Party Politics on European Matters and the Divide between Political Elites and Citizens in Hungary

Party Politics on European Matters and the Divide between Political Elites and Citizens in Hungary

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Presentation by István Hegedűs at the conference of the European Consortium for Political Research at Corvinus University of Budapest on 9 September 2005.

This preliminary paper deals with the issue how partisan politics correlate with the perceptions of the people on European topics in Hungary. In general, strategies of the political parties might conclude in both driving and following public opinion. In this case I argue that beyond a solid differentiation in the views of the electorate according to ideological guidelines, the social representation of the European Union is quite uniformed - both in elite and mass perceptions - in this new member state of the European Union. 

Introduction

In modern democracies, political parties and their politicians are influencing-manipulating the public and structuring-mobilising the electorate in accordance to their different ideological guidelines and messages. Also, major opinion-leaders, public intellectuals and media personalities, as well as other members of the political, economic and cultural elites, including representatives of non-governmental organisations are seeking permanently for influence on important issues of their political community. Ordinary citizens might follow the conflicting ideas and the broad debates in their society especially through the mass media - or, they can choose to participate in the ongoing policy-shaping activities of their era.

As we know, main political actors, like top leaders of political forces have to take into account the views of functionaries and activist members in their own organisations, the opinions and attitudes of their basic supporters, moreover, the reaction of the general public when introducing new policies and platforms. Decision-making on major public issues is normally not just a one-way process from the top to the bottom. Nevertheless, as for the consequences, the chosen political positions in crucial topics might have an almost life-long impact on the fortune of a given party or its responsible politicians in a competitive environment.

Regarding the matters of European political and economic integration, their salience in partisan strategies might be insignificant or even pivotal in different countries and in different historic moments. Today, political parties with a pro-European stance dominate the field in most of the member states of the European Union. Still, especially in those countries, where citizens have had a direct vote about the European constitution at referendums, the well-established, mainstream political parties face the dilemma what game to play in order to gain the support of voters. This is much truer in the case of those parties, which currently find themselves in opposition: they have to calculate the anti-governmental sentiments of their supporters and the rivalries with eurosceptical and anti-European protest parties (Crum 2005). Here, the distorted political issue-frame and the imperfect information level of the citizenry on European institutions and governance might give a chance to populist groups to shift the gravitation point of the routine political life through applying the latent anti-elitist sentiments of people.

In Hungary, it was the national parliament that ratified the Treaty establishing the European constitution without any intensive public debate in December 2004. In contrast to Poland or the Czech Republic, there has been no crystallisation of pro-European versus anti-European partisan divide. However, despite of a strong and continuous support of a clear majority inside the citizenry to the elite-led project targeting Hungary’s entry to the European Union, even soft and hard eurosceptical rumours have spread over in the popular culture before the referendum on the accession of the country to the EU in 2003. This event, just like the first European election in the history of Hungary one year later, occurred with a surprisingly low turnout. Still, the gap between elite and popular perceptions about the EU seems to be much less wider when decoding the political communication of the parties - especially the messages of the major right wing political force - as well as analysing the often negative stereotyping of the mass media about the old member states during the accession negotiations and after. Many further aspects could be mentioned to explain the reasons of the gradual shift in the Hungarian common wisdom from an emotional wish to join the Western club to cautious expectations concerning the future of the country inside the EU: the unexpectedly long process of enlargement, the psychological problems of the larger scale and the wider distance to EU politics compared to the national political arena, and the ignorance about the European institutions in spite of nationwide centralised communication campaigns.

More than one year after accession, Hungarians have just started to enjoy the financial benefits of membership. Yet, it would be risky to make a hypothetical judgement about the outcome of a contest between pro-European political forces and negative campaigners taking into consideration the anti-elite feelings of the population and the effects of the victory of “no” votes in two old member states, in the heart of the European Union.

Hungarian political parties and the European project

Most of the well-established Western European political parties have had a traditional and stable pro-European political standpoint and programme since the beginning of the integration project. Still, the positioning of some major national political parties on European Union matters has not been continuous during the last decades. Just to mention the record of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom: its political platform shifted from the refusal of Britain’s membership in the European Community to the support of accession, and, later, from cautious pro-European perceptions to clear-cut euroscepticism and rough criticism of “Brussels”. Altogether, regarding the political scale, they are the radical-extreme left and right wing parties, which have permanently demonstrated their anti-European political ideologies and sentiments in the last fifty years in the older member states.

