Freedom in the World

Hungary

Hungary

Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores

Status

Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

1.5

Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

2

Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

1
Overview: 

 

Since its landslide electoral victory in 2010, a coalition led by the Alliance of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz) party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used its two-thirds parliamentary majority to push through some 600 new laws, reforming or restructuring the media, the judiciary, pensions, and the health care and education systems. This process continued in 2013 with several new laws, as well as two new amendments to the constitution, which had been drafted by Fidesz in 2011. Ombudsman Mate Szabo sought to annul a controversial constitutional amendment adopted in March, but the appeal was rejected by the Constitutional Court in May. Another constitutional amendment, adopted in September, included modifications to recent laws that have elicited criticism from the European Union (EU) and various international watchdogs.

Hungary continued to face economic challenges in 2013, though the government has said that the budget deficit for 2013 and 2014 will fall below the EU-mandated ceiling of 3 percent of gross domestic product. On March 1, Orbán announced the appointment of his close ally, György Matolcsy—who had spearheaded unorthodox financial policies as economy minister—to head the central bank. In April, one of the bank’s deputy heads resigned to protest the appointment.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

 

Political Rights: 36 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12

Voters elect representatives every four years to a 386-seat, unicameral National Assembly under a mixed system of proportional and direct representation. (As of 2014, the number of seats in the legislature will be reduced to 199.) 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.

In April 2010 parliamentary elections, a conservative opposition bloc consisting of Fidesz and the much smaller Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) captured 263 seats, giving it a two-thirds majority and the ability to amend the constitution. The incumbent Hungarian Socialist Party (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. Orbán, who had served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, reclaimed the post in May. The current president, founding Fidesz member János Áder, was elected in 2012 after the head of state elected in 2010 resigned amid a plagiarism scandal.

A December 2011 electoral law redrew parliamentary 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. The reforms also gave ethnic Hungarians living abroad easier access to citizenship and the right to vote. According to the government, some 480,000 such people—the approximate equivalent of 6 percent of Hungary’s in-country electorate—have applied for citizenship since the law was passed, and thousands have registered to vote.

Another package of electoral legislation was passed by the parliament in November 2012, though its legal validity was undermined in late December 2012 when the Constitutional Court found that it and several other laws had been improperly adopted as “temporary” additions to the constitution. In January 2013, the court struck down several elements of the election law on substantive—rather than procedural—grounds; the rejected provisions included a ban on campaign advertising in private media and the introduction of mandatory voter registration at least 15 days before an election, a change that had been expected to reduce turnout among uncommitted voters. Some elements of the voided law later reappeared as part of the controversial and wide-ranging omnibus constitutional amendment passed in March. The law limiting campaign ads to public media was one of those modified by the constitutional amendment passed in September in an apparent effort to quell sharp criticism from the EU and international watchdog organizations.

 

B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16

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.

Hungary’s next parliamentary elections will take place in 2014. According to an October 2013 poll by Ipsos, Fidesz was leading, with the support of 49 percent of voters who stated an established party preference and an intention to vote. Only 28 percent of that group said they would cast ballots for the MSzP, while around 40 percent of potential voters were still undecided. In October 2012, former MSzP prime minister Gordon Bajnai launched the centrist umbrella organization Together 2014 (E14), which in October 2013 finalized an electoral alliance with MSzP; the two parties have agreed to field single candidates in the first round of district voting. However, the opposition remains fragmented.

Hungary’s 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 citizens could be improperly prohibited from participating in politics.

 

C. Functioning of Government: 9 / 12

Corruption remains a notable problem in Hungary, which ranked 47 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in the 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International (TI). A study published by TI in 2012 reported rampant collusion between the public sector and privileged private businesses as well as nontransparent campaign spending by both major parties.

In September 2012, the parliament passed a law creating a state monopoly on the sale of tobacco, ostensibly with the aim of reducing teen smoking; the bidding process was criticized for its secrecy, and the list of license recipients, published in April 2013, included many people and businesses with close ties to Fidesz.

Shortly following the uproar over the licenses, the parliament passed an amendment to reduce the scope of publicly available information under the country’s Freedom of Information Act. In May, President Áder vetoed the original version of the bill, which gave only two government bodies total access to public data. Áder signed a new draft of the bill into law in July over the objections of advocacy groups, which said it could allow arbitrary denial of information requests.

In June, lawmakers amended the country’s public procurement law. In a July 10 post to its website, TI Hungary characterized the amendment as a missed opportunity to enhance transparency and rein in corruption.

In September 2013, an audio recording surfaced that apparently featured an illegal negotiation over public procurement between the deputy mayor of Budapest’s Zugló district and a construction contractor.

In 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. The case was ongoing at year’s end.

Hungary’s independent Fiscal Council, which was responsible for overseeing budgetary policy, was dissolved at the end of 2010 after criticizing tax measures enacted by Orbán’s government. A new council, installed in January 2011, consists of the head of the Central Bank, the head of the State Audit Office, and a third member nominated by the president.

 

Civil Liberties: 52 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 15 / 16

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 failing to register or airing content that incites hatred. Fidesz, with its parliamentary supermajority, controls appointments to the Media Council, whose members serve nine-year terms. The head of the NMHH is directly appointed by the president, based on the recommendation of the prime minister. He or she automatically becomes a candidate to the presidency of the Media Council, but must be confirmed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority. The council president nominates the heads of all public media outlets for approval by a Fidesz-dominated board of trustees. Annamaria Szalai, the first head of the NMHH and Media Council, died in April 2013; Monika Karas was named in August to replace Szalai.

