Adam BalcerForeign policy project manager at WiseEuropa

Orbán’s legacy is really impressive—and depressing. Freedom House recognizes Hungary as a country on the verge of being relegated to the category of “partly free.” The Hungarian media, the least free in the EU, have already sunk into this category. And according to Transparency International, Hungary may soon overcome Bulgaria as the most corrupt country in the EU.

Orbán’s rise is in large part due the lenient approach of his friends in the European People’s Party (EPP), especially those from the German CDU-CSU. For instance, in May 2017, during a vote in the European Parliament on whether to launch Article 7 against Orbán because of the serious deterioration of democracy and rule of law in Hungary, almost 45 percent of MEPs from the EPP (excluding Fidesz) voted against the resolution and some 20 percent abstained. Among CDU-CSU parliamentarians, almost 80 percent voted against.

If European civil society wants to defend democracy in Hungary, it should put particular pressure on the CDU-CSU—requiring them to be consistent. Poland is already under Article 7 procedures from Brussels, but has still not reached Hungary’s levels of illiberalism. It is time for Article 7 to be triggered against Orbán, before the unprecedented scenario of an EU member state falling into Freedom House’s “partly free status,” which the country is predicted to do this year.

Rosa BalfourSenior fellow in the Europe Programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

That the global structures of power are changing—weakening the state in favor of non-state actors, some driving a technological revolution—is not news.

Some are cashing in on their retrograde renationalization battle, backed by majorities voting to restrict their own liberty. Nationalism is imposing propagandist antinomies such as “illiberal democracy.” And thanks to the effects social media, antiliberal actors thrive, polarizing societies and dangerously amplifying old and new divides.

These trends are only one side of the coin, however shocking, when they happen in countries with heroic pasts of fighting for freedom. The brighter picture sees civil society mobilizing to defend rights that were taken for granted for so long—the women’s marches following Donald Trump’s election and the two revolutions in Ukraine are examples. In parts of the world that have not yet enjoyed democracy, unsung heroes still risk their lives to work for peace and empower their communities.

To be successful, civil society needs be ingenious and find new pathways; to take advantage of the evolving structures of power, connect transnationally, build alliances to protect and promote freer societies, use technology to empower, and bring citizens out of their virtual ghettoes of distrust.

Edward BurkeAssistant professor of International Relations at the University of Nottingham

Civil society cannot defeat illiberalism on its own. Only states have the power and influence to defeat illiberalism perpetrated by other states. Each state should of course support the growth of civil society organizations. But in reality, most states fall far short of that responsibility. When that happens, civil society activists must depend principally upon foreign governments for protection and assistance. OECD states traditionally fulfil that role.

A robust, fairly regulated civil society is an integral part or test of any state aspiring to democracy. EU member states fund large-scale projects to help EU candidate countries write and implement laws guaranteeing freedom of association and freedom of expression. The danger to civil society is at its greatest when countries like the United States or the United Kingdom speak or act as if they no longer care; offending states will not be punished for closing down civil society—arresting and even torturing activists.

A crisis or absence of liberal leadership in Washington or London cannot be overcome by civil society alone. Instead, European and other leaders must redouble their resolve to uphold liberal principles. To misquote the great British statesman William Pitt the Younger (swapping “Europe” and “England”), “Europe has saved herself by her exertions, and will, as I trust, save England by her example.”

Martin EhlChief international editor at Hospodářské noviny

There is a chance that it can.

There is the example of Slovakia from the late 1990s, when a civil society upheaval helped to change the course of the country from authoritarian to democratic governance. It was largely thanks to a broad coalition of parties joining forces that ended up ousting Vladimír Mečiar, the strongman at the time. Politicians were pushed by civil society to do their homework; it was not civil society itself.

There is a similar case from Slovakia just last year when—again, thanks to different NGO activities—the neo-Nazi regional head of government in Banská Bystrica was defeated.

But again, after such mobilization and achievement, political work is needed. This is where the indisputable role of politicians and political parties come into play. Civil society usually does not have a mandate, money, or energy to work in such a long-term perspective. But it can and has to play the role of initiator and energizer.

Civil society and political parties cannot substitute each other but might complement each other in the fight with illiberalism. Civil society could bridge the divided opposition. It could give fresh ideas. It could support independent media. It could do a lot of field work. But usually, it is not able to push for systemic change—unless it is a regime change of the Velvet Revolution kind that toppled the Czechoslovakian communist regime in 1989. To fight illiberalism, you need patience and invention; civil society could provide more of the latter.

