THE ELECTIONS of April 11 and 25 significantly changed the face of Hungarian politics and economy. With 263 seats (over two thirds of a total of 386) in parliament, Viktor Orbán's right-wing party Fidesz ended eight years of rule by the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). Two major parties of the 1989 change of regime, liberal SZDSZ and conservative MDF virtually disappeared. The extreme right made its entrance into parliament, with the Jobbik party gaining 47 seats, a close third-runner to MSZP's 59. Fidesz's sweep to power in 22 of 23 major cities in October's local elections and the parliament's election to the presidency of one-time Fidesz deputy president Pál Schmitt confirmed the rightward shift in Hungarian politics.
Significant policy developments are notable in two major areas. An early law passed in May by the new parliament will, from next January, ease restrictions for ethnic Hungarians wanting to apply for citizenship, a step which could affect the approximately 2.5 million Hungarians living in Slovakia, Croatia, or Romania. Numbers of applicants are estimated by the government at between 250,000 and 400,000 in the first year.
According to the latest constitutional draft released on December 1, the new government seems likely to grant voting rights to the new citizens without residence requirements.
A second major series of developments concerns economic policy and has deep and continuing ramifications for constitutional order.
The Hungarian government's response to pressures from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union and investors for addressing its serious economic problems has so far been to privilege taxation on businesses and banks over implementing an austerity plan. Its commitment to these policies has led the Orbán government to introduce some fundamental changes in the purview of the Constitutional Council and other economic oversight bodies in order to prevent these institutions from blocking the new taxes.
The introduction of the tax schemes, which particularly hit foreign investors, and the quasi-nationalisation of the pension scheme show a particular statist brand of right-wing politics which emphasises the idea of national solidarity and power.
Moves in the fields of culture and society also point to efforts of the Hungarian government to rewrite “the large book of the Hungarian nation” by strengthening patriotic feelings.
Family-friendly policies and the extension of citizenship rights to those Hungarians beyond borders both strive towards halting the decrease in the Hungarian population, which recently fell below the symbolic level of 10 million.
The new constitution is expected to signal in its preamble a return to a moral order based on stronger religious values and references to Hungary's Christian heritage, although the last available draft does not indicate a radical overhaul of the constitutional system.
Despite a marked nationalist strain in governmental policies, it is noteworthy that the issue of the Roma minority has been largely taken off the front of the political scene in an effort to downplay one of the extreme right's main winning issues.
Hungary's move to extend citizenship to ethnic Hungarians beyond its borders has brought renewed intensity to the ongoing tension between Slovakia and its southern neighbour over ethnic minorities and historical territorial rights. Slovakia heightened the stakes by voting to amend its own citizenship law, in effect stripping anyone of their Slovak citizenship if they apply for Hungarian citizenship.
Preparations for the Hungarian presidency of the EU in the first half of 2011 and the desire of the new government to take a leading role in the region have led to smoother relations with a number of countries of the western Balkans.
The Hungarian government sees it as its duty to help the accession of these countries to the European Union, particularly in the case of Croatia, due to close most of its negotiation chapters in 2011.
Similarly, after decades of poor relations with Romania, Hungary has come out in favour of Romania's inclusion, along with that of Bulgaria, in the EU's Schengen area, which would allow citizens of both countries borderless travel to other parts of the EU. Beyond the question of solidarity with other new EU member states, self interest also plays a role in determining Hungary's position: widening the Schengen area would remove much of the burden of border-keeping from Hungarian shoulders as well as going some way towards reuniting the large Hungarian minority living in Romania with the home country.
The new Hungarian government renewed its pledges for cooperation on energy security, environmental protection and economic cooperation at a July summit of the Visegrad Group, the alliance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, set up in 1991 to cooperate on a number of issues of common interests. Yet it is not clear that Visegrad cooperation is still a priority. Clear efforts to strengthen relations with Romania and the western Balkans could signify a diminished interest on the Hungarian side for cooperation in the V4.
Bénédicte Williams is a writer at the Budapest Times.
The piece is part of the Visegrad Countries - Facing New Challenges, prepared by The Slovak Spectator with the support of the International Visegrad Fund. For more information on cooperation between the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia please see the following document.
13. Dec 2010 at 0:00 | Bénédicte Williams