Democracy Digest: Czechia and Slovakia’s Shared Western Course Exposes Rifts in V4

 Democracy Digest: Czechia and Slovakia’s Shared Western Course Exposes Rifts in V4

Orban starts campaign by capping food prices; handball tournament goes ahead

A crucial election year in Hungary got off to blistering start this week when Hungarian President Janos Ader set the date of the parliamentary election for April 3.

Around 8 million Hungarians are eligible to vote in a one-round election, each casting two votes: one for a local MP candidate, another for a party list. The election is expected to be tight: Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose nationalist-conservative Fidesz has been in power for 12 years, will face United for Hungary, a motley alliance of six parties that groups socialists, liberals, centrists, greens and the former extreme-right under one banner, led by a conservative mayor Peter Marki-Zay.

Besides the parliamentary election, a national referendum will be organised for the same day to approve the government’s new anti-LGBT law, which seeks to legislate over sex education programs in schools, the availability of information for children on gender reassignment, and the “promotion and portrayal” of homosexuality in the media.

Although the official election campaign doesn’t start until February 12, Hungary is already in full campaign mode. Prime Minister Orban, clearly worried about the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, announced on Facebook that the government will cap the prices of six basic food items – sugar, milk, flour, mineral oil, pork leg and chicken breast – to tackle inflation. The prices of these items should be reduced to October 2021 levels and kept there, the prime minister said.

This latest move follows the government’s decision to introduce price caps for petrol and diesel in November in order to help households manage the spiking prices. Utility prices – electricity and gas – have been regulated in Hungary since 2013, making some people wonder whether the country is on a path back to communism.

Similar to the fuel price regulation, Gergely Gulyas, the minister who heads the prime minister’s office, said at his weekly press briefing that traders would not be compensated for any losses. “It should be part of the burden sharing,” he sniffed.

Orban’s major concern is rampant inflation running at 7.5 per cent by the year’s end, with basic food prices increasing by 12-15 per cent, according to G7, an economic news site. The price increases were especially noticeable during the last two months of 2021. The government is afraid that even though it is trying to lure voters with an unparalleled spending spree, like tax breaks or an extra month of pension, inflation will eat up most of the benefits.

Opposition leader Peter Marki-Zay said the government’s capping of prices is actually an admission that the economy is in a dire state. He promised, if elected, a sharp cut in what is Europe’s highest VAT rate (27 per cent), down to 5 per cent for basic foodstuffs.

Elsewhere, some COVID-related controversies erupted this week that have put the government under pressure. Istvan Ujhelyi, a Socialist MEP, found out that Hungary had received around 900 million forints (2.5 million euros) from the EU to finance COVID-19 testing efforts for Hungarians, as well as about 500,000 rapid antigen tests. However, there is no trace of either.

Rapid antigen and PCR tests are expensive in Hungary, in contrast to wealthier Western countries where it is either provided free or at a reduced cost, as a way to encourage citizens to undergo frequent testing to avoid spreading the virus. In Hungary, an average rapid test – if even available in a pharmacy – costs around 10 euros and a PCR test ranges from 36 to 53 euros, making many Hungarians think twice about testing themselves, even if they are experiencing symptoms.

Ujhelyi asked the Hungarian government where the money went and why testing is not free in Hungary, but has so far received no response.

Minister Gulyas said the government is not contemplating the introduction of free testing because “this is not a solution” to the pandemic, but it will start allowing a fourth booster jab in due course.

Hungary this week also continued its relaxed attitude to sporting competitions amidst the pandemic by jointly hosting with Slovakia the 2022 European Men’s Handball Championship.

Just like in the summer when it hosted a series of games for the UEFA European Football Championship, Hungary is allowing its venue – the just-completed futuristic 20,000-seat-facility costing over 100 billion forints, which is Europe’s largest handball arena – to operate at full capacity.

Fans with a vaccination certificate or negative PCR test are welcome, the only restriction is that they have to wear masks inside. But several teams – the French, Serbs and Montenegrins – have criticised the Hungarian organisers for putting their players up in hotels where they have had to share common areas with regular guests wearing no masks and not abiding by strict epidemiological rules. Some are also questioning whether it makes sense to organise a European competition at a time when players can easily be dropped due to last-minute infections.

Tim Gosling

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