The Covid-19 crisis shows the need for civil society to be stronger than ever

Published: 2 April 2020

The covid-19 crisis shows the need for civil society to be stronger than ever, not only in Hungary.“- Máté Varga, President of the Civil College Foundation.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government seems to have seized the opportunity of the crisis around the covid-19 pandemic, to rule by decree for an unlimited period of time. Earlier this week, the Hungarian parliament voted by a two-thirds majority for new legislation that could jeopardize the democratic rights of citizens.

Máté Varga is president of the Civil College Foundation (CCF), a partner in the Civilization network in Hungary that is supported by Civitates.

Why is the Hungarian “corona law” so problematic?
There are elements of the approach taken by the government which seem unrelated to fighting the virus and more concerned with fighting critics, the opposition and free speech. The new law punishes “fake news” and “fear mongering” on Corona with up to five years in prison – many people fear this tool could be used against critical journalists. It is of great importance that all responses to the covid-19 crisis are adequate and proportional, and not endanger rule of law, disempower democratic institutions or put fundamental rights at risk. Moreover, coronavirus emergency measures must not last indefinitely.

What did you do in response to this new law?
The plans for the bill were announced already last week. We immediately coordinated action and facilitated the issuing of a petition by lawyers and constitutional experts against this new law. The first day we reached almost 60.000 and in the end 110.000 persons undersigned.

Last Sunday we organized the first online protest ever in Hungary. Some very well-known economists, NGO experts and legal experts took part in a live protest that we mainstreamed on social media. It was a good combination of people from different backgrounds and a real new style of protesting. Originally only a few thousand people signed up, we think also because of the issue of fear. But during the event tens of thousands of people started to watch, not only from Hungary. We received thousands of reactions, the link was shared 3.000 times and we had almost 40.000 viewers. It was only half an hour, but …. we were shut down. We don’t know if it was Facebook who did so, whether it were trolls, or if it was caused by anything else. Finally it didn’t get to hundreds of thousands because of that. However, both the government and opposition mentioned the campaign in the Parliament before the voting procedure, they also received the signatures which we sent to them per email.

What do you think of the consequences of the new law?
Well, these are all assumptions from our side, but this law gives space to the government to act more independently without having to take into account other parties, and could even have consequences for the next elections. On the 1st of April, the government introduced a new regulation which takes away responsibilities from the local governments and they also announced that they will continue some controversial investments which were recently stopped. Also, they will increase control in the cultural sphere and the theatres.

How is the government dealing with the virus?
As became clear in the last weeks, the covid-19 crisis created an opportunity for our government in relation to the next election. They are afraid of losing power because of the local elections last year which led to a political change in Budapest and 70 other cities. National elections are planned for 2020, but now we cannot be sure how and when these will happen.

What, according to you can civil society do in these circumstances?
I think civil society’s role is stronger than ever, not only in Hungary. This covid-19 crisis will have huge consequences. Changemakers have a special role in this moment; we have to find new ways to operate. I see three ways in which this could be done:

  1. We have to encourage solidarity and support those who are most in need.
  2. We have to be mindful of how a state of emergency can be misused and push the government to support people in need.
  3. We have to think about the transformational opportunities for our social, political and economic systems, and come up with alternative directions, such as social/community economy, climate transition, universal basic income and other relevant topics.

We are in a crisis on all levels but this is the biggest opportunity for us as human beings to finally make real steps towards a sustainable and more equal future.

More information about the Civil College Foundation (CCF):

CCF was originally an organization for community development, which in 2010 switched to a community organizing and issue based campaigning foundation. They support community organizers with a training and consultation system and issue campaigns for the more disadvantaged in Hungarian society.

With support of an international organization, two years ago, CCF set up another organization, an enterprise, called The Voice. This is a digital organizing platform, which has become the most active activist platform in the country, and has successfully influenced several political changes. The platform has around 200.000 members, who can be mobilized in several ways.