Zsolt Enyedi: Is it still possible to win an election in Hungary, if you’re not Viktor Orbán?

Michal Matlak interviews Zsolt Enyedi* about the development of Church-State relations in Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s vision of Christian Democracy, why the Democracy Institute plays an important symbolic role in Budapest, and about his recently published book, “Party System Closure: Party Alliances, Government Alternatives, and Democracy in Europe

You can listen to the podcast here or read the transcript below.

Michal Matlak: Let me start from your work that was written already almost 20 years ago on state-church relations. You edited a book and wrote an article about the problems with the idea of positive neutrality in state-church relations in Hungary. I would like to ask you to comment on further developments of this idea of the church-state relations in Hungary because it’s one of the key aspects of Hungarian politics.

Zsolt Enyedi: The very concept of positive neutrality was a central concept in debates on church-state relations 20-30 years ago when American scholars discovered that in Europe you have a very different model of how government and church combine than in the US, a model that does allow the government to subsidize religious activities. There are all sorts of overlaps between politics and religious activities, church and state, and still the outcome is a liberal democracy. So, then they concluded that probably this strict wall of separation which exists in the US legal system is not necessary. And also the French style, a very clear cut separation of religious life and public life, is not a necessity. They started to advocate for the Dutch model, and they also recommended Swiss and German practices. And to some extent already back then, they said that social movements like Solidarity in Poland indicates that religious and progressive forces can work together very well. And therefore, we should not be as stringently secular in our expectations towards politics and government as Enlightenment-type liberalism used to be, but this debate did not reflect well enough on East-European reality. It did not take into consideration that churches can be captured by political forces.

That governments can be captured by clerical institutions. And, to some extent, what happened in Hungary in the last decades was exactly this rather vicious circle that developed in the dynamics of church and state relations. 

That is, originally we had a relatively strong, robust protection for freedom of religion but also freedom from religion. This agreement that was based on a model, where most of the finance of churches should be done by the citizens themselves and the government should stay out of church methods, broke down because right-wing parties, particularly Fidesz, advocated for a different model. 

They sometimes use the concept of positive neutrality. But unfortunately, they did not understand that that concept was based on equal treatment, not only of all religious traditions, but also of non-religious and atheist groups. Instead of that, they handpicked a couple of churches, a couple of religious movements, and they elevated them to the national governmental level. 

They said, “our nation is associated with these particular traditions” and they started to discriminate against others. So, what materialized has nothing to do with positive neutrality. It is positive in the sense that taxpayers’ money goes into church life. So, from the point of view of recipients there is a lot to praise about this policy.

But in terms of creating equality and creating conditions for free choice of religious belonging and, in general, for freedom of thought, this is a detrimental model. 

You can see the outcome today when in Hungary most of the leadership of the traditional churches and even some of the neo-Protestant churches are much more loyal to Fidesz leadership than to any religious principles. When it comes to the Catholic church, they are more loyal to the Prime Minister than to the Pope. 

And as a Pole, I would like to ask you about the reasons for that as the social context of the situation of the instrumental use of religion by the government is actually different. In Hungary the society is more secularized than in Poland. And secondly, the situation here is much more pluralist – apart from the Catholic Church, you also have other meaningful churches. So, why is this instrumentalization working here? 

Indeed, it’s paradoxical. And I’m not sure whether I know the answer, but let me point to some factors. One is that we have a weak civil society. Very few civic organizations have many loyal supporters. When you have such a situation, then even if the church or the churches are weak compared to the Polish church or weak compared to how strong they used to be 100 years ago, they are still a relatively influential factor. So, if you have their loyalty, then you can mobilize. Maybe not more than 20-25% of society, but 25% of the society is a big chunk. And therefore, it can be a huge electoral asset. The other point is that Hungarians, while they are not religious typically, they do have some sort of respect towards religious leaders. They often outsource moral behavior to churches. They understand that as ordinary human beings they are allowed to commit all kinds of sins, but once they pay due respect to religious authorities they balance out the sins to some extent, and they don’t scrutinize the actual moral behavior of these religious leaders.

