Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany announced his resignation in March 2009 and was replaced by Economy Minister Gordon Bajnai in April. Right-wing parties dominated Hungary’s European Parliament elections in June, as the ruling Hungarian Socialist Party was accused of failing to implement adequate reforms amid the global economic crisis. Also in 2009, the Romany community faced a wave of violent attacks.
Hungary achieved full independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I, though it lost large portions of its previous territory. Soviet occupation after World War II led to communist rule, and Soviet troops crushed an uprising by Hungarians seeking to liberalize the political and economic system in 1956. However, in the late 1980s, the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party came under intense pressure to accept reforms. Free parliamentary elections were held in 1990, and over the next decade, power alternated between conservative and socialist blocs, both of which pursued European integration. Hungary formally entered the European Union (EU) in May 2004.
A ruling coalition consisting of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP) and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz) 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. In September 2006, comments that Prime Minister Ferenc 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 as it struggled to rein in a budget deficit equal to 9 percent of gross domestic product.
In late March 2008, the SzDSz withdrew from the coalition to protest the unilateral dismissal of the health minister, leaving the government with just 190 of the 386 parliament seats. However, the prime minister shuffled the cabinet and rejected calls for a confidence vote. In March 2009, Gyurcsany announced his resignation amid accusations that he had failed to adequately address the country’s fiscal problems in the face of a global economic crisis that struck in late 2008. Following a constructive vote of no confidence in April, Economy Minister Gordon Bajnai, an independent, was approved as the new prime minister with support from the MSzP and SzDSz.
In the June 2009 European Parliament elections, Fidesz won 14 of Hungary’s 22 seats, and the MSzP took four. The Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), a far-right party, won three seats, and the SzDSz carried only one.
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. Elections in Hungary have been generally free and fair since the end of communist rule.
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, though analysts raised questions about illegal campaign funding methods after the heated 2006 parliamentary elections. In December 2009, the parliament passed a new anticorruption bill that included the creation of a national anti-graft office, changes to public procurement legislation, and whistleblower protections. However, President Laszlo Solyom returned parts of the legislation for parliament’s review at year’s end. Hungary was ranked 46 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech is respected, and independent media operate freely, 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. Hungary’s National Television and Radio Commission (ORTT) came under significant criticism in October 2009 for awarding the only two national commercial radio licenses to frequencies with suspected connections to the ruling MSzP and opposition Fidesz. The ORTT chairman subsequently resigned over the controversy, and an investigation into the tenders was pending at year’s end. 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 to four “historical” religious groups: 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 freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate without restrictions, and a number of them mounted peaceful demonstrations in August 2009 to counter the rise in far-right rallies. Police used tear gas to prevent antigovernment protesters from reaching the parliament in March 2009, and made 35 arrests. In July, police again used tear gas to disperse crowds attending a demonstration by the far-right Hungarian Guard (Magyar Garda) and arrested 216 protesters. The Supreme Court upheld a ban on the Hungarian Guard in December on the grounds that its activities incited fear and hatred.
The government respects workers’ rights to form associations, strike, and petition public authorities. Trade unions represent less than 30 percent of the workforce. Jobbik and the Ready to Act Hungarian Police (TMRSZ) trade union signed a cooperation agreement in May 2009, but an investigation by the public prosecutor’s office found the deal unlawful in that it violated police political neutrality.
Hungary has an independent judiciary. Courts are generally fair, but the judiciary has in recent years faced criticism for lax regulations on asset statements and conflict of interest for judges. While Roma make up only about 10 percent of the population, they account for an estimated 50 percent of prison inmates, fueling accusations of police discrimination. NGOs raised concerns in 2009 over multiple complaints of harassment and excessive use of force against Romany detainees. Prisons are generally approaching Western European standards, though overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and poor sanitation remain problems.
Hungary has taken a number of steps to improve monitoring of Romany legal rights and treatment, but the community continues to face widespread discrimination, and Roma are five times more likely to live in poverty than the population as a whole. Increasing violence against Roma led to four deaths in 2009, and rising insecurity forced Romany men to patrol their own neighborhoods. Four men were arrested in August in connection with the recent string of arson attacks and deadly shootings.
In September 2009, the parliament passed a new civil code to fulfill obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Under the previous code, the disabled were placed under guardianship and seriously restricted in their decision-making with respect to place of residence, marriage, property, and employment. The new civil code bans plenary guardianship and grants the disabled more independence, though it had not taken effect by year’s end.Separately, in a step forward for sexual minorities, the legal option of registered partnerships for same-sex couples became available in July 2009, having been approved by the parliament in 2007.
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. Women hold only 35 of 386 seats in the National Assembly. Rape, including rape within marriage, is recognized as a crime in the penal code, but 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.