In the last decade, young people in Hungary have turned away from traditional political parties and, as it seemed for a long time, also from politics itself. However, now they launched their own movement.
On February 17, an important event took place in domestic Hungarian politics, its long-term consequences still being difficult to estimate. The Momentum Movement [Momentum Mozgalom] collected over 266,000 signatures under a motion to hold a referendum on the Olympic Games. The signatories proposed that inhabitants of Budapest should decide if they wanted their city to host the Olympic Games in 2024. As a result, Victor Orbán’s government—not wanting to risk a referendum campaign on such a problematic issue less than a year before parliamentary elections—withdrew the candidacy of Budapest.
The Momentum initiative will go down in political memory as one of the few successful political actions against Orbán’s rule since its beginning in 2010. During these seven years the prime minister has found himself in such an uncomfortable situation only twice. The first time was in the winter of 2012, when students took to the streets in protest against a dramatic reduction of access to free university education. And then in the last months of 2014 in Budapest and other major cities, mass protests were organized against the proposed tax on the Internet.
What these initiatives had in common, besides being successful, is that their organizers were almost exclusively young people below 30, and also the participants (demonstrators and those collecting signatures) generally represented the young generation.
Young Hungarians regularly face two charges: that they are too politically-minded and that they are hardly interested in politics. The explanation of this apparent contradiction is to be found in the nature of Orbán’s system created after 2010. The semi-autocratic rule invades not only the economy but also other areas of the citizens’ life: having children has become a political question alongside with patriotism, but day-to-day political discussions now revolve also around such issues as the curriculum or textbooks. At the same time, Orbán tries to act as if governing did not mean making political decisions, representing instead the only correct truth—“the national interest.” Hence the name he has given to what he is doing: the System of National Cooperation [Nemzeti Együttműködés Rendszere].
This ideology explains why Orbán’s government qualifies social protests against his actions as “politically motivated.” One example of that was the campaign against the Momentum Movement—the government media allegedly spotted participants of the left-liberal governments from before 2010 in the midst of this movement. A similar media offensive had been launched against the organizers of the student movements from 2012, and since 2010 the government propaganda accuses every “civil” movement of being manipulated by fallen left-wing politicians. Another recurring charge is that the activists are financed by György Soros, the American stock-market guru of Hungarian origin, or by foreign secret services in order to overthrow the democratically elected government of Hungary. “The opposition: bad politician—good civilian is very harmful, because it hampers the movement between these two spheres and supports the cynical communication used by the government,” says Anett Bősz (30), spokeswoman of the Hungarian Liberal Party [Magyar Liberális Párt]. Young movements often acknowledge this opposition themselves and deny having any political aspirations. The reason is that a very negative image of politics and politicians lingers among the younger generation; according to the survey Hungarian Youth 2016 [Magyar Ifjúság 2016], for the age-group 15–29 politicians are the least trusted group—and also the level of trust for the parliament and government is extremely low.
Young people gained their political experiences mainly in the period when the condition of the Hungarian democracy demonstrated a downward trend. Viktor Gyetvai (19), who in 2012, while still a secondary school student, gained recognition as one of the organizers of student movements, says that his first political memories are connected with the street riots in the autumn of 2006. Richárd Barabás (30), a politician from Dialogue for Hungary [Párbeszéd Magyarországért], believes that young Hungarians are not interested in structural questions of party politics and that the traditional image of a politician has become “wacky.” To reach young people, politicians have to function as a kind of social hubs. Members of the new generation do not like to hear commonplaces, because they can check everything on the Internet in two minutes, believes Barabás.
Dániel Mikecz, expert of the Republikon Institute [Republikon Intézet], believes that this slightly far-fetched self-definition as civilians may easily turn into a trap. If a movement initiated as a single-issue group also spoke about other areas, it would risk being labelled as “sham civilians” by the government.
In this respect, the Momentum Movement differs from its predecessors, because it entered the scene with 145 members and professional organization. Momentum Movement declared from the start that it intended to turn into a political party at a later stage. On the one hand, they based their arguments against the Olympics on the threat of corruption, but they also said that the funds reserved for the Olympics should be spent on other areas, for example on the ailing education, healthcare, or infrastructure in the countryside. “Momentum can serve as a model in the future, it shows that a grassroots initiative does not have to fall into the anti-politics trap, that people can and even should take part in the political game. For many young activists of the movement the month of collecting signatures was also a kind of political socialization,” says Mikecz.
The referendum on Brexit and the American presidential elections have clearly shown that particular groups of voters significantly differ from each other not only in terms of education or place of residence but also in terms of generational belonging. The millennial generation could have prevented Britain’s leaving the EU or the election of Donald Trump, but too few of its members even went to the polls.
