The changing local government landscape in Hungary: is there a place for civil society?
In Hungary, the relationship between local governments and civil society organizations (CSOs) has always been a dynamic and sensitive one. This chapter provides an overview of how this relationship has changed after 30 years of democratization and identifies the main issues and recent trends, notably regarding the promotion of more democratic and transparent mechanisms that carry the potential of larger structural changes. Our conclusions draw on research that involved 21 semi-structured interviews with experts (4), local government employees (7), and CSOs (11) covering several different parts of Hungary, including Alsónémedi, Budakalász, Eger, Gyál, Pécs, and Budapest, the capital, at both metropolitan and district level.
The political–economic context of civil society development
The inclusion of civil society in decision-making processes has been widely debated since the first multi-party election took place in Hungary in 1990. New regulations were put in place through the 1989 Act on the Right for Associating, which legally acknowledged existing informal practices. Although the number of organizations increased rapidly, the relationship between the public sector and civil society was based on spontaneous collaborations that lacked a strategic vision and scarcely resulted in institutionalized practices. The mid-1990s were a time when local governments extensively created non-profit organizations, as a result of the 1993 amendment to the Civil Code. Early attempts to incorporate CSOs – imbued with important symbolic capital during the democratization process – into local decision making mostly failed, due to a lack of professionalization of the CSO sector. During the first Orban government (1998-2002), the “rural” civil society infrastructure was created, providing financial support schemes through so-called “Non-Profit Service Centers” located in the county seats. In light of the closed decision-making processes, civil society was mainly involved in decisions through representative bodies such as municipal councils, with limited influence on public policies (Földi, 2009).
In 2003, the left–liberal government continued to develop the country’s civil society strategy, by targeting the creation of a more autonomous civil society (Brachinger, 2008). The NGO sector started to stabilize after the Law on the National Civil Base Program (NCA) was passed, and national and regional NGOs increased in number. However, they operated under the tight control of the funding authorities, serving as more efficient distributors of targeted welfare and community funding, but in a rather ambiguous way. NGOs became less autonomous as political interests interfered with their tasks, both at the central and the local government level (Szalai, Svensson and Vince, 2017). Political control resulted in blurred lines between the public and civil society sphere, which gave rise to corrupt practices and to even less transparency in the distribution of funds. Developmental programs funded by both local and international donors that focused on training civil society and community leaders contributed to their lopsided professionalization, which was characterized by weak administrative capacities and an absence of independent fundraising efforts.
The 2010 elections brought the right-wing populist Fidesz party to power with a two-thirds majority, which prompted the new government to launch a series of radical legislative changes that culminated in the adoption of a new constitution in 2011. The Fidesz government was able to hold on to its two-thirds majority in 2014 and 2018. The independence of civil society became highly politicized during this era, as Fidesz imposed a polarizing political narrative that placed “the nation” in opposition to “foreign agents,” embodied by the left-liberal elite and foreign-funded civic organizations (Gagyi, 2016). The new wave of civil society mobilizations in the 2010s coincided with widening political cleavages: CSOs became heavily involved in party politics, putting in doubt the possibility of a “pure” civil society (Gerő and Kopper, 2013). While the nationalist discourse attacked CSOs through anti-Soros and anti-immigrant propaganda, the NGO scene reacted with concerns over the loss of democratic governance mechanisms, the freedom of the local and national media, or the forced departure of Central European University from Budapest.
Following the adoption of the new constitution in 2011, the government enacted considerable changes to the legislation governing civil society initiatives, which constrained citizen mobilization in several ways. In parallel with the ever greater centralization of powers, the government’s illiberal measures facilitated the exclusion of autonomous institutions and divergent voices (Majtényi, Kopper and Susánszky, 2018). Furthermore, the 2011 law curtailed the autonomy of CSOs, reduced their funding opportunities and created new regulations that induced greater bureaucratic pressure (see Nagy, 2016).
In addition, local governments have seen their autonomy erode over the past decade, due to a weakening of their capacities and shrinking financial resources. The 2011 amendments to the 1990 Act on Local Governments aimed at a re-centralization of finance, healthcare and education and thus put an end to efforts to create a decentralized local government system (Pálné Kovács et al., 2016). Consequently, managing city-level policies has become a much more difficult task, since national-level policies interfere with the management and implementation of collaborations. Besides, the collaborations between local governments and CSOs receive less and less funding from the national budget, which has increased their reliance on EU and foreign funds. On the one hand, local grants and funding schemes
are scarce and create a high degree of dependence on the part of local CSOs. On top of that, as István Sebestény, a researcher analyzing NGO-statistics notes, local governments are only aware of roughly one-third of the existing CSOs, which dominate the field of formal collaboration while maintaining a very narrow and apolitical focus. On the other hand, applying for EU funds remains out of reach for most organizations, since they lack the necessary administrative, language and networking capacities and experience to successfully apply for competitive, large-scale funding schemes.
A balancing act between dependence and shrinking resources
To prevent being subsumed into local party politics or becoming too dependent on local governments, CSOs have used several tactics to increase the level of trust and their reputation among citizens.
