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

AFP, BUDAPEST

Thu, Feb 21, 2019 - Page 7

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.

“A child is not just a question of money,” said Szekely, who is currently single, but would like to have children one day. “Good education and healthcare, and earning enough to raise a child are more important factors than keeping a lump sum if I meet a quota.”

“That’s not family protection — that’s a production program,” she said.

Social scientists are concerned that poor people — including those belonging to the impoverished Roma ethnic minority who make up about 7 to 10 percent of the population — do not have the stable jobs or spare cash needed to apply for the credit.

The measures mostly benefit middle and higher-income earners, Hungarian Academy of Sciences sociologist Dorottya Szikra said.

“Increasing child support payments — unchanged for 10 years — or providing more social housing would benefit more families,” she told reporters.

While the results of the new “baby boom” plan would only be visible over the long term, polls have suggested at least a short-term bounce for Orban.

That is welcome news for his Fidesz party, which has seen a dip in support over controversial labor reforms that triggered a wave of street protests.