Freedom in the World
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Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Led by the Federation of Young Democrats-Civic Party (Fidesz), center-right parties won May’s parliamentary elections, ousting the ruling coalition of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP) and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz) led by Prime Minister Gyula Horn. Thirty-five-year-old Fidesz leader, Viktor Orban, whose party won 148 of 386 seats, formed a government with the populist Independent Smallholder’s Party (FKGP), which took 48 seats, and the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), Fidesz’s electoral ally, which won 17 seats.
With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory under the 1920 Trianon Treaty, leaving 3.5 million Hungarians as minorities in neighboring Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, and Ukraine. After World War II, Soviet forces helped install a Communist regime. In 1956, Soviet tanks quashed an armed uprising by Hungarians, and by the late 1980s, with the economy deteriorating, the ruling Hungarian Socialist Worker’s Party (MSzMP) lost its legitimacy. The ouster of Janos Kadar in 1988 led the way to political reform and the eventual introduction of a multiparty system in 1989.
The run-up to the 1998 parliamentary elections saw decreasing popularity for the Horn government. In 1994, the Socialists had defeated the conservative-populist MDF with promises to ease the transition to a market economy. But in 1995, it adopted an unpopular reform package that saw radical spending cuts, a devaluation of the forint, and stepped up privatization. In 1996, the government was rocked by a privatization scandal, the so-called “Tocsik affair,” which centered around a record consulting fee paid to an independent expert.
Despite macroeconomic gains attributed to its austerity program, which gave Hungary the fastest growing economy in East-Central Europe, Hungarians were disillusioned with corruption, crime, and an unequal distribution of wealth. Under Orban, Fidesz, which began a decade before as a youth party, positioned itself as a conservative, pro-market, and anti-socialist alternative. Fidesz also pledged to attack corruption, tax evasion, and organized crime. Its foreign policy plank supported membership in NATO and the EU.
In the May vote, Fidesz captured 148 seats (up from 20 in 1994); the Socialists won 134 (down from 209); the Smallholders, 48 (up from 26), and the Democratic Forum, 17 (down from 37). The extreme right Justice and Life Party, led by anti-Semitic demagogue Ivan Csurka, won 14 seats. The Christian Democrats, who won 22 seats in 1994, did not win a seat.
Local elections for 38,440 local councilors, almost 3,200 mayors, and national minorities’ self-governing bodies were held on October 18. In Budapest, Gabor Demszky of the SzDSz was re-elected to another four-year term. Independent candidates fared the best, winning 2,600 mayoralties and more than 60 percent of councilor seats.
Hungarians can change their government democratically under a multiparty system enshrined in an amended Communist-era constitution. The 1998 elections were free and fair.
A 1995 media law was meant to end years of political wrangling over control of the electronic media. It provided for the privatization of TV-2 and Radio Danubis, and the operation of public service television and radio as joint-stock companies run by public foundations. There are three national public television channels, around 26 private commercial television stations, over 200 regional cable outlets, and over 30 radio stations. In 1997, the Radio and Television Regulatory Body (ORTT) offered concessions for television channels to foreign broadcasting companies. In October, the chairman of parliament’s cultural committee, a SzDSz deputy, said the government was dragging its feet in nominating members of the ORTT. There is a wide variety of independent newspapers and publications that offers diverse opinions. In early October, the French media group, Reporters Without Borders, expressed concern over the suspension of Kurir, a leading opposition newspaper, by the government-controlled Postabank. The bank stopped funding the paper on the grounds that it wanted to streamline its media portfolio, but Reporters Without Borders said that bank continued to publish five other pro-Orban newspapers. On October 7, Kurir launched an Internet web site.
Freedoms of conscience and religion are viewed as fundamental liberties not granted by the state. On October 1, the government and the Federation of Jewish Communities signed an agreement on land and property reclaimed by the Jewish community in the form of an annuity. Under law, churches in Hungary may retrieve from 1998 to 2001 an annual 4.5 percent of their one-time property in the form of annuities, and 5 percent subsequently.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected. There were several farmer protests in 1998. Some 200 political parties, movements, and associations have been registered since 1989, though the number of viable parties is about 20.
The two largest trade unions are the Democratic Confederation of Free Trade Unions (LIGA), and the Hungarian Workers Council. The National Federation of Hungarian Trade Unions (MSzOSz) is a successor to the Communist-era union. A national Interest Coordination Council was established in 1992 to provide a forum for consultations between the government, employers, and employees on wage policy and other labor matters.
The judiciary is independent and the Constitutional Court has ruled against the government on several occasions, notably nullifying aspects of the 1995 austerity economic program and the 1997 referendum issues. In 1997, the country’s three-tier judicial system was replaced by a four-tier model that includes regional courts. Criteria for would-be judges were made more rigorous, calling for four rather than two years of preparatory practice as a lawyer. Court procedures are often slow. An ombudsman monitors civil complaints and reports to parliament. In September 1998, parliament began discussions on a package of amendments aimed at putting the prosecutor’s offices, which are now answerable to parliament, under government control. Such a change would ultimately entail amending the constitution.
Hungary’s half-million Roma (Gypsies) continue to suffer discrimination in employment, housing, and education. Major ethnic groups such as Roma, Bulgarians, Germans, Slovaks, Poles, Armenians, Greeks, and Serbs have special units of self-government which receive funds from the central budget proportional to the size of their respective minorities.
There is freedom of movement, and the state does not control choice of residence or employment. Property rights are formally guaranteed by the constitution and are upheld de facto by contract and property laws. Foreigners are not allowed to acquire land. Transition to a market economy has provided much greater equality of opportunity, though many Hungarians, particularly outside the large cities, are employed in the so-called “black economy” which accounts for about 30 percent of the GDP.
Women are represented in government, business and education, and several organizations represent women’s issues.