Liberalism Under the Pressure of Illiberalism
The Republikon Institute, with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, organized an online conference on the situation of liberal thinkers and liberal voters in the Central and Eastern European region. At the first panel discussion, experts from the V4 countries Andrea Virág (Strategic Director of the Republikon Institute, Hungary), Błażej Lenkowski (President of Fundacja Liberté!, Poland), Šárka Prát (Director of the Institute for Politics and Society, Czechia), and Viera Žúborová (Strategic Director of Bratislava Policy Institute, Slovakia) discussed the state of liberalism and liberal values in the V4 countries.
Then at the second panel discussion, Hungarian liberal public figures, Anna Donáth (Member of the European Parliament, Momentum Party), Krisztián Nyáry (writer, creative director, Lyra) and Bálint Magyar (founder of the first liberal party in Hungary, SZDSZ) discussed what it means to be liberal in Hungary today and 30 years ago, how liberalism can function in an illiberal state and whether liberal governments can stand their ground in a pandemic.
THE STATE OF LIBERALISM AND LIBERAL VALUES IN THE V4 COUNTRIES
According to Błażej Lenkowski, liberal parties have limited electorate in Poland, even if cultural liberalism is getting more support in Poland, as the widespread civic activism at the recent demonstrations against abortion laws showed. Moreover, the societal acceptance for economic liberalism remains very limited in Poland. In his opinion, it is partly due to the fact that extreme right-wing parties in Poland are campaigning with free market ideas, making the concept of a liberal economy less attractive for liberal-minded voters.
Lenkowski claimed that there are four aspects that make liberalism weak in Poland: the lack of devoted party leaders, bad organisational structure and limited resources of political parties, the lack of clear liberal party programme, and ineffective communication campaigns. Lenkowski even stated that currently there are no real liberal parties in Poland.
The role of strong leaders in modern politics is very important, however according to Lenkowski, even in liberal parties, political leaders in Poland just want to gain more power and control and they purposely create internal conflicts within the parties. This then ruins the parties’ atmosphere and weakens their public image. Furthermore, in his opinion, Polish liberal parties cannot pool talented new members, as they do not have clear liberal visions, or attractive working conditions. Another issue for smaller parties in Poland is underfinancing, partly because bigger parties get much of the state support.
Moreover, Lenkowski highlighted that liberalism has a negative connotation in Poland, so liberal politicians are very cautious about openly advocating clear liberal values, and they often turn to the means of populism. However, in his opinion, liberal politicians must advocate liberal values, such as equality before law, religious freedom or sustainable state budget, in order to change the mainstream discourse on liberalism in Poland and to attract new voters.
Andrea Virág then presented the recent representative survey of Republikon Institute on the support for liberal values in the Hungarian society. After nationalism, order and stability, respondents chose liberalism as the worldview describing them the best. This is an interesting result, as Virág pointed out, since the Hungarian government has been running a very aggressive communication campaign against liberalism and liberal values in the last ten years.
Their survey found that liberalism is particularly popular among young people, people with university education, people living in larger cities, and among those who are concerned about environmental issues. Maybe not surprisingly, the majority of respondents with liberal value-orientation are dissatisfied with the current political and economic situation in Hungary. However, 19% of liberal respondents would still vote for the illiberal Fidesz party. Moreover, just like in Poland, those who sympathize with political liberalism in Hungary, do not necessarily support economic liberalism.
Šárka Prát highlighted that unlike in Poland or Hungary, there are several liberal parties in Czechia, such as ANO 2011 or the Piráti, which are popular among the Czech electorate. Liberalism in Czechia evolved from an anti-Soviet movement in the nineties, and its central element was the creation of a sovereign country. Thus, in her opinion the liberal doctrine remains important for the Czech parties, hence most of them still associate themselves with basic liberal values, especially with economic liberalism. According to Prát, liberalism has even become part of the Czech identity.
However, Prát pointed out that today more and more people in Czechia are getting sympathetic to extreme-right and populist parties, and many voters have turned away from traditional parties. But why are Czech voters getting more supportive of such parties? According to Prát, it is mainly thanks to the fact that populist parties have successfully created an atmosphere of external threat and a new exclusive Czech identity with the help of conspiracy theories and hate speech. This was then enhanced by the sensationalistic media channels and social media platforms where hate speech and misinformation can spread easily. In her opinion, one way to fight the populist tendencies is to offer solutions for the problems of those segments of the society, who feel left behind.
As last speaker of the first panel, Viera Žúborová gave an overview of the orientations of political parties in Slovakia. According to Žúborová, cultural liberalism has just recently started to emerge in Slovakia, while the Slovakian economy has already undergone extensive neo-liberal transformations. In her opinion, it is better to take the concept of an open society to distinguish political camps, as traditional party cleavages are disappearing in Slovakia and in other countries, and it is difficult to determine exactly which parties can be considered “classically liberal”. Žúborová argued that even parties like Fidesz follow liberal values at least to a certain extent, but they cannot be characterised as parties advocating aspects of an open society. In her definition the concept of open society includes: the protection of human rights, solidarity, tolerance, economic freedom, artistic freedom, support for migration and pro-European attitude.
