Long reads

Neoliberalism and ‘Illiberal Democracy’ in the EU: A New (Gender) Regime in Today’s Hungary

Since Fidesz's party became the leading political majority in Hungary in 2010, 'illiberal democracy' has emerged as the new form of the Hungarian state. Bianka Vida argues that this new form of the state is, overall, a new gender regime, by critiquing EU economic policy and its approaches towards gender equality as having a major responsibility for securing a perfect breeding ground in post-socialist countries for 'illiberal democracy.'

In 2014, Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, announced the institutional system of ‘illiberal democracy’ as the new form of the Hungarian state. A year later, during a news conference with Angela Merkel, he asserted that ‘liberalism demands a privilege for itself which we cannot allow,’  calling into question the legitimacy of democracy. However, this assertion was also an open rejection to EU norms that essentially determine the foundation of the EU – such as democracy, freedom and equality – which Hungary accepted during its 2004 EU accession. I argue that this current normative paradigm shift in democratic rights – in particular the shift in gender equality – has created a new gender regime in Hungary today. Hungary outright declaring itself to be posed against liberalism not only signifies a threat to the cohesion of the EU, it also warns of unexpected challenges that many countries could face, at a global level.

 ‘Historical heritage’: Liberal Democracy and Socialism

A powerful political and ideological turn from liberal democracy to ‘illiberal democracy’ has become more and more visible in the country, as is the case in other post-socialist countries.

During Hungary’s transition phase from state-socialism to democracy in the 1990s, the process of transition turned into a high-level integration procedure of privatization, so as to bring Hungary into the fold of the global capitalist market. Despite new themes of gender equality being introduced to political discourse – i.e. violence against women, domestic violence, and the legal recognition of homosexual civil partnerships – discussions on gender equality within the Hungarian politic sphere continue to remain fundamentally conflicted. This is due to the narrative that follows the “real historical heritage” of Hungary, a historical heritage that never considered and represented gender inequality as a social and political problem. Unfortunately, Hungary’s stance on the issue has not changed much despite its EU accession, and problems continue to surround gender equality in the region due to the 2008 economic crisis and the current refugee crisis.

Despite Hungary’s EU-membership, a powerful political and ideological turn from liberal democracy to “illiberal democracy” has become more and more visible throughout the country, as is the case in other post-socialist countries (for instance, in Poland and Russia). And this return to the normative – which I call the ‘normative change’ – from liberalism to illiberalism, is emergent in various forms in different post-socialist countries. For example, in Russia, this normative change is represented as the denial of Western values. In Hungary, the EU – the main promoter and protector of universal democratic values – appears as the enemy of the state. Indeed, a sharp paradigm shift of global political power can be globally observed in the present era. While global Western countries traditionally tended to disseminate democratic norms to less democratically developed countries, now several political parties – even some in Western Europe – aim to develop close political collaboration with illiberal political leaders (like Putin). And Hungary is one of those (top) countries wishing to collaborate with Russia.

Universal Norms in the EU vs. ‘Hungarian Reality’

The EU considers itself a ‘normative power,’ as being a main protector and exporter of universal human rights and democracy since its conception. These EU norms basically prescribe what is good, what is bad, and what we ought to do for protecting human rights and democracy. Gender equality is crucial within these prescriptions, as it is one of the foundational norms of the EU.

After Hungary’s transition, the liberal-democratic government of MDF-SZDSZ established an institution system of democracy, guaranteeing the fundamental rights of citizens. The government had many supporters – including feminist and human rights organizations, as well as the support of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – due to the fall of communism leading Hungarians to prioritize freedom. Nevertheless, after Fidesz’s KDNP two-thirds parliamentary majority came into power in 2010, a significant step backwards was taken, with the (re)emergence of the denial of basic liberal rights.

Currently, this denial is most manifest in anti-gender equality, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBTQ+ state propaganda. This has resulted in feminist and human rights activists (in addition to non-governmental organizations), who reject accepting and implementing the current government’s ‘illiberal’ ideas, being perceived as major enemies of the Hungarian state.

