Government Inching Toward Gender Balance
An unusual thing happened last week, at least unusual by Hungarian standards: a woman was admitted to the Cabinet, having been sworn in at one of the last sessions of parliament before the summer recess.
There is a definite hierarchy in government positions. At the top, obviously, sits the prime minister. This is true in all democracies, but perhaps especially so in Hungary. Viktor Orbán sets the tone for all that his government does. Generally speaking, the big three jobs after that are foreign affairs, finance and interior minister.
Judit Varga has not been given one of the most senior roles, but Minister of Justice is a position that is of particular importance to business people. (It is not by accident that the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary has a strategic partnership with the ministry, under which it is invited to comment on upcoming legislation.) Whether you are the CEO of a multinational company, or an entrepreneur heading a local startup, hers is the ministry responsible for ensuring the legislative landscape is fair, open and transparent, that the rule of law is maintained and applied, that the courts function and justice is served.
The appointment of any woman to the government is to be welcomed. When the group photo of the then new cabinet was released in May 2018, many commented on the fact that there was just one woman in the official portrait with President János Áder; Minister Without Portfolio in Charge of State Assets Andrea Bártfai-Máger stood out in her green dress in a lineup of largely middle-aged white men in their dark business suits.
The appointment of Varga does not do much to increase the gender balance of the Hungarian government, but it is, at least, a step in the right direction; two role models are better than none. According to the World Bank, just 12.6% of Hungary’s MPs were women in 2018. Pathetic though that number may seem, it actually represents a highwater mark. The World Bank only records figures from June 1997, at which point it says 11.4% of seats were held by women. From 1998-2001, it bumbled along at 8.3%.
Varga is the 11th person to hold the position of Minister of Justice since the change in regime and the first democratically elected government was formed in 1990. There has only been one other woman, Ibolya Dávid (in post from 1998-2002), the then head of the MDF, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, one of the junior coalition parties in the of the first Orbán cabinet. Dávid was the only woman minister in government at the time.
Varga may be a woman, but don’t expect any sea changes in policy. She was nominated by Orbán, and most recently handled European Union relations in his office (and with her appointment, EU affairs will now fall within the remit of the Ministry of Justice). Varga will represent continuity of policy from her predecessor, László Trócsányi, who is taking up a position as an MEP, and is Hungary’s candidate for European Commissioner.
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