In Hungary, women received full suffrage in 1945, after which their number in the parliament increased continuously until 1980. In the most favorable periods female representation was one third of the parliament, which can already be considered a “critical mass of women”. However, after the change of regime in 1989, a negative trend began that continues to this day: although women are permanently in the majority in Hungarian society compared to men, the proportion of female MPs stagnates around 10 percent.
In my analysis, I am looking for answers to two questions. Firstly, what is the reason for the low political participation of women in Hungary both compared to the European and global level? Secondly, is the lack of female representation related to the role of women in Hungarian society, or should we address the situation of female politicians and Hungarian women in general separately?
Domestic and International Trends
In Hungary, the proportion of female representatives has been hovering around 10% since 1989, while globally, the number of women in public life has been steadily increasing since 1997. For example, two-thirds of the Rwandan lower house are women, and their proportion reaches one-third in the upper house, so they lead the global ranking for parliamentary representation of women. In this regard, Hungary was ranked 153rd in 2010 and 157th in 2014 out of 189 countries in the world. Since 1997, Hungary has been the only country where the proportion of female representation has decreased.
By 2020, in the European Union, Hungary had the lowest representation rate of women in parliament, barely 13 percent, while the EU average reached 33 percent, i.e. the critical mass of women. Critical mass is the representation level of approximately one-third, which creates a supportive environment in which women can take on the representation of women’s interests themselves and can significantly influence the decisions of legislative bodies.
It is interesting that the representation of women in non-EU, post-socialist countries is also more favorable than in Hungary. In 2002, for example, Ukraine was still lagging behind Hungary in this regard, but nowadays they have already overcome this disadvantage. The most significant female representation is in the Macedonian House of Representatives, but in Serbia this proportion is also around one-third. Moreover, even in the traditionally patriarchal Turkey, the proportion of female representatives is around 15 percent.
Although women are not necessarily drawn to the European Parliament as much as men, their participation stills plays an important role. The issue of equal opportunities between the sexes is constantly on the agenda in the EU, since it was included in the public policies of the EU with the Amsterdam Treaty of 1997.
The Union, which encompasses the diversity of European countries, creates a chance for the reforms of the more liberal, women-friendly member states to be implemented in more conservative countries as well. It cannot be stated that it correlates with this principle, but the representation of women among the Hungarian European Parliament members is better than in the Hungarian Parliament. Hungary currently has twenty-one seats in the European Parliament. During the elections in May 2019, eight women were given the opportunity to represent the country, which is a ratio of 38%.
As for the National Assembly, after the April 2022 elections, the proportion of female representation was as follows: 13,57 percent of all (199) parliamentary seats are occupied by women (27). From the 135 representatives of governing parties, only 14 women were delegated (10%), while among the opposition representatives (a total of 57 people) there were 13 women (23%).
Today, however, as a result of changes in the seats of representatives, 12 female representatives remain on the opposition side. Nevertheless, we can say that the importance of female representation prevails more within the opposition parties than in the governing coalition.
In this regard, we can also examine another type of data, the primary election results. The year of 2021 brought something new to Hungarian public life in that this year the opposition forces (six parties and various civil organizations) held primary elections for the first time in the individual parliamentary constituencies and to decide on a joint prime minister candidate. Of the 252 candidates running in individual districts, 57 were women (22,6%). 21 of the 57 female candidates who ran won their primaries, which is a ratio of 37,5%, overall, 19,8% of the 106 districts were represented by female candidates from the opposition in the 2022 elections.
However, this cannot be seen as a positive result, since this ratio is almost identical to the ratios shown in the 2010 parliamentary elections. In terms of the national list, only five of the first 40 places on the list of governing coalition Fidesz-KDNP were given to women, and eight out of 40 on the opposition’s list.
Why are there so few women in the Hungarian Parliament? On the one hand, it is because in Hungary there is a gap between women’s political capital and political opportunities. Typically, women first engage in politics on the local level, in their own constituencies, only then do they switch to national politics, after having gained strong government experience.
Therefore, compared to men, they form a more professional, knowledgeable, and experienced group. Despite this, it appears that women are not able to reach high positions as successfully as men, the reason for which can be found in the candidate nomination process of the parties. In addition, it can be shown that the representative group of men is relatively constant, while the dispersion among women is greater and changes every four years.
Thus, if a woman wants a secure parliamentary seat, she must occupy a high position in the life of her party, higher than her male counterparts. Since parliamentary mandates can be obtained in Hungary by voting on a list or in individual constituencies, the majority of men in parties can reduce the proportion of female representatives even more.
