Members of the opposition disguised in local elections

“Members of the opposition are in disguise in the elections! – Establish a civil association, preferably include the name of the city, leave the party logos that provoke attacks, and the alliance is created!” (Index, 29.03.2019)

A local counterbalance to government power is created. There will be districts, cities with free publicity, democratic public life, and sufficient strength to act against the dictatorial central power if necessary. The upcoming election may be one of the most important milestones on the road to the overthrow of Fidesz!” (Ferenc Gyurcsány in Magyar Narancs, 24.08.2019)

You can read and hear about such and similar news, victory tactics, and hoped-for “recipes for success” in preparation for the local elections. We may also remember that some opposition political forces also saw civil society organizations as a “political miracle weapon” in connection with last year’s parliamentary elections and this year’s European Parliament elections. The results of the elections are known, but at the same time, civil society organizations were mentioned in so many different contexts during the campaigns that it became completely opaque to a significant number of people as to what the role and task of these organizations actually have in social life, and specifically in the political process system, as well as in the elections that are one of its most important elements. It is evident to many that in political life, parties basically compete for the votes of the electorate in order to implement their ideas based on their own values and programs in the management of the country. However, it is not so clear how civil society organizations come into view in this regard. Do parties and civil society organizations compete or rather complement each other to achieve public interest objectives? Is “civil society” a competitor to the government as the central key organ of state management, or does it have a completely different mission? Or can the question be asked that it is civil society organizations that can overthrow the government if it no longer enjoys the trust of the majority of citizens? Or do they have a legitimate opportunity to do so at all?

The communication of the opposition parties in recent times, especially during the election campaigns, has done everything to confuse people on these issues, but desperate attempts to turn social organizations against the government based on party political and public law mechanisms began a long time ago, during the period of regime change, with the formation of the first democratically elected government.

Despite some attempts to reinterpret the roles,

the domestic legal system clearly defines the roles of the two types of organizations mentioned above, their social functions, and clarifies the fundamental differences between them.

According to the Fundamental Law, “everyone shall have the right to establish and join organizations”. Pursuant to the provisions of the Act on the Right of Association and Civil Society Organizations based on the above, civil society organizations created by the voluntary association of people (the most well-known form of which is an association or foundation) are “fundamental units of society that continuously contribute to the day-to-day realization of our common values”. The preamble of the Act also highlights the indispensable contribution of such organizations to the development of Hungary, recognizes their socially useful and community-building role, and supports their activities in the public interest and for the public benefit.

On this basis, civil society organizations in Hungary are also classified as “bottom-up”, voluntary social organizations without the intention of making financial gain, the purpose of which is to carry out activities in the public interest, that is, beyond the individual interests of the members of the organization, i.e., in the interests of the wider community (“public good”).

Considering the purpose of their establishment and thus the area of their operation, it is important to point out that the mission of these organizations does not (and, given the limitations of their size, basically cannot) extend to embracing all alternative “general” public interest objectives, but only to one of its sub-areas, defined by themselves. Therefore, these organizations are formed on the basis of specific common values, interests, and enthusiasm represented by a smaller social group, such as culture, environmental protection, support for the disadvantaged, etc., but such a “particular” group cohesive factor can also be the collective interest in the development of the common place of residence, the given settlement serving as a home.

Perhaps the most important element of the concept of “civil society organization” is “(the organizational) independence from the sate”. This does not mean that civil society organizations cannot have any kind of relationship with the organization of the state, as there are countless points of contact between them. In many cases, civil society organizations – for example due to their expertise and practice in the relevant field – within the framework (e.g., agreements) and in the way defined in the legislation, continuously or on a case-by-case basis, “assist” the state in the realization of certain public interest objectives in respect of the performance of certain public tasks that fit their profile, for which they typically also receive some kind of allowance (subsidy) from the state. The fundamental difference is between the way in which it is connected to the state organization and, most importantly, its purpose. The organization and operation of social groups belonging to civil society organizations is outside the organizational and operational framework of the state under public law, i.e., they are not part of it. At the same time, civil society organizations do not have the same degree of “general responsibility” towards society as the state (the government), whose responsibilities cover the entire spectrum of public interest, regarding the country as a whole. Therefore, such organizations are called “non-governmental organizations” (abbreviated as “NGOs”) in English.

Based on the above, the question may arise as to how social organizations can come into question in the context of the electoral procedure for obtaining the highest positions of state power (i.e., the majority in the National Assembly and thereby the opportunity to form a government) or the exercise of power under public law. The answer to this is that the same way as political parties, which are social organizations that – like the “NGOs” mentioned above – are also established on the basis of the right of association, but regarding their purpose, they are much more specific, which is also clearly defined in the legal system.

The Act on the Operation and Financial Management of Political Parties and the explanatory memorandum thereof define the functions and status of political parties as follows:

“Parties are organizations established on the basis of citizens’ freedom of association, which provide an organizational framework for the formation and manifestation of the will of the people, for civic participation in political life. Parties have a special relationship with public power compared to other social organizations, because

the express purpose and task of the parties is to participate in public power through their representatives and to continuously influence the activities of public power by political means.

