Hungary's Orban scraps Internet tax after demos

Hungary's Orban scraps Internet tax after demos

BUDAPEST - Agence France-Presse
Hungarys Orban scraps Internet tax after demos

Thousands of Hungarians march across the Elisabeth Bridge during a protest against new tax on Internet data transfers, in central Budapest, Oct. 28. REUTERS Photo

Hungary's prime minister on Oct. 31 scrapped plans to introduce an Internet tax that had sparked major demonstrations and further concerns about civil liberties in the central European EU member state.

Proposed changes to the tax code that would have imposed a new levy on online data transfers "cannot be introduced in its current form," the right-wing Viktor Orban, 51, said in a morning radio interview.

He said that the legislation, which was to have been voted on in parliament November 17, would be amended and that a "national consultation" on the Internet and taxes would be organised in January.

"Nothing can be introduced in these circumstances," he said.        

The proposed Internet tax was seen by Orban critics as the latest step to silence dissent, particularly since Hungarians have to go mostly online to find news that doesn't toe the government line.

On Sunday more than 20,000 people took part in a demonstration against the measure in Budapest, and two days later more than 50,000 took to the streets. There were also protests in other towns and cities.

The European Union has also criticised the proposed legislation, with a spokesman for EU digital commissioner Neelie Kroes calling it a "particularly bad idea" and "part of that pattern of actions which have limited freedoms" in Hungary.

On Oct. 31 Kroes said in a statement she was "very pleased" that it had been withdrawn.

"I'm proud the European Commission played a positive role in defending European values and a digital Europe," she said.

Since Orban swept to power in 2010 - he was re-elected this April, again with a two-thirds parliamentary majority - he has been accused of eroding democratic norms in the former Communist central European country.

Opponents at home and abroad say Orban has weakened the judiciary, muzzled the media and tweaked the electoral system in his favour.        

In recent months foreign-funded non-government organisations have been raided for alleged financial irregularities.

U.S. President Barack Obama in September singled out Hungary, together with military-ruled Egypt, as places where "endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society".
With Hungary's main political opposition divided and weak, analysts say that the protests show that within society, Orban has less support than his crushing victories in parliamentary, European and local elections this year would suggest.

The backtracking was unusual for Orban, experts say, as he has only done so on minor issues in the past and mostly to mollify critics abroad such as in Brussels or the European Central Bank.

"The retreat means Orban's Fidesz (party) realised that they can face bigger losses if they continue to walk down the path of introducing the tax," Kornelia Magyar of the Hungarian Progressive Institute told AFP. But she expects more battles.        

"The fact that Orban called for national consultations seems to suggest that this is not a definitive retreat," she added.

Protest organisers said meanwhile on Facebook on Oct. 31 that they planned to hold a "celebratory" demonstration in the evening.

"Let's make it clear, it was the Hungarian people's victory over inept governance. Let's show in masses that we have won, that Orban should not play tricks and restricting information freedom should not even cross his mind," they said.

"We have won, and winning should be celebrated."