Hungary | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany’s government struggled to maintain control in 2007 after losing popularity due to its fiscal austerity measures and a 2006 scandal involving Gyurcsany’s leaked admission that he had lied to the people about the country’s budgetary and economic health. The government’s troubles spurred opposition protests and the rise of a new extreme-right nationalist group. Nonetheless, the austerity plan showed signs of success in lowering the budget deficit. Also during the year, confidence in the police force dropped after several senior law enforcement officials were fired or resigned due to alleged criminality among officers, while a report from Amnesty International exposed police discrimination against women who are raped or abused within marriage.

King Stephen I, who ruled from 1001 to 1038, is credited with founding the Hungarian state. In the centuries that followed, Hungarian lands passed through Ottoman and Austrian hands. Hungary established a liberal constitutional monarchy under the Austrian Hapsburgs in the mid-19th century, but two world wars and a Communist dictatorship in the 20th century forestalled true independence.

The Soviet Union crushed an uprising by Hungarians seeking to liberalize the political and economic system in 1956, an event that remains prominent in the country’s consciousness. Subsequent Communist policy in Hungary was fairly liberal compared with the rest of the Soviet bloc, but in the late 1980s, the ruling 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 elections in 1990. The country subsequently followed an aggressive path of reform and pursued the popular cause of European integration.

In the 1998 legislative elections, Fidesz–Hungarian Civic Union captured the largest number of seats and ruled in coalition with the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) and the Independent Smallholders’ Party. In the 2002 elections, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP) won 42.8 percent (178 mandates), and formed a majority government with the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz).

After an 84 percent “yes” vote in a 2003 referendum, Hungary entered the European Union (EU) on May 1, 2004. In August of that year, Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy resigned as a result of a dispute with the SzDSz. He was replaced by Ferenc Gyurcsany, whose biggest challenge was to bring Hungary’s finances under control while keeping the support of the MSzP’s left wing.

In April 2006, the ruling coalition won reelection with 210 seats in the National Assembly after a campaign in which the opposition leader, Fidesz’s Viktor Orban, stressed populist themes. Both sides advanced economic promises that were patently unrealizable, including pledges to reduce taxes while increasing state subsidies. In September, comments Gyurcsany had made at a closed party meeting in May, in which he admitted that his government had repeatedly lied to the electorate about its budgetary and economic performance, were leaked to the press. The revelation sparked riots that amounted to the most extensive unrest in the country since the abortive 1956 revolution. The MSzP and SzDSz suffered badly in local elections held in early October, but Gyurcsany refused to resign, and his government survived a no-confidence vote the following week.

Gyurcsany introduced an austerity plan that year , aimed to bring Hungary’s budget deficit of 9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) into line with requirements for the adoption of the euro currency by 2009. The plan combined higher taxes and extensive reforms of the public sector, which resulted in lowered real wages, higher inflation, and minimal economic growth. Despite protests and calls for Gyurcsany’s resignation, his government remained in office in 2007, although opinion polls showed politicians’ popularity to be at their lowest levels since the Communist era.

Demonstrations and rioting on the 2007 anniversary of the October 23, 1956, uprising were not as large or violent as in 2006, and the police response was significantly less extreme. The 2007 protests were fueled in part by the creation in August of the Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard, an extreme-right nationalist group that called for the “protection” of Hungary for Hungarians and dressed in uniforms reminiscent of the country’s fascist period. The swearing in of 500 new Hungarian Guard members in October raised alarms about the growing strength of the far right in Hungarian politics.

Despite public displeasure with the austerity program, the budget deficit is now on track to reach the goal of about 3.2 percent of GDP by 2009. Hungary in 2007 benefited from economic growth in Germany, its largest EU trading partner, but expansion in the Hungarian economy remained modest, reaching just 2.7 percent in the third quarter. The coalition government’s longevity and ability to push through additional reforms remained in doubt at year’s end.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Hungary is an electoral democracy. Voters elect representatives every four years to the 386-seat, unicameral National Assembly under a mixed system of proportional and direct representation. The National Assembly elects both the president, whose duties are mainly ceremonial, and the prime minister.

Post-Communist elections in Hungary have been generally free and fair, although some problems persist. After the heated 2006 parliamentary elections, Hungarian think tanks and Transparency International raised questions about illegal campaign funding methods. In the 2002 polls, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) observed that state media coverage frequently favored the incumbent Fidesz party, and that government-sponsored “voter education” advertisements appeared to mirror Fidesz-sponsored campaign ads. By the 2006 elections, however, the OSCE no longer monitored Hungarian polls.

The main political parties are the MSzP and the conservative Fidesz, which has moved in an increasingly nationalist direction. The liberal SzDSz, which supports free-market policies, is the third-largest party but has much less support than the other two; it narrowly cleared the 5 percent vote threshold to enter parliament in 2002 and 2006. The Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) and the conservative MDF, both of which arose in the period after the end of the Cold War, have lost considerable popularity.

