Guest blog: Not all hope is yet lost

24 September 2021

Veronika Mora from the Hungarian Donors Forum writes about the challenges Hungarian civil society faces. To learn more, you can hear from Veronika in the closing plenary at the ACF virtual conference annual conference on 7 October.


For the past decade, Hungary has lived under the rule of right-conservative Fidesz party, which has governed with a two-third (constitutional) majority in Parliament. This enabled Prime Minister Orbán to gradually dismantle the institutions of democratic checks and balances, and to gain direct control over large segments of key industries (including media) by building up a tight circle of friendly oligarchs. Thus, Hungary became the infamous pioneer of democratic backsliding in the EU, under the guise of upholding ‘national sovereignty’, ‘family values’ and ‘Christian tradition’. This polarised Hungarian society to the extremes: by now, the two ‘sides’ simply live in and speak of two different realities. 

All this had a strong impact on civil society, too. The first major effort by the government to stifle civil society voice hit (and made international news) in 2014, and revolved around the use of the funding provided by European Economic Areas countries to civil society organisations in Hungary. The fund’s operators and its recipients – human rights, women’s, LBGT+, anticorruption, green, etc. organisations – suffered smear campaigns orchestrated by leading governmental officials in pro-government media, harassing inspections by state authorities, and even criminal accusations. The peak of this scandal was a police raid at the premises of Ökotárs Foundation and its partners in September 2014 – but as proven later, of course all accusations were without merit and standing. 

Since then, the government has actively tried to divide the sector into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ organisations, making it clear what it accepts as legitimate civil society activity: that limited to the very traditional charity and recreation – any organisation that speaks up on behalf of its stakeholders, or dares voice criticism of certain policies immediately falls in the latter category and is tagged as going against the national interest. These independent, critical organisations are kept on a starvation diet, as they have no chance to secure public funding (while there is abundant money available to the friendly ones). The government even attempted to introduce legislation stigmatising groups based on their source of income through passing an act on ‘foreign funded’ organisations in 2017, which in 2020 was found by the European Court of Justice to go against EU law on several counts.

But this very act made Hungarian civil society organisations come together and stand up for another – the first news about the planned legislation prompted the birth of the Civilisation coalition, which by now consists of almost 40 leading nationwide organisations, and has an “outer circle” of about 300 other groups. Besides monitoring the situation, speaking up against attacks on individual organisations or civil society as a whole, the coalition also serves as a platform of exchange and know-how. But just as importantly, it also aims at improving the public image of civil society, but conducting pro-active communication campaigns telling people what CSOs are about, why they are important and what they do for Hungarians as a whole. 

Coalitions and communication – these and two other C’s are key in countering shrinking civil space: communities and constituencies. Besides polarisation, Hungarian society is also characterised by apathy and helplessness. Unless people believe they can make a difference, are empowered to stand up for themselves and have tools and means to participate in public affairs, no lasting change can be achieved. Therefore, civil society organisations need to help build communities of active citizens from the bottom-up who can have an influence on their direct environs and the decisions that shape their lives. This ongoing (though often not too spectacular) effort strongly relies on the methods of community organising, largely adapted from the US. Lastly, civil society organisations also need to reach out to and build an ever-broadening circle of constituency, which supports their work financially but also make them more resilient in the face of attacks. 

The good news is that these efforts pay off: in spite of the government’s efforts, according to latest research, Hungarians still view civil society more positively than not (including those critical of the government). Indeed, in Hungary taxpayers can assign 1% of their income taxes to a civil society organisation of their choice: the latest results for this year just came out, and show that (after some years of steady decline) organisations most often harassed by the government were able to significantly increase the amounts they collected this way. 

So, not all hope is yet lost…

To hear more from Veronika, join the ACF virtual annual conference on 6 and 7 October.