In neoliberalism’s economic sphere, economic growth is not expected to signify the growth of (gender) equality and democracy; neoliberalism is actually based on denying basic human rights.

Although the EU had an important role in promoting equal opportunities and gender equality throughout Europe, EU gender policy has traditionally been designed in accordance with the economic objectives of the EU. The EU’s aim was primarily to increase women’s employment and thus ensure economic growth in the region; but this is more to secure the EU’s power, rather than to combat gender inequality. Indeed, the “reconciliation of work and family” in order to relieve the ‘double burden’ on women that was integrated into the EU’s employment directives only came to be understood as women’s flexible working conditions. I regard this contradiction and normative shift to be very problematic, especially in post-socialist EU member countries like Hungary, because of the subversive expectation to comply with EU-established norms. How can conditions for the successful implementation of gender equality norms be ensured if, within the EU itself, these norms are conflictingly defined within a dominant, neoliberal, and normative notion of gender equality, rather than within a framework that approaches gender equality as a basic human right? More worrisome is that the foundation of illiberal democracy is actually just neoliberalism rewriting liberal-democratic norms: By making these norms coincide with market-oriented interests and goals, the norms themselves become subsumed within/by the market.

In neoliberalism’s economic sphere, economic growth is not expected to signify the growth of (gender) equality and democracy; neoliberalism is actually based on denying basic human rights. For instance, the Hungarian government has not simply constituted itself as an ‘illiberal’ state system – or, rather, a system that refuses to acknowledge EU universal democratic norms – but has also rejected the legitimacy of these norms by redefining them within a neo-conservative and neo-patriarchal framework through the continuous promotion of family values and demographic issues. Indeed, these new neoliberal challenges to democracy, emerging in the wake of the 2008 economic crises, have secured a perfect breeding ground for establishing ‘illiberal democracy’ in Europe by converting liberal-democratic values into economic-based goals of a country’s actual government.

On top of it all, the Hungarian government has also mobilized, and it is still mobilizing, against democratic rights. The conservative family standards rewrote the rights and equal opportunities of women, proclaiming them as primarily mothers and wives, while the EU’s gender mainstreaming strategy has been replaced with ‘family mainstreaming.’ This undoubtedly shows a detrimental political discourse that is focused on the heteronormative family household, instead of ensuring women’s rights as a human rights notion. Additionally increasing concerning is that Fidesz and other Hungarian political parties outside of his have, in general, failed to address the wage gap, poverty, and domestic violence, which limits the possibilities for developing suitable policy proposals and programs for those issues.

The EU as a ‘Normative Global Power?’: Civilian and Political Activism Against LGBTQ+ and Minority Groups

Nationalist statements, published in pro-governmental media in Hungary, continuously call for Hungary to remain for Hungarians.

 The current Hungarian government has consistently taken steps to establish an ‘illiberal democracy’ as a new form of government within the EU. This is being done through manipulative processes of hate speech and utilizing political and civil activism against equality rights. This strategy began with the 2008 economic crisis, then was adopted and expanded upon by Fidesz’s party with their rise to parliamentary power in 2010, and now has reached a peak with the current refugee crisis. Furthermore, the present economic crisis in Hungary is consistently associated with a weak democratic structure. At the same time extreme, right-wing parties opposed to refugees, and anti-feminist movements, are weakening the EU and Europe as a whole, as with the hate-speech directed at gender equality and immigrants in areas like Poland and Austria. These actions are definitely a main driver of Hungarian ‘illiberal democracy’: Nationalist statements, published in pro-governmental media in Hungary, continuously call for Hungary to remain for Hungarians. By stating that Hungary must remain for Hungarians, a conservative and family-promoting Christian identity is implied as that which is ‘Hungarian,’ and refugees only pose an enormous danger for the European Christian identity.

