Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Hungary’s political rights rating declined from 2 to 3 due to government practices that curtailed the ability of the opposition to freely and meaningfully participate in the formal political system, as well as continuing impunity for high-level corruption.
Since taking power in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Alliance of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz) has pushed through constitutional and legal changes that have allowed it to consolidate control over the country’s independent institutions. Following a dip in its popularity in 2014 and 2015, support for the party has recently increased, likely in response to its hard-line policies on migration.
- In February, a group of men physically prevented an opposition lawmaker from filing a referendum initiative on an unpopular government-backed law. The perpetrators were not held accountable.
- In October, a government-initiated referendum was held on a European Union (EU) asylum quota plan that would require Hungary to take in about 1,300 refugees housed in other EU countries. Despite heavy government spending on frequently xenophobic campaign materials, the referendum, which participating voters overwhelmingly approved, was ultimately invalid due to low voter turnout.
- In April, the release of information about several foundations created and endowed by central bank revealed a number of questionable transactions, including ones that benefit the bank’s director and his allies.
- In October, Hungary’s leading political daily, Népszabadság, was shuttered. Its closure came after it had uncovered a string of scandals involving the ruling party.
Support for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Alliance of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz) increased in 2016, likely reflecting support for the government’s tough stance on migration. During the year, the government refused to take in some 1,300 asylum seekers and examine their applications under the EU’s quota system, and challenged the underlying regulation before the European Court of Justice, in addition to holding a referendum on the issue.
Orbán announced the referendum on the EU asylum quota in February 2016, one day after a widely criticized incident at the National Election Office in which an opposition lawmaker was physically prevented by roughly a dozen men from submitting a separate referendum initiative against an unpopular, Fidesz-backed law requiring most stores to close on Sundays. The Supreme Court weeks later confirmed the opposition’s referendum initiative, declaring that the use of physical force to block its filing had been illegal. The government then repealed the Sunday closure law before a referendum on the issue could take place.
The government-initiated asylum referendum was held in October, amid serious concerns over the constitutionality of the question. Following an expensive government campaign marked by xenophobic rhetoric, participating voters overwhelmingly agreed that Hungary should reject the European quota. However, turnout was only 41.3 percent, short of the 50 percent threshold needed for the referendum to be considered valid.
In March, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Hungarian Central Bank could not withhold data about public funds it had disbursed to six foundations the bank had established, which amounted to about $1 billion. The following month, information released regarding the foundations’ operations revealed a number of questionable transactions, including ones that benefit the bank’s director and his allies.
Hungary’s media situation came under international scrutiny after the country’s leading political daily, Népszabadság, was abruptly closed after it ran a series of articles scrutinizing actions of ruling-party members. Shortly after the suspension, the newspaper’s publisher was sold to a company linked to a close ally of Prime Minister Orbán.
Voters elect representatives every four years to a 199-seat, unicameral National Assembly under a mixed system of proportional and direct representation (106 from districts and 93 from compensatory party lists). 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.
The coalition of Fidesz and its junior coalition partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), won 2014 parliamentary elections with 45 percent of the vote, capturing exactly two-thirds (133) of the seats. Unity—a new coalition of five leftist parties—won 38 seats. The far-right-wing Jobbik took 23 seats, while the green-liberal Politics Can Be Different party (LMP) won 5 seats.
Throughout the rancorous campaign, opposition parties criticized recent changes to electoral legislation, including rules that facilitated the creation of instant parties, splitting the antigovernment vote; alleged gerrymandering in the ruling coalition’s favor; and the government’s heavy influence over state television and radio. Most of these grievances were echoed in critical assessments from international transparency watchdogs and an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election-monitoring delegation, which also pointed to strong government influence over media and advertising outlets and grossly unequal financial resources. Election monitors also suggested that the dual system for foreign voters, under which ethnic Hungarians who have been awarded citizenship but have never lived in the country can register and vote more easily than native Hungarian citizens living abroad, “undermine[s] the principle of equal suffrage.”
