Freedom in the World
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Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany’s proposal to introduce doctor-visit charges and university tuition was soundly defeated in a March 2008 referendum, triggering the break-up of the ruling coalition, a cabinet shuffle, and continued fiscal strains. Hungary’s financial woes worsened later in the year, as the global economic crisis forced the government to accept a $25 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the World Bank.
King Stephen I, who ruled from 1001 to 1038, is credited with founding the Hungarian state; however, Hungarian lands passed through Ottoman and Austrian hands in the centuries that followed. Hungary established a liberal constitutional monarchy under the Austrian Hapsburgs in the mid-19th century, but two world wars and communist rule 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. Subsequent communist policy in the country 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. Hungary held its first free, multiparty parliamentary elections in 1990. Over the next decade, power alternated between conservative and socialist blocs, both of which pursued European integration.
After an 84 percent “yes” vote in a 2003 referendum, Hungary entered the European Union (EU) in May 2004. In August of that year, Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy, who led a coalition government consisting of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP) and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz), resigned due to a dispute with the latter party. 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.
The ruling coalition won reelection in April 2006, taking 210 seats in the National Assembly after a campaign in which Viktor Orban, leader of the conservative opposition Fidesz party, stressed populist themes. Both sides made economic promises that were patently unrealistic, including pledges to reduce taxes while increasing state subsidies. In September 2006, comments that 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 major riots and severely damaged public confidence in the government. Gyurcsany introduced an austerity plan that year to rein in Hungary’s budget deficit of 9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). 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 through 2008.
In March2008, over 80 percent of referendum voters rejected the government’s attempt to introduceuniversity tuition and fees for doctor visits. At the end of the month, the SzDSz withdrew from the cabinet to protest the unilateral dismissal of the health minister. The split left the government with just 190 of the 386 parliament seats, but Gyurcsany shuffled the cabinet and rejected calls for a confidence vote. The global economic crisis that struck in the fall had a severe impact on Hungary, which relied heavily on foreign financing and still carried a large budget deficit. The government ultimately accepted a $25 billion rescue package from the International Monetary Fund, the EU, and the World Bank, but the country remained politically and economically unstable at year’s end.
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. Elections in Hungary have been generally free and fair since the end of communist rule. After the heated 2006 parliamentary elections, Hungarian think tanks and Transparency International raised questions about illegal campaign funding methods.
The main political parties are the MSzP and the conservative Fidesz, which has adopted an increasingly nationalist stance in recent years. The liberal SzDSz, which supports free-market policies, is the third-largest party but only narrowly cleared the 5 percent vote threshold to enter the parliament in 2002 and 2006.
Hungary’s constitution guarantees the right of ethnic minorities to form self-governing bodies, and all 13 recognized minorities have done so. 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.
Successive governments have introduced stronger penalties for bribery and implemented a long-term anticorruption strategy. In November 2008, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany proposed new anticorruption legislation that was modeled on the U.S. False Claims Act and included whistleblower protections. Hungary was ranked 47 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index, with party and campaign financing identified as a weak point.
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. In June 2008, the Constitutional Court rejected legislation passed in February that would have made hate speech a criminal offense and expanded the scope of hate-speech civil suits. President Laszlo Solyom had referred the legislation to the court for constitutional review. 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 “historical churches”: the Roman Catholic Church, the Calvinist Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Communities. The state does not restrict academic freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respects this right in practice. 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 represent less than 30 percent of the workforce.
Hungary has a three-tiered, independent judiciary, capped by 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. Several criminal cases against police officers in 2007, including charges of rape, theft, and persistent corruption by traffic police, led to the dismissal or resignation of a number of high-ranking police and domestic security officials. 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. Prisons suffer from overcrowding but are generally approaching Western European standards.
Hungary has taken a number of steps at the institutional level to improve monitoring of Romany legal rights and treatment, but the Romany community 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.
Since the parliament passed the controversial Status Law in 2001, granting special health and education 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.
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.
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, a 2007 Amnesty International report found that women are overwhelmingly reluctant to report rapes and face widespread prejudice when it comes to prosecuting such cases. Hungary is primarily atransit point, but also a source and destination country, for trafficked persons, including women trafficked for prostitution.