So, if a priest before the election tells you that there is one party that represents Christian values, represents national interests, then even if you yourself who failed to turn up to most of the masses during that year and are not following the teaching particularly closely, you may think that you do your Christian duty by voting for that party.

There is this kind of vague feeling that these religious authorities are still entitled to respect. That feeling may exist even among secular segments of the society. Since there is a kind of a merge between religious tradition and national tradition, there is also this expectation that you show your good national credentials by following religious authorities.

You show that you are a good Hungarian if you act in-line with the expectations of the church leaders. Because the church is one of the pillars of the nation. 

Indeed, we have more than one church so it’s somewhat more complicated, but the main churches are very clearly associated with the governing party.

Are there differences between the main churches when it comes to their political views? Because, from what you said, I understand that they are mostly similar, but do I understand that correctly?

There are minor differences. So, traditionally, the nationalist tradition was strongest in the Calvinist church, because it developed against the Hapsburgs. So, many of our national heroes were Calvinists. 

Including the Prime Minister.

Including the current prime minister. The current lead Bishop of the Calvinist church is a previous Fidesz minister, and also a close advisor of the prime minister. Somebody who was a minister, by the way, at the time when Lex CEU was launched and he was one of those who had to lead the propaganda attack against CEU. And now he’s leading the Calvinist church in Hungary. 

The Lutherans are very different, actually. They are the only ones, basically, who say “no” to this Christian-nationalist propaganda. Sometimes loudly, sometimes in a more cautious way, but they have a different orientation. But, they are very small. The Catholic church is again typically in rhetoric much less nationalist than the Calvinist church because of obvious reasons, but when it comes to the statement of individual bishops, the large majority of bishops who are functioning now in Hungary have made very, very clear political statements. Not necessarily on a nationalist ground, although some of them are nationalists (which is paradoxical because as a Catholic, you are not supposed to be) but also on the basis of conservatism, religious fundamentalism, and in general, as an expression of loyalty to the government who has given so much money to the Catholic church.

And to link that subject with your work as a political scientist, Viktor Orbán uses this idea of Christian democracy which is of course a political ideology, one of the major political ideologies. I wanted to ask you if there is , in your opinion, a link between how he presents Christian democracy and Christian democracy as a political ideology, as we know it, from other countries. 

To some extent it’s the very opposite. Christian democracy to some extent existed in intellectual circles before the second world war. But in reality, it flourished after the 
Second World War as a reaction to the Second World War. Its fundamental message was that we should go against nationalism because it caused the War; we should go against discrimination; we should go against divisions in society; and we should go also against the old style of Catholicism which did not embrace the tradition of Enlightenment. So, Christian democracy meant major reform in the life of political Catholicism, and then of course it included Protestant traditions. And, in that sense, it was a very progressive development. 

Whereas Viktor Orbán’s Christian democracy is democracy like, let’s say, socialist democracy or a people’s democracy was democracy during communism. It basically is a non-democratic regime, where Christianity refers to a kind of tribal identification. We are Christian, which means we are not Muslims, we are not Jews, we are not atheist, because we are born as Christians. 

If you want to be a good Hungarian, you must be Christian. If you want to be a good Christian, you must be a very strongly nationalist Hungarian. And it also refers to resistance against any sort of movement towards tolerance vis-a-vis sexual minorities, vis-a-vis any way of life that would not fit this patriarchal, traditional mentality that existed before the Second World War.

So, in many ways, Orbán’s style of Christian democracy is the very opposite of what we know as Christian democracy, and this is why it was logical, even on an ideological level, that Fidesz had to leave EPP. 

This was partially connected, the fact that the Fidesz finally left, to various conflicts between Hungary and the EU. One of them concerned CEU. We are now in the very building of CEU in Budapest. One of the major institutions which was created here is the Democracy Institute, whose inaugural conference launched today. You are the person who proposed this idea. So, therefore I would like to ask you- why did you propose such an institute at CEU?

This was a very natural idea and I think it would have come about anyway sooner or later partly because of practical reasons. That is, moving the university from one country to another is not an easy move and many colleagues who could not join us in Vienna. Either it took time for them to reorganize their life, or they simply are not able come with us because of their age or whatever other reason.

