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HUNGARY


 

 

Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 82,805 65,843 51,900 41
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 6,330 5,280 4,830 67
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

Books on Hungary




Update No: 129 - (26/05/13)

Summary: Amendments to the constitution ushered in by the government of authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban have sent alarm bells ringing across the EU. Freedom of speech, voting transparency and the rights of the homeless are all infringed by these new developments, observers say. The very notable rise of anti-Semitism has been accompanied by a swell of ugly, xenophobic tendencies targeting ethnic minorities.

There are severe concerns mounting within Europe about the state of rights in Hungary. So much so that it has been mooted that the state become the first EU member have its governance monitored by the Council of Europe. The autocratic policies of the country’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, in power since 2010, have earned him the soubriquet the “Viktator” from certain hostile parties. His party, Fidesz, has a two-thirds majority in the parliament and its popularity is indisputable. Orban has used his majority and his influence to revise the constitution four times in the past 18 months. His most recent attempts to change the constitution and enshrine within it concepts that are viewed as fundamentally irreconcilable with the tenets of European membership, have prompted outrage. Hungary may, as a direct result, become the first EU country to be monitored by the Council of Europe, which is “deeply concerned with the erosion of democratic checks and balances as a result of the new constitutional framework in Hungary,” the monitoring committee of the Council of Europe said in a report released on April 25. Furthermore the increasing popularity of Jobbik, the third biggest party in Hungarian politics which campaigned on a joint ticket to cut down on Roma crime and reduce the “Zionist” influence has also alerted Europeans to a potential groundswell of ideas which do not coalesce happily with those held by western European democracies.

On March 11 of this year a series of amendments to the constitution, which critics have argued threaten democratic principles, were approved by a vote of 265 to 11, with 33 abstentions. The amendments, which overturn earlier constitutional court rulings, will limit the court's right to challenge laws, and will institute a centralization of power many view as anti-democratic. The amendment also includes the introduction of restrictions on political advertisements in the publicly run media during election campaigns and a law which will mean that state grants will only be awarded to potential students if they agree to work in Hungary after graduation. It also tightens laws on election campaigns, family rights, and higher education.

There was a chorus of almost unanimous disapproval from the EU when the amendment was approved. On May 2 the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs issued a draft report that offered a trenchant attack upon the changes. Rapporteur Rui Tavares argued that there was the manifest risk of a serious breach by Hungary of the common values referred to in EU Treaty Article 2. The report followed a letter from the foreign ministers of Germany, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands to José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, that also called for a new mechanism to safeguard “fundamental values”. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (which encompasses 47 countries and is the custodian of the European Convention on Human Rights) will vote next month on a recommendation that formal proceedings be opened to observe Hungary’s compliance with its obligations. Monitoring of this sort has never happened in any of the EU's 27 countries. "I am concerned about the compatibility of the constitutional amendments with the principle of the rule of law," said Thorbjørn Jagland, the Norwegian who heads the Council of Europe. "This gives the impression that the government is willing to use the two-thirds parliamentary majority to overrule the constitutional court, which might endanger the fundamental principle of checks and balances in a democracy."

There has been domestic protest against the constitutional amendments in Budapest where around 3,000 people marched against at the measures. "The basic components of democracy and constitutionality in Hungary have been broken," political activist and philosopher Gaspar Miklos Tamas told the press.
The government’s response, however, has been unrepentant. On May 8, the Fidesz European parliamentary group issued a statement declaring the report “an attempt to constitutionally colonise Hungary”. It said Hungary’s parliament and people would be placed under “direct orders” and “international guardianship,” if the report’s findings were enforced, and labelled it an “unprecedented left-liberal political ultimatum”. "The countries of central and eastern Europe should make their own policies without looking to the EU. We do not have to listen to everything the bureaucrats in Brussels say," a recalcitrant Orban told the press. It has been noted that since the European Parliament is dominated by Fidesz’s allies in the European People’s Party, it is unlikely that it will approve the report’s recommendation

The concerns over political freedoms are well justified. Among the constitutional amendments was a measure concerning voter registration. The new amendment would compel citizens to register in advance, electronically or in person, if they wish to vote in elections. It has been suggested that those are have less money and are perhaps less committed voters will therefore be deterred from voting, which is likely to be more prejudicial to the smaller parties than the leading parties. Critics feel that the introduction of this kind of process will simply reinforce Orban's existing lead among voters. There have also been changes to freedom of information. On April 30, a special sitting of the Hungarian Parliament introduced an amendment which limited the scope of Hungary’s Freedom of Information Act. In a markedly speedy turnaround, the amendment was passed within less than two days and entered into effect promptly. NGOs voiced immediate concerns. Miklós Ligeti, Legal Director at Transparency International Hungary, commented that, “This amendment is the first step down a slippery slope, at the bottom of which is full state control of public information. It heralds a dark age for democratic governance in Hungary. The law will now allow government officials to get away with bias in their actions and could see corruption go unseen and unpunished in future.”