Nevertheless, when public feelings show a growing reluctance towards the idea of the united Europe and distrust to the functioning of the European institutions, mainstream parties face the dilemma how to behave in such a political environment. They can attempt to lead the people and to convince them about the validity of the original party line or might follow the changing sentiments of the citizenry. Especially politicians in opposition need to answer the moral dilemma whether to try to convince the disillusioned electorate about the benefits of the common European projects in bad times, too, or, to use the position of non-responsibility in order to gain popular support - and to attract-seduce uncertain voters from dangerous protest parties. This complex decision-making puzzle, which includes both pragmatic and ideological concerns, might jeopardise the internal unity of the organisation’s leadership and the delicate balance amongst top politicians, functionaries and activists. In special historic moments, the outcome of hectic intra-party power struggles might even have fatal consequences for the future history and success of a given party.

In Central and Eastern Europe, the political views related to “Europe” have always been deeply cultural and ideological. The issue has been mostly narrowed to the historic necessity of accession and the task of caching up with the West after the regime-changes in the regions. There were no active and influential anti-European political forces during the early years of the transformation process in the most westernised avant-garde of the new democracies, like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. By the turn of the century, however, bitter feelings and ambiguities have also emerged in the population in many applicant countries about the aims and the consequences of would-be EU membership. The shift of the mood in the electorate occurred parallel with the gradual change of the focus on the European projects in the political discourse. At first sight, it would be hard to tell whether some party politicians adopted their rhetoric and messages to the new realities understanding the growing discontent in the society, or, in contrary, the more and more critical and hostile partisan statements towards the EU have created increasingly uncertain attitudes towards the unknown future of the country as a new EU member state in the post-communist countries.

In the Czech Republic and Poland, the modified political maps showed the crystallisation of this process as anti-European political ideologies have started to play a central role in the partisan debates and the public sphere in general. The so-called eurorealism of the former Prime Minister, now President of the Czech Republic, Vacláv Klaus concurred in the refusal of the European constitution. The Polish left wing government fought for perceived national interests as if in a life-and death struggle until the last minute at the intergovernmental conference that completed the document (Sobotka 2004): one reason of this behaviour was the pressure of the growing popularity of the eurosceptical opposition parties. Meanwhile, in Hungary, none of the major partisan strategies turned into similar open resistance to the further development of the European idea. According to Ágnes Bátory, “[i]deology clearly does not determine party positions as far as a clear-cut choice between accepting or rejecting EU membership is concerned” (Bátory 2001).

We might add that no anti-federalist, pure intergovernmentalist ideologies or similar economic-political views, which would narrow the space of integration to a free trade area zone, have emerged inside the relevant political parties to be described as dominant philosophical strands. Instead, the two biggest parliamentarian forces, the Hungarian Socialist Party and the neo-conservative Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Union (as its current name), have simply incorporated pure suspicion and absorbed amorphous protest against the EU into their political language and argumentation. It was Fidesz, which moved first. In accordance with the ideological shift of the party from liberalism towards right wing worldviews that started in 1992-94, top leaders cautiously navigated the ship of the organisation to deeper waters of populism in European matters. By the second half of the nineties, the main issues raised by the party were first of all the complaint about the uncertain timing of enlargement; the forcible protection of perceived national interests at the accession negotiations (especially rhetorically); the requested larger scale of future financial transfers coming from the European budget; as well as the demonstration of special Hungarian policies towards the neighbouring countries as soon as Fidesz won the elections in 1998. This included the cordial relationship of the government led by Viktor Orbán to his Austrian partner during the six months long crisis after the inclusion of Jörg Haider’s radical right wing party into the ruling coalition, the personal appearance of the prime minister at the funeral of the former president of Croatia Franjo Tudjman, and, certainly, the strong emphasis on the rights of the Hungarians living outside the borders that concluded into the much debated and not EU conform status law.

