It was on August 2, 2010 that Népszava got wind of the government’s plan to allow women who had worked for forty years to retire with full benefits, regardless of age. That would mean that a woman who quit school after eight grades and who began working immediately afterward would be only 55-56 years old when she became eligible to retire. The president of the supervisory body of the pension system expressed her misgivings. She warned that such a decision would transform the whole structure of the system and would also go against the recommendations of the European Union.
At that time the government figured that relatively few women would be eligible, perhaps 6,000, so surely their decision would not upset the stability of the system. Iván László, a gerontologist and Fidesz MP active on the Parliamentary Committee on Youth, Social and Family Affairs, added that the government was planning to change the status of men as well. It was only a question of time (Népszava, August 3, 2010).
It took a little time for MSZP to respond to this announcement. The party called attention to the worldwide trend of increasing the retirement age considering people’s longer lifespans, but a few months later the party decided to support the proposal. In fact, the socialists would have liked to give the same opportunity to men as well–the typical opportunistic behavior exhibited when it comes to pieces of legislation that will likely be popular with the public. The law was passed on November 11, 2010. As of January 1, 2011, women who were eligible could take advantage of the new system.
Soon enough came the cold shower: Fidesz-KDNP underestimated the number of women who would be eligible and who would take advantage of the offer. The underestimation was substantial. The planners thought that no more than 4,000-6,000 women would be eligible, but shortly after the bill was passed the ministry of national economy calculated that about 24,000 women would be added to the pool of retirees, costing the state 30-35 billion forints.
It was apparent from the very beginning that the new law was discriminatory. According to the Hungarian constitution, men and women have equal rights and yet men with a 40-year employment record couldn’t retire with full benefits. There was a short exchange on this point in parliament where the Fidesz MPs expressed their strong belief that God created men and women to perform different tasks and the gerontology expert also thanked God that the “curse of genderism hasn’t reached Hungary yet.” Yet, MSZP voted for it.
The government estimate of 24,000 women who would retire early turned out to be terribly wrong. By 2013 almost 100,000 women had retired early, which resulted in an 80% growth in pension fund expenses. In 2012 the early retirement madness cost the taxpayers 109 billion forints, and the latest figure is 187 billion.
One reason for the rush to benefit from the provisions of the legislation was the widespread belief that the government would be forced to abolish this very costly campaign promise. Even the women themselves realized that this generous gift might not be sustainable. And yet, during the 2014 election campaign the opposition parties, including DK that swore to refrain from populist promises, talked about the necessity of maintaining women’s special status.
No one stood up in 2010 and insisted on taking the issue to the Constitutional Court for review, although at that time it would still have been possible because the new Fidesz law on the Constitutional Court had not yet been passed.
I call the law that sailed through parliament in November 2010 the “original sin” because now, five years later, Hungarian trade unions, who badly need to bolster their popularity, suddenly discovered that the law that allowed women to retire earlier than men is discriminatory. A private citizen, acting on behalf of the trade unions, asked the National Election Committee to allow a referendum on the issue. Last month, implicitly acknowledging the discriminatory nature of the law, the Kúria, Hungary’s supreme court, approved the referendum question. Activists immediately began collecting signatures, and the signature campaign is going splendidly. There is no question in my mind that the necessary 200,000 signatures will be a cinch to collect. MSZP naturally supports the referendum. After all, already in 2010 they considered it fair to lower the retirement age across the board.
A couple of years ago one of the critics of the original 2010 bill called it a ticking time bomb. Well, the bomb is now close to going off. Suddenly, pro-Fidesz officials are talking about the referendum as “the greatest stupidity” ever. It’s too bad they didn’t think through their campaign promise. They blame the trade unions for seeking cheap popularity. The ministry of national economy, which so misjudged the numbers in the case of the women, is now talking about 150,000 men who might take advantage of early retirement. This would cost 200 billion in addition to the 185 billion currently spent on the women retirees. They figure that the combined effect of the early retirement of both sexes would be like giving them a pension for the nonexistent 14th month of the year. The 13th month of pension had to be abolished in 2009 by the Bajnai government because it almost bankrupted the country.
I must admit I don’t feel sorry for the government. They brought the trouble on themselves, mind you, with the effective help of the opposition parties that didn’t have the courage to stand up and say: we can’t afford this, we shouldn’t do this because the trend all over the world is not to reduce the age requirement for retirement but just the opposite, to raise it.
Jobbik has joined MSZP in support of the trade unions’ initiative. János Volker, deputy leader of the parliamentary caucus, announced a couple of days ago that the party will enlist 17,000 activists to assist in collecting the necessary number of signatures. Fidesz’s immediate reaction was to accuse MSZP of some kind of alliance with the neo-Nazis.
Of course, the question is whether four million people will go out to vote in the referendum. Just as it was not at all difficult to get almost four million people to vote against the 300 Ft copay and a rather small monthly tuition fee, I feel sure that most people will gladly participate in a referendum that will benefit the majority of workers. I suspect that the great legal minds in Fidesz are hard at work trying to figure out some way to avoid holding the referendum. I wonder what kind of trick they will come up with.