Hungary | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2013

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Hungary’s government made modest amendments to its controversial judicial and media laws in 2012, though the European Commission continued to push for additional changes. New electoral legislation introduced mandatory voter registration at least 15 days before any election and set a number of rules and restrictions on campaigning in the media. The measure was passed by the parliament in November, but the Constitutional Court cast it and several other laws into doubt in late December, when it invalidated them on procedural grounds.

Hungary achieved full independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I. Soviet occupation after World War II led to communist rule, and Soviet troops crushed a 1956 uprising by Hungarians seeking to liberalize the political and economic system. By the late 1980s, the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party had come under intense pressure to accept reforms. The Hungarian Socialist Party (MSzP) was established in late 1989 by the reform-minded elite of the old ruling party, as its legal successor. 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 2004.

A ruling coalition consisting of MSzP and the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz) won reelection in April 2006. In September, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s recorded admission that his government had repeatedly lied to the electorate about its budgetary and economic performance was leaked to the press, sparking major riots and severely damaging public confidence in the government as it struggled to rein in a large budget deficit. The SzDSz withdrew from the coalition in 2008, but after Gyurcsány announced his resignation in March 2009, it joined the larger MSzP in endorsing Economy Minister Gordon Bajnai, an independent, as the new prime minister in April.

In April 2010 parliamentary elections, a conservative opposition bloc consisting of the Alliance of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz) and the much smaller Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) captured 263 of 386 National Assembly seats, giving it a two-thirds majority and the ability to amend the constitution. The MSzP won just 59 seats. The far-right Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) entered the parliament for the first time with 47 seats, and the liberal Politics Can Be Different (LMP) party, also new to the legislature, captured 16 seats. An independent took the remaining seat. Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán, who had served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, reclaimed the post in May. Using its dominance of the legislature, the government installed a Fidesz loyalist as president in August and increased control over a number of institutions during 2010, including the media.

The Fidesz government enacted a new constitution in April 2011, with very little input from the opposition or civil society. It placed policies on culture, religion, morality, and the economy, including issues such as public debt and pensions, under the category of “cardinal law,” meaning any legislation on those topics would require a two-thirds majority.

Hungary continued to face economic challenges in 2012. The government resisted major cuts to public spending and failed to keep its budget deficit below the EU-mandated ceiling of 3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). In October, the official economic estimate for the year was revised downward from GDP growth of 0.1 percent to a 1.2 percent contraction.

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 and the prime minister. The president’s duties are mainly ceremonial, but he can influence appointments and return legislation for further consideration before signing it into law.

A December 2011 electoral law redrew parliamentary electoral districts and changed the seat-allocation formula. The redistricting was ostensibly designed to reduce the overall number of lawmakers and mitigate wide variation in the size of constituencies, but some analysts said the new district lines gave a clear advantage to the ruling Fidesz party. The reforms also gave ethnic Hungarians living abroad easier access to citizenship and the right to vote.

Another package of electoral legislation was passed by the parliament in November 2012, though its legal validity was undermined in late December when the Constitutional Court found that it and several other laws had been improperly adopted as “temporary” additions to the constitution. The electoral legislation introduced mandatory voter registration at least 15 days before an election, a change that was expected to reduce turnout among uncommitted voters. The package would also limit campaign advertising to national public radio and television, nationwide print media, and billboards in public spaces—a large percentage of which are owned by businessmen close to Fidesz—and set strict limits on the amount of such material that any station may air. Hungarian websites and commercial television stations would be prohibited from carrying campaign content during the 50 days before an election (reduced from 60 days), though there were no restrictions on social-media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Relations between Hungary’s main political parties, the center-left MSzP and the conservative Fidesz, have deteriorated in the last several years amid growing polarization. In October 2012, former prime minister Gordon Bajnai launched the centrist umbrella organization Together 2014 in a bid to unseat Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the 2014 elections.

The constitution guarantees the right of ethnic minorities to form self-governing bodies, and all 13 recognized minorities have done so. Despite their large population, Roma hold just four seats in the current National Assembly. The 2011 constitution restricts voting rights for people considered to have “limited mental ability,” raising concerns that the mentally disabled will be legally prohibited from participating in politics.

The government released a draft anticorruption program early in 2012, but it had yet to be implemented at year’s end. A study published by Transparency International in March reported rampant collusion between the public sector and privileged private businesses as well as nontransparent campaign spending by both major parties in 2010 that averaged three times the legal limit. In June 2012, several senior police officials were arrested on suspicion of accepting regular bribes to advance the business interests of restaurant and nightclub tycoon László Vizoviczki. In July, after a lengthy investigation, the government dropped its case against former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, who had been accused of abusing his position in relation to a land-development deal and contributing to Hungary’s debt crisis while in office. The independent Fiscal Council, which is responsible for overseeing budgetary policy, was dissolved at the end of 2010 after criticizing tax measures enacted by Orbán’s government. The new council, installed in January 2011, consists of Orbán allies and has the power to dismiss the parliament.

In April 2012, the European Commission referred Hungary to the European Court of Justice over the questionable independence of its new data-protection authority, in operation since January. The commissioner of the previous data-protection body was removed before the end of his term; the leader of the new authority was proposed by Orbán in November 2011 and appointed by then president Pál Schmitt in December. Schmitt resigned from his post in April 2012 following accusations that he had plagiarized his doctoral thesis. He was replaced by János Áder, a founding member of Fidesz. Hungary was ranked 46 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Under media legislation that took effect in 2011, outlets must register with the new National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), which can revoke licenses for infractions. A new Media Council under the NMHH can close outlets or impose fines of up to $950,000 for violating vaguely defined content rules. Fidesz, with its parliamentary supermajority, controlled appointments to the Media Council, whose members serve nine-year terms. The council’s president, who is directly appointed by the prime minister, nominates the heads of all public media outlets for approval by a Fidesz-dominated board of trustees. Despite minor amendments to the legislation made in March 2011 and again, following a December 2011 Constitutional Court ruling, in May 2012, international press freedom organizations insist that the laws do not adequately protect media independence. European Commission vice president Neelie Kroes stated in June that the May amendments had addressed only 11 of 66 recommendations made by the Council of Europe.