Despite amendments to media legislation in 2011, 2012, and 2013, international press freedom organizations insist that the laws do not adequately protect media independence. In April 2013, Klubradio, a radio station critical of the Fidesz government, finally regained control of its main frequency after a two-year legal battle against the Media Council, which had prevented it from renewing its broadcasting license for five frequencies after the license expired in early 2011. A few weeks earlier, the NMHH began an investigation into whether a January opinion piece in the daily Magyar Hirlap had violated the country’s media law by inciting hatred toward the Roma. In May, the newspaper was fined 250,000 forints ($1,100).

While foreign ownership of Hungarian media is extensive, domestic ownership is largely 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, Dániel Papp, cofounder of Jobbik, 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. In December 2013, German media group ProSiebenSat1 sold TV2, Hungary’s largest broadcaster, to its chief executive and financial director amid speculation about the new owners’ links to Fidesz-affiliated conservative media conglomerates.

Under an amendment to the country’s penal code adopted by the parliament in November 2013, anyone who knowingly creates or distributes false or defamatory video or audio recordings may face a prison sentence of one to three years. The impetus for the widely criticized amendment was a fabricated video published by the news website HVG.hu in October. The video shows locals apparently being bribed to vote for Fidesz ahead of by-elections in the southern city of Baja. The communications director for MSzP resigned after admitting that he had submitted the recording to HVG, though he insisted that he had not known the video was staged. Separate revisions to the criminal code that took effect in July require ISPs to block content deemed illegal by a court order. Websites hosting illegal content are placed on a nonpublic “blacklist” operated by the NMHH. The government may take action if ISPs fail to heed the blocking orders.

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 2012 in connection with a law that shifted the power to recognize religious denominations from the courts to the parliament. Deregistered groups were stripped of legal standing and told to apply for recognition as associations. The law was originally adopted in 2011, but voided on procedural grounds before going into effect. A new version was passed in early 2012, then nullified on substantive grounds in early 2013. After the Constitutional Court’s second decision, the substance of the voided law reappeared within the constitutional amendment adopted in March 2013, causing widespread concern that the document was being used to circumvent the court’s authority. Some adjustments to the rules concerning religious registration were included in the constitutional amendment adopted in September. Religious communities now have the same legal standing as recognized churches, and courts, rather than the parliament, are tasked with assessing their status. However, a two-thirds parliamentary majority must still approve the right of any religious community or church to receive tax and other benefits reserved for “accepted churches.”

Anti-Semitism remains a problem in Hungary, particularly among far-right groups. People within the government have honored fascist historical figures, though the ruling party generally distances itself from the strongly xenophobic statements and actions of groups like Jobbik. In July 2013, 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.

 

E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12

The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. Nongovernmental organizations operate without restrictions.

In October 2013, Jobbik proposed that civic groups receiving more than 1 million forints ($4,400) annually from foreign sources should be required to register as “agent organizations,” but the proposal was voted down in the parliament. In December, the parliament adopted a new law that required nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) benefitting from the 1 percent tax scheme—under which taxpayers can assign 1 percent of their income tax to an NGO of their choice—to register. The National Tax and Customs Administration (NAV) was empowered to administer the process.

The government recognizes workers’ rights to form associations, strike, and petition public authorities. Trade unions represent less than 30 percent of the workforce.

 

F. Rule of Law: 11 / 16

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 body whose leader is elected by a two-thirds parliamentary majority for a nine-year term. 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 annulled in 2012 after being struck down by the Constitutional Court.

The court has struck down a number of key laws passed since 2010. However, some of the “temporary [constitutional] provisions” invalidated by the court in December 2012 were nevertheless voted into the constitution via a two-thirds majority in 2013. Moreover, the March 2013 amendment prohibits the Constitutional Court from examining the substantive constitutionality of future proposed constitutional amendments and strips the court of the right to refer in its rulings to legal decisions made prior to January 2012, when the current constitution came into effect. In defiance of the latter restriction, the court’s judges began citing their past rulings as early as June 2013.

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 and poverty. Romany students continue to be segregated and improperly placed in schools for children with mental disabilities. In August 2013, a court handed down sentences ranging from 13 years to life in prison without parole to four members of a neo-Nazi gang for a series of murders and attacks on Romany families in 2008 and 2009. The ruling party is not always vocal in its condemnation of anti-Roma behavior.

In 2012, the Constitutional Court struck down a 2011 law that prescribed fines for homeless people living in public areas. The substance of this law reappeared in the constitutional amendment of March 2013, and the parliament in September passed a law empowering local governments to ban homeless people from certain areas.

 

G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 14 / 16

Women possess the same legal rights as men, but they face employment 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 2013.

In November, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting domestic violence in Hungary and claiming that insufficient legal protections as well as problems in the implementation of existing laws further endanger female survivors of domestic violence. The issue of violence against women took center stage earlier in the year, when politician Jozsef Balogh was accused of brutally beating his partner. Months later, Balogh confessed to the assault and was expelled from Fidesz, but refused to resign from the parliament or from his position as mayor of the village of Fulophaza. Acting in response to a civil initiative, the parliament added a law on domestic violence to the criminal code in October 2012; the law came into effect in July 2013. 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 December 2012, 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, the 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 the end of 2013.

 

Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

Full Methodology