Hungary’s constitution guarantees national and ethnic minorities the right to form self-governing bodies, and all 13 recognized minorities have exercised this right. Despite the large population of Roma, only a small number have been elected to the National Assembly in recent elections. In March 2007, local minority representatives for the first time elected county-level governing bodies. However, the entities are limited to cultural affairs and lack jurisdiction over housing, education, and health matters.

Previous and current governments have introduced stronger penalties for bribery and implemented a long-term anticorruption strategy. In October 2007, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany proposed new anticorruption legislation in the wake of reports that several senior MSzP politicians had mismanaged EU funds. Hungary was ranked 39 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of speech is respected, and independent media operate freely in Hungary, albeit within a highly polarized atmosphere. Political controversy continues to trouble state television and radio, with opposition parties accusing the government of improperly attempting to influence content. While attacks on journalists remain rare, investigative journalist Iren Karman was badly beaten in June 2007, in an apparent follow-up to threats she had received the previous winter over her research into corruption in the early 1990s. In November, a handful of reporters were arrested while covering an illegal demonstration. Foreign ownership of Hungarian media is extensive, but the successful introduction of private Hungarian television stations has challenged the argument that state-supported media are necessary for balanced coverage. Internet access is unrestricted.

The constitution guarantees religious freedom and provides for the separation of church and state. While adherents of all religions are generally free to worship in their own manner, the state provides financial support and tax breaks to four traditional groups, or “historical churches”: the Roman Catholic Church, the Calvinist Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Communities. Some critics have charged that these practices effectively discriminate against smaller denominations. The state does not restrict academic freedom.

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respects this right in practice. Despite protests against the Hungarian Guard, to date the group has complied with the law. In September 2007, Gyurcsany called for amendments to free assembly and free speech legislation that would allow closer monitoring of extremist activities. Nongovernmental organizations are active in Hungary and operate without restrictions. The government respects citizens’ rights to form associations, strike, and petition public authorities. Trade unions account for less than 30 percent of the workforce. Korean tire company Hankook has been accused of ignoring international labor standards and intimidating local trade union leaders at its Hungarian factory, which became operational in June 2007.

Hungary has a three-tiered, independent judiciary in addition to the Supreme Court and a Constitutional Court. The constitution guarantees equality before the law, and courts are generally fair. Limited budget resources leave the system vulnerable to outside influence, but court funding is being improved as required by EU membership. After the exposure of several criminal cases against police officers, including charges of rape, theft, and persistent corruption by traffic police, Gyurcsany in May 2007 fired the national police chief, Laszlo Bene, and the head of the Budapest police, Peter Gergenyi. This prompted the resignations of Justice Minister Jozsef Petretei; Jozsef Dobozi, head of the riot police; and the head of domestic security service, Lajos Galambos. The police have been criticized for racist attitudes and use of excessive force when dealing with the Romany minority, despite a government campaign against anti-Roma racism. The excessive force used by police during the October 2006 riots was not repeated in 2007. Prisons suffer from overcrowding but are generally approaching Western European standards.

Hungary established a legal rights protection network in 2001 to provide legal aid to the Romany community, and later passed an antidiscrimination law as a requirement of EU membership. The government has also created a Romany Coordination Council, appointed special commissioners in the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Employment and Labor to oversee Romany issues, and named a minister-without-portfolio in the prime minister’s office to promote equal opportunity. However, the Romany population continues to face widespread discrimination in many respects, and Roma are five times more likely to live in poverty than the population as a whole. A large number of Romany children are diagnosed as mentally handicapped and directed by school authorities to special education classes, thus seriously hampering their ability to enter the workforce.

Property ownership and choice of residence are legally protected by law and generally enjoyed in practice. The time it takes to start a business in Hungary is below the world average of 48 days.

Since the parliament passed the controversial Status Law in 2001, granting special health and educational benefits to ethnic Hungarians residing outside the country, Hungary has repeatedly found itself in disputes with Romania, Serbia, and Slovakia, which have large Hungarian minorities. In December 2004, a referendum was held on extending citizenship to ethnic Hungarians abroad, but turnout was insufficient for the proposal to pass. In a confidence-building initiative, Hungary has convened a series of meetings with other countries in the region.

Women possess the same legal rights as men, but they face hiring and pay discrimination and tend to be underrepresented in high-level business and government positions. Despite the fact that the Hungarian penal code recognizes rape within marriage as a crime, an Amnesty International report in 2007 found that women are overwhelmingly reluctant to report rapes and face widespread prejudice when it comes to prosecuting such cases. Hungary is primarily a transit point, but also a source and destination country, for trafficked persons, including women trafficked for prostitution.