As a result, this organisation, along with public spending watchdog K-Monitor, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and investigative reporting website atlatszo.hu announced that they would stand down from the anti-corruption working group coordinated by the Ministry of Justice in an act of protest against the new statutes which compromise transparency. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union noted the particularly incriminating timing of the decision, saying it's “conspicuous that the amendment was proposed [in parliament] when civil society organizations requested access to the bids in a tender for tobacco retail licenses, which reportedly went to government party loyalists. Voting this [into] law will allow public decision makers to get away with suspected bias and make corruption go unpunished.”

Another aspect of the constitutional amendment which has particularly enraged rights activists is a reform which would make it possible to ban people from "habitually residing in public places". This effectively criminalizes sleeping rough and other forms of seeking shelter in public places. National and international criticisms have emerged against the measure. The European Federation of National Organizations Working with Homeless People commented,
"We are concerned that the Hungarian government has not considered the serious consequences of criminalizing homelessness. This is a cruel and inhumane approach to dealing with people who are in vulnerable situations. The law also jeopardizes an individual's human rights." Those who are found to breach the law will be fined a sum ranging from €17 to €170. Observers have pointed out the dubious logic that underpins a proposal to fine people who have no material possessions. Many have noted that there is a lack of affordable housing in Hungary and that austerity measures have made life for the working classes even more precarious, so homelessness is an increasingly unavoidable aspect of life for society’s most vulnerable.

Another cause for concern is Hungary’s attitude towards ethnic minorities. The anti-Semitic views of the Jobbik party, which trades in highly offensive stereotypes about all minorities, have shocked the international and domestic Jewish community. In November, Jobbik's Marton Gyongyosi urged the authorities to "tally up" the number of Jews in Hungary who pose a "national security risk". "Jobbik has moved from representing medieval superstition [of blood libel] to openly Nazi ideologies," wrote Slomo Koves, chief rabbi of the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation in response. The World Jewish Congress (WJC), which normally takes place in Jerusalem, decided to hold its annual congress in Budapest this year to underscore the increasing volume of anti-Semitic sentiment in Hungary. The government did all it could, many say, to ensure that the congress was welcomed. The police banned a proposed march by Jobbik designed to take place before the WJC meeting. Prime Minister Orban instructed the Minister of Interior to "use all lawful means" to prevent the event and requested the Supreme Court to "examine what legal means Hungary had at its disposal to enforce its Constitution". A trio of right-wing protesters who verbally abused participants in the congress were sentenced to two and three years in jail. In a speech at the opening session, Orban acknowledged that anti-Semitism was on the rise but stated firmly, "Anti-Semitism is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated," adding that his government had a "moral duty to declare zero tolerance on anti-Semitism."

Anti-Jewish feeling is not the only worrying ideological strand in Hungary’s political fabric. Jobbik is not alone in propagating racist views. The Fidesz party has some clear associations with ethnic chauvinism. Zsolt Bayer, one of the party's founders and a close ally of prime minister Viktor Orbán has voiced extremely offensive, if not to say genocidal, views regarding the Roma minority on a number of occasions. At the start of January he stated, "Most Gypsies are not suitable for cohabitation. They are not suitable for being among people. Most are animals, and behave like animals. They shouldn't be tolerated or understood, but stamped out. Animals should not exist”.
Regrettably, these opinions are to some extent part of the political mainstream.

Some have argued that the current concerns about Hungary’s political trajectory have been subject to exaggeration, even hysteria, citing in particular Orban’s speech at the WJC as evidence of his willingness to quash fascistic trends. Others note that it is not the first time that the government of a European member state has held dangerous views. Many recall Jorg Haider in the Austrian administration in 2000. Some are concerned that pessimism as to Hungary’s trajectory will not serve any purpose, and that demonising Orban and the country itself should remain mutually exclusive. What is certain is that whether or not views like this have been held before, they cannot in any way be sanctioned. Orban is leading the country towards a state of political authoritarianism unprecedented in an EU state and its reaction must be proportional to those moves. The climate of hostility towards otherness, ethnic or otherwise, is likewise a dangerous and alarming trend.   

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