One of the key efforts of CSOs has been to create visibility for their projects, by targeting tangible and short-term results. In doing so, they are able to avoid taking political risks or getting lost in the bureaucratic processes of the local government. To focus mainly on non-party political issues, CSOs use a wide variety of tools. Surveys, door-to-door communication or fostering participation on public issues are important elements when it comes to raising awareness of specific matters. For example, in the 8th district of Budapest, C8 (Case Study 2) followed this strategy in its campaign for the 2019 municipal elections, reaching out to residents in a proactive way.
Many respondents point to a second obstacle to their successful operation, namely the biased local media. For example, in Budapest, the municipality does not ensure proper media coverage of collaborations, meaning that it is mainly up to the CSOs themselves to publicize them. The media could play an important role in channeling demands, but Hungary’s media environment is currently very biased in general, with Fidesz receiving much greater coverage throughout the country. Therefore, seeking political alliances among the opposition does not offer the prospect of improved visibility for the organizations. In addition, the political divides do not always help CSOs to make themselves visible, especially if their demands and criticism target both sides, and are not taken up by any political party. Local CSOs compete with each other for publicity, which often results in one powerful actor being handpicked by local politicians as the voice of the CSO sector. The rotating presidency of the Civil Society Roundtable in Eger, which divides media attention among the various CSO actors, is a rare counterexample.
What is more, relying on the input of citizens is a rather new phenomenon for CSOs. Promoting a culture of volunteering and recruiting and training new activists and members are key criteria for making their actions more visible (see Case Study 2). This is very difficult due to the fact that most people in the larger cities have full-time jobs, with little free time to deal with public affairs. Consequently, the CSO sector often depends on other resources, such as expert knowledge or national and international networks.
However, there is a sign of hope, as Hungary’s culture of donating has gone through a major change in recent years, according to our interviewees, which they tend to attribute to the central government’s adversarial approach to CSOs: this hostile environment pushes them to seek alliances not only with local governments, but with citizens directly. As Cili Lohász, the founder of VaLyo, recalls, “15 years ago, it was impossible to collect this level of donations, and now it is becoming more and more common.” Similarly, Erika Barna, an expert on community foundations highlights that next to corporate social responsibility and charity, local donors play a prominent role in stabilizing the income of organizations. Therefore, embeddedness in the local environment is now an important factor in managing successful fundraising campaigns that target individual donations.
The problems of embeddedness
Debating institutionalization: CSO strategies from conflict to cooperation
Even though the aim of the political discourse at the national level is to strengthen the divide among civil society members, the majority of the organizations we interviewed have not developed a clear political vision. As a member of the Civil Society Roundtable from Eger notes, there is a constant focus on civic issues with no particular interest in “big politics.” Instead, CSOs try to overcome the legal, financial and regulatory obstacles that prevent them from achieving their goals. The main challenge in terms of collaboration is the “taming”
of critical voices when CSOs become formal partners of the local government. Our respondents agree that working together with local governments often causes them to change their tactics, as they become more careful and on occasion even stop to communicate until the local government has framed its own position on the projects in question. The reason for this change in behavior is partly the sensitive nature of formal collaborations, alongside the hope that being more constructive will lead to better results in the end. Ultimately, the goal is to change ineffective processes and negative reflexes. To this end, CSOs choose different paths, either by being confrontational or by trying to find common ground.
Depending on the goal and motivation of CSOs, some respondents believe that the only way to exert pressure is to remain critical, by monitoring the everyday practices of public administrations from the outside. As the founder of Civil Kapocs, a watchdog organization, explains, “in the long run, collaboration with local governments cannot be successful, as they don’t have any real interest in finding common ground. The control mechanisms that we provide are working against them.” In order to perform this control function, CSOs have to take a “militant approach” by actively engaging in a conflictive relationship with the local governments: suing them to disclose data or pressuring them to become more transparent by making documents available to the public.
Some of the other CSOs meanwhile maintain that besides playing the role of watchdog, they also have to acknowledge the necessity of an occasionally more cooperative relationship with local governments. As the founder of Civil Kalász explains, the goal is to make decisions together, involving as many people as possible. “If we can clearly define our needs, it is easier to shape the approach of others, and this is the practice I am currently missing.” For these organizations, depending on the context and the issue at stake, dialog is more important than confrontation, given that the role of CSOs is to channel citizen demands to the local government by providing constructive suggestions. In other words, they prioritize the creation of communication platforms, where ideas can be shared and developed. Usually, these CSOs are more informal, similarly to the confrontational groups, with a very clear agenda that they intend to push through. They are consistent in their actions for reaching their goals, build public support for their cause, and devote time to raise awareness of the importance of sustaining channels for effective mediation between citizens and local governments. As the example of C8 shows (Case Study 2), such a clear vision includes the idea of self-governance, enabling citizens and elected members of the local government to act as equal partners.
