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Freedom in the World 2011 - Hungary

Publisher Freedom House
Publication Date 5 July 2011
Cite as Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2011 - Hungary, 5 July 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e12dd9532.html [accessed 24 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Capital: Budapest
Population: 10,024,000

Political Rights Score: 1 *
Civil Liberties Score: 1 *
Status: Free

Trend Arrow ↓

Hungary received a downward trend arrow due to the government's efforts to consolidate control over the country's independent institutions, including the creation of a new media council dominated by the ruling party that has the ability to impose large fines on broadcast, print, and online media outlets.

Overview

In April 2010 parliamentary elections, the conservative Alliance of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz) and its junior partner, the Christian Democratic People's Party, won a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. The resulting government, headed by Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán, passed a series of laws that consolidated its control over the media and other institutions. The country continued to face serious economic hardship, and fiscal negotiations with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union broke down in July.

Hungary achieved full independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I, though it lost large portions of its previous territory. Soviet occupation after World War II led to communist rule, and Soviet troops crushed an uprising by Hungarians seeking to liberalize the political and economic system in 1956. However, in the late 1980s, the ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party came 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 2006, 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.

The governing parties' loss of public support was confirmed in the April 2010 parliamentary elections, in which 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, took 16. 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. In October local elections, the Fidesz-KDNP bloc carried 22 out of 23 major cities and all 19 county assemblies.

The new government used its dominance of the legislature to increase its control over other institutions during the year. Among other steps, it installed a Fidesz loyalist as president in August, passed a series of laws that threatened to establish political control over media content, and curtailed the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court over budgetary matters in November, after the court attempted to block a retroactive tax law.

The government's discussions with its main creditors, the International Monetary Fund and the EU, collapsed in July after it refused to adhere to their prescribed budget cuts, leaving it without access to the remainder of its 2008 emergency loan. In December, the government pushed through legislation that effectively nationalized the assets in the country's system of compulsory private pension funds, allowing it to temporarily ease public debt problems.

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. Elections in Hungary have been generally free and fair since the end of communist rule.

The main political parties have historically been the center-left MSzP and the conservative Fidesz. However, the MSzP was seriously weakened in the April 2010 elections, leaving the new Fidesz government with little parliamentary opposition.

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 country lacks a comprehensive anticorruption policy, and a number of regional organizations noted in 2010 that corruption seemed to be on the rise. In November, the Fidesz government announced plans to disband the independent Fiscal Council, which is responsible for overseeing budgetary policy. Former MSzP politician János Zuschlag was sentenced in March to eight and a half years in prison for embezzling $356,800 in state funds, and a special commissioner appointed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán investigated a number of cases of alleged corruption by officials from previous governments. A law providing whistleblower protections took effect in April. Hungary was ranked 50 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of speech is generally respected, and independent media operate freely. However, Orbán's government in June 2010 amended a February law that had criminalized Holocaust denial, effectively replacing it with a more general ban on denial of the crimes of both the Nazis and Hungary's communist regime. The offense carries penalties of up to three years in prison. Also in June, the Fidesz government announced a package of media legislation that, after passing through the parliament over the subsequent months, threatened to tighten government control over print, broadcast, and online media. The overhaul merged existing regulatory bodies into a single entity, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), and created a Media Council under the NMHH that would have the power to impose fines of up to $950,000 on outlets for violations of vaguely defined content rules. Media outlets must register with the NMHH, which can revoke licenses for infractions. 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. Fidesz also removed an article from Hungary's constitution that banned media monopolies. While foreign ownership of Hungarian media is extensive, domestic ownership is highly concentrated in the hands of Fidesz allies. In November, the government passed a law that will force journalists to reveal their sources for articles concerning national security or public safety issues.

The constitution guarantees religious freedom and provides for the separation of church and state. While adherents of all religions are generally free to worship, the state provides financial support to four "historical" religious groups: the Roman Catholic Church, the Calvinist Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Communities. The state generally does not restrict academic freedom.

The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government typically 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.

Hungary has an independent judiciary. Courts are generally fair, but the judiciary has in recent years faced criticism for lax regulations on judges' asset statements and conflicts of interest. Significant progress had been made in bringing the system up to EU standards, though case processing remains slow and transparency is weak. In October 2010, the Constitutional Court rejected a government-backed law imposing a 98 percent retroactive tax on public-sector severance payments exceeding 2 million forints ($10,200). The government responded in November by amending the constitution to curtail the court's jurisdiction over budgetary and taxation matters and passing the tax law a second time.

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. A total of nine Roma were murdered in apparent hate crimes in 2009 and 2010, and the government has faced international criticism for failing to respond adequately. The authorities took a full year to charge four men arrested in August 2009 for a string of murders and other violence against Roma that began in July 2008, and their cases had not gone to trial by the end of 2010.

The Constitutional Court in April 2010 postponed implementation of a new civil code passed in 2009 that banned plenary guardianship for the disabled and granted them more independence. A lawmaker had petitioned the court, arguing that more time was needed to prepare for the new rules to take effect.

Same-sex couples can legally register their partnerships. However, homosexuals remain a target of discrimination and occasional violence. 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. An October 2010 UN Human Rights Committee report criticized Hungary for its failure to adopt adequate legislation outlawing domestic abuse and spousal rape. Hungary remains a transit point, source, and destination for trafficked persons, including women trafficked for prostitution.

* Countries are ranked on a scale of 1-7, with 1 representing the highest level of freedom and 7 representing the lowest level of freedom.

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