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All I want for Christmas… is a democratic political culture in Hungary

Written by Fanni Toth.

It is that time of the year again. People rushing by with endless shopping bags hanging from their hands, Christmas music blasting in the shops, fairy lights decorating every street in sight. ‘Tis the season to be jolly, the season for love and peace on Earth. Well, maybe not everywhere on Earth; in Hungary, this Christmas the sounds of jingle bells are being drowned out by a cacophony of angry voices, shouting insults on each side, arguing – perhaps rather surprisingly for most of the Western world – about the place of women in society.

It all started about a week ago Sunday. During the currently ruling right-wing Fidesz party congress, the speaker of the Hungarian National Assembly László Kövér spoke about the alleged threats of the so-called “gender-craze” on society, revealing that “we would like our daughters to consider it their highest form of self-fulfilment that they can give birth to our grandchildren”. His words were followed by a thunderous applause from the attendees at the congress – men and women alike. In the next few days the subject got even more heated when a relatively well-known Hungarian pop singer Ákos Kovács declared that it is not the role of women to make as much money as men. Women’s job, he asserted, is to fulfil their principle, which is to belong to someone, to give birth to a child for someone, and to be a mother.

These remarks, of course, did not fail to incite a nationwide debate that exploded on social media. On the one side of the debate were those who were voicing their outrage at these sexist comments, calling for women to take a stance. A Facebook group, for example, was set up encouraging women to flood Mr Kövér with negative pregnancy tests sent in the mail, whilst the Ákos Kovács Fanclub from the city of Szeged created an event in which they invited all women who had already bought tickets to the singer’s concerts to return these, as they argued that the pop icon did not list attendance at his performances as one of women’s duties. On the other side however, is a significant opposition of men and women alike, who alternate between defending Mr Kövér and Mr Kovács’s statements – either by trying to explain them away or simply by agreeing with their views on the role of women, – and attacking those who condemn these views, calling them “dirty words” such as liberals and feminists.

The debate did not only play out on social media. As a reaction to Mr Kovács’ statements, Magyar Telekom, Hungary’s leading telecommunications company, decided to withdraw their sponsorship of the singer’s concerts, due to his sexist remarks which they deemed “were not compatible with [their] beliefs and value system”. As a response, a day after this announcement the Hungarian government instructed all its ministries to terminate their contracts with the German-owned telecommunications company, which they deemed to have imposed an “opinion dictatorship”. According to government spokesman Zoltán Kovács, this move violated both the spirit and the letter of the Hungarian constitution, a move that may be acceptable in Germany but not in Hungary, alluding to the company’s subsidiary status to Deutsche Telekom, which also owns T-Mobile in the UK. Leaving aside the fact that in a free democracy a company should be able to determine where they invest their money and where they don’t, the result of this escalating spat was that the Hungarian government took a stance on a rather questionable side in this debate, though perhaps not surprising given that the whole incident sprung from the remarks of one of their own.

Sexism and the gender gap are of course not a unique phenomenon happening only in Hungary. In fact, only recently a United Nations working group delegation on discrimination against women were reportedly appalled by the lack of gender equality in the USA. What is surprising is that in Hungary –supposedly a democratic republic and member of the European Union – a large proportion of the population still holds such archaic views about the role of women in society, and indeed that public figures can overtly (and proudly) stand by them. And this is not an isolated incident: according to the 2015 Gender Gap Index, Hungary is 99th in the world, behind countries such as Russia, China and Tajikistan, and behind all other EU member states, except for Cyprus and Malta.

All this shows a worrying lack of a democratic political culture in Hungary, which could have serious consequences for the survival of democracy in the country. Since the early 1960s, when the seminal authors Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba wrote about the significance of what they called a “civic culture”, a significant subsection of political science has researched the importance of political culture in determining the survival of political regimes. The argument is that the development and survival of an effective democracy is contingent on a political culture that upholds those norms and values on which political system relies. Hence, individual orientations matter. If the population lacks a fundamental belief in basic democratic principles, such as freedom, equality and the rule of law, there is no foundation upon which the basic institutions of a democracy can be built. Without these values, institutions are merely empty, meaningless vessels open to manipulation, fraud and corruption.

Worryingly, the current scandal is not unprecedented in nature. Apart from examples of sexism, there have also been numerous other examples that have highlighted a widespread occurrence of discrimination in Hungary: antisemitism (neo-Nazi demonstrations), homophobia (attacks on the “Budapest pride” LGBT rights march), racial hatred (discrimination against the Roma community), and xenophobia (the Hungarian camerawoman who tripped a feeling refugee holding his son). These events are further fueled by actions from the government that are equally charged with discrimination and hatred: from the planned erection of a statue honoring a World War II era anti-Semite minister, through the erection of the razor-wire fence to keep asylum seekers out, to blaming the Jewish state for the Paris attacks.

This is indeed a bleak picture that is developing in the country, although not all hope is lost. In an era of globalisation, economic and political integration, more democratic ideas are trickling in through the media, through an increased interaction with other nations and cultures, and through the increased freedom of movement that being a member state of the EU allows. Although these factors are not enough to counter the current anti-democratic political culture in Hungary, largely because these are backed by significant political and governmental powers, the outraged voices responding to the likes of Mr Kövér and Mr Kovács give some hope that there is a new generation emerging that could fight against the sexist and discriminating voices heard from people and government alike. In the meantime, perhaps it’s best to remember that in true Christmas spirit, instead of shouting insults at each other, we should remember to embrace the spirit of peace and love… and perhaps also equality among all.

Fanni Toth is a PhD student with the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: CC by European People’s Party/Flickr.

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