In 2015, Zoltán Kész, an independent candidate who drew support from left-wing parties, won with 43 percent of the vote in a parliamentary by-election in Veszprém, a traditional Fidesz stronghold. The Fidesz-KDNP coalition consequently lost the two-thirds parliamentary supermajority it had held since 2010.
Political parties are able to organize without interference. After Fidesz’s electoral victories in 2014, public support for the party declined significantly due to corruption allegations, political infighting, and an attempt to tax internet traffic, among other factors. However, the 2015 refugee crisis and the referendum on the EU asylum quota proposal offered opportunities for Fidesz to reassert itself among anti-immigrant and Euroskeptic voters. The ruling party’s popularity, which was at a two-year low in the first half of 2015, grew in 2015 and in the second half of 2016. Parties must take at least 5 percent of the national vote to win parliament seats by proportional representation.
Fidesz and its allies have increasingly harnessed their political and economic power to prevent the opposition from influencing policy. In recent years, the government has made efforts to block referendum proposals at odds with its policies. In February 2016, an opposition politician, István Nyakó of the Socialist Party, was physically prevented by roughly a dozen men from submitting to the National Election Commission a referendum initiative against an unpopular, Fidesz-backed law requiring most stores to close on Sundays. However, the Supreme Court weeks later confirmed the referendum initiative, declaring that the use of physical force to block Nyakó had been illegal. The government subsequently moved to repeal the Sunday closure law before the referendum—which if approved was likely to damage the ruling coalition’s popularity—could take place. Although it is a crime under Hungarian law to obstruct referendum initiatives by force or threat of force, the men who blocked Nyakó were never charged.
Both the National Election Commission and the Supreme Court allowed the government’s referendum initiative challenging EU asylum quotas, despite legal objections maintaining that the question could not be put to a national referendum because it challenged the country’s obligations under an international treaty. The referendum campaign was unequal and costly. The government spent heavily on billboards, television campaigns, and mailings, and public media outlets echoed the government’s negative view of refugees ahead of the vote. The opposition parties were divided over strategy, with Jobbik officially supporting the government’s initiative, and most left-wing parties calling on voters to stay home. The satirical Two-Tailed Dog Party (MKKP) relied on donations to launch the most visible antigovernment campaign, which called on voters to spoil their ballots. The overwhelming majority of the valid votes (98.4 percent) agreed with the government’s position rejecting the European quota, but turnout was only 41.3 percent, short of the 50 percent threshold needed for the vote to be considered valid. Nevertheless, the prime minister subsequently announced that there was a “new unity” and that the ruling parties would seek to amend the constitution, inserting clauses that confirm the protection of the “constitutional identity” of the country and ban the settlement of “aliens” in Hungary. The amendment failed to clear a parliamentary vote in November, with Fidesz lacking a two-thirds majority and opposition parties abstaining.
Hungary’s constitution guarantees the right of ethnic minorities to form self-governing bodies, and all 13 recognized minorities have done so. Minorities can also register to vote for special minority lists—with a preferential vote threshold—in parliamentary elections, but they are then excluded from general party-list voting. None of the 13 minority lists won enough votes to secure a seat in 2014, meaning each is represented only by a nonvoting spokesperson. The Roma population in particular has long been underrepresented in political office.
Corruption remains a problem in Hungary, and instances of high-level government corruption have not been properly investigated. The lack of an appropriate public-spending database presents an obstacle to the transparency of government finances. Transparency International’s Hungary chapter has reported that that a number of companies with close ties to the government are supported primarily by public funds. Fidesz-allied businessmen who have fallen out of favor, like Lajos Simicska and Zoltán Spéder, have experienced financial and legal pressure. In 2015, Hungary’s public procurement board banned Simicska’s construction firm Közgép—which had won billions of forints in state contracts before the emergence of a rift between Simicska and Orbán—from participating in public tenders for three years. Spéder, a businessman with holdings in media and the financial sector, came under police investigation as did several of his companies in 2016, after an apparent falling out with the ruling party.