The most well-known least euroenthusiastic statement by Orbán was his bon mot: “There is also life outside the European Union”. He continuously criticised old member states and the European institutions for their unfriendly-selfish attitudes, calling Hungary’s accession just a marriage of convenience. Amongst his close followers, the journalist Zsolt Bayer proudly proclaimed that he would vote against EU membership at the referendum in 2003 (Bayer 2003). Nevertheless, when Orbán was ordered by the socialists to clarify his personal position before this historic event, he answered with a clear (and slowly pronounced) “yes”. Indeed, the post-communist Hungarian socialist party, which received the majority of the votes together with the liberal free democrats at the last parliamentarian elections a year before, attacked the accession agreement in the campaign period arguing that the Polish government had been able to make a better deal at the talks, and Poland received longer transition period before fulfilling its obligation to introduce the regime of free sale of agricultural land.

In 2004, at the first European elections in the country, the two major parties echoed the same simple campaign issue: who would represent Hungarian interests better in the European Parliament. This question not only showed the (consciously or not) misunderstood nature and role of that institution, but also expressed the similar easy-going, cautious mentalities in both big political camps. The logic of the similarity was the consideration that the national agenda must not be set and monopolised by the rival political block. Meanwhile, Fidesz wanted to escape of the former charge being softly eurosceptical. The convergence of the partisan political messages ended up in a boring competition where the great debates about the desired future of the united Europe and Hungary’s potential contribution to the prosperity of the enlarged EU were completely missing.

Today, and it was similar two years ago, there is a significant difference in the views of the electorate according to their political ideologies and party affiliations. The recent survey of Eurobarometer shows that 70 percent of the citizens who call themselves left wing voters tend to trust European institution, whilst the proportion is only 59 percent amongst the right wing people in a total sample of 1014 persons when answering the same question. In an overall forty-seven percent of “yes”, sixty-one percent of the left wing citizens say that Hungary has benefited from EU membership, but this sum is just 43 percent amongst those who place themselves on the right side of the political scale (European Commission 2005). These differences can be hardly taken as a surprise: “If anti-communism is part of a clerical-nationalist package (like in Hungary) then the relationship between anti-communism and anti-EU is likely to become positive. Where large unreformed communist parties exist, the relationship will most likely be negative”, as Zsolt Enyedi argues (Enyedi 2005, p. 6). 

Still, one year after the accession of the country to the European Union there are no serious political-ideological attacks against EU membership and its consequences in the public debates. Moreover, the common attitudes to the European Union and some canonised opinions about the state of the Hungarian-EU relations seem to be more relevant inside the whole population than the relatively thin cleavage between the supporters of the main political blocks concerning EU matters.

Elites, citizens and the mass media

According to pluralist theories, elite groups compete with each other for political power, influence and resources in modern liberal democracies. Nevertheless, they also share some basic political views and might co-operate in different public fields. As Michael G. Burton and John Higley elaborates: in the scientific literature, “[t]here appears to be implicit agreement on two dimensions along which elites can be classified: the relative integration or fragmentation of intraelite relations, and the relative consensus or dissensus in elite beliefs and attitudes” (Burton - Higley 1987, p. 229).

The zone of acquiescence about political matters between these decision-makers and the decision-takers might be broader or narrower as conditions change with time and space. There is no elite conspiracy. As Pareto put it: “Ruling classes, like other social groups, perform both logical and non-logical actions, and the chief elements in what happens is in fact the order, or system, not the conscious will of individuals, who indeed may in certain cases be carried by the system to points where they would never have gone of deliberates choice” (quoted by Burton and Higley 1987, p. 222).

Similarly to the relationship between elite and popular culture (Gans 1998), ordinary citizens might develop divergent political behaviour and ideological views to elite patterns. In case the political class loses contact with the citizens, a hostile reaction might emerge to elite-driven activities and proposals - as it happened in France at the referendum on the European constitution. When citizens feel detached and alienated, protest politics can even belong to the mainstream activism regarding the political repertoire of our age (Norris 2005).

