The role of the government’s social policies in the stability of the Orbán regime
The current state of Hungary’s social situation and the government’s social policies
“One-third of Hungarian society is lost for good, there are no available tools to bring them back from their misery….on the level of society we can practically write them off…They do not want to work, but the labour market does not want them either […] Viktor Orbán sees this trap, only he cannot talk honestly about the reality…It cannot be revealed that these people must be left on the side of the road because if we do not do so, the others will never cross the finishing line” – stated economist and former Orbán advisor László Bogár in 2013. The years past since then seem to justify the words of Bogár. Although the passing of the effects of the global economic crisis has led to slight improvements in poverty rates in Hungary as well, it is unquestionable that the social positions of the poorest Hungarians have frozen, social mobility has effectively ceased to exist. According to Eurostat, the proportion of Hungarian citizens affected by severe material deprivation (14.5%) is especially high compared to the EU average. The severely materially deprived face a serious lack of necessities in their daily lives, and subsistence is challenging for them as well. The share of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion is 25.6%, so one-fourth of society is threatened in this regard. People living in closed-off, small villages, the lowly skilled or unskilled workers without a job, people with disabilities and – especially – the Roma are in the worst situation.
Hungarian social policy has long failed to reduce inequalities, and it does not even strive to do so. As Dorottya Szikra’s 2014 study or Zoltán Vastag’s 2017 book found: the Hungarian state had not reduced but rather conserved and partly increased inequalities before 2010, but after 2010 the Orbán regime started to promote a new social model and almost openly renounced any efforts to improve the lives of the poorest citizens. The government only pretended otherwise in political debates on changes to poverty levels, but the “work-based society” concept introduced by it is rather about social exclusion and keeping citizens dependent on the government than about improving their lives. Instead of mimicking the existence of a welfare state, state leaders are openly building a “work-based” and “work-centered” model.
This frequently explained process is related to the global phenomenon dictating that political behaviour and value orientation cannot be understood based on the social strata individuals belong to or their structural positions. The results of the 2018 general election in Hungary was a clear indication of this. Villages and small civil parishes played a key role in the confident victory of the governing Fidesz. While 49% of the electorate voted for Fidesz’s national list, 58% of people living in small civil parishes chose the governing party. The ruling party was even more popular among the poorest, Fidesz’s result in the most disadvantaged villages was over 80%.
Commentators gave numerous explanations on why disadvantaged social groups voted for the party implementing social policies conserving their situation. The most frequently mentioned reasons were the Public Work Scheme (PWS) and its relative popularity, the neo-feudal dependence on the government and local rulers, the effective governmental campaign focusing on fears about migration and Fidesz’s domination of the media market in the countryside. However, the most comprehensive explanation was offered by the four-year study of the Social Sciences Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) entitled “Integration and disintegration processes in contemporary Hungarian society”. One of the most important findings of the research paper was that it is not the structure of society and the state that defines politics, it is much rather politics that defines social organisation. The study attests that “values and identity is formed with political communication and power political tools, and these affect the establishment, survival or disintegration of political communities and groups founded on values. Political integration obviously overwrites and attenuates the self-organisation of society – which would be more suited to its divisions.”
Changes in attitudes to social policies
Attitudes on social policies and the perception and handling of poverty have also been formed by politics. Incumbent governments partly build on these and partly shape societal opinions further. In past years – based on our secondary analysis of the European Social Survey (ESS) database - the popularity of the ruling party’s views and political solutions has increased. At the time of this writing, only one-third of Hungarians believe that social services prevent the widespread proliferation of poverty and that they lead to a more equal society. At the same time, the assessment of social services implemented in this period has substantially improved between 2009 and 2017. Despite the experienced problems, the population considers current social services to be more effective and evaluate their negative effects to be weaker.
The majority generally expects the state to (1) ensure that old citizens’ living standards are sufficient; (2) ensure that the unemployed’s living standards are sufficient; and (3) ensure that the children of working parents are looked after sufficiently. However, the assessment of the three tasks is varied. Citizens are much more demanding of the state when it comes to helping old persons and parents – almost to the same extent. The demand is not this high in the case of the unemployed. Compared to data from 2009, the proportion demanding state intervention in these affairs today is significantly lower, although the ranking of the three based on their perceived importance has not changed since then.