István GyarmatiPresident of the International Centre for Democratic Transition

The short answer is: No, civil society alone cannot defeat illiberalism. But illiberalism cannot be defeated without a vibrant civil society.

The question is more complicated than most think. It is too simple to attribute illiberalism to the will of a strong leader. The strong leader and the support that he or she enjoys is the reflection of socioeconomic needs that are at the core of the rise of illiberalism.

Some form of illiberalism is unavoidable in those societies that did not have the chance and the time to go through the organic process of modernization and democratization. As we tried to “introduce” modernity and democracy in those places—including in some countries in Europe—it is becoming clear that it was done prematurely and too quickly. That’s when the process backfires. The fight against illiberalism has to be comprehensive, civil society being an important part of it. But one has to address the problem that democratization and modernization cannot be accomplished overnight.

The reaction to illiberalism must not be determined by the instinct of “well established” democracies or the expectations of their public but by real needs and opportunities, and through a combination of support for the organic changes, observing the principles and practice of democracy and human rights as much as possible.

István HegedűsChairman of the Hungarian Europe Society

It is a common phrase that civil society, mostly represented by nonpartisan (and in this sense, independent, but value-oriented) grassroots organizations, plays an absolutely important role inside the political system of a vivid liberal democracy. In the “realistically existing illiberal democracies,” to paraphrase the ideological self-definition of the communist regimes of the former Eastern Bloc, however, critical ideas and autonomous public activities are condemned and constrained by populist, semi-authoritarian rulers who portray themselves as the embodiment of popular will. In Hungary, after the depressing victory of Viktor Orbán April 8, a new wave of oppression—restricting measures against nongovernmental organizations and the stigmatized “mercenaries” allegedly paid by George Soros, the American-Hungarian philanthropist—is envisaged.

At the moment, the question is whether Hungarian civil society can survive the renewed verbal and legal attacks of a strong illiberal state. International solidarity can put pressure on the reelected leader to not fulfil his promise to take “revenge” on his opponents. Civil romanticism in itself will not be enough to save the rest of democratic institutions and the rule of law. Even in the long run, only a resolute cooperation between civil groups and partisan forces, at both national and European levels, can challenge and—one day—defeat Hungarian antiliberalism.

Andrei KolesnikovSenior fellow and chair of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center

In Russia, where public opinion supports Putin’s version of illiberalism and authentic civil society is suppressed, we can’t really talk about efficient resistance. The politicized part of civil society is split, its leaders are not united, and its most recognizable leader, Alexei Navalny, doesn’t represent the whole of Russia. NGOs that are not controlled by the Kremlin are prosecuted under the laws on “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations.”

At the same time, nonpoliticized, self-organized groups—defending, for instance, their backyards, apartment buildings, and parks from reconstruction or housing development—are demonstrating intransigency and readiness to go to the mat. This is a clear sign of a civil consciousness awakening. The self-organized communities that have emerged following the tragic fire at the Kemerovo mall and problems from the landfill site in Volokolamsk mark the commencement of a new kind of resistance, based on ecological and technogenic grounds, which has a lot in common with the defenders of urban private spaces. It also has something in common with politicized groups: at the core, these are protests based on ethics. Again, these movements can’t defeat state illiberalism, but we are witnessing the slow process of the emergence of a renewed civil society.

Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

Yes. Edmund Burke summed it up well with his famous, attributed remark, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” A little definition is needed, as the modish term “illiberal,” like “populist,” should not be used to attack anything bien-pensant citizens dislike.

Just about every member state of the EU have had laws or used language in the last 50 years that other European nations will have judged illiberal. From allowing women to control their fertility to abolishing beatings in schools to defending LGBT rights, the defeat of illiberalism has been uneven—sometimes with one step back for every two forward.

The classic tools to allow civil society to defeat illiberalism have not changed. It means bringing people together in a campaign; publishing arguments against illiberalism and, today, using the new media to disseminate them; and entering into political parties to insert anti-illiberal ideas and policies into political choice.

Ireland was a deeply illiberal country within living memory. It is no longer, as Irish civil society took on prejudice and found political leaders who saw votes could be won by rejecting illiberalism. The post-communist EU states were never going to become Swedish or Dutch overnight. But the values of European civil society will prevail.

