The spirit of protest seems to be a dominant theme in Hungarian politics recently: the opposition demonstration held on Oct. 23, which drew 100,000 participants according to organizers, was only its most direct manifestation. In this week’s Hungarian News Digest, more about protests and other possible reasons for being dissatisfied in Hungary.
1. Protest against Appointments at New Theater
A crowd of over one thousand gathered outside of Új Színház (New Theater) on October 22 to protest the appointment of the theater’s new director, György Dörner.
Dörner, an ultra-nationalist far-right sympathizer was appointed to lead the theater by the mayor of Budapest, along with István Csurka, an anti-Semitist writer - in spite of the recommendation of a professional panel. Dörner plans to limit the theater’s repertoire to Hungarian plays (and to commission plays on the 1920 Peace Treaty of Trianon, the history of privatization in Hungary, and the story of ex-prime minister Gyurcsány). Demonstrators demanded a new round of applications for the director’s post, this time to be evaluated by professional standards and considerations for democracy.
2. Hungarian Economy in Worst State Since December 2009
Hungary’s gross total government debt reached 20,626 billion HUF; 2,000 billion more than the deficit at the time of the Fidesz government’s takeover of the country’s economic policy. The 2,000 billion HUF was added to the country’s debt in spite of the central budget’s expropriation of 2700 billion HUF worth of private pension assets last November.
While the Hungarian government still promises to maintain a 1.5% growth for the country in 2012, András Simor, president of the Hungarian central bank projected this number at 1% early in October, and at merely 0.6% a week ago. But foreign analysts currently project that the Hungarian economy is going to contract by 0.5% in 2012.
In the meantime, the country’s currency hit its lowest to the euro since April 2009. Even according to finance minister György Matolcsy, there is a “realisistic” threat of a downgrade by Standard and Poor’s or Moody’s, rating agencies which are to visit Hungary in November. Currently, both agencies grade Hungary’s credit one level above junk bond status for investments.
3. Mandatory Work Project Participants Paid 20-30% of Wages in Gyöngyöspata
Disconcerting details are being reported about Gyöngyöspata’s “model mandatory work project.” Four out of the 40 workers had been fired: for two days, they accepted seasonal work (at three times the wages they would have been paid by the government) and were terminated from the program for non-attendance. One of the consequences of their termination is that they also forfeited their eligibility for unemployment-related social benefits for the next three years.
The remaining workers have had their wages garnished for “public dues.” Most of these debts were incurred as penalties issued for violating various rules of the town. Next to a portion of the sidewalk impassable with a baby carrier, Roma women had been issued tickets for 12, 20 or 50 thousand HUF for pushing their strollers on the street. Another woman whose nine-year-old girl picked up “a twig suitable to serve as a weapon” from the street was fined 25,000 HUF. Most Roma families owe more than 100,000 HUF for similar violations in the town currently under the governance of the far-right.
The Hungarian government introduced a mandatory labor program in which unemployment benefits are earned by physical, non-mechanized agricultural labor this summer – the program currently employs about 4,000, almost all of whom are from the country’s Roma minority. The participants in the program are the only workers in Hungary who are legally paid under the minimum wage (78,000 HUF a month gross, 62,000 net) and, in Gyöngyöspata at least, they are also the only employees who have as much as 70 to 80% of their wages taken out of their earnings.
4. New Parliamentary Party Might Have to Wait Six Months for Recognition
Parliamentary rules might be used to prevent 10 members of the Hungarian parliament to draw upon the operational funds, the time allotment and committee representation normally afforded to other political parties in the legislature.
Last weekend, ex-prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány and nine more representatives of the Hungarian Socialist Party left behind their fellow socialists to found their own “Democratic Coalition” and its parliamentary caucus. The terminology used to describe the party split is important, however, because house rules require MPs who had “exited” their caucus to sit as independents for a minimum of 6 months. The ten MPs therefore prefer to say that they “separated” from the socialist party. The only precedent comparable to their case occurred in 1996, when a group that split from a right-wing party was recognized as a new caucus without the 6-month waiting period.
5. Student Protest Against the Government’s Higher Education Concept
An estimated ten thousand participants attended a demonstration organized by the National Conference of the University Students’ Self-Government (HÖOK) on Thursday of this week. The protesters demanded greater say in the government’s reform of Hungarian higher education. They are opposed in particular to two features of the government’s proposal: to the hidden tuition, and to the government’s plans to forbid them from leaving Hungary for a set number of years after graduation. The demonstrators demanded the resignation of Rózsa Hoffman, the government’s deputy minister for education, and held a symbolic burial of a coffin labeled “Hungarian Higher Education, 1367-2011.”
6. Photographers Should Not Have Been Banned, Ombudsman Says
According to ombudsman András Jóri, László Kövér had no basis for banishing the photographers of Index and Origo from the Hungarian parliament. The president of the Hungarian legislature prohibited access to the photo journalists of the two internet news portals press (and to photographers of the tabloid newspaper Blikk) after they had taken pictures of notes used by prime minister Viktor Orbán in a September speech. The ombudsman concluded that the prime minister’s speech to the parliament is public information, and therefore it was not illegal for the photographers to take a picture of the notes, and for the media organizations to publish these pictures.