In Hungary, Politics Is Mainly A Man’s Game

In Hungary, Politics Is Mainly A Man’s Game

BUDAPEST — On May 14, 2022, thousands watched as Katalin Novak walked on the red carpet laid in front of the imposing building of the Hungarian parliament. Surrounded by troops dressed in ceremonial garb and horsemen riding white mounts, she took her first steps as the president of the country, cheered on by Hungary’s longtime conservative leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and his wife.

Novak was making history. Elected at the age of 44, she is Hungary’s youngest-ever president. She is also the first-ever woman to take the role.

Yet Novak, who is a member of Orban’s ruling party, Fidesz, is an anomaly in Hungary. Despite her prestigious and mainly ceremonial position, she is surrounded by few women in Hungarian politics. The Hungarian National Assembly, the country’s unicameral parliament, is one of the EU’s worst in terms of gender balance. Women occupy only one spot in Orban’s 14-person cabinet and 13 percent of the seats in parliament, compared to the EU average of 33 percent. Sweden and Finland lead the pack, with 50 percent and 46 percent, respectively.

Critics say the Hungarian prime minister, who has been in power since 2010, has set the tone — and it’s one that isn’t especially welcoming to women. ‘We don’t deal with female issues,’ Orban said in 2017, talking about the sudden dismissal of a female ambassador and the subsequent refilling of the role. ‘There are a few talented women, who could maybe work out, but I’m not surprised they didn’t apply for the role.’

Hungarian President Katalin President inspects a military honor guard during her inauguration in Budapest on May 14, 2022.

One of the deterrents is the abuse female politicians in Hungary receive, often of a sexual or violent nature. Agnes Vadai, a member of parliament, vice president of the opposition Democratic Coalition (DK) party and the current shadow defense minister, mentors young women, including preparing them for how to deal with the inevitable bullying, most of it coming online.

‘Once, someone wrote that they would like to wash their hands in my blood,’ Vadai says, who reported the incident to the police.

Katalin Cseh, a European Parliament deputy from the opposition Momentum party and the vice chair of the centrist Renew Europe group, once received a message that read: ‘I certainly wouldn’t vote for you, but I would come on your face.’

‘At some point, you get desensitized to it, to protect yourself,’ Cseh says. ‘But it’s hard to get past the fact that multiple times a day people wish [female politicians] dead or raped, their genitalia mutilated, their parents attacked, and are getting sent unwanted sexual content.’

‘In the past few years, there was a growing antiwoman sentiment in Hungary — in public life, too,’ Cseh adds. ‘The appointment of the first female president could have been an important precedent, which could be used to highlight important issues, a symbolic stand for female emancipation, gender equality, and in support of women. Yet I think the current president has a different view.’

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The scarcity of women isn’t just an Orban and Fidesz problem, though. It has been a hallmark of Hungarian politics since the fall of communism in 1989.

‘There weren’t more women in the [National] Assembly before 2010 either,’ says Burtejin Zorigt, a political scientist and gender studies expert based in Budapest, referring to the year Orban’s Fidesz party came into power.

The proportion of women in the National Assembly peaked in 1980, with 30 percent of seats occupied by women. Under communism, men and women, at least in theory, were afforded equal rights. The authorities were keen to increase productivity by expanding the workforce to include more women, helped by state child benefits. Women were encouraged to take highly skilled jobs, such as scientists, doctors, or lawyers, and pressure was put on employers to hire them. Politics was no exception.

In a 2013 research paper on women’s representation in the Hungarian parliament, Reka Varnagy wrote, ‘While the percentage of women elected to the Hungarian parliament showed a steady increase from 1949 to 1980…it only reflected the top-down pressure of a false, equalitarian political facade. The democratization process did not contribute to the increased inclusion of women in political decision making.’

After the fall of Hungary’s communist regime in 1989, the number of women in parliament decreased rapidly. In the first free elections, held in May 1990, women received only 7 percent of the seats, which, according to Varnagy, was a reflection of ‘the lack of political commitment to ensure a critical level of women’s representation.’

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during the opening day of the parliament’s spring session in Budapest on February 27.

There were no female members of cabinet in 1992-1994, 2009-2010, or 2014-2018. The postcommunist peaks for gender equality were the years 2002, 2006, and 2018. In 2002 and 2006, three women occupied ministerial positions in the leftist government. In 2018, there were three female ministers at the beginning of Orban’s third consecutive term. Only one of them, Justice Minister Judit Varga, has stayed on in the current government.

To address the lack of women in politics, there have been several initiatives to introduce legal quotas, although according to Varnagy, ‘these failed due to insufficient social mobilization and lack of political will.’

Reka Safrany from the Hungarian Women’s Lobby, the local branch of the European Women’s Lobby, which promotes gender equality and human rights for women, says that during socialism ‘having women in these positions was mandatory, which has resulted in most parties [now] not viewing quotas as a possibility, although that is the best-working temporary solution.’

