Freedom in the World
Hungary’s civil liberties rating declined from 1 to 2 due to controversial constitutional and legal changes that threaten to seriously undermine the independence of the judiciary.
While Hungary made modest reforms to its new, restrictive media legislation in 2011, human rights organizations continued throughout the year to voice concerns over the law’s remaining provisions. In April, the parliament passed a new constitution, which was boycotted by the opposition and was strongly criticized for having been formulated quickly and with little input from civil society.
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. 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 the Hungarian Socialist Party (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.
Hungary faced several economic challenges in 2011, including a decrease in exports and currency depreciation. Despite an original outlook of 1.5 percent economic growth in 2012, by the end of 2011 this projection had changed to -0.5 percent.
The Fidesz government passed a new constitution in April, which was boycotted by the opposition. In June, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe criticized the process by which Hungary adopted the new constitution, as it had been formulated rapidly and with very limited input from the opposition or members of civil society. The new constitution places policies on culture, religion, morality, and the economy, including issues such as public debt and pensions, under the category of “cardinal law.” Amendments to cardinal laws will require a two-thirds majority, making changes to such policies virtually impossible unless implemented by Fidesz.
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. In late December, the parliament passed a government-backed electoral law redrawing parliamentary electoral districts and making changes to the allocation of seats and votes in Hungary’s mixed system of single-member districts and party lists.
Hungary’s political parties have historically been the center-left MSzP and the conservative Fidesz.
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 the mentally disabled will be legally prohibited from participating in politics.
The country lacks a comprehensive anticorruption policy. The independent Fiscal Council, which is responsible for overseeing budgetary policy, was abolished at the end of 2010 after criticizing tax measures implemented by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government. The new council, installed in January 2011, comprises just three members—all of whom are Orbán allies—and has the power to dismiss parliament. A special commissioner appointed by Orbán investigated a number of cases of alleged corruption by officials from the previous government. Former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány was investigated for allegedly abusing his position in relation to a land development deal, and he has also been under investigation for directly contributing to Hungary’s debt crisis while in office; the cases, which were ongoing at year’s end have been criticized for being politically motivated. In September 2011, Gyurcsány requested that his immunity be lifted in order for him to defend himself. At the end of 2011, the Budapest Military Tribunal brought espionage charges against two former chiefs of the national security office under Gyurcsány. In July 2011, the government passed a law establishing a new data protection and freedom of information authority, effective January 1, 2012. The commissioner of the previous data protection body, András Jóri, was removed before the end of his term; his replacement, Attila Peterfalvi, was proposed by Orbán in November and appointed by President Pal Schmitt in December. Hungary was ranked 54 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
New media legislation which came into effect in 2011 places further restrictions on both private and public media. Media outlets must register with a new, single regulatory body, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), which can revoke licenses for infractions. A new Media Council under the NMHH can close media 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, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe considered the laws insufficient in protecting media freedom. In April, Frank LaRue, the UN's Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, warned that the new legislation could lead to greater self-censorship.
While foreign ownership of Hungarian media is extensive, domestic ownership is highly concentrated in the hands of Fidesz allies. In April 2011, Jobbik co-founder Daniel Papp was awarded the position of editor-in-chief of the news office at the MTVA media fund, which is responsible for the management of all public media. Since taking office, Papp has laid off a quarter of the organization’s approximately 400 news editors. By the end of 2011, Hungary had laid off about 1,000 state media employees. In October, the radio station Klubradio—which is critical of the Fidesz government—had to discontinue broadcasting in four counties after it was precluded from renewing its broadcasting license for five frequencies, which NMHH claimed were being reserved for stations featuring more local news and music. In September, writer Kertész Ákos was pressured into withdrawing his statement in the U.S. newspaper Amerikai Népszava that “Hungarians are genetically subservient” after the government threatened to revoke his Kossuth Prize, a prestigious Hungarian award that he had won in 2008.
The constitution guarantees religious freedom and provides for the separation of church and state. While adherents of all religions are generally free to worship, a July 2011 law restricts official recognition to only 14 of the 358 religious groups in Hungary; hundreds of religious organizations will lose their registered status and budgetary allocations for social and charitable services in January 2012. Additionally, recognition of religious groups will be awarded by parliament instead of the courts. Despite criticism of the new law, 98.9 percent of Hungarian believers belong to one of the 14 recognized organizations.
While the state generally does not restrict academic freedom, Orbán’s government began investigating writer and philosopher Agnes Heller, as well as some of her contacts, for allegedly embezzling research funds. Heller has publically criticized Orbán’s “dictatorial inclinations” and testified against his policies before the European Parliament.
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. In 2011, the government passed a law stating that those out of work for 90 days or more will not receive social benefits or membership in the social insurance system.
Hungary has an independent judiciary, though case processing remains slow and transparency is weak. A judicial reform package pushed through in November 2011, and which will enter into effect in January 2012, grants 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. Among other responsibilities, the new OBH leader will choose candidates to fill the vacancies created by a provision in the April 2011 constitution sending at least 274 judges into early retirement. The OBH head’s discretionary powers will include the appointment of the presidents of local and higher-level courts, and the temporary transfer of individual judges to other districts. In December 2011, the parliament appointed new heads to both the OBH and Hungary’s Supreme Court, renamed the Curia; the opposition opposed the appointments, claiming they gave too much power to Fidesz. The 2011 constitution introduced the possibility of life without parole, sparking criticism from human rights groups that claimed such sentencing conflicts with the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. 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.
Hungary has taken a number of steps to improve monitoring of Romany legal rights and treatment, but the community still faces widespread discrimination. Romany children continue to be segregated in schools and improperly placed in schools for students with mental disabilities. In April 2011, three Roma were injured during fighting between right-wing radicals and local Roma in the village of Gyöngyöspa; more than 250 Romany women and children were temporarily evacuated from the area by the Red Cross. In September, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee criticized the government for failing to protect the Roma in Gyöngyöspata.
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. The ratio of women to men in Hungarian politics is lower than in any other EU member state, with women holding only 35 of 386 seats in the National Assembly. The right to life from conception is protected under the 2011 constitution, raising concerns that women’s right to abortions may be restricted. Hungary remains a transit point, source, and destination for trafficked persons, including women trafficked for prostitution. Same-sex couples can legally register their partnerships. However, the 2011 constitution enshrines the concept that marriage should exist between a man and woman, and fails to directly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.