if a teacher spends 5-10 years teaching, he or she gets nowhere in terms of career advancement. Teaching is so undervalued that Hungarian teachers have the lowest relative pay in all of the developed OECD countries (even Hungarian school principals are among the worst paid, according to the report).
The Hungarian education system’s problems are thus twofold: professional/systemic, on the one hand, material and prestige-related, on the other. To be fair, the problems did not start after 2010, but much earlier - in fact, they have always existed. After 2010, however, they accumulated, became interconnected, and now threaten the collapse of the education system.
Since the adoption of the Act on National Public Education in 2011 and the ensuing measures which have hit schools so hard, we have heard individuals and faculty speak up. The situation of teachers and the school system escalated in 2016, when the first negative consequences of the measures introduced by the new law became apparent to those involved in the system. In 2016, the faculty of a school in a large rural town (Miskolc) published an open letter about the untenable situation in public education.
This led to the emergence of the Tanítanék (I Want to Teach) Movement , perhaps the first truly grassroots movement since the 1989/1990 regime change to reflect on the problems affecting the education system as a whole. Almost 60,000 people joined the movement, close to 1,000 educational institutions, which was unprecedented. Many students showed their solidarity by taking up the checked shirt that became the symbol of the movement. However, it is a sign of the Orbán regime’s ability to adapt that the movement has been gradually depleted, quietened, and has lost . Meanwhile, none of the problems has been resolved. The regime has further closed itself off and made itself even more exclusionary vis-à-vis its challengers.
How is this possible? Hungarian civil society has never been particularly strong since the 1989/1990 regime change. There are a number of very complex reasons for this that cannot be described here for lack of space. However, it is worth drawing attention to the fact that grassroots, long-lasting, self-organising initiatives are rare in Hungary. As a result of political socialisation and political culture, Hungarian society occasionally snaps and becomes indignant, but it lacks the skills to sustain these sudden upsurges and to follow conflicts through to a resolution.
The other reason is material. There is simply no financial basis for social movements to survive in the long term. In the 2000s, there was an attempt to finance civil society through state funding that pushed the civil sector towards depoliticization. The Orbán regime has also aligned these resources with its own preferences and quite openly declares what it considers to be “good” civil society and a “genuine” civil society organisation. This is the grounds on which the state funding of organisations is built. The NGOs at society’s meso-level which can function as channels between society as a whole and the political system have been emptied in the Orbán era; if they exist, they either do not engage in politics out of fear, or engage in politics in a way that suits the interests of those in power.
Despite all this, something notable happened in Hungary on 5 October 2022 which, based on the above, no one really expected. The event highlighted the fact that it is not a good strategy to push problems aside and act like one-year-old children who assume they are invisible to others if they cover their own eyes - the problems may suddenly strike back. What happens if a population stands up who are not under the control of those in power because they have so little to lose? On 5 October 2022, in Budapest and in some big rural towns, a large number of teenagers and even children took part in an event that was a gateway protest. These young people have now designated the actor against whom their generation has unequivocally defined itself. They showed enthusiasm and, something unusual in Hungary, solidarity with and commitment to both their teachers and the cause of education. The demonstrations were creative, powerful and easy to decode; their novel feature was that children/young people, (some) teachers and (some) parents came together to stand up for a well-defined, non-partisan, national cause: Education. In addition - and this is another novelty of the demonstrations - several sectoral trade unions have indicated their support for these demands.
The author of this analysis remains sceptical, though. I am sceptical because I have seen such an upsurge before (in 2016, for instance). Its "consequence", for those in power, was their victory in the 2018 parliamentary elections, which brought them a constitutional majority. I also saw such mobilizations by students in February or March 2022. For the powers that be, the result was an election with a constitutional majority in 2022.
So far I have tried to demonstrate that outcry and agitation alone do not have political consequences in a political system with authoritarian characteristics. In an adaptive political system that is closed off to challengers, several interdependent conditions have to be met simultaneously to bring about change. One event alone does not change the political mindset of a generation. Since 2010, there have been several major protests and performative events, most notably in Budapest; to a superficial analyst, those events could have indicated the advent of a new generation of anti-Orbán opposition. Yet in the 2022 elections, one in two young people voted for Fidesz. The events of 5 October may be very important, they may at least partially change the tide, but they cannot make a difference on their own. For that, the kind of politicking and political action is needed that Hungarian society rejects and dreads.
A viable, potent, credible political alternative is needed, therefore; a political party, to be specific, which is able to channel into the political subsystem the demands of society and the demands of young people, parents and teachers who are rightfully angry. The fourth consecutive defeat of the opposition and the two-thirds victory for the ruling coalition in the past four elections have shown that such a party is absent. The root of the problem, however, is that without societal demand, and indeed without social action, such a political alternative will never emerge. This implies that the one-third of society controlled by the state party, the “vocal but highly-organised minority”, will continue to keep the majority in thrall, and whatever happens will transpire according to the blueprint of the Orbán regime. Unless society engages in politics actively and on an ongoing basis, no political alternative can emerge, but since there is no political alternative to follow, there is nothing to mobilize society. Perhaps it is the young people on the streets of Budapest on 5 October and the social solidarity we are witnessing now that can change the course of events.