Of course, the exceptions to this are parties (LMP and Párbeszéd) that apply the women’s quota in their own circle, but these can only be considered as rare exceptions, mainstream Hungarian politics is far from consciously promoting the increase in the proportion of female representation. We can also see that the majority of voters are less likely to vote for women, moreover, before the 2022 elections, it was already possible to see that the proportion of undecided among women is higher, which also shows that women do not necessarily prefer to vote for women.
The change in the 1994 Election Law resulted in a larger, more independent role of mayors. In smaller settlements with less than 3 000 inhabitants, the mayors usually have other occupations besides city management, but this is what fills the working hours of city managers serving in larger settlements.
While it was 10% in 1990, by 2010 the proportion of female mayors reached 18%, however, this figure can be misleading because they play a leading role in different types of settlements than men. Women are typically given a leading role in the life of small settlements, which may be due to greater embeddedness.
In other words, the previously discussed case prevails, according to which women participating in national politics first start their activities at the local level and become well-known and well-liked personalities there, in contrast to men, for whom building personal relationships at the local level is not of decisive importance. This is proven by the fact that while the proportion of female mayors in settlements with less than 2 500 people was 20% in 2012, it was only 10% in those larger than that, and only 7% in those with a population of more than 10 000. The reason for this may be that the larger a settlement is, the greater the tasks and burdens that fall on the mayors, which women are reluctant to take on, and the voters do not trust that women can cope with them.
At the same time, it could also be that the bigger and more important settlement is, the more influential the political parties are. Although in 2010 87,9% of the mayors won as independents in the elections, there are 2 785 settlements in Hungary with fewer than 2 500 inhabitants, so party competition does not prevail there either.
However, it is worth looking at how the number of female mayors of the conservative Fidesz and left-wing socialists has changed since 1990. Between 1990 and 2006, the proportion of women among the mayors running in the colors of Fidesz ranged 3,8 to 8,4%, while among the socialists, this proportion was 4,3 to 16,2%. These indicators are proportional to the ratios seen in the parliamentary representatives of the two opposition sides.
It is also remarkable that during the 2019 local government elections, Kecskemét was the only county seat out of 20 where a female candidate from the ruling party won (5% of all county seats), just as in only three out of 23 of Budapest’ districts (13%) did the residents elect female mayors. These were all candidates for the coalition of all five opposition parties or party alliances (Momentum – MSZP – Párbeszéd – LMP – DK – Jobbik).
However, it can be said that the proportion of women also shows a steady increase among local government representatives. Big data research has shown that, even at this level, there is a significant difference between settlements with less 10 000 inhabitants and more than 10 000 inhabitants. In 2014, the ratio was 31,4 % in settlements with a population of less than 10 000, and 21,4 % in settlements with a population of over 10 000.
The proportion of female representation in the county municipalities is similar to the gender distribution of MPs.
What Is Role of Women?
In recent years, under successive Fidesz-KDNP governments, the question of what the role of women is and what is the expected form of behavior from them has come to the fore more and more often. While the government is waging a committed fight against “gender madness”, it emphasizes the importance of having children more and more strongly. There would probably not be a problem with the latter, if politicians of the governing party had not referred to it as the primary goal of women’s lives on several occasions. Here are some examples from the last 12 years, which said Katalin Novák, former minister responsible for family and youth affairs, current president of Hungary in 2020 in Axióma
“Don’t believe that I, as a woman, have to constantly compete with men, don’t believe that we have to compare ourselves with each other at every moment of our lives, and have to have at least the same position and we must get at least the same salary as the other sex. (…) Let us be happy that we can give life, let us be happy that we have been given the beauty of love and caring for others, let us be happy that we have someone to take responsibility for.“
István Varga, Fidesz Member of Parliament in the 2012 debate of the Parliament’s popular initiative on domestic violence claims that
“Maybe mothers should return to raising children, give birth to two or three or rather four or five children, and then it would make sense that they would respect each other more, and domestic violence would not arise.“
László Kövér, Speaker of House at the 2015 Fidesz Congress adds “We would like our daughters to consider the quality of self-realizations to be able to give birth to grandchildren for us.“
Although the politicians of the ruling party would like women to have children as much as possible, reality does not allow the single-earner family model to be established, and the situation of women in the labor market has been made difficult in different ways. It can be said that there is a status inconsistency between education and their position on the labor market. Status inconsistency means that women’s position on the labor market is significantly lower than their education level. There are three main possible factors for this: horizontal segregation, vertical segregation and discrimination.
By horizontal segregation, we mean the groups of masculine and feminine jobs that have formed on the labor market, the prestige and remuneration of which varies in different ways, but in general it can be said that jobs classified as “masculine” pay better and earn more social respect for themselves.