Hungarians are highly critical of wage differences. Half of the respondents said that wage differences are unacceptable to them even if they are intended to honour extraordinary talent and efforts. These proportions were practically the same in Hungary eight years ago as well, meaning that societal views on this issue have not changed. However, this cannot be seen as a preference for equality encompassing all citizens, the majority of society prefers equality between those who can participate in the labour market, they do not show compassion for those standing out either upwards or downwards.
We make our case on what context this data can be evaluated in based on an earlier study of ours building on data from the fourth wave of ESS and Eurobarometer. Neither the most recent ESS data nor our results based on aggregated indexes justified the general perception among political actors that the Hungarian electorate favours increasing state intervention under all circumstances. The picture is much more complicated than that. Hungarian society seemingly supports equalisation efforts. It would take away income from the rich – but it would also take away state support from the poor. Instead of the demand for general caretaking, the patters of social envy are mirrored in Hungarian society’s views. The fact that Hungarians would make the state responsible for caretaking rather stems from the willingness to devolve responsibility upon the state rather than solidarity and trust in state institutions. The unique Hungarian paternalism is, in fact, the by-product of the lack of trust: Hungarian citizens demand paternalistic state intervention because they do not trust others, while – as we know from Policy Solution’s research, for example – they are also unconvinced about the state’s ability to perform.
Thus, the legendary “state fetishism” of the Hungarian voter is partly a myth. From a certain viewpoint, the society looks to be egalitarian and etatist, but from other perspectives it is less solidary and – in many cases – welfare chauvinist.
Data also shows that there is often a lack of knowledge on the state’s role, which obviously leads to contradictory responses – and – after taking this into account – it is not worth it to look for coherent patterns of thinking behind the answers at all costs. The majority of Hungarian citizens want to have more equal wages, a strong and a nurturing state at all levels and tax cuts and the reduction of social benefits at the same time. This is understandable from the viewpoint of individual interests, but it is a contradiction that is hard to resolve on the political level. This contradiction allows the ruling party to strengthen identity policy against solutions based on individual interests, while it can make its repressive social policy look strongly supported – or as Zsuzsa Ferge said: “Those in power make it seem like they democratically subjected themselves to the populist majority demand, while they themselves foment exclusion and “people’s” populism demanding order”.
The reasons for the popularity of the government’s social policy
The change in attitudes to social policy and the aforementioned 2018 general election have shown that the poorer, less educated, less developed a settlement is the more likely it is that its residents vote for Fidesz despite its reduction-based and often repressive social policy. 65% of voters living in the least developed settlements cast their ballots on the ruling party, and as we are progressing towards better-situated settlements we see Fidesz’s relative result get gradually worse. However, the left-wing parties whose declared goal is to attenuate poverty performed worse exactly where the majority of the population is disadvantaged. As we mentioned above, several explanations were presented for the questions raised by the election results. In the following, we are going to discuss what we believe to be the main social policy-related factors in the result.
The PWS has become an effective tool of gaining political influence and strengthening dependencies while the difference between the PWS wage and the minimal increased considerably. In 2011, the PWS wage was 78% of the minimal wage, but this proportion fell to 59% by 2018. Regardless, many really believed the PWS was a step forward, so it cannot be evaluated solely as dependence, it has to be considered that in certain circles it is a popular and supported governmental measure.
Political Capital has already indicated in a 2014 study that Fidesz generally gained more votes for its party list in settlements where the PWS affects a considerable share of the working age population. In two-thirds of the small settlements most affected by the PWS the governing party had extraordinary results. Moreover, the PWS is popular in other electoral districts not affected by the PWS due to welfare chauvinism (“Who does not work shall not eat either” – says the Hungarian proverb). This remained an important factor in 2018 as well, but due to cuts to the number of PWS employees the scheme is just one element in Fidesz’s extraordinary election result, but it is not even close to being a sufficient explanation for it.
