Hungary: A Democratic Hungary

A Democratic Hungary

By 1990, a multiparty political system with free elections had been established; legislation was passed granting new political and economic reforms such as a free press, freedom of assembly, and the right to own a private business. The new prime minister, József Antall, a member of the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum who was elected in 1990, vowed to continue the drive toward a free-market economy. The same year Árpád Göncz was elected president of Hungary.

The government embarked on the privatization of Hungary's state enterprises, and the Soviet military presence in Hungary ended in the summer of 1991. Antall died in 1993 and was succeeded as prime minister by Péter Boross. Parliamentary elections in 1994 returned the Socialists (former Communists) to power. They formed a coalition government with the liberal Free Democrats, and Socialist leader Gyula Horn became prime minister. President Göncz was reelected in 1995.

In 1998, Viktor Orbán of the conservative Fidesz–Hungarian Civic Union became prime minister as head of a coalition government. Hungary became a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999. Ference Mádl succeeded Göncz as president in Aug., 2000. A 2001 law giving ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries (but not worldwide) social and economic rights in Hungary was criticized by Romania and Slovakia as an unacceptable extraterritorial exercise of power. The following year, negotiations with Romania extended the rights to all Romanian citizens, and in 2003 the benefits under the law were reduced. The 2002 elections brought the Socialists and the allies, the Free Democrats, back into power; former finance minister Péter Medgyessy became prime minister.

In August, 2004, Medgyssey fired several cabinet members, angering the Free Democrats and leading the Socialists to replace him. The following month Ferenc Gyurcsány, the sports minister, became prime minister. Hungary became a member of the European Union earlier in the year. A Dec., 2004, referendum on granting citizenship to ethnic Hungarians in other countries passed, but it was not legally binding because less than 25% of the Hungarian electorate voted for it. László Sólyom was elected president of Hungary in June, 2005. In Apr., 2006, Gyurcsány's Socialist-led coalition won a majority of seats in the parliamentary elections, marking the first time a government had won a second consecutive term in office since the establishment of free elections in 1990.

In September, however, the prime minister suffered a setback when a recording of a May, 2006, Socialist party meeting was leaked and he was heard criticizing the government's past performance and saying that the party had lied to win the 2006 election. The tape sparked opposition demonstrations and riots, which were encouraged by the opposition Fidesz, and led to calls for the government to resign. Gyurcsány apologized for not having campaigned honestly, and the coalition was trounced in local elections in early October, but he retained the support of his parliamentary coalition and the government remained in power.

In Apr., 2008, the Alliance of Free Democrats left the governing coalition, and the Socialists formed a minority government. The 2008 global financial crisis led to a sharp drop in the value of the Hungarian currency in October, forcing Hungary to seek a €20 billion rescue package. Economic woes forced the increasingly unpopular prime minister to resign, and Gordon Bajnai, the economy minister, succeeded Gyurcsány in Apr., 2009.

In parliamentary elections a year later, Orbán and Fidesz defeated the Socialists in a landslide, winning more than two thirds of the seats, but the voting also produced a surge for the far right Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), which appealed to anti-Semitic and anti-Romani sentiments and won nearly 17% of the vote in the first round. Fidesz subsequently passed a law enabling ethnic Hungarians in Central Europe to more easily acquire Hungarian citizenship; the legislation provoked Slovakia, which passed a bill that would generally strip Slovakian citizenship from Hungarians who did so. The government also reduced the powers of the constitutional court, ending its right to rule on budget matters; forced the nationalization of pension plans to cut the budget deficit; and enacted a media law that was denounced as stifling free expression and drew criticism from the European Union. Other measures adopted to avoid the austerities used elsewhere in the EU to combat recession-induced government deficits included higher taxes on economic sectors dominated by foreign firms.

In June, 2010, Pál Schmitt, the speaker of the National Assembly and a member of Fidesz, was elected to succeed Sólyom as Hungarian president. The failure of an alumina plant sludge pond in Oct., 2010, resulted in an ecological disaster in W Hungary that covered 6 villages and 16 sq mi (40 sq km) with toxic mud and also poisoned local rivers. A new constitution, enacted by Fidesz in Apr., 2011, and effective in 2012, was criticized in a number of quarters for attempting to bind future Hungarian governments to Fidesz's conservative political program. It also allowed ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries to receive citizenship; many of them subsequently voted for Fidesz. By late 2011, legal changes that reduced the independence of the central bank had led to conflict with the European Union and International Monetary Fund.

Schmitt resigned as president in Apr., 2012, after it was discovered that he had plagiarized parts of his doctoral thesis. János Áder, a member of Fidesz and former National Assembly speaker, was elected to succeed Schmitt in May. In Jan., 2013, the constitutional court struck down a new election law that had been passed in late 2012; the court ruled that the law unjustifiably restricted voter rights. The opposition had criticized the law as intentionally designed to favor Fidesz. The appointment in Mar., 2013, of a new governor for the central bank gave Orbán greater influence over the bank, and the bank subsequently adopted economic stimulus measures. In September the parliament approved a number of constitutional amendments that partially reversed provisions that had been criticized by the European Union.

The Apr., 2014, parliamentary elections gave Orbán and Fidesz a new term in power; the party won 45% of the vote and two thirds of the seats (Fidesz lost its two thirds majority in 2015 after a by-election loss). Jobbik won 21% of the vote which, though less than the share of the Socialist-led coalition (25%), placed it second among all the parties. In the second half of 2015 a flood of mainly Middle Eastern and African refugees and migrants seeking to reach N and W Europe crossed into Hungary from the Balkans, leading Hungary, which denounced the refugees as a threat to its security, to close its southern borders and use riot control measures to deter them. The foreign migrant issue continued to be politically divisive in subsequent months. An Oct., 2016, referendum opposing mandatory national migrant resettlement quotas by the EU passed decisively, but it failed to get the 50% turnout required for it to be valid.

In 2015 and 2016 wealthy supporters of Orbán acquired control of a number of formerly independent private media companies; Orbán publicly encouraged Fidesz supporters to invest in media outlets. President Áder was reelected in Mar., 2017. Legislation that was designed to force the closure of the independent Central European Univ., enacted in 2017, was widely denounced, and later (2020) declared contrary to EU law; the university, founded by George Soros, whom Orbán has vilified and demonized for his support for liberal democracy, decided in 2018 to move its main campus to Vienna in 2019.

For the Apr., 2018, parliamentary elections, Orbán and Fidesz campaigned on strident anti-immigrant platform, and the party two-thirds of the seats in parliament (and 49% of the vote); Jobbik, which had moderated its positions, placed second with 19% of the vote. European observers said the campaign was marred by progovernment media bias and the use of public funds to support Fidesz. In Nov., 2018, Hungary controversially gave former North Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who had fled a prison sentence for corruption, political asylum and later (2019) refused to extradite him.

Fidesz control over the media was solidified in late 2018 with the consolidation of progovernment outlets under one foundation that was exempted from competition rules, a move that was reflective of Fidesz's influence over many aspects of the private economy. European criticism of Fidesz's policies resulted in 2019 in the party's suspension from the multicountry European People's party. In Mar., 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Orbán secured the right to rule by decree indefinitely. Although the powers were revoked in June, Orbán secured the right to declare a state of emergency in a medical crisis in the future; left in place were many of the measures he decreed, which largely had little to do with the pandemic (many served to undermine the opposition). Measures enacted in Dec., 2020, further increased government power and reduced public oversight.

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