Such a discourse has enabled the government to succeed at persuading more than 3 million people to say ‘no!’ to the EU migrant quotas in the 2016 national referendum. Needless to say, this was an open attack on the EU’s international and secular leadership.

European politics has seen the (re)creation of a conservative, heteronormative family-supporting, and anti-LGBTQ+ rights patriarchal discourse.

The concept of gender equality also reveals a similar negative connotation. The government fails to discuss and deal with gender inequality as a political problem, and in fact mobilizes against it, as with its approach towards migrants. This is not surprising, especially in light of the fact that some conservative and far-right movements in Europe united with a common goal to collect supporters against concepts of ‘gender.’ As a consequence, European politics has seen the (re)creation of a conservative, heteronormative family-supporting, and anti-LGBTQ+ rights patriarchal discourse. In this sense, the government’s constant promotion of heterosexual marriage marks it as anti-LGBTQ+, while defining women as primarily wives and mothers is an anti-feminist patriarchal discourse. In accordance with these discourses has been a wide range of concrete events that have gained attention from the public. These events include the Christian KDNP’s anti-abortion campaign in 2011, followed by the legal restriction of access to abortion, and identifying women’s emancipation with her bearing 3 or 4 children against the demographic deficit and in favor of family values. Recently an open rejection has been placed against initiating an MA program in gender studies at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), one of the most prominent Hungarian public research universities. Again, besides the clear political opposition, a civil reaction also materialized: Citizens marched the streets and protested against the program. As per Katalin Novak, the Minister of State for Family and Youth Affairs, ‘instead of gender studies, programs should be launched that deal with demographic issues and family science.’  What is more, the KDNP party depicted gender studies as a dangerous field of research for the nation, stating that such studies are a ‘pseudoscience which is deprived of political correctness.’ Thus the legitimacy and necessity of the field of gender studies itself – and therefore the importance of gender equality – is denied by the Hungarian Ministry.

While numerous international and Hungarian civil society organizations have raised their voices against the government’s anti-gender equality, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-migrant propaganda, the government has made the existence of civil society organizations (CSOs) impossible by placing financial withdrawals on them. In other cases, the government did the opposite, instead merging original human rights and government-critical NGOs into pro-governmental NGOs. Pressing the matter further is the issue of Hungarian media now loudly proclaiming the need for ‘sweeping out’ NGOs, as exemplified by Szilard Nemeth, the vice president of Fidesz. Nemeth also made it clear that the government plans to eradicate such non-governmental organizations that are especially based on leftist-liberal and democratic rights as according to those founded by George Soros. Obviously in recent years the European Parliament (EP) has sharply criticized the ‘illiberal’ measures of the Hungarian government – as with the violation of the rule of law, freedom, and human rights – but still, the EP was unable to place any sanctions Hungary. Without any sanctions placed upon them, the Hungarian government can implement its ‘illiberal’ actions without interference; opposition parties are not able to come together, and the EU’s bureaucratic-administrative system (i.e. exclusive veto right of member countries and exclusive decision-making in Brussels) further exacerbates and makes this possible.

What do the Hungarian government’s anti-women, anti-migration, and anti-LGBTQ+ actions imply?

What can the current refugee crisis tell us? It seems that it is telling us that the EU cannot function effectively if there is no common agreement among the member states on democratic issues. What do the Hungarian government’s anti-women, anti-migration, and anti-LGBTQ+ actions imply? I propose that the implication being made is that the EU cannot properly intervene in such serious situations of a member state, as this would be a sort of open attack on EU principles and norms themselves. The EU’s biggest concern is the fact that the majority of decisions are made in the European Commission (EC) and Council of Europe (CoE), and such majority decisions being made by a ruling majority essentially – and precisely – limits and/or prevents average people from participating in the democratic decision-making process, as ordinary people have little or no access to the political decision-making process. The only solution calls for the EU needing to change its bureaucratic attitude. Without making such necessary changes, right-wing ‘illiberal’ ideas influencing and dominating today’s political discourse(s) in Europe – including in Hungary – are only gaining political power globally, and could permanently redefine and eradicate liberal rights and progressive norms.