Mariann ŐryHead of foreign desk at the Hungarian daily newspaper Magyar Hírlap

Hungary's ruling Fidesz party has just been reelected by an almost record-high turnout and having won 49 percent of the vote. Any head of government in the European Union would dream about such a strong legitimacy given by voters. According to the Hungarian government's opinion—which, as we see, has the support of many Hungarians—it’s the voters who give a democratic legitimacy to political actors to determine where the country should go. A significant part of the fetishized civil society consists of (often international) NGOs, who are political actors without the legitimacy and responsibility of parties or authorities.

The fact that Avaaz was actively campaigning against the Hungarian government in the last days of the campaign should raise serious concerns regarding national sovereignty. The transparency of these organizations is a legitimate concern. As Hungary is a member of the European Union, its laws will be harmonized with EU rules where necessary. The much-debated Hungarian “Stop Soros” package of laws was proposed before the elections, so we can say that this package has the support of the Hungarian voters. Legally operating NGOs should not be afraid of transparency laws.

Márta PardaviCo-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee

Yes, if “illiberalism” is understood as a hybrid regime in which a deep network of patronage expands its grip on power through appeals to fear and ethnonational instincts. Remember Slobodan Milošević? The victory of democratic forces in Serbia was powered by civic activism. There is no reason why this success cannot be repeated in a region that prides itself on its resilience during the decades of communist dictatorship.

This is particularly true for Hungary. Its civic spirit will not be crushed by an election exercise that saw the state and a party combine resources to “undermine contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis,” as international observers put it.

It will be an uphill battle. Viktor Orbán has unlimited power to change the constitution, further dismantle the rule of law, and arbitrarily restrict human rights. A further crackdown on civil society has already been announced.

International election observers will move on, but we are here to stay. We will take the fight to the government, and we will do so in the many communities in Hungary where people cherish a Europe whole and free. We will take the battle to Brussels, Strasbourg, and Geneva. 

Human rights watchdogs have stayed strong, but Orbán has weakened civil society. Civil society needs to recover, strengthen its moral conviction, and gain allies—not only to protect civic space, but more importantly to reach out to a deeply divided society to nurture democratic participation and values.

Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

Defeating illiberalism in Europe will be a task for the long haul. The reason is that an “illiberal model” of government has taken root in the EU through democratic means (contrary to some non-EU countries) and is rooted in real popular sentiments: a sense of lost ethnic and/or religious identity, a fear of supranational bodies “taking over” one’s country, a confused fear of migration and terrorism, and a search for “protection.” Ironically, the EU’s many achievements rank far behind such popular sentiments.

This new paradigm poses a challenge to both the EU as a whole and to its citizens.

Civil society can indeed be a predominant actor in pushing back illiberalism. The new ways in which European citizens take part in their country’s political scene—through movements more than traditional parties, through social media, and through associative activities—is in itself an encouraging sign. However, this is assuming that civil society will still enjoy a free space to work in, which is not guaranteed if we only look at the forthcoming constitutional transformations in Hungary for example.

This is why collective action at the EU’s highest level—the European Council—will remain indispensable in order to regulate the current illiberal trends.

Stephen SzaboSenior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies

Civil society organizations are a necessary but not sufficient condition in the struggle to keep an open society. As all politics are local, the center of gravity will be with local organizations and citizens. However, given the fragmented state of the opposition and the all-out assault on civil society by the Hungarian government, outside support will also be needed. Membership in the EU remains widely popular in Hungary and other illiberal majoritarian democracies, so clear signs of EU pushback are important.

In the Hungarian case, the EU can stop subsidizing a government that openly opposes Europe’s core values but takes the union’s money and uses it to reward its supporters. While stopping EU regional development funding and suspending voting rights in the Council will be difficult given the likely opposition of the Polish and other governments, the EU should explore ways of limiting and directing its funding to groups which uphold European values. This could include the use of bureaucratic methods, which avoid a member state’s veto power. Given that most political leaders have a shelf life of around ten years, the chances are that the luster around Orbán and other authoritarians will fade, and the opposition will at some point coalesce.

