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CANCELLED! Rebuilding the Hungarian Right through Civil Organization and Contention

Thursday, February 16, 2017, 5:30 pm

Starting in 2010 the Fidesz party achieved in a row six (partly landslide) victories at municipal, national, and European Parliament elections. Not questioning other explanations, my ongoing research traces the remarkable resilience of the ruling party above all to earlier “tectonic” shifts in civil society, which helped the Right accumulate ample social capital well before its political triumph.

This process was decisively advanced by the Civic Circles Movement founded by Viktor Orbán after the lost election of 2002. This movement was militant in terms of its hegemonic aspirations and collective practices; massive in terms of membership and activism; middle-cIass based in terms of social stratification; and dominantly metropolitan and urban on the spatial dimension.

Parallel to contentious mobilization, the movement joined forces with other like-minded collective actors to re-organize and extend the Right’s grass-roots networks, associations, and media; rediscover and reinvent its holidays and everyday life-styles, symbols, and heroes; and to explore innovative ways for cultural, charity, leisure, and political activities. In this vein, leading activists, among them patriots, priests, professionals, politicians, and pundits, offered new frames and practices for Hungarians to feel, think, and act as members of “imagined communities”: the nation, Christianity, citizenry, and Europe.  

Ironically, this conquest of civil society occurred as it were under the radar of the Left and Liberal coalition ruling in 2002-2010. The jury is still out to judge whether the incumbents’ weak response was due to negligence or reflects other obstacles to the Left’s enduring robust presence in civic associational life. Whatever the correct answer, the challenge of the Hungarian case, is similar to the one posed by Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory, and other manifestations of a novel political trend: do Left and Liberal actors still have the skill, will and resources to reinvigorate civil society and so resist illiberal and anti-democratic political agendas? Hence the chance for drawing lessons for rethinking open society in the new Millennium.

Reception to follow.