Vertical segregation means that women’s professional advancement is stagnant. Women get stuck above a certain level and are unable to rise to a higher position, as if they hit a strong but invisible wall. This is called the glass ceiling or labyrinth effect. At the same time, it can also be said that while men’s negotiation skills help them get ahead, women are more inclined to agree to worse working conditions or a lower salary, because they know their situation is less favorable than their male counterparts.
Discrimination in the labor market is an exclusionary process based on prejudice against women. It is well-known that often, women receive less money for the same work, and many times they do not get a job or promotion because they also preform maternal duties or because they plan to have children in the future. Because of this, female employees start at a huge disadvantage in the labor market competition, since it is much more difficult for them to coordinate their work career with their family life than it is for men.
At the same time, we see that a significant part of Hungarian society is receptive to the view that women do not have to be equal members even in the family. The 2022 value map of Policy Solutions shows that according to 67 percent of Hungarians (and 64 percent of women), it is best when the man is the head of the family. However, the difference is significant when examining the different political sides: 75 percent of the government party voters, 54 percent of the opposition, and 50 percent of those without a party alignment agreed with this statement. This overall result of 67 percent is also shocking because in 2018, 57 percent of those surveyed felt this way, which resulted in a 10 percent increase in four years. Does the government’s narrative have anything to do with this? Well, it is hard to imagine that it doesn’t.
Moreover, it appears that Hungary is one of the few countries in which the frequency and seriousness of violence against women is increasing again. The government is still unwilling to ratify the Istanbul Convention on the suppression of violence against women and domestic violence, created by the Council of Europe. Why not? For example, because then they have to recognize the existence of ‘gender’ as a concept. And we can’t accept what we see as our arch enemy, right?
Who Wants to Be Politician After This?
Politics is considered to be one of the most masculine professions, and the question often arises as to whether it is even necessary for women to participate in it. There is a view that what really matters is not what the gender composition of a legislative body is, but what goals that legislative group sets its sight on. This is a good-sounding position, but it is not true, at least in practice it appears that women and men focus on very different topics. Women consider security to be a crucial issue, prioritize social issues, the development of the child care system and children’s institutions, strive to achieve equal pay, improve the situation of pensioners, pay attention to population issues, advocate for the reduction of poverty, and take action against all forms of violence, according to research by the Interplanetary Union.
At the same time, neither women nor men are able to represent their own group uniformly, since all political parties are structured and heterogeneous. However, women are still able to act as a more cohesive and unified force in political decisions compared to men. This can be also explained by the socialization effect, since women are usually brought up to be ready to compromise, to try create togetherness and peace in the environment in- and outside the family as well. At the same time, the feeling of inferiority and disadvantage compared to men is consciously present in the women who undertake representation.
However, the solidarity of women can be a competitive advantage when addressing different layers of society, but it is also true that the voters “forgive” the political mistakes of women much harder than those of men. The female mayor of a city with a population of approximately 34 000 gave this example in an interview:
“With a woman, voters are more critical. If, for example a man, I’ll call him a mayor, drinks a bit more at a big party, and behaves in such a way that it looks like he is drunk, I don’t think anyone notices that. But if someone did it as a woman, I think would be very noticeable.“
While we see that women want to deal with political issues that are important to them, due to their minority status, they (can) take very few substantive steps, for example, to eliminate wage gaps or to reduce discrimination against women. And although several talented female politicians stand out, only a few deal with women’s issues. Rather, their narratives are determined by the issues of their country’s destiny, the ideologies of their party, and in the rarest of cases, the priorities of female politicians mentioned above.
The reason for this may be that if a political leader – in this case a woman who wants to deal with women’s issues – does not take the interests of the party into account, the party members can remove her from the leadership position. Therefore, the view is widespread that women’s issues can be translated into legislation in one way: the proportion of female representatives must be increased to such an extent that women’s interests can no longer be suppressed by party ideological positions.
In Hungary, it does not seem realistic from several points of view that the proportion of female representation will increase significantly in the near future. On the one hand, it is because, as we saw earlier, the perception of the government and society is also oriented towards traditional gender roles, and on the other hand, because women are less willing and able to get involved in an environment laden with uncertainties, non-transparent and full of conflicts. Rather, they look for peace and lean towards real tasks and problems that need to be solved. The arena typical of Hungarian politics, in which the confrontation between parties and individuals are prevalent rather than real public policy issues, is not desirable for women.