While some groups cite the possibility of dialog as their main goal, others focus on collaboration that will produce concrete results. If the goal of CSOs is to change a certain legislation or policy, their strategy is concentrated on more practical aspects: providing alternatives to inadequate public policies and highlighting the need for systemic change (see Case Study 3). In the case of the Kőbánya district in Budapest, the Utcáról Lakásba Egyesület association (ULE) combines local embeddedness (involving affected citizens directly) with public policy goals (a “housing first” approach), by building on a discourse of the right to housing and the associated responsibility of the public sector in providing help to those in need. CSOs offering alternative approaches to existing policies believe that a long-term approach is necessary to find better solutions. To this end, cooperation, autonomy and identifying potential political allies are important elements in order to be able to experiment with alternative scenarios that will eventually achieve the desired structural changes.
Finally, several organizations believe that the best strategy is to become involved in local politics to be able to upscale their demands and effect change. As the founder of Civil Kalász explains, “dealing with local causes is always a political act, you cannot avoid engaging in politics.” CSOs that decide to participate in local politics and elections by endorsing politicians or political formations find it difficult to be perceived as independent by the public, since many people view them as an extension of the local government. Nevertheless, they often consider campaigning for an oppositional candidate who shares the same values to be a sound strategy for reaching their goals. The example of C8 in the 8th district of Budapest (Case Study 2) is a case in point: When C8’s candidate won the municipal elections, the organization was torn between members who entered local government and those who remained outside of it. Many vocal residents see C8 as a privileged CSO or a local party, which goes against the activist’s perception of their situation. C8 does not accept subsidies from the municipality and does not even rent any premises from it, but this is hard to explain to the public. Drawing on these two examples, the main difficulty that CSOs face is the need to explain the difference between local and party politics. The goal of these organizations is to emphasize that they do not necessarily want to become decision makers themselves, but instead aim to provide a platform for discussion.
In parallel with the differnt approaches of the CSO sector outlined above, local governments are also facing new challenges. The imple mentation of the participatory turn that the opposition promised after the 2019 municipal elections has still not materialized. So far, the Municipality of Budapest has appointed one deputy mayor to be in charge of participatory mechanisms and to facilitate civil society inclusion in decision-making processes (Case Study 1), while other local governments have proposed to follow a similar, more inclusive approach aimed at resolving the conflicts that previously characterized the relationship between CSOs and the public sector (Case Studies 2 and 4). Notwithstanding the outbreak of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, which turned into a major stumbling block for the implementation of these plans, several other obstacles remain: how to define clear roles and responsibilities within municipal govern ments for effecting a real participatory turn, what part civil society should play in mediating between the needs of citizens and local governments, and how to include a wider number of CSOs in this process rather than simply deepening the relationships with existing partners.
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List of respondents
Case Study 1: Budapest – promoting a participative turn
Máté Lukács | Coordinator of Járókelő
Ádám Kobrizsa | Founder of Mindspace
Cili Lohász | Founder of VaLyo
Gábor Kerpel-Fronius & András Szeles | Deputy Mayor of Budapest & the City Hall officer responsible for relations with civil society
Case Study 2: C8 – civil society actors in politics: role models faced with a role dilemma
A founding member of C8 who is active outside the municipality
Two delegates of C8 serving on municipal committees
A C8 activist working for the municipality (Office of Public Participation)
Case study 3: Pécs: developing a social program for the city
Fanni Aradi | Member of AVM Pécs
Ildikó Bokrétás | Member of Emberség Erejével Alapítvány (Pécs)
Szilvia Bognár | Deputy Mayor of Pécs
Case study 4: “From the street to housing” in Kőbánya: an unlikely collaboration
Vera Kovács | Founder of ULE – Utcáról Lakásba Egyesület, Budapest
Géza Mustó and Tibor Weeber | Deputy Mayors of Budapest’s 10th district
Formal cooperation / civil society roundtable
Tibor Csathó | Member of the Életfa Association and the local Civil Society Roundtable (Eger)
Balázs Szücs | Deputy Mayor of Budapest’s 7th district
Grassroots activist groups that are active at the local level
Ágnes Szép-Magyar | Founder of Civil Kalász (Budakalász)
Zoltán Juhász | Founder of Civil Kapocs (Alsónémedi)
Andrea Homok | Former community organizer at Eleven Gyál (Gyál)
Gergely Lukácsházi | Budapest Dialóg
István Sebestény | Statistician at the Hungarian Central Statistical Office
Urbanist (asked to remain anonymous)
Erika Barna | Director of the Ferencváros Community Foundation, Budapest
- 1993 XCII. Act amending certain provisions of the Civil Code. Due to the change in the nature of the state’s role in fulfilling public tasks, new types of non- profit organizations were established that created a bridge between CSOs based on voluntary initiatives and public institutions fulfilling state duties. Public foundations are a special type of such organizations.
- 2011 CLXXV. Act on the Right of Association, Public Benefit Status and the Operation and Funding of Non-Governmental Organizations
- 2011 CLXXXIX. Act on Local Governments of Hungary
- Except for certain NGOs that carry out political activities in support of certain policies that are important for the government (also known as GONGOs – government-organized non-governmental organizations) or charity organizations that manage outsourced public duties, which are often run by officials who also hold political office in the area of social policy.