In the shadow of the coronavirus outbreak, on Monday, the governing alliance voted in an amendment to the law on theaters that takes away control over the state-funded theaters from the local councils and puts it in the hands of government officials in charge of cultural affairs.
Under the bill, presented by deputy PM Zsolt Semjén, in the case of those theaters that are owned and maintained by the capital, but entirely funded by the central budget, the minister in charge of cultural affairs (that is the Minister of Human Resources, Miklós Kásler) would be given the employer’s rights, which means the authority to appoint or dismiss a theater’s leaders, identify conflicts of interest, launch disciplinary proceedings, and impose penalties.
According to the official justification, the bill would serve to eliminate disparities in the operation of locally-run theaters whose annual operating budgets are funded entirely by the state, by handing the minister in charge of culture basic employer rights over the head of the theater.
This, however, of course drew contorversies as many view it as yet another step of the government to expand greater control over theaters, hinder artistic freedom, and take away duties from the local councils (many of which are now led by the opposition after the municipal elections in October). This latest amendment can be regarded as the second step after the December events, when a legislation created the conditions for the establishment of local council-run theaters, state theaters, and theaters with a mixed operating structure. That time, even though the government – due to the tough opposing reactions – eventually presented a watered-down bill in comparison to the one originally planned, still faced criticism and a demonstration also drew thousands on the streets.
This latest version takes one step further in expanding control. Government-critical Index recalls that ever since the regime change, governments do contribute to the funding of the theaters, without, however having a say in their operation. In addition, many also criticized the government for failing to hold talks with the professional bodies before the decision.
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony earlier had said that the capital doesn’t have the means (that amounts to HUF 6.7 billion/ Eur 18.9 million yearly) to finance all their theaters, but the management rights however, it aims to keep. He also said that those theaters that are “exposed the most to the possibilty of political influence (the Örkény, Katona, Radnóti theaters, the Szabad Tér theater company, and Trafó House),” the capital aims to continue financing at all costs. It also named three theaters that are fully financed by the state (the New Theater, the József Attila, and Thália theaters) while four (the Budapest Puppet Theater, the Comedy Theater, the Kolibri, and Madách theaters) would be mixed-funded. “A hateful situation but that’s what the narrow space, left for the capital, forces us to do,” Karácsony commented.
Heated debate in the Parliament
The amendment resulted in a heated debate in the National Assembly.
According to Fidesz MP, László L. Simon, the real problem is that while there has been effective and constructive talks between the government and [Budapest] Mayor Gergely Karácsony, the opposition coalition in the capital cannot agree on the future of the theaters. The fact that the capital doesn’t want to finance about seven institutions, led to the current situation, he insisted. Therefore, the state is right to say that if these institutions are funded entirely by the taxpayers, extra costs should include additional rights. L. Simon also blamed Ferenc Gyurcsány, a former leftist PM and current leader of opposition Democratic Coalition (DK), for hindering the agreement and “attacking” the city’s leadership.
Péter Fekete, EMMI’s state secretary in charge of cultural affairs, argued that the amendment had to be dealt in an exceptional procedure as otherwise seven theaters would easily go bankrupt. Another Fidesz MP, Péter Hoppál, a former state secretary for culture, called the law a “logical” step and claimed that the Metropolitan Municipality called for the legislation package.
Jobbik MP Koloman Brenner called for the city councils (the territory on which the theater operates) to have rights in the appointment of leaders. LMP MP Antal Csárdi called the law a “shame,” and argued that the government tends to bleed out the councils. MSZP MP Ágnes Kunhalmi criticized the timing of the amendment, arguing that this way, demonstraters can’t go out on the streets [to protest].
In his lengthy speech, Ferenc Gyurcsány labelled the measure as “villainy,” and argued that artistic expression in a civil democracy should be helped, and turning to and addressing the government politicians, emphasized [but] “You don’t think so.” He said that the PM thinks he can decide what a masterpiece is. “You cannot stand free voice, free thought, the independent existence of independent intellectuals.” He also said that Budapest was partner in this because “a pistol was nailed to the head of the capital’s leadership (…) How about if Brussels would only give money if the Committee could define Hungary’s cultural policy?” he concluded.
Just days before the vote, Publicus Ins. made a representative survey asking voters of the parties whether the government was right or not about wanting a say in exchange for funding. The left-leaning think-tank found that 68% of the entirety of those asked opposed this. Fidesz voters were the only ones, whose majority (76%) agreed with the government's stance.
Anyhow, the amendment has been voted in, and the seven theaters L. Simon mentioned the government taking over are most likely the ones mentioned above.