At the Q&A part of the panel discussion all participants agreed that a liberal leader can be a strong leader at the same time, Prát giving Václav Havel as an example for this.
LIBERALISM IN AN ILLIBERAL STATE?
At the second panel discussion participants discussed why liberalism attracts such a limited electorate in Hungary. Bálint Magyar claimed that due to a historical misunderstanding, Hungarian liberalism includes broader values and aspects than the Western, more developed liberal systems. In 1991 they surveyed the value orientation of the members of the first liberal party in Hungary (SZDSZ), and they found that only 5% of all members consequently chose clear liberal values regarding human rights and economic aspects. Magyar claimed that in the early 1990s, a so-called liberal paradox emerged in Hungary, as the SZDSZ liberal party incorporated social democratic and conservative elements into their party program that in more advanced Western liberal systems had long since been separated into different party lines.
Krisztián Nyáry pointed out that the phrase (neo)liberal has become a swear word in Hungary, that both Fidesz and the oppositional parties throw at each other and claim as reasons for the problems in the country. According to Nyáry, what is interesting is not how many people in Hungary identify themselves liberal, but rather how the value system of Hungarian liberals has changed over the years. In his opinion, a mature society is needed for a functioning liberal system, as you have to be accounted for your own actions, and the state cannot decide everything for you. A liberal state considers its citizens as adult partners, which as Nyáry claimed, is currently not the case in Hungary.
Anna Donáth found it shocking that according to the survey of the Republikon Institute, only 14% of respondents in Hungary claimed themselves liberal. In her opinion, the problem for younger generations is that they cannot identify themselves with empty labels or ideologies anymore. Younger generations do not necessarily consider themselves “liberal”, as liberalism became an empty slogan for them. In her opinion, since liberalism in Hungary has gained a negative connotation and has lost its cultural values, liberal-minded voters and parties tend to rather call themselves progressive.
According to Magyar, the emergence of populistic politics also adds to the fading away of traditional party cleavages, since populism ruins coherent value systems, and populist politicians deliberately blur the boundaries of traditional party lines to destroy societal solidarity. This is why in his opinion it is difficult to determine nowadays whether a party is truly liberal.
ONLY ILLIBERAL STATES WITH A STRONG CENTRAL GOVERNMENT CAN MANAGE THE CURRENT PANDEMIC?
According to Nyáry, well-functioning liberal systems can stand their place even in such challenging times, as liberalism is not anarchism, and a liberal system accepts the intervention of the state, when unavoidable. In his opinion, the current Europe-wide policies might look less effective at the moment, as liberal politicians admit their mistakes and they are transparent about their measures. However, they learn from their failed attempts, while non-democratic systems hide their failures and propagate an image of success. According to Nyáry, now it is too early to judge what political systems were the most effective at managing the pandemic, we will see the real and long-term results only in the next years.
Magyar claimed that “the Hungarian state is not strong, but aggressive”. Magyar pointed out that while Hungary has one of the highest number of vaccinated people in Europe, the death rate among Covid patience is among the worst. In his opinion, the Hungarian government does not care about the lives of Hungarian citizens and Hungarian entrepreneurs, but they try to profit from this situation as much as possible to monopolize their power.
Donáth claimed that she understands that youngsters in Hungary do not follow the COVID-measures and they meet up with their friends. According to Donáth, in more transparent countries, where the state considers their citizens partners, people follow the rules. Moreover, despite the great successes on European level, such as the creation of the European Recovery Fund, Donáth admitted that not only the Hungarian state, but also the European Commission has not been fully transparent about their vaccine contracts.
At the Q&A part of the panel discussion, Nyáry and Donáth agreed that citizens even in an illiberal state can and have to dream of a more liberal state, as liberalism and the strive for freedom come from the individuals. However, Magyar claimed that when citizens are vulnerable and do not have stable financial circumstances, it is harder for them to believe in personal freedom. In his opinion, the Hungarian state is purposely trying to make Hungarian citizens vulnerable, so that they would support a stronger central state. In the end of the discussion, Nyáry and Magyar agreed that at the moment the biggest task in Hungary is not to establish a new liberal party or a liberal government, but to achieve a functioning cooperation among the oppositional parties to win the next elections in 2022 against the current dominance of Fidesz.
About the author:
Magdolna Molnár is a predoctoral fellow at the Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg, Germany, and currently an intern at the Republikon Institute, Hungary. Her research interests are sustainable waste management, zero waste, behaviour attitudes towards waste and the developments of green movements and activism particularly in the Central-European and Eastern European regions.
Republikon Institute is a liberal think tank organisation based in Budapest, focusing on analysing Hungarian and international politics, formulating policy recommendations and initiating projects that contribute to a more open, democratic and free society. The goal of the Institute is to promote discussion and implementation of liberal ideas, approaches and policies.