So, we knew that we had to have a concentration of scholars who we wanted to keep in our orbit, but probably would not be with us in Vienna. We also knew that these buildings have a good reputation in Budapest, in Hungary, as islands of freedom. Places where you can come to listen to a good lecture, to catch up with what is happening around the world. And we also knew that if we ceased with any and all activity in Budapest, then basically the government won, then basically we have given in. We decided very early on that we would continue whatever activities possible on Nádor street, and it seemed that regular education would not be an option. 

Many activities can be done still here in Budapest that continue the intellectual legacy of CEU. We can provide a space, not only for ourselves, those of us who still spend time in Budapest from the faculty, but also to new researchers, we can attract here scholars at risk in different countries. We can apply for grants, we can bring in students from countries far away who would spend a couple of weeks here, a couple of months, get a master class in a specific field, and we can give them training in methods in substantive areas.

This is in a way a response to the authoritarian government. The name of the Democracy Institute is in-itself a response. I think in that sense it gives a message that the fight is still going on. 

And from your perspective as a political scientist, did it make sense from a Machiavellian point of view to try to get rid of CEU? Because my understanding of the influence of academics on politics is that it’s really limited. Of course, I can imagine that in Budapest, as you well know especially in the intellectual circles, it was well-known outside. But from this Machiavellian point of view do think that he was right?

I would say he wasn’t.

I think if Viktor Orbán could travel back in time, he would do things differently because he paid very, very large price. It’s true that he won the next election and he’s still in power, but in a way he put himself in a corner from which he cannot get out, and this is a corner of the extreme right parties.

He lost support during the Lex CEU debates in Budapest, and in particular he lost one of the strongholds of Fidesz, and this is in Buda where upper-middle classes live, educated people. It’s true that at the very same time he gained voters in areas where less educated people live, but this was probably not because of the attack against CEU but rather because of his campaign against migrants.

But, because these issues came up in one large package, the social profile of Fidesz has changed. Fidesz started as a liberal party back in 1988, but even around the 2000s, it was a Christian Democratic center-right party supported by the national bourgeoisie and conservative circles.

Because of these discussions and debates around issues such as freedom of academic life, the organization of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, of universities, and so on, it lost its more educated supporters. It was pushed to use more of this populist rhetoric that brings votes, but it cuts your ties to European allies.

Around that time, the party lost its links to the German government and as a result we see that it’s isolated today. Well, it has allies in Russia and China, but if you look around Europe it’s basically only radical right-wing parties who support Fidesz. And it was not like that before Lex CEU.

If you look at populist governments in Poland and Hungary, they chose the same strategy, going far right. And if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that probably that’s the beginning of the end. At some point they crossed too many lines, different ones in Poland than in Hungary, but still they crossed many important lines especially when it comes to links with Western partners. 

In Hungary Jobbik had to move from the far right to the center right, because Fidesz took all the political air on this side of the political spectrum. So, to maybe to turn around what you said, maybe we could say that this is also one of the reasons of their success. 

Yes. I think there is some truth to that. Of course, success is a complex issue and there are many factors. When you’re in government, you can manipulate the institutional rules, electoral systems, resources, there’s corruption, and there was also a huge economic boom after the economic crisis in 2008 and all these factors matter. But yes, I think especially Fidesz basically occupies the extreme right corner of the spectrum, and therefore it doesn’t have a serious challenger from that corner, but I think these parties originally had a very specific offer. They said that we satisfy the right-wing, conservative, nationalist sentiments in a way that at the very same time we keep our country within the European Union. We are part of this European or Western family, and we balance out these two things in a way that we get the benefit from both ends. 

This seems not to work anymore because they went so much to the right that they lost the support from the West. They are increasingly at odds with the institutions of the European Union to the extent that now I think exit from the EU is an option. And, if these countries follow this trajectory, I think at one point the EU will simply kick them out. There is no other logical solution to this tension that exists. And I think this tension was not apparent 10 years ago, but now it’s visible. 

The only way out to change the situation, will be a change in the elections. Especially in Hungary many people ask if such a political change is possible. I am not asking about popular sentiments because they might change, but about the system because this is the country where a lot of gerrymandering happened, where media is really restricted, where it’s tough to be a politician of an opposition party. So therefore, I wanted to ask you is the victory still possible for the opposition from the structural point of view? If there is a real majority behind the opposition, it might not be the case, but if it’s the case is it possible to win?

