Freedom in the World
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In 2002, Hungary welcomed an official invitation to join the EU and began the final legislative measures necessary for accession. The year also witnessed a bitterly fought parliamentary campaign, a series of high-profile Communist-era spy scandals, and ongoing questions over independence of the media.
In the late 1980s, Hungary's economy was in sharp decline. The Hungarian Socialist Worker's Party came under intense pressure to accept reforms. Ultimately, the party congress dissolved itself, and Hungary held its first free, multiparty parliamentary election in 1990. Since that time, government control in Hungary has passed freely and fairly between left- and right-leaning parties. The country has followed an aggressive path of reform and pursued the very popular cause of European integration. Having joined NATO in 1999, Hungary will likely join the EU in 2004.
During 2002, the country witnessed a closely contested parliamentary election. The April elections to the 386-seat unicameral National Assembly were generally free and fair. After two rounds of voting, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's ruling coalition of the Hungarian Civic Party-Hungarian Democratic Forum (Fidesz-MDF) garnered just over 44 percent of the vote (188 mandates) and was unable to retain control of the National Assembly. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) won 42.8 percent (178 mandates). The Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ) narrowly exceeded the 5 percent threshold (19 mandates). Voters elected one candidate on a joint MSZP-SZDSZ ticket. Following the election, the MSZP formed a majority government in partnership with the SZDSZ. The new Socialist-Liberal government elected Peter Medgyessy as prime minister.
Almost immediately, the new government faced a coalition crisis when reports emerged that Prime Minister Medgyessy had acted as an agent for the Communist Interior Ministry's counterintelligence division (Division III/II). The coalition survived, and the National Assembly soon after introduced legislation to open the Division III/II records of any individual seeking public office. Prime Minister Medgyessy never denied charges that he worked for Division III/II while at the Finance Ministry in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He did, however, allege that opposition forces were attempting to distract his government from investigating corruption in the previous (Orban) government.
While the opposition press first broke the story on Medgyessy's past, the scope of the revelations rapidly widened beyond the prime minister. In the course of a subsequent parliamentary investigation, 10 present and former high-level government officials were alleged to have had connections with Division III/II. Zoltan Pokorni resigned as Fidesz party chairman after revealing that his father had been pressured into acting as a secret police informer. Both a national police commander and a prominent right-wing lawmaker also admitted past links to Division III/II. Despite the political controversy, the spy revelations did not produce a widespread coming-to-terms process with the Communist past, and the Hungarian public was largely unin-terested in the entire affair.
Citizens age 18 and older enjoy universal suffrage and can change their government democratically. Hungary is a multiparty parliamentary democracy with legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. Voters elect representatives to the National Assembly under a mixed system of proportional and direct representation. The Hungarian parliament elects both the president and the prime minister.
Post-Communist elections in Hungary have been generally free and fair, although some problems persist. During the heated 2002 parliamentary elections few parties respected campaign spending caps. The OSCE reported complaints that state media coverage frequently favored the ruling Fidesz party and that government-sponsored "voter education" advertisements appeared to mirror Fidesz-sponsored campaign ads. Prior to the election, Fidesz and Lundo Drom, a national Roma (Gypsy) party, concluded a political cooperation agreement. Yet, despite this development, only four Roma candidates were elected to the National Assembly, the same number as in the previous election. Toward the end of 2002, the European Commission reported that Hungary was not meeting its constitutional obligation to ensure direct parliamentary representation of minorities.
The constitution does guarantee national and ethnic minorities the right to form self-governing bodies. All 13 recognized minorities have exercised this right. In 2001, Hungary implemented a legal rights protection network to provide legal aid to the Roma community. The government also created the Roma Coordination Council and appointed special commissioners in the Ministry of Education and Employment and the Ministry Labor to specifically oversee Roma issues. Still, the Roma population continues to face widespread discrimination in employment, education, housing, and health care. In 2001, parliament passed a controversial Status Law granting special health and educational benefits to ethnic Hungarians residing outside the country. The governments of Romania and Slovakia expressed deep concern over the discriminatory nature of the law. In 2002, Hungary agreed to amend the law on the basis of recommendations from the OSCE and the Council of Europe, but had failed to do so by the end of the year.
Hungary largely respects freedom of speech. Independent media thrive in Hungary. However, political controversy continues to trouble state television and radio. A 1996 media law requires both ruling and opposition parties to share appointments to state media oversight boards. Left-leaning opposition parties had previously accused the Fidesz party of stacking the oversight boards with supporters. After losing power in the parliamentary elections, Fidesz leaders accused the new Socialist-Liberal government of attempting to inappropriately influence state television and radio. Both the Medgyessy government and the opposition have pledged to amend the current media law, but neither side possesses the two-thirds parliamentary majority necessary to pass the legislation. Also during the year, editors of a major right-wing opposition newspaper accused the center-left government of exerting pressure on advertisers to cancel their contracts with the publication, thus endangering the paper's financial viability.
The government respects citizens' rights to form associations, strike, and petition public authorities. Trade unions account for less than 30 percent of the workforce. Hungary has some of the most progressive nongovernmental organization tax laws in post-Communist Europe, and the country maintains a robust civil society environment with more than 67,000 registered NGOs and civic groups. The constitution guarantees religious freedom and provides for the separation of church and state. While all religions are generally free to worship in their own manner, the state provides financial support and tax breaks to large or traditional religions such as the Roman Catholic Church. Some critics have charged that these practices effectively discriminate against smaller denominations.
Hungary has a three-tiered independent judiciary and a constitutional court. The constitution guarantees equality before the law, and courts are generally fair, yet limited budgetary resources leave the system vulnerable to outside influence. In its 2002 report, the European Commission found that corruption remains a problem in Hungary. Nevertheless, the commission applauded both the previous and current governments for measures to reform the civil service, introduce stronger penalties for bribery, and implement a long-term anticorruption strategy.