Concerning Hungary, there is a more than a striking data in the latest issue of Eurobarometer. When people were asked in the survey: “When you get together with friends, would you say you discuss political matters frequently, occasionally, or never”, 19 percent of the interviewed said “frequently”, 48 percent “occasionally”, 32 percent “never”. Here is no surprise. But according to their social positions; leadership, as Eurobarometer calls it, not less than all the people belonging to the highest category (150 persons) answered “frequently”, whilst exactly hundred percent of the citizens who are at the bottom of the 4 stage hierarchy of the survey (282 persons) replied with “never”! Does it really mean that ordinary Hungarians do not talk about public affairs at all? It is much more likely that the uniformed reaction shows bitterness and disillusionment about politics and politicians. When these people swear and blame the political elites and the top leaders - most of them might have a very strong opinion -, they people probably do not call it “discussing political matters”. So, what might be cautiously deduced from this misunderstanding is a huge communication gap between distant social strata, the elite groups and the ordinary citizens.

This phenomenon shows a potential danger to the European Union project in Hungary. In 2003, right before the pivotal referendum on the entry to the EU, eurosceptic rumours and gossips emerged and spread over rapidly in the popular discourse to the surprise of the political elite, which was busy at that time with its internal fighting about the method, style and efficiency of the central communication campaign. The unexpectedly low-turn out of 45 percent at this historic decision of the Hungarians can be partly explained by the relative impact of the changing mass perceptions about the future of the country inside the EU.

Nevertheless, the gradually growing uncertainty and, sometimes, even fear in the society connected to the possible consequences of membership in the club of many richer and more powerful countries seemed to be the outcome of a longer time-period. Already in the second part of the nineties, the more and more critical rhetoric of the main domestic political actors regarding the behaviour of the European Union and the shift of the sentiments of the general public went “hand in hand” with a gradual move towards negative issue framing of the mass media when covering European affairs. Losing former idealism, opinion-leaders and columnists started to emphasise the so-called negative side of the integration and warned periodically that there would be many losers of the accession process. The internal life of the European Union was portrayed as a brutal bargaining amongst member states for more financial resources based on row economic national interests. Meanwhile, the news media was unable to report about the accession talks in a balanced way: preparations of necessary compromises about the transition periods in some of the politically sensitive chapters or in cost-intensive areas were presented as “procrastination” or prestige war. Even the quality newspapers accepted and circulated the interpretation of the talks as a struggle between “us and them” - almost never questioning the arguments of the government by challenging them with the position of the EU-15 on the same topics.

Psychologically, the frame used by the mainstream journalists contributed to the mitigation of the good temper when talking about Europe as an ideal. It confirmed the cautious expectations of the citizens, who, together with the representatives of the political elites, could not understand why the road to membership had been so lengthy after 1989. Around the turn of the century, there was a general feeling in the society that old member states did not have a real intention to enlarge the EU and that was why we were told again and again that Hungary stood “five years far away” from membership. Selfishness was the usual charge against the West and the conviction that the top European politicians had a hidden agenda to slow down the accession project. The regular reports of the European Commission on the progress of the country towards membership were interpreted as annual certificates written by the teacher about the pupil. Self-regret, defiance and inferiority feelings merged in the overall europessimistic mood of the country. At the moment of accession, the justifiable pride of the Hungarians about the success of the country was oppressed by the assumption that we would become secondary citizens inside the European Union.

With the exception of the best correspondents from Brussels and some analysts at home, the media was not able to grasp and explain the functioning of the different European institutions and the basic political decision-making methods inside the EU. For most of the Hungarians, the world of the EU has remained alien. This is true even after the accession of the country, although more and more state institutions, local governments and civil organisations have obtained daily contacts with European partners and procedures. The communication deficit is still big enough in the Hungarian - European Union relation, even if European-wide partisan politics slightly entered into the domestic public debates that might enhance the development of European political identities of Hungarians on the long run. Namely, during the fall of 2004, when the political “scandal” emerged in the European Parliament because of missing competences and out-fashioned political views of some candidate commissioners, and the “power game” was covered by the news media in details, some socialist, liberal and conservative citizens probably realised that the political-ideological differences existing on European level were similar to the cleavages inside the domestic political arena.