‘In the majority of European countries, gender quotas are already applied in some form — [in] the parties with the selection of candidates and in the compilation of [party electoral] lists,’ Cseh says. ‘The increase in the number of women in the European Parliament is also largely related to [quotas]. There are legal obligations that leave no loopholes for those who do not wish to enforce equality, so [quotas are] definitely a powerful tool.’

Katalin Cseh, a European Parliament deputy from the opposition Momentum party and vice chair of the centrist Renew Europe group

Bernadett Bakos, a deputy from Hungary’s Green Party (LMP), is the youngest member of the National Assembly. She says her party has quotas in place to make sure women participate at various levels, however, they are still falling short on gender equality. ‘Among people [working in politics, but not politicians], there are more women, but they take on anonymous, smaller jobs, not public-facing ones,’ she says.

In the DK shadow government, less than 20 percent of its members are women, despite the party adhering to a 30 percent quota in other areas. ‘I don’t think quotas are enough,’ says DK politician Vadai. ‘[Quotas are just the] basis that creates opportunities for women who are interested in politics, that encourages them to take on a political role at the local or national level. But further support is required,’ she says.

RFE/RL reached out to all female members of the National Assembly across all parliamentary parties. Fidesz politicians replied in one e-mail, declining to comment. Representatives of the right-wing Jobbik and Our Homeland Movement parties, and the opposition Hungarian Socialist Party-Dialogue alliance, did not respond.

With a relatively small number of advocates in parliament, issues affecting women in Hungary are often given short shrift.

‘Women rarely reach the same wages as men,’ says gender expert Safrany. ‘We see this in terms of hourly wages in the long term and in pensions, as well. And I think the government’s family policies don’t encourage women’s economic independence, either.’

In Hungary, the gender pay gap is at 17.3 percent, with women with children performing worse than those without. This is on par with Finland (16.7 percent), Germany (18.3 percent), and Switzerland (18.4 percent) but below the EU average of 13.0 percent.

Due to Hungary’s thick glass ceiling, the share of women on supervisory boards or boards of directors of large corporations is 10.5 percent, a third of the EU average at 31.6 percent.

Justice Minister Judit Varga

LMP deputy Bakos, who has a degree in engineering, has campaigned against the glass ceiling and other issues such as period poverty — the lack of access among some segments of the population to menstrual hygiene products. Does she feel she needs to? ‘Absolutely,’ she says. ‘Exactly because there are so few of us, we need to deal with issues like this. Period poverty is a great example. It probably wouldn’t even cross the minds of men. So we have to make these issues visible, understandable.’

Bakos’s campaign proposed the abolishment of taxes on period products, which are currently the highest in the EU. But the March proposal faced a backlash from both male and female members of parliament and was ultimately outvoted. That didn’t come as a surprise to Bakos. ‘[Men] don’t necessarily understand why it’s important. Someone told me we should also fund men’s diapers for their wet dreams,’ she says.

At least in the eyes of Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, not all women are created equal. Those who have recently climbed to the higher rungs of the political ladder in Hungary, such as President Novak or Justice Minister Varga, are Fidesz women through and through. Both Novak and Varga are mothers of three children and avid campaigners for what Fidesz defines as ‘traditional families.’ For the party faithful, that means heterosexual, Christian, and preferably with multiple children.

‘In seven days, I probably bake five times,’ Novak says, standing next to a massive kitchen table along with her husband and three children, all beaming at the camera. The video was filmed for the Family Magic series made by a nonprofit organization sponsored by Fidesz.

Novak sits with her husband, Istvan Veres (second left) and three children in the parliament building in Budapest on March 10, 2022.

As part of Hungary’s campaign against so-called gender ideologies, Orban’s government has a program encouraging ‘traditional families’ that offers financial support to buy seven-seater vehicles, tax exemptions, and interest-free loans, which Novak, as the former families minister, has strongly endorsed. When contacted by RFE/RL, Novak’s office said the president had a full schedule and would not be able to comment.

For Hungary’s women, there are, however, a few glimmers of hope — especially in local politics, where women are better represented. On average, in Budapest’s district administrations, around 25 percent of the local politicians are women, with the city’s 20th district leading the pack with 47 percent. Across the country, 646 of 3,170 municipalities (20 percent) are led by female mayors. In the larger county administrations, 18 percent of seats in assemblies are held by women.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women in New York in April 2022, Novak said that ‘In the Western…world, women today have similar chances to succeed as men.’

At least regarding politics in Hungary, that is not a sentiment shared by many other women. While nationwide the number of women in politics is steadily growing, those changes aren’t being seen in the national parliament or government, says women’s advocate Safrany. ‘The more power a position has, the smaller the chance that a woman will get it,’ she says. ‘Women are more likely to stay in local politics.’

‘Despite the parties and ideologies, the political elite is closed off,’ says gender expert Zorigt. ‘There may be female candidates, but the most important positions will be shared among the men.’

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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Author: Shirley