Despite more than two thirds of Hungarians seeing corruption as a significant problem, society remains polarised on whether the government is accountable for the country’s worsening corruption levels. Fear of reporting wrongdoing remains high, just like the incidence of bribery in public health care. The criminalisation of the latter might be a reason for optimism; however, it could take time until popular attitudes adapt to the new legal environment.
With over 40,000 participants in 27 countries across the European Union, Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer – European Union 2021 presents one of the largest, most detailed sets of public opinion data on people’s views and experiences of corruption and bribery in the region.
At the start of 2021, amidst the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hungary saw a legislative reform that few would have predicted: the government criminalised offering gratuity payments in public health care – a widespread phenomenon that the country’s previous criminal code tolerated – making it potentially punishable by imprisonment.
Despite advocacy efforts by professional associations and civil society groups alike over several decades, both the current government as well as previous cabinets had shied away from such an ambitious move – especially as overall health care spending, and thus medical professionals’ wages, remained far below EU average values.
Popular attitudes are also lenient: according to Transparency International Hungary’s research findings, the reform has happened at a time when approximately 40 per cent of Hungarians think such informal payments are acceptable, with the largest group seeing them as an inherent, unalienable feature of Hungarian public health care.
It is key to take this context into account when analysing data from the new Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) – European Union 2021, which found that 18.4 per cent of Hungarians who access public health care services offer bribes, gifts or favours to get a service.
Although the sanctions prescribed by the new law might deter many from offering such benefits, it is unrealistic to assume that these behaviours and the underlying attitudes would vanish overnight. However, criminalisation might induce such trends in the long run, which would be a welcome change in a society that is largely apathetic towards corruption.
Hungary’s apathy towards corruption
Where does this apathy stem from? Partly from personal experience. As the GCB found, 36 per cent of Hungarians use personal connections when dealing with public services or authorities – a pattern that is especially prevalent in accessing medical care (41 per cent). Although the share of those who admit to paying a bribe for the same services is significantly and unsurprisingly lower (17 per cent), it is still among the highest bribery rates in the EU. It’s similar to rates in Bulgaria and Romania, two countries which also share the region’s lowest score on the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index with Hungary.
The publication of the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index marked the end of a decade characterised by democratic backsliding in Hungary.
Another reason for apathy is that Hungarians are largely sceptical about state institutions’ capacity to address corruption. Over half (53 per cent) of people think the Hungarian government is tackling corruption badly, while a mere four per cent think it is addressing this problem very well. Unsurprisingly, 40 per cent think that the level of corruption has increased during the past year, while less than 15 per cent say it has decreased.
Political polarisation divides opinions on corruption
It’s also worrying how divided the nation is on corruption issues, what’s driving them and how to tackle them. For example, although 53 per cent of respondents agree that “citizens can make a difference in the fight against corruption”, almost as many don’t feel empowered against corruption, fearing reprisals for reporting it. Opinions are also split when it comes to assessing the government’s performance in general – 54 per cent think that “the government is run by a few big interests” while, at the same time, 45 per cent say “the government has been transparent in its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
Taking into account the increasing political polarisation of Hungarian society and the fact that assessments of systemic corruption have been found to correlate with party sympathy, it’s plausible that those contrasting views are mostly driven by political affiliation. Such polarisation, coupled with the fact that parliamentarians and the prime minister are seen as the actors most likely to be involved in corruption, makes Hungary an ideal setting for populist mobilisation – and a harsh place for liberal democracy.
The criminalisation of informal payments in public health care should help trigger a shift in attitudes that could gradually spill over to other parts of society. However, this alone would be insufficient: Hungary should do more to protect and encourage whistleblowers, increase citizens’ participation in political decision-making and rebuild its democratic institutions to empower both the people and the state against corruption.