In March 2016, the governing majority adopted a controversial amendment to the law on postal services that limited the scope of public information that could be disclosed about the postal services’ dealings with private companies. The same month, the parliament adopted an amendment to the law on the Hungarian National Bank that restricted public access to data on the functioning of six foundations the bank had created and endowed. European Central Bank head Mario Draghi, assessing the Hungarian National Bank’s activities in a July 2016 letter, found that these foundations “could be perceived as potentially being in conflict with the monetary financing prohibition” applicable to central banks. The two legislative measures together shielded access to information on public funds amounting to more than $1 billion.
President János Áder declined to sign the national bank amendment, and instead referred it to the Constitutional Court, which struck it down. Much of the information revealed in April, following the court decision, showed irregular spending by the foundations, including decisions that benefit central bank head György Matolcsy, a close ally of Orbán and a former minister of economy, and Matolcsy’s allies.
Hungary’s constitution protects freedoms of speech and the press, but complex and extensive media legislation enacted under the Fidesz government has undermined these guarantees. Since 2011, media outlets must register with the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), which can revoke licenses for infractions. A Media Council under the NMHH can close outlets or impose fines of up to $950,000 for failure to register or for airing content that incites hatred. Fidesz, with its parliamentary supermajority, controlled the initial appointments to the Media Council, whose members serve nine-year terms; it now requires some outside support for the approval of its nominees. The government has withdrawn most advertising from independent media since Fidesz took power in 2010.
Editorial bias and political pressure are problems at both public and private media outlets. The largest political daily, the liberal Népszabadság, abruptly ceased its operations in October 2016. While its Austrian investor owner cited economic reasons for the closure, the move came after the paper published stories of alleged misspending of public funds by senior government officials. Shortly after it ceased publication, Népszabadság’s parent company was sold to a firm linked to Orbán ally Lőrinc Mészáros. In December, Népszabadság’s new owner announced that it did not plan to reopen the paper. There is a growing number of progovernment media outlets, including private companies, operating with heavy support from the state and state-affiliated entities. The government does not restrict or monitor the internet.
The constitution guarantees religious freedom and provides for the separation of church and state, although these guarantees were weakened in the 2011 constitution, whose preamble makes direct references to Christianity, including the recognition of “the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood.” Adherents of all religions are generally free to worship. However, a two-thirds parliamentary majority must approve the right of any religious community or church to receive tax and other benefits reserved for “accepted churches.” Both the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights have found the law in violation of the Hungarian constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights, respectively. A 2015 government proposal sought to remedy this while maintaining limitations, but it did not get a two-thirds majority in the parliament.
The state generally does not restrict academic freedom. However, a gradual overhaul of the public education system has raised concerns about excessive government influence on school curriculums, and legislation adopted in 2014 allows for government-appointed chancellors empowered to make financial decisions at public universities. Selective support by the government of certain academic institutions also threatens academic autonomy. There are no significant constraints on freedom of private discussion in Hungary.
The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. However, in July 2016, the Constitutional Court dismissed a challenge to a ban on demonstrations at the Supreme Court and the home of the prime minister. Separately, people opposed to a government project to create a museum district in a public park in Budapest set up an encampment to prevent the cutting of a large number of trees, but were forcibly removed by security personnel in June and July.
A broad array of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Hungary, but groups pursuing activities counter to government priorities have come under pressure in recent years. Since taking power, the Fidesz government has instituted burdensome registration and reporting requirements for NGOs, and some groups have seen their offices illegally raided by police. As part of the campaign for the referendum on the EU asylum quota proposal, Fidesz lawmaker Szilárd Németh called for a security screening of NGOs that opposed the referendum initiative. A 2016 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders noted a “general stigmatization” of NGOs and “shrinking civil society space,” and called on the government to “refrain from criminalizing defenders’ peaceful and legitimate activities.” Recent years have seen the creation of a number of GONGOs, or government-organized NGOs, many of which were active during the migration crisis. State funding to NGOs and other civil society groups is distributed through the National Cooperation Fund (NEA), whose nine-member council is dominated by government and parliamentary appointees.
The government recognizes workers’ rights to form associations and petition public authorities. Trade unions represent less than 30 percent of the workforce.