The role of local self-governments
The fact that a considerable part of the responsibility for managing social services has been transferred to local self-governments in past years points beyond the PWS. Vulnerability and dependency in this regard has undoubtedly increased opportunities for political influencing efforts, and even more so in poorer and less developed settlements. An indicative case was revealed at the end of 2015, which showed what aspects are considered by local self-governments when they decide who deserves help and who does not. In a letter written by the mayor of a village clearly stated that misbehaving residents, those who are shouting loudly when they are drank, the disrespectful and those who spend money on tobacco and alcohol would not receive firewood as a social benefit. There is no unified system in Hungary on who is considered indigent, who is entitled to heating in the winter months. Local self-governments decide who receives firewood and who does not. This led to differences between individual settlements in terms of who is considered indigent and who receives help. In the 2018 general election campaign there were countless, often public indications that mayors and local self-governments affiliated with the governing party used their power to influence the vote.
Lack of political and social policy alternatives
It is an important fact that the opposition’s weak results among the poor is not only the result of the governing party’s steps but also that of the former’s state and political activity. We have to agree with social scientist Imre Kovách’s assessment that “The lowest one-third has not had political representation since the 1990s.” Parties generally try to address the middle-class – and especially its lowest segment losing its position – and not the poor, they generally do not even reach the poor or if they do the left-wing parties are not credible in their eyes. This was not any different in the 2018 campaign. The ruling party and the largest opposition party Jobbik essentially agreed on the PWS and social services, benefits. Since these two parties had meaningful media opportunities, they were the most able to form public opinion on social policies. As we discussed above – in the section on attitudes on social polices – the government could make its own views on the topic dominant thank to this factor as well. One of the main messages of these two parties was that only those living in an orderly property (the “clean garden, orderly house” principle) should be eligible for social benefits and the PWS.
Besides political content, it is also important to mention that even if opposition parties had had more effective messages directed towards the poor, they would not have had the tools or organisation structure to introduce them to this social stratum. Electoral results clearly indicate that leftist parties are practically non-existent on the organisational level in most of countryside in Hungary. The deterioration of these organisational structures is dramatic even compared to 2014. Consequently, the best-case scenario was that political competition was restricted to two actors in the least developed parts in Hungary: only Jobbik was considered to be an alternative of Fidesz. This rarely created a choice for the poorest citizens and – especially – the Roma.
Finally, while the government used interest-based politics when taking into account the short-term demands of the poorest citizens, it turned to identity politics to satisfy the need for longer-term security (e.g., protection against immigrants). In contrast, identity politics was completely missing on the opposition’s side.
The complete study in Hungarian is available here.
 Megszorítjuk magunkat. Interjú Bogár Lászlóval. Heti Válasz 10 January 2013c http://valasz.hu/itthon/megszoritjuk-magunkat-59267
 Democracy and welfare in hard times: The social policy of the Orbán Government in Hungary between 2010 and 2014, Journal of European Social Policy, 2014. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0958928714545446
 Társadalmi struktúra és állami redisztribúció, Budapest, Napvilág, 2017
 Imre Kovách (ed.) Társadalmi integráció. Az egyenlőtlenségek, az együttműködés, az újraelosztás és a hatalom szerkezete a magyar társadalomban, Belvedere Meridionale / MTA Társadalomtudományi Kutatóközpont, Budapest, Szeged, 2017
 The costs of ESS data-gathering, coordination and supplementary studies are currently covered by the MTA Social Research Center, and the surveys are conducted by Tárki Ltd.
 Molnár Csaba – Krekó Péter (2011) Államfetisiszták-e a magyarok? in: Sándor Péter – Vass László (szerk) Magyarország Politikai Évkönyve 2010-ről. DKMKA Budapest, pp. 30-31.
 Ferge Zsuzsa: A büntető államtól a jóléti államon át a bosszúálló államig, In: Tanulmányok Gönczöl Katalin tiszteletére, Budapest, ELTE - Eötvös Kiadó, 2014. 117-136.
 Consequently, we are not going to discuss the media monopoly of the governing party in the countryside or the campaign built on fears about migration in this study.
 Kiss Ambrus: Rossz kormányzás Fidesz-módra. Budapest: Noran Libro, 2018.