Similar tendencies can be observed in Hungary. The popularity of the Fidesz–KDNP government among the young is much lower than for the general population. The survey on the youth from 2016 showed an increase of young people defining themselves as liberal or moderately liberal. A growing number of young people positively assesses our membership in the EU, despite the “fight for freedom” against Brussels waged by the government for almost seven years. Nevertheless, the political activity of the young is low: according to opinion polls, 44% of them are not interested in politics at all and 20% show a very low level of interest.
According to Richárd Barabás, although these tendencies are similar in Hungary and Western Europe, different processes are behind them. “In the West young people got used to democracy, they take the democratic system for granted and they notice the threats to democracy to a lesser extent or later. In Hungary the problem seems to be that although 25 years have passed since the change of the political system, we have still not learned democracy,” he says.
According to Dániel Róna, lecturer at the Corvinus University of Budapest [Budapesti Corvinus Egyetem], “politics” in Hungary has become a dirty word. When in the same survey young people were asked if they spoke with friends and families about public issues or social problems, most of them said that they did. The initial distancing themselves from politics also regarded the Momentum Movement. When in an interview for the Magyar Narancs weekly I asked about turning the movement into a party, András Győr–Fekete (27), the leader of Momentum, answered: “I have long remained cautious in my attitude towards political institutions and political parties, for I regarded them as outdated and unappealing. But the problem is not in the institutions themselves, it lies in their content.”
Viktor Gyetvai believes that the aversion of young people to politics has two fundamental reasons. “One of them is that their parents, raised in the times of Kádár’s socialism, transmitted an attitude of distrust towards power and perceived every public activity as potentially dangerous. Another reason is that the Hungarian system of education does not prepare children for democratic participation. First, students’ self-government in most schools is perceived at best as a necessary evil. And second, the curriculum does not really contain civic education and in history lessons there is often not enough time to discuss events from immediate past, which are crucial for understanding the present,” he says.
The situation in the universities is similar. Political parties are banned on the campuses and students often encounter difficulties when trying to organize discussions on issues connected with current political questions. The competition in students’ self-government is usually weak, the leaders often occupy the same positions for years, and the level of democratic participation is low. “Students themselves are astonished when a representative of students’ self-government shows a willingness to listen to their problems and treat them seriously,” recalls Anett Bősz, who used to be the leader of students’ self-government in one of the departments of the Corvinus University.
…or the Extreme Right?
The survey the Active Young [Aktív Fiatalok] conducted among university students in 2015 shows that party preferences of the young are dramatically different from the preferences of the general population. A full 35% of young Hungarians would vote for the extreme right party Jobbik (which never reached 20% in the general population), while the LMP (Politics Can Be Different!) [Lehet Más a Politika!], which in the last elections barely crossed the 5% mark, enjoys a 25% support of the young. At the same time the support for the right-wing ruling parties and for the traditional left is low and steadily declining.
According to Dániel Róna, the author of a book on the Jobbik phenomenon, the remarkable success of the extreme right parties among the young can be noticed also in other European countries (Austria, Slovakia), but the general trend seems to be that young people vote for anti-elitist parties. This may explain the success of the LMP, which tries to stay away not only from Fidesz–KDNP, but also from traditional left-wing parties, and during the 2014 elections it did not participate in the liberal-left coalition. In other countries it can be seen that anti-establishment parties are capable of reaching young people even from the left, Podemos in Spain being one example. The Momentum Movement took its position in the center, but outside the traditional political elite. “What is needed is a change of political culture, and the political elite should be send to the tropics,” said András Fekete–Győr in the interview I already quoted.
The good news for the new initiatives is that a significant part of young people joined Jobbik not for ideological reasons (opposition to the EU, and earlier anti-Semitism and hostility to the Roma), more important was a rebellion against the economic and political elites and the sense of community offered by the extreme right subculture. “These young people could be won over also by someone else, not only by Jobbik. Jobbik simply existed and offered answers to questions they were haunted with,” says Róna. The presence of Jobbik may be taken in a quite literal sense, for there are places, mainly in the eastern Hungary, where only Fidesz and Jobbik have institutional structures. So these young people from the countryside may express their opposition to the current government only through supporting Jobbik.
Dániel Mikecz believes that the countryside will play a crucial role when it comes to the future of Momentum. So far, this organization is centered on Budapest and its members are educated and mobile people, most of them with some experience in European educational institutions. This new initiative announced that during the 45 days of counting anti-Olympics signatures it would visit all regional centers. They want to create local groups and with the emergence of new problems they plan to launch other local referendum initiatives. It could be the right direction—according to Viktor Gyetvai, young people can be drawn into politics mainly through issues which directly involve them. The government’s plans to limit access to higher education from 2012 would affect both older siblings of Gyetvai and himself. “It was not that I entered public life, public life came to me,” he says.
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