In contrary to the former fuzzy situation, when criticism to the European Union did not have any characteristic ideological framework, some definite eurosceptic views emerged in the press after the failure of the two important referenda about the European constitution (Seres 2005, Gere 2005), which also received sophisticated pro-European reply (Fóris 2005). However, the strengthening of clear ideological positions on European matters is still at an early stage. Today, it is still much more typical that the old journalistic cliché about the bad-will of the old and rich member states has survived in the commentaries - both in the left-liberal newspaper Népszabadság (Aczél 2005) and in the right wing daily Magyar Nemzet (Lóránt 2005) - in the latter, however, attacks against “Brussels” have also appeared. According to the last survey, the general picture is similar in the popular apprehension: whilst 44 percent of the people do not think that small member states - and at home, Hungary is taken as one of these countries - lose power during the building of the European Union, the majority of the citizens, 52 percent of them is currently afraid of this negative outcome (Eurobarometer 2005).

The mass media plays an eminent role in informing the citizens especially in such cases when people have no real chances to gain personal experiences and to control the issue-framing of the news. From this observation, however, no such charge follows that the ways and means of the media coverage on European issues should be generally blamed for the characteristically reserved Hungarian political value judgement about the European Union. The media and the “media-workers” are part of a given political culture and have had no special political or professional agenda in EU matters: their approach complied with the taste, perceptions and final assessment of the political elites and the citizens on European affairs. 

It seems to be fruitful to refer to the theory on social representations elaborated by Serge Moscovici. According to his analysis, the reaction of the people to a special stimulus is influenced by social representations which have the aim to make the unknown object to an acquainted one (Moscovici 2002 p. 235). Our present world explanations are deeply rooted in the past and rest upon the knowledge and common phrase observations of former generations. In accordance with Moscovici’s assumptions, Hungarians not only interpreted the strange news arriving from and the unexplored life of the European Union with the help of their old frameworks of interpretation, but already how they selected data from the immense flow of information on European issues depended on their current social representations. In his classic analysis with very similar conclusions, Walter Lippmann argued that we relied upon our stereotypes and threw out new information from our mind that did not fit into our philosophies (Lippmann 1997).

The future of the European debate in Hungary - conclusions

In Hungary, the most striking phenomenon is the lack of high-level intellectual debates on European issues. The focus of the interest has been on the financial part of the accession process in the last decade. This ultra pragmatic approach to the EU gives an unreasonably high influence to quarrelling partisan actors. Since the major Hungarian political parties have been integrated and locked themselves up into two extremely competitive blocks, one outcome of this situation could have been their very divergent political lines in European matters - just like it happened to many important and salient cultural-ideological issues in the last ten-fifteen years. Still, this is not the case. There is a strikingly similar narrative of politicians from the whole spectrum of the political life united in a common wisdom explanation close to public perceptions on the relations between Hungary and the European Union as such. This black-and-white frame, unfortunately, neither stimulates sophisticated discourse on Hungary’s role inside the EU, nor creates a friendly environment for Hungary to participate in a common European-wide dialogue on the future of Europe - in order to find courageous methods for a manageable break-through from the present political and psychological dead-lock.

On the other hand, even after the successful entrée of the country into the EU, it could happen that the dominant europessimistic public knowledge - both in the elite and the mass perceptions - might prove to be spectacularly fragile when facing a serious future political challenge with a clear European context. Since there was no referendum about the European constitution in Hungary, no one knows whether people would have voted in favour or against it. Probably, because of political fatigue, ignorance and the complexity of the issue, a strong majority would have supported the approval of the document at a very low turn-out after a lukewarm campaign. Still, public mood might have changed from the general “yes, but” feeling, if a referendum would have occurred after the victory of the “no” votes in France and the Netherlands. We know that the hectic public debates did not concentrate on the constitution itself in these two old member states. In a critical moment, if the question was not raised in an attractive and simple way, the misleading agenda-setting could have tightened the room of manoeuvre for advocate pro-European politicians, opinion-leaders, and civil organisations at a hypothetical referendum in Hungary, too.

One of the open questions seems to be whether the catch-all strategies of the big parties on European matters could keep the electorate intact from radical anti-European ideas of marginal political forces in the future, which can use the big communication gap between elites and masses for their objectives? Or, would one of the major parties, especially Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Union, shift its ideological platform towards an evident, soft or hard, euroscepticism as a pragmatic strategic move following the logic and pressure of the permanent inter-partisan game, and, perhaps, as a side effect of further general ideological drift towards populism? Concerning the impact of the current deep constitutional crisis of the European Union, both scenarios are possible. Nevertheless, the social representation of the EU might change very slowly in Hungary.

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