Mirjana TomićJournalist and project manager at Forum Journalismus und Medien in Vienna (fjum_wien)

Civil society alone cannot defeat illiberalism—especially in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, where civil society organizations expounding liberal worldviews are often perceived as foreign agents, dependent on international funds. Recent history has demonstrated that basic democratic concepts, such as press freedom or separation of powers, are not politically rooted. Proven corruption practices among top politicians do not sway political preferences. Therefore, pointing out democratic deficiencies, often a role carried out by local NGOs, does not affect citizens’ political choices. Illiberal leaders, supported by their own civil society organizations, create emotional rather than rational bonds with their followers.

In Western Europe, civil society organizations are embedded in the local political landscape and can more effectively influence the public debate. Thus, while civil society cannot implement policies, it can raise awareness and mobilize citizens around specific issues, thereby contributing to possible policy changes. Yet even in Western Europe civil society alone cannot solve the causes of discontent that led to the embrace of illiberal choices.

Still, civil society organizations can contribute to creating the conditions to fight illiberalism by exploring its causes—rational and emotional—and proposing solutions that address the concerns and fears of all citizens, without discrimination. Creating communication channels among polarized citizens could be the first step in the positive direction.

Ivan VejvodaPermanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences

Yes, it can!

History has shown that civil society, formerly and currently still known as “the people,” have been able—through struggle, perseverance, and commitment—to stand up to, counter, and reverse illiberalism, suppression, authoritarianism, and dictatorship. The modern democratic revolutions (as Tocqueville, among others, called them) are testimony of these victories of the people for greater freedom. The battle for democracy, freedom of speech, universal suffrage, freedom of association, and human rights was won by a variety of movements throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Anticolonialism in the second half of the twentieth century is another example of the people reversing oppression.

What happened in Serbia in 2000 with the joint efforts of civil society, the student “Otpor” movement, and the united political party front in defeating the Milošević regime, or in Ukraine with the Euromaidan movement in 2013, speak to the possibility of defeating illiberalism-authoritarianism.

The regression of democracy and the rise of nationalism and populism in its varied forms in a number of Western countries have often been accompanied by massive street protests. The people are vigilant, even if not always active. But tipping points eventually appear. These struggles most often require a long-term effort—perseverance, courage, and the coming together of forces that desire and cherish freedom and the rule of law, with the knowledge that there will be reversals along the way before success is possible, however gloomy the present appears to be.

Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe

When looking at Central and Eastern Europe, it is interesting to note that civil society registered mixed results in its struggle against authoritarian regimes. The Maidan revolution in Ukraine was a clear illustration of how civil movements can topple an unpopular government. In reverse, ongoing events in Poland and Hungary seem to indicate that the illiberal phenomenon represents a much more difficult nut to crack—just as in Romania, with the uncertain impact of protests against the government tampering with anticorruption legislation.

Compared to traditional authoritarian regimes, illiberal powers have found their own way of catching the electoral support of a large part of the population. Strong economic performance, improved social protection, constant migration bashing, and a strident nationalistic narrative largely outvote repeated violations of the rule of law. 

To overcome illiberal systems, civil society needs to adapt its methods. Traditional rhetoric on human rights does not get much echo these days from public opinions more attuned to social justice and a better jobs future. European institutions also need to come to the rescue by tirelessly   supporting judicial independence and media freedom, while fighting corruption through the highly efficient scrutiny of any misuse of EU financial subsidies.

Richard YoungsSenior fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at Carnegie Europe

Some parts of European civil society are liberal and temper the spread of illiberalism. Others are illiberal; they are part of what drives and underpins illiberalism rather than a potential check against it. Civil society is inherently neither liberal nor illiberal, but is one terrain on which the battle between these two sets of beliefs is played out.

In some cases bottom-up liberalism offsets top-down illiberalism. In other instances, bottom-up illiberalism menaces elite-driven liberalism. In some examples, bottom-up and top-down dynamics reinforce each other; Viktor Orbán has retained power through a top-down curtailment of democracy, but this power is also undergirded by bottom-up popular illiberalism.

The effectiveness of liberal civic actors could be improved by nourishing new forms of political engagement; linking organized civil society bodies to the wider pool of ordinary citizens; and making sure civil society protests and campaigns dovetail better with representative politics.

Illiberalism is a complex phenomenon, with its various instances made up of different combinations of social, cultural, political, economic, and identity-based strands. Different civil society strategies are required in response to these different types and permutations of illiberalism. And analytical rigor is needed to pinpoint what precisely is beyond-the-pale illiberalism—and to distinguish this from what are simply views, whether rightist or leftist, with which one may disagree but which have a legitimate place in political debate.