I think it depends on the size of that majority. We probably need a 60-40 majority in order to win an election. Even mechanically, you need more than 50% in Hungary. So around 53% or so is necessarily at least, but psychologically I think 53% may or may not be enough. There are so many factors that work against the opposition and the imbalance in resources is so huge and access to media is so uneven.

And then of course there are questions concerning the actual counting of the votes. We cannot be at all sure whether they be counted in a fair way. What I can add to this list of problems is one that is rather unique to Hungary. Also, 

maybe it doesn’t even matter whether the opposition wins or not, because the way regulations were implemented in the last 12 years in Hungary means that the opposition, once it captures the government, will probably be helpless. There will be no way for the new government, for example, to have a say in how universities function because universities have been privatized. They are under the leadership of boards that were appointed by Fidesz for life. And that’s true about almost every single segment of life, from sport to religion, every single segment is under the leadership of Fidesz cronies or loyalists. 

Positions like the chief prosecutor or obviously the constitutional court, or national bank and so on, they cannot be simply replaced by a new government. Often, they have a very long time span. They are in office for, I don’t know, 8-12 or more years, and in some cases for life. Even if it’s possible to replace these people, often you need 2/3rds majority to do so, and it’s very unlikely that an opposition-backed government will have 2/3rds.

So not only are there hurdles in the competition for government office, but once you occupy the office there will be so many hurdles in front of effectively governing that one may ask the question whether it makes any sense to compete. 

Speaking of political systems, you have very recently published a book, “Party System Closure: Party Alliances, Government Alternatives, and Democracy in Europe” together with Fernando Casal Bertoa. In it you looked at many more cases than just Hungary, of course. What is this “party system closure” and why is it relevant?

Party system closure is a concept that primarily refers to stability and institutionalization of party politics. The question here is whether you have a party system that is predictable in terms of relations among parties. We measure this by looking at the composition of governments. But one related idea behind the book is simply the fact that party politics is typically analyzed from the point of view of competition, and the focus is on individual parties that compete against each other. But we think that, actually, cooperation among parties is also a very important phenomenon. It should receive much more attention, and if you want to understand especially multi-party systems, fragmented party systems, then you have to think not in terms of individual parties, but alliances of parties and these alliances, again, manifest in party coalition in the executive office.

And once you look at this, you realize that the system can be very ranked in how much closure, how much stability they achieve. The degree of stability is closely related to many other variables and many other aspects of political life. Most importantly, and this is what part of the book is about, it’s related to democracy, both the survival and quality of democracy.

What you find in this book is that if you look across 150 years, and at many party systems in Europe, what you find is that if a party system achieves a certain level of closure, that is predictability, then collapse of democracy becomes extremely unlikely.

So, in that sense, a closure is a good safeguard against the collapse of democracy. On the other hand, we have a closer look at the connection between closure and quality of democracy, and there we find a little bit more complex pattern. We actually find that depending on the overall economic development, sometimes a high degree of closure can be detrimental to the quality of democracy and particularly in Eastern Europe.

We find that there is a group of countries, Macedonia, Montenegro, Georgia, Hungary, and so on, that have relatively institutionalized party systems but low-quality democracy. Then you have another cluster of countries, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Czechia, Slovenia, and so on, that are much less institutionalized, but in terms of quality of democracy, are well above the previous group. It seems that in this part of the world there is a trade-off between these two values. Closure is not an unmitigated blessing. If you look more closely at quality of democracy, it can actually be a problem, but if you are interested in whether systems survive or not, then you definitely should consider closure as one of the closest predictors of the survival of democracy. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Hannah Vos.

* Zsolt Enyedi studied comparative social sciences, history, sociology, and political science in Budapest and Amsterdam. The focus of his research interests is on party politics, comparative government, church and state relations, and political psychology. His articles appeared in key political science journals. He was the recipient of many awards in political science, and what’s also important from the perspective of today’s conversation, he was pro-rector for Hungarian Affairs at CEU in the period of 2016-2020.

Contact Us