Dog whistle racism from Hungary’s deputy prime minister

Zsolt Semjén, Hungary’s Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), was asked to comment on an idea that only those who pay taxes should be permitted to vote in elections. The hypothetical scenario was recently raised by Publicus, a major national polling firm, when respondents in a representative poll were asked about whether only those who pay income tax in Hungary should be given voting rights. Fully 78% of Hungarians agree that only those should vote in Hungarian elections who actually pay taxes in Hungary. The question and sentiment is connected to the fact that thanks to legislation introduced by the Fidesz government, Hungarians living in neighbouring countries and those who live in the distant diaspora, are given not only citizenship, but also voting rights, even though they do not have to bear the actual consequences of their vote. In the 2014 elections, some 95% of ethnic Hungarians living abroad and voting in national elections cast a ballot for the ruling Fidesz party, which also explains why the government is looking to expand this base of voters ahead of elections in April 2018.

When Mr. Semjén was asked to comment on the results of this poll, he became irate and said:

“Speaking in a politically correct manner, I could point to a people, more appropriately specific groups in Hungary, that have never paid a fillér in taxes their whole life. Yet it would be absurd to suggest that they should not vote.”

Mr. Semjén then added that voting rights cannot be tied to one’s tax obligations. And in this, he is absolutely correct. But his reference to being grudgingly PC and then his talk about a specific people in Hungary reads as dog whistle racism. Anyone with knowledge of Hungarian political discourse knows that in this case Mr. Semjén was likely making a thinly veiled reference to the Roma minority. The Roma form an estimated 10% of Hungary’s population. Accurate statistics on the Roma, especially broken down to employment figures, are notoriously hard to come by. But national census data from 2011, which heavily underestimates the country’s total Roma population, suggests:

  • There are only 50,608 Romani who are gainfully employed (in statistics that almost certainly under-report the size of the Roma community in Hungary as being only 315,583, or just over 3% of the country’s population.
  • Of those who are employed, 22,832 are unskilled labourers.
  • Only 591 Romani occupy executive or leadership positions in the public, private or NGO sectors.
  • Merely 3,913 Romani are employed in mid-level positions that require higher education.

Zsolt Semjén. Photo:

One of Semjén’s allies, Lajos Kósa, the leader of the Fidesz caucus in parliament, quickly intervened: he claimed that Mr. Semjén was thinking of university students and dependents. Mr. Kósa conceded that referring to a people (or népcsoport, in Hungarian) was simply a slip of the tongue.

Readers of Hungary news site, where the story first appeared, however, had their own ideas about who would fit Mr. Semjén’s description of a people or group who does not pay taxes.

“Of course there is such a group: they are called politicians,” quipped one reader, while another made specific reference to millionaire court historian and Fidesz supporter Mária Schmidt and the billionaire Fidesz mayor of Viktor Orbán’s tiny hometown, Lőrinc Mészáros, as people who may find a way to evade full taxation. Another reader suggested that perhaps the Christian Democratic politician was thinking of Fidesz oligarch, media mogul and film director Andy Vajna.

One reader, however, really hit the nail on the head. The poorest, most marginalized demographic groups in Hungary are often most negatively impacted by taxation, namely by Hungary’s very high goods and services tax, called ÁFA, which is often above 25%. While the wealthy may benefit from the country’s low 16% flat income tax, those on the margins are negatively impacted by astronomical goods and services tax everyday purchases.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *