Thu, Feb 21, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Hungarian leader Orban bets big on a ‘baby boom’ to provide population boost

AFP, BUDAPEST

A woman pushes a stroller in a public park in the Varosmajor neighborhood of Budapest on Friday last week.

Photo: AFP

Faced with a plummeting population, fiercely anti-immigration Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has come up with an answer sparking yet another controversy: “We need Hungarian children.”

Earlier this month, Orban unveiled a seven-point “family protection action plan” stacked with incentives for young couples to have children.

However, opinion is divided on whether it will have the desired effect — and some critics see disturbing historical echoes in his plan.

The policies announced by Orban include a life-long tax exemption for women who bear four or more children, and more kindergartens.

It also offers lump-sum, 10 million forint (US$35,759) loans for newly-wed women younger than 40, canceled once they have three children.

“This — not immigration — is the response of the Hungarian people,” 55-year-old father-of-five Orban said in a state-of-the-nation speech that was greeted with rapturous applause.

“With 10 million forints, my partner and I can finally think of buying an apartment around here and moving out from my parents’ at last,” said Nora Koszeghy, a 24-year-old teacher outside a supermarket in a Budapest suburb, as her toddler dozed in a stroller.

“We were planning for a brother or sister for Juli. Maybe she can have two or even three now, who knows,” she told reporters.

Supporters of Orban’s seven-point plan — including Hungary’s ambassador to the Vatican — have hailed his family policies as “visionary.”

Pro-government pundits have argued that only such direct action can prop up a population that has been falling since 1981, and which could shrink from its current 9.7 million people to 6 million by 2070, according to a recent report by the Hungarian Central Statistical Office (KSH).

Orban’s national-conservative government, in power since 2010, has said that no EU member has been spending more on family support, and it insists its approach has already borne fruit.

Incentivized by tax breaks and a subsidized housing scheme for young married couples, marriage rates have been rising since 2010, with abortion and divorce declining.

Hungary’s fertility rate, the lowest in the EU at about 1.25 children per woman in 2010, has risen to near the bloc’s average of 1.6, according to figures published by Eurostat.

Orban’s government has set a 2030 target of 2.1, the rate needed to halt population decline.

However, some statisticians remain skeptical that in the long run the government’s measures will shift a stubbornly low birthrate.

“The uptick in fertility was also due to the end of the economic crisis,” said one expert at the KSH, who asked not to be named. “Bigger problems are high emigration — over a half-million since 2010 — and, crucially, the falling number of women of childbearing age.”

With men not explicitly mentioned among the seven points, some women also fear that the measures will simply add to pressure on them from a deeply conservative society to have children.

The 10 million forint loan would have to be paid back with interest if no babies arrive, an official said when pressed on the plan’s small print.

Meme creators on Hungarian social media have even caught a whiff of the hit TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of the US ruled by a misogynistic theocracy.

“I don’t want to give birth for Viktor Orban,” 35-year-old financial journalist Sarolta Szekely told reporters.

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