Aladár Horváth is a Hungarian Roma rights activist and founder of the Civil Rights Movement for the Republic. He is a former member of the Hungarian Parliament for the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ). In this interview with Lili Bayer, he discusses the challenges facing the Hungarian Roma community and the controversies surrounding the Fidesz government’s new election law.
What are the biggest challenges facing the Roma community in Hungary today?
The biggest challenge is whether we can survive the recession. The recession does not only go hand in hand with poverty and hunger, but also with the growth of fascism. The oppression has created the danger that hundreds of thousands of 40-50 year old Roma die young. They do not have access to food.
Children are born in segregated hospitals all over the country—already at birth we are segregated. This mostly impacts the poorest of Roma, but oftentimes it happens to middle-class Roma as well. The school system is an apartheid system, and brown-skinned people cannot join the workforce, only in rare cases. In winter, there is no access to heating and our homes are in bad condition. People are hungry, children are hungry.
Social support has been reduced dramatically. Fidesz, in the spirit of [far-right party] Jobbik, has introduced policies whereby, if someone refuses to take part in public works projects, or if the local mayor does not like someone, then his or her social benefits can be taken away. In Hungary, 400,000 people are not provided for. Families do not have homes—they sublet, live in the streets, or live in some illegal structure. The consequence is that 50-year old Roma people keep dying.
The big parties in Hungary, including Fidesz and MSZP (the Hungarian Socialist Party), are anti-Roma. the Unfortunately, their members and a significant number of their supporters are racist. This shows in their decisions. This is why a united Roma political organisation is needed, but in such an oppressed and divided community, it is difficult to create unity.
Why do people not protest?
We are not important to them. They say that on racial and social grounds we are a separate, segregatable people. We are unnecessary, a social waste, or an exotic eastern people. What some journalists and television stations are doing is propaganda: they are inciting hatred against us.
Some observers have claimed that the Fidesz government’s new electoral law is discriminatory. How does the law impact Roma?
Twenty years ago the Constitutional Court ruled that minorities should be guaranteed representation in Parliament, but different governments and ruling parties did not implement this. Now Fidesz has a two thirds majority. The Socialists and Free Democrats in the past shied away from this issue, because they believed that the democratic solution would be if each party had Roma members.
Last Christmas Day, Fidesz passed a law which said that nationalities would have to register, and those who declare themselves as members of a nationality would have to vote for a nationality-based [minority] list. These individuals would be able to vote for the local nationality-based self-government and vote for a country-wide, nationality-based list put together by the National Roma Self-Government.
Now, the minorities must choose between their national identity and their [Hungarian]citizenship identity. Those who vote for mainstream parties cannot vote for the minority list, and those vote for the minority list cannot vote for general party lists, so this is definitely problematic. It is a free choice, but the Roma are defenceless and much depends on what happens on the ground and which political force is stronger in each community. This will create a chaotic situation.
If many Roma voters register to vote as Roma, then they will not be casting protest votes or voting out of principle, but rather they will only have one choice —Florian Farkas [the National Roma Self-Government’s candidate affiliated with the Fidesz party]—which strengthens Fidesz’ numeric representation in Parliament.
When do people have to register?
Registration begins in September. We have been vocal so that our people will pay attention. We believe that citizenship identity is more important, and that Roma should vote for party lists. If they do not find a suitable party on the left or right, then we prefer our own party—let there be a Roma party, a united party which would cross the 5% threshold.
There are half a million Roma voters in Hungary. If half of them went to vote, then there could be one parliamentary group—we would cross the 5% threshold.
If people register as Roma in September, can they change their mind in the spring election and vote for a party list?
They left a small loophole in the law. Paragraph 86 C. says, that if you register as a Roma and want to vote for the Roma local self-government, but in the Parliamentary elections insist on voting for a country-wide party list, then you can vote for the party list. So there is a loophole.
The Civil Rights Movement for the Republic recently announced and then cancelled a press conference. Can you shed any light on this?
The press conference unfortunately did not take place, because the Hungarian media was not interested in the fact that we turned to international institutions regarding this issue.
Our concern is that this is a discriminatory law. We wrote a letter on 5 July to the ombudsman—we wanted to bring this issue to the public’s attention—but besides ATV [the only privately-owned opposition TV channel] I don’t have access to any media [in Hungary].
We wrote to the ombudsman and requested that the Constitutional Court review the law, since he has the right to ask for such a review, but he has not answered our letter. We also wrote to the President of Hungary to solve this anomaly or call on the government to amend the law. We did not receive an answer from the President either, but we are confident that Brussels will take the matter more seriously.