Judicial independence is a matter of concern. All of the 11 judges put on the Constitutional Court between 2010 and 2014 were appointed by the Fidesz government, and rulings in recent years have favored government interests. It was only well after the government lost its two-thirds majority that one opposition party—the green-liberal LMP—was included in the discussions over the election of four new judges, in November 2016.
In March 2016, the government declared a nationwide “state of national crisis,” expanding the designation from a handful of counties where it was first declared the previous year; the declaration was made in response to “mass immigration,” despite the fact that the number of people arriving in the country remained under the legal threshold for declaring this type of special legal order. A new government-initiated Sixth Amendment to the Fundamental Law—a draft of which was kept secret until it was leaked by a Jobbik politician—created a new type of special order granting extraordinary powers to the government in the case of a “terrorist threat.” It was approved in June.
Prisons are generally approaching European standards, though overcrowding, inadequate medical care, and poor sanitation remain problems.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Hungary fails to observe its obligations under international and European law protecting asylum seekers, and the European Commission started an infringement procedure against Hungary concerning its asylum law in December 2015. The erection of a fence along its border in 2015, to be extended and strengthened according to government plans; the recognition of Serbia and Turkey as “safe third countries;” the criminalization of irregular entry; and the creation of “transit zones” outside of the fence have been criticized as deterring applicants from access to asylum. Only around 15 people are allowed into a transit zone each day, and the government holds asylum seekers in dire conditions. The asylum system serving those who are eventually let in the country has been scaled back, relegating even recognized refugees to live without work or shelter. Legislation adopted in 2015 allowed Hungary’s army to enforce border controls, restrict civil liberties, and employ “coercive weapons.” A 2016 law allows police forces to “escort” out of the country migrants found within 8 kilometers (5 miles) inside Hungary’s borders. The government continues to recruit “border hunter action units” that receive expedited training. During the year, Human Rights Watch reported cases of police violence against asylum seekers at the border. The government also impedes humanitarian efforts by NGOs and activists seeking to assist migrants and asylum seekers.
The government disseminated xenophobic propaganda in the period leading up to the October 2016 quota referendum with heavy spending on billboards, television campaigns, and mailings, connecting asylum seekers and immigrants to acts of crime and terrorism. In July 2016, Prime Minister Orbán called immigration a “poison.”
Hungarians enjoy freedom of travel and choice of residence, employment, and institution of higher education. Citizens have the right to own property and establish private businesses. Critics of recent sectoral taxes see them as efforts by the state to drive out or take over foreign businesses. Recent difficulties of business owners who have fallen out of favor with the government illustrate the extent to which business success depends on government connections.
Women possess the same legal rights as men, but they face employment discrimination and tend to be underrepresented in high-level business positions and political life. Women hold no cabinet posts and only 20 of 199 seats in the National Assembly, or 10 percent—the lowest percentage in the EU, with even lower representation (7 percent) among members of the ruling parties. The UN working group on discrimination against women found especially problematic “the pervasive and flagrant stereotyping of women, with repeated statements by some public figures that women are unsuited to political power and insistence on woman’s role as primarily wife and mother.” The right to life from conception is protected under the 2011 Fundamental Law, but access to abortions remained largely unrestricted in 2016. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is banned under the Act on Equal Opportunity. However, in 2016, the government inserted into a budget bill an amendment seeking to make it easier to deny benefits to same-sex couples. The proposal was ultimately withdrawn after extensive media coverage and public criticism. The constitution enshrines the concept of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Hungary is a transit point, source, and destination for trafficked persons, including women trafficked for prostitution, and the country’s efforts to support and reintegrate victims are insufficient. Roma women, men, and children; those who have been raised in state-run children’s homes; and unaccompanied asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable.
Hungary has taken a number of steps to improve monitoring of Roma rights and equal treatment, but Roma, who form Hungary’s largest ethnic minority, still face widespread discrimination, societal exclusion, and poverty. Roma students continue to be segregated and improperly placed in schools for children with mental disabilities. The European Commission in May 2016 sent a formal notice to the Hungarian government that it was beginning an infringement procedure on the discrimination of Roma children in education.