FACTBOX – What has changed in Hungary during Orban’s 12-year rule

FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives to attend an informal summit of EU leaders at the Chateau de Versailles (Versailles Palace) in Versailles
FILE PHOTO: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives to attend an informal summit of EU leaders at the Chateau de Versailles (Versailles Palace) in Versailles, near Paris, France March 11, 2022. REUTERS/Sarah Meyssonnier/File Photo

March 31, 2022

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party face their first closely-contested election on April 3 after three consecutive landslide victories since 2010.

During his 12-year rule Orban has faced international criticism over democratic standards, media freedom and minority rights.

Following is an overview of his top policies.

CONTROL OVER THE MEDIA

Orban has transformed Hungary’s media landscape, which has led to accusations of curbing media freedoms from the European Union and pro-democracy groups, a charge his government denies.

His government tightened its grip over state media, including broadcast media, turning them it into a pro-government mouthpiece, critics say.

Advertising money channelled to pro-government outlets has helped create more loyal media coverage in the private media, while several private media outlets have been shut or taken over by government-friendly owners. In 2021, Hungary ranked 92th on the World Press Freedom Index, down from 56th in 2013.

CHECKS AND BALANCES

Armed with Fidesz’ two-thirds majority, Orban passed a new constitution in 2011 and changed hundreds of laws.

During its first term, Fidesz made hundreds of judges retire under laws the EU said violated its rules. Hungary’s Constitutional Court later annulled parts of that law.

Critics say new electoral rules have helped cement Fidesz’ power by favouring large parties, redrawing electoral districts and granting the right to vote to ethnic Hungarians across central Europe, most of whom tend to support Orban.

Orban loyalists are also in charge of key institutions, including the chief prosecutor and the head of the media authority.

ECONOMY

Under Orban’s rule, Hungary repaid in 2013 all outstanding debt owed to the International Monetary Fund following a bailout during the global financial crisis and its debt regained investment grade status three years later.

His government reined in fiscal deficits and public debt until the coronavirus pandemic reversed the trend, with Orban’s pre-election spending spree in 2021 and this year widening the shortfall further.

Europe’s highest tax on banks, nationalisation of some private pension funds and a tax on telecoms, energy and retail companies, most of them foreign-owned, helped bolster government finaces but led to clashes with Brussels.

With businessmen close to Fidesz acquiring large chunks of these strategic sectors, Hungarian ownership increased, with Orban saying earlier this year banking, media and energy sectors became majority Hungarian-owned.

IMMIGRATION

Hungary built a fence on its southern border after the 2015 migration crisis and imposed some of Europe’s toughest asylum rules. Rejecting immigration as a solution to Hungary’s demographic decline, Orban pledged to boost birth rates with the help of family-friendly taxation instead. The tax incentives have fuelled a housing boom and surging home prices.

CURBS ON ACADEMIC FREEDOMS AND NGOs

Orban’s government has cracked down on some non-governmental organizations and tightened controls over academic institutions.

As a result, Open Society Foundations, founded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, shut its Budapest office in 2018 and moved to Berlin, while a leading liberal school, the Central European University, moved to Vienna in 2019.

ENTRENCHED CHRISTIAN VALUES

Orban has cast himself as a defender of Hungary’s cultural identity against Muslim immigration and a protector of Christian values against a so-called “gender and LGBT ideology” and Western liberalism.

Over the past 12 years, the government has redefined marriage as the union between one man and one woman in the constitution, and limited gay adoption and transgender rights.

In June 2021 parliament passed a law banning from schools materials seen as promoting homosexuality and gender change, which drew criticism from the EU and rights groups who argued that it stigmatized the LGBTQ community.

EAST AND WEST

Under Orban, the EU and NATO member has pursued an “Eastern opening” to Russia and China and he has advocated Moscow’s interests within the EU.

He condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 and supported EU sanctions against Moscow, but he has avoided personal criticism of Putin and strongly opposes banning Russian energy shipments saying that would wreck the economy.

(Reporting by Anita Komuves; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)