Learning From (Our) Mistakes…?

The current government has systematically hindered the existence of democratic human rights organizations and feminists that criticize the government.

The current political situation in Hungary and its ambivalent relationship with the EU is becoming more worrisome. And the process has not ended yet. The neo-conservative and neo-patriarchal system of the government is renegotiating (gender) equality as a fundamental human right by proscribing ‘illiberal’ – and thus new – norms on society. As democracy has been historically unstable in Hungary, the lack of representing (gender) inequality as a political problem that proves to be a determinative in the Hungarian political context, and neoliberal norms are increasingly becoming the main objects of the state’s propaganda against human rights and open society: The current government has systematically hindered the existence of democratic human rights organisations and feminists that criticise the government by discursively forming them into enemies for the public eye. In my view, this manipulative persuasion and proliferative hate-speech against liberal-democratic norms and (gender) equality rights is, in general, subservient to the government’s main interest in drawing people’s attention from the real problems of society – such as the welfare state and open society – which are all EU norms. Therefore until people see the major threat and enemy of feminists, LGBTQ+ groups, and migrants etc., as the cause of such turmoil, the violation and deterioration of universal human rights and norms will not become part of the public political discourse in Hungary. Furthermore, there is no longer any control that could outweigh the political power of the government; many civil society organizations have become collaborators with the government. ‘Illiberal democracy,’ then, as a new form of state means new challenges for feminism and gender equality.

Another disappointing aspect of the Hungarian situation is that EU-membership does not guarantee the maintenance of democracy. Without such guarantee, ‘illiberal democracy’ poses itself as a serious threat to the existence and dissemination of democratic norms – at both the EU and global level. Additionally, the EU’s administrative-bureaucratic structure ironically supports the ‘illiberal’ political ideologies of the Hungarian government by failing to impose sanctions on the political elite and leadership of Hungary. Thus the EU itself is primarily an economic coalition, the main exporter of human rights, mainly driven by neoliberal principles. This has enabled the Hungarian government to reinterpret this neoliberal aspect of the EU’s (gender) equality policy in a neo-conservative and patriarchal framework due to promoting and implementing Christian family values in society. Gender equality is not articulated and prioritized as a political goal, as a basic human right in Hungarian politics. Instead, it forced onto other neoliberal political priorities of the government, such as demographic deficit, or it is even entirely replaced with ideologies on family.

Gender equality should not be replaced by heteronormative family discourse, a discourse that prioritizes the motivations of a neoliberal government.

There is an urgent need for the EU to rethink its basis towards liberal and democratic questions, so that liberalism really – quoting Viktor Orban – ‘demands privilege’ for itself. (Gender) equality should be a goal for itself. It should not be considered as a useful and secondary asset to solve the demographic problems of Hungary, nor should it be denied due to aiming for economic targets. Likewise, gender equality should not be replaced by heteronormative family discourse, a discourse that prioritizes the motivations of a neoliberal government. As the Hungarian case shows, the EU is failing to practice its normative power: It defines global liberal-democratic norms in a manner that does not demand compliance by member states. Thus the EU ironically leaves a space open for the creation and further dissemination of ‘illiberal democratic’ norms.

As far as I can assess, there is a dire need to establish new norms of (gender) equality within a unitary and democratic political narrative that insists on respecting universal human rights, democracy, and social justice. In order to ensure a successful and consequent implementation of this normative change, it needs to be executed at the national, regional, and local policy levels, as well as within the political spheres in each EU-member state.

Bio

Bianka Vida
'Bianka Vida holds an MA degree in Critical Gender Studies with a specialisation in Public Policy from Central European University (CEU), Hungary. Her main research interests are the inclusion of gender equality in EU research policy, the EU’s discursive politics of gender equality, and EU equality and social inclusion policies in general. She frequently publishes her works in English and Hungarian so as to contribute to public and academic discussions on gender equality more broadly.