Accordingly, parties will also be entitled to additional rights compared to other organizations formed on the basis of the right of association, for example parties are entitled to state budget subsidy and parties traditionally enjoy special rights in the electoral system. […] Whether an organization formed on the basis of the right of association wishes to function as a party depends solely on the will of its members, for if they declare that they wish to operate as a party and have an individual registered membership, they do not have to comply with any substantive criteria other than compliance with the provisions of this Act and the rules of the right of association. At the same time, it is clear that the purpose of this Act is to ensure that social organizations that want to stand for election register as parties.”

Accordingly, under Act on the Elections of Members of Parliament, a candidate in any single-member constituency may run for election as the candidate of a political party or as an independent candidate, and a national list can only be drawn up as a party list or a national list, i.e., in this case an NGO cannot be a nominating organization at all, nor can it draw up a list.

The above clearly separates the role of the party political and civil spheres in society.

One of the most important characteristics of civil society organizations is that they are not directly connected to the mechanisms related to the acquisition and exercise of central state power, nor do they have such an aspiration but rather exert influence on society and public life through various public interest activities carried out by them, which depend on the profile of the specific organization. In short,

NGOs do not and cannot have the aim of exercising the highest state powers by obtaining the parliamentary majority and thus the right to govern.

However, the regulations are already different with regard to the exercise of local government power and the election of local government representatives and mayors, since local self-governance is no longer a “stage of society as a whole”, but basically a forum for the formulation and representation of local, particular interests. In this case, NGOs (associations) can also be nominating organizations, so they can be directly involved in the formation of local power.

With the local elections approaching, the world of NGOs across the country has always started to get particularly buzzing. In addition to well-known local associations that have been operating for a long time, countless new ones are being formed, and many older formations have suddenly emerged from obscurity. Again, the question here is whether any of these that wish to be seen as real civil organizations can be regarded as one of them. What are their real objectives?

In this regard, however, it is important to emphasise that the vast majority of domestic NGOs operate in accordance with their original purpose and are thus extremely useful and even indispensable actors in Hungarian society. Those who want to appear to be something other than the goals they are actually working towards are in a minority. The various organizations that appear in the political sphere raise a lot of questions from this point of view.

The clearly visible interference of certain groups calling themselves a “civil society organization” in party-political struggles at the national level

is, at best, a misrepresentation of their role, and at worst, a deliberate deception and manipulation, which, in turn, is typically an increasingly transparent and repeated attempt by politicians and parties that have failed in the “official” party political arena (especially in elections) to use the miracle weapon of the “Trojan horse”.

In many cases, opposition manifestations fuelled by some of the emotions made in the heat of the campaign leave no doubt about this, when they communicate their desire to “occupy” local governments under the guise of various organizations they call “civilian”, which, according to them, will then be the starting point for the “overthrow of the government”.

In addition to such threats, we can also notice several phenomena in connection with which there are legitimate suspicions about the true nature and actual objectives of an organization that claims to be civilian.

If, for example

  • a foreign organization openly aiming at domestic political intervention (“overthrowing the government”) in Hungary finances a domestic – typically not even grassroots – “civil society organization” that otherwise has no significant membership or support in Hungary (let us also remember the relevant statements of George Soros),
  • or some well-known party politicians suddenly appear as representatives or advocates of some “civil society organization”,
  • or when some “civil society organizations” are active only when certain political forces are in government, and at other times they become almost invisible,
  • or when these organizations campaign word for word with the same program elements and rhetoric as some political parties,
  • or when, at the campaign event of the “local” civil society organization, persons who are completely unknown to the residents, “from afar”, appear as candidates or contributors,
  • or, when an organization begins campaigning for goals that are completely different from their mission as originally set out in their articles of association,

what can you think of?

It is clearly set out by the domestic legal system that anyone who wishes to exercise the highest public powers (change of government) in a democratic way should form a party and measure themselves in the elections, and not try to deceive the people under the guise of a „civil society organization”. If, on the other hand, a political interest group tries to pursue (party) political goals by disguising itself as an NGO, by circumventing the democratic procedures and other guarantee rules for the acquisition of state power roles, then

it is not only about to break the constitutional order but is also doing a great deal of harm to real civil society.

Day by day, we can see that some opposition politicians, by making statements during the campaign, by “settling on” certain issues affecting “society as a whole”, by “occupying” local governments, envision the creation of “focal points of resistance” that will allow them to constantly conflict with the central government. And to do so, as a battering ram, they want to use the various groups they consistently call “civil society organizations” but created and driven along clearly party-political goals.

Ignoring the constitutional differences between party politics and the civil sphere to this extent only leads to an increase in the dysfunctionality of NGOs and thus of “civil society” as a whole, and to the erosion of public trust in civil society organizations.

The artificially induced tension between local governments and the central government has little political gain at national level, but its consequences always primarily affect the residents of the affected settlements and the real civil society.

In the face of opposition accusations, it became apparent to everyone during the campaign that it is not the government that stymies the civil sphere but those who are trying to blur the purpose of parties and NGOs for their own political purposes.

In the light of the 2022 parliamentary election campaign and the developments, experiences and the lessons learned since then, it is worth supplementing the thoughts of 2019 that it would be advisable for the Hungarian legislature to immediately consider the amendment of the relevant regulations so that they separate political parties from other civil society organizations much more clearly and rigorously that is currently the case, both in terms of their role and funding.