In addition, they are under increased pressure both from fellow politicians and voters during their daily work. Sexism is a phenomenon accompanying politics. Two types of sexism are usually distinguished, hostile and benign sexism. While hostile sexism is based on the idea that women play an inferior role in society and are therefore worth less, benevolent sexism expresses right-wing authoritarianism and carries within itself the “reward” and “respect” for the traditional female role validating the existence of sexism. While benevolent sexism is more common in close, intimate relationships (friendship, love, family), hostile sexism occurs most often in relationships based on competition and opposition.
Therefore, it is not surprising that sexism is also inherent in politics, where the fundamental fact is the opposition of ideological views to each other, along with the interpersonal opposition of politicians. It is a common phenomenon among politicians that they do not make value judgements about each other’s programs, vision and plans, but rather about the person, external and internal qualities of their opponent.
However, parliamentary sexism can also be incredibly harmful on a social level. After all, the norm presented by politicians can also be understood as a social norm. We choose the one we can identify with, don’t we?
Let us not have any false doubts, the representatives of a country who declare to the majority society where they think women belong, do not spare their female representatives either within the walls of the Parliament or in public.
Zoltán Illés, former State Secretary of the Ministry of Rural Development, to opposition representative Bernadett Szél during a parliamentary debate in 2013, comments “I have to smile and reject all the stupidity and nonsense you said here. (…) Just because you are beautiful does not mean you are smart.“
János Lázár, former minister in charge of the Prime Minister’s Office also to Bernadett Szél in 2015, claims that
“I see that I have the opportunity to speak a lot today, Madame Representative. Either everything reminds you of me, or we have many topics in common. I hope that you will share this special interest with my fellow ministers as well.”
László Tasó to Tímea Szabó, when the representative asked him to listen to the speech of her group member, Benedek Jávor, asks: “What are you blustering about, tootsie[M1]?”
László Kövér, Speaker of the House, in an interview in 2020, said:
“I feel sorry for those representatives, especially those whose ID number starts with 2, when they get themselves into a situation like Tímea Szabó managed get into recently. There is nothing more saddening than when you see as a man a woman’s face distorted by hatred.“
However, we should not think that degrading and objectifying women is only the privilege of the right in Hungary. In this year, 2023, an unexpected and unsettling thing happened at the parliamentary inauguration of the DK representative, Judit Ráczné Földi. After the swearing-in of the new representative, the president of the party, Ferenc Gyurcsány, held Ráczné’s hands behind her back, leaned closed to her in a confidential manner and whispered in her ears.
According to the party, nothing untoward happened, they agreed in advance that this is how the president of the party would “greet” their new representative, and they do not understand the opinions that consider this kind of behavior worrisome.
These are just a few examples of cases that have become public. We cannot know exactly at what level the discrimination against women takes place behind the scenes. But as one of my interviewees told me, she was approached unsolicited on numerous occasions by her fellow representatives:
“It is amazing that in face-to-face conversations, male colleagues – older of course, the younger generation is much more cultured – casually express that they would like to get into bed with me. Without thinking, which is a shock to me, a total shock. So, they don’t even think about the possibility that a slap will be the result. It happened every month at least once in the last four years, and what really shocked me was how unabashedly, openly… and not even with nice words. The age group over fifty is seriously sick in this sense. But it is almost impossible to imagine such comment or approaches of this kind among young men.“
The purpose of my analysis was to examine the reason for the exceptionally low female representation in Hungary. As we have seen, the trends have not changed since the regime change, but the demand for women’s equality in society is constantly and drastically decreasing, not only in the right-wing, but also on the left-wing. As Political Solution’s research showed, only every second person among the opposition and non-partisans believes that we should treat women as equal partners in the family and in society.
Therefore, can we consider the lack of female presence in politics representative of the role of women in Hungarian society, or should we treat the situation of politicians and women in general separately? I do not think we should treat these two things separately.
At the same time, it is difficult to formulate a concrete proposal on how to increase the proportion of female representation and how to improve the role of women in society. Because it is not just that men’s society tries to suppress women’s society, but also that a significant part of women – almost two-thirds – don’t even want to become equal partners. It would be difficult to articulate the exact and extremely complex reasons for this, but socialization, age, family role models, and social-political pressure certainly play a role. And until the majority of women have a demand to be represented in the legislature, we cannot expect the representation rates to increase on their own. In such a society, there can be no talk of a female quota.
A female member of parliament in 2022 said
“When we say that there is male dominance or male chauvinism in politics, we are not only criticizing the political class, but people. After all, countless women could have been elected in every election. There are hardly any constituencies in the last 30 years where there weren’t female candidates, and interestingly, the people elect very few women. You would think that women would prefer women, but no. I don’t really understand this, but I think it’s one of the reasons for everything that is bad. I’m sure of that.“
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[M1]imádom ezt a fordítást, bár az eredeti sokkal durvábban hat