While foreign ownership of Hungarian media is extensive, domestic ownership is highly concentrated in the hands of Fidesz allies. The government is the country’s largest advertiser and has withdrawn most advertising from independent media since the 2010 elections. There is anecdotal evidence that private companies withhold advertising from independent media to avoid losing government contracts. In 2011, Jobbik cofounder Dániel Papp was named as editor in chief of the news office at the MTVA media fund, which is responsible for the management of all public media. Extensive layoffs followed. Klubradio, a radio station that is critical of the Fidesz government, continued in 2012 to wage a legal battle against the Media Council, which prevented it from renewing its broadcasting license for five frequencies after the license expired in early 2011. Several courts ruled in favor of the station in 2012, but it had yet to regain control of its main frequency at year’s end.

The constitution guarantees religious freedom and provides for the separation of church and state. Adherents of all religions are generally free to worship. However, hundreds of religious organizations lost their registered status and budgetary allocations for social and charitable services in January 2012 in connection with a law adopted the previous year, which shifted the power to recognize religious denominations from the courts to the parliament. Many religious groups’ attempts to reregister were refused without explanation in 2012. Deregistered groups were stripped of legal standing and told to apply for recognition as associations. However, the vast majority of Hungarian believers belong to one of the 32 religious organizations automatically recognized under the law.

Anti-Semitism remains a problem, particularly among far-right groups. The government has honored fascist historical figures, though it condemned verbal and physical attacks on two local Jewish leaders in June and October 2012. In July, a member of the European Parliament for Jobbik, Csanád Szegedi, was asked by the party to resign following the disclosure of his Jewish ancestry. Jobbik claimed he was being penalized not for being Jewish, but for attempting to suppress the disclosure through bribery.

The state generally 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 operate without restrictions. The government recognizes workers’ rights to form associations, strike, and petition public authorities. Trade unions represent less than 30 percent of the workforce.

The independence of the judiciary came under scrutiny in 2011 and 2012 following the adoption of a reform package granting extensive administrative powers to the National Judicial Office (OBH), a new body whose leader is elected by a two-thirds parliamentary majority for a nine-year term. The OBH head’s discretionary powers include the appointment of the presidents of local and higher-level courts. In July 2012, the parliament amended some controversial elements of these laws, transferring the authority to use extraordinary fast-track procedures in cases of “public interest” from the OBH to the National Council of Judges (OBT), which is elected by a committee of judges. The OBH may no longer switch cases between courts or propose amendments to the law governing the judicial system without OBT approval. The head of the OBH will now serve a single term rather than being automatically extended in office until the election of a successor. A legal provision reducing the mandatory retirement age of judges, prosecutors, and notaries from 70 to 62—seen by critics as a way for the government to purge the judiciary and stack it with supporters—was also annulled in July after being struck down by the Constitutional Court. However, the over 200 judges who had already been forced into retirement were not automatically reinstated. Many filed lawsuits over their “unlawful” removal, most of which were still pending at year’s end. The Constitutional Court’s December 28, 2012 decision on “temporary provisions” invalidated not only electoral legislation, but the inclusion in the constitution’s preamble of language on crimes of the Communist period, the right to fast-track cases, the law on churches, and the possibility of levying a tax in case of decisions by the EU, Constitutional Court, or other governing bodies that might pose a significant burden on the budget.

Prisons are generally approaching Western European standards, though overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and poor sanitation remain problems. Inmates do not have access to independent medical staff to assess abuse allegations. The 2011 constitution introduced the possibility of life sentences without parole, prompting human rights groups to argue that such sentences would conflict with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Hungary has taken a number of steps to improve monitoring of Romany legal rights and treatment, but Roma, who form Hungary’s largest ethnic minority, still face widespread discrimination. Romany students continue to be segregated and improperly placed in schools for children with mental disabilities. In August 2012, violence broke out at two anti-Roma marches organized by far-right groups. Although Fidesz generally distances itself from anti-Semitic statements, it is less vocal in its condemnation of anti-Roma behavior. In November 2012, the Constitutional Court struck down a 2011 law that prescribed fines for homeless people living in public areas.

Women possess the same legal rights as men, but they face hiring discrimination and tend to be underrepresented in high-level business and government positions. Women hold only 35 of 386 seats in the National Assembly. The right to life from conception is protected under the 2011 constitution, but access to abortions remained largely unrestricted in 2012.

Hungary is a transit point, source, and destination for trafficked persons, including women trafficked for prostitution. Same-sex couples can legally register their domestic partnerships. However, the 2011 constitution enshrines the concept of marriage as a union between man and woman and fails to directly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. In April 2012, Jobbik proposed legislation that would make “promotion of sexual deviations” punishable by up to eight years in prison, but the bill did not advance past the committee phase in May. On December 17, the Constitutional Court annulled provisions of the 2011 family protection law that defined family as the marriage and offspring, biological or adopted, of one man and one woman. The same day, Hungary’s parliament amended the country’s Civil Code, removing references to domestic partnerships (whether same-sex or opposite-sex) except in the context of division of property and the right to demand spousal support after the dissolution of the partnership. A separate law on same-sex partnerships remained in effect at year’s end.