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Against the Tide: Fidesz & Public Administration
Source: The Budapest Times
Source Date: Monday, October 04, 2010
Focus: Knowledge Management in Government
Country: Hungary
Created: Oct 07, 2010

Reaching out from Budapest

Fidesz’s policy on local governments has for a long time been characterised by a historical commitment to strengthening the county system and a significantly more centralised public administration system. Parliament, which formed in May, has passed several amendments to Acts and government decrees that move public administration in the direction of greater centralisation.

In July 2010 a government decree on the public administration offices in Budapest and the counties ordered the creation of new county government offices and regional public administration bodies. However, the county offices, which have taken over several tasks that were traditionally the preserve of local government, give the impression of being the “extended hand” of the government rather than the chief promoters of local interests.

The tasks of the public administration office will include coordination, supervisory and IT tasks. It will have powers to give an opinion on the appointment of the leaders of the regional bodies subordinate to the government.

Getting the slip

The law on local government representatives and mayors has also undergone significant changes. The legislative amendment increasing the number of recommendation slips needed to run in elections and reducing the time allowed to do so has made life impossible for the candidates of small parties and civil organisations, and likely benefited Fidesz in local government elections.

On the other hand legislation passed to return collection of the industrial tax to the local governments is an important step because it can bolster their economic independence despite the general move towards greater centralisation.

Alternatives lacking

The opposition parties hold views that differ greatly from those of the government but that does not mean there is consensus among the opposition either. The Politics Can Be Different (LMP) party and Jobbik have expressed concern about the changes to the election law but neither party has made a concrete counter-proposal. There are other points of friction: the LMP advocates the principle of subsidiarity as opposed to centralisation, while the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) would like to emphasise the regions rather than the counties.

Fidesz has been tactically clever: both the party’s candidate for Budapest city mayor, István Tarlós, and mayor of Debrecen, Lajos Kósa, who stood for re-election, have called for cooperation and recommended ways of changing the system, to which so far there has been no response. That allows Fidesz to gain public legitimacy for the plans, which in any case it can easily push through parliament thanks to its supermajority.

Continental models

International models cannot be ignored before comprehensive reform so it is worth mentioning some distinctive features that might be taken into account during the overhaul. The three basic continental models are similar in terms of tasks but the amount of power at each level differs from country to country. The greatest difference is in the extent of state financial support.

France can be regarded as exemplary of the Mediterranean model. It has a strongly centralised five-level public administration system, where tasks and powers are divided between the levels in such a way that no individual level can become an autonomous actor. A third of their budget comes from the state and two-thirds from taxes.

The Scandinavian model is essentially based on the Swedish local government system. The state performs only “national” functions while the whole public administration system is subordinate to the autonomous local governments, which are responsible for public issues in the general interest of citizens.

The third type is the German model, which combines the two types outlined above. The best illustration is Holland. The local governments are not autonomous but they have significant room for manoeuvre. The system does not distinguish between small and large settlements: they can govern themselves but “in exchange” local autonomy is curtailed by the mayors being appointed by the government.

Centralisation favoured

We can conclude that the public administration model envisaged by Fidesz is closest to the French and Dutch models. The party would like to establish a supervisory administrative body by giving new tasks to the counties and creating a hierarchy between the levels. Although it is difficult to say which model is best, it gives food for thought that the government’s intention of creating a strongly centralised system is at odds with European Union policy in favour of decentralising public administration.
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