Hungary's Orban bets on baby boom to boost population

Faced with a plummeting population, Hungary's fiercely anti-immigration Prime Minister Viktor Orban has come up with an answer sparking yet another controversy: "We need Hungarian children". Earlier this month Orban unveiled a seven-point "family protection action plan" stacked with incentives for young couples to have children. Opinion is divided however as to whether it will have the desired effect -- and some critics have seen disturbing historical echoes in his plan. The policies announced by Orban include lifelong tax exemption for women who bear four or more children, and more kindergartens. It also offers lump-sum, 10-million forint (32,000 euros, $36,000) loans for newly-wed women under 40, cancelled once they have three children. "This -– not immigration –- is the response of the Hungarian people," said Orban, a 55-year-old father of five, during a state-of-the-nation speech that was greeted with rapturous applause. "With 10 million forints my partner and I can finally think of buying an apartment around here and moving out from my parents' at last," said Nora Koszeghy, a 24-year-old teacher outside a supermarket in a Budapest suburb, as her toddler dozed in a pushchair. "We were planning for a brother or sister for Juli. Maybe she can have two or even three now, who knows," she told AFP. - A 'visionary' plan - Supporters of Orban's seven-point plan -- including Hungary's ambassador to the Vatican -- have hailed his family policies as "visionary". Pro-government pundits argue that only such direct action can prop up a population that has been falling since 1981, and which could shrink from its current 9.7 to six million by 2070, according to a recent report by Hungary's Central Statistical Office (KSH). Orban's national-conservative government, in power since 2010, says no EU member has been spending more on family support. And it insists its approach has already borne fruit. Incentivised by tax breaks and a subsidised housing scheme for young married couples, marriage rates have been rising since 2010, with abortion and divorce declining. Hungary's fertility rate, the lowest in the EU at around 1.25 children per woman in 2010, has risen to near the bloc's average of 1.6, according to figures published by Eurostat, the EU's statistical body. Orban's government has set a 2030 target of 2.1, the rate needed to halt population decline. Some statisticians however remain sceptical that in the long run the government's measures will shift a stubbornly low birth rate. "The uptick in fertility was also due to the end of the economic crisis," said one expert at the KSH who asked not to be named. "Bigger problems are high emigration –- over a half million since 2010 -- and, crucially, the falling number of women of childbearing age," he said. - 'Handmaid's Tale'? - With men not explicitly mentioned among the seven points, some women also fear that the measures will simply add to pressure on them from a deeply conservative society to have children. The 10-million forint loan will have to be paid back with interest if no babies arrive, said an official when pressed on the plan's small-print. Meme-creators on Hungarian social media have even caught a whiff of the hit TV series "The Handmaid's Tale", based on Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel of an America ruled by a misogynistic theocracy. "I don't want to give birth for Viktor Orban," 35-year-old financial journalist Sarolta Szekely told AFP. "A child is not just a question of money," said Szekely, who is currently single but would like to have children one day. "Good education and healthcare, and earning enough to raise a child are more important factors than keeping a lump-sum if I meet a quota. "That's not family protection -- that's a production programme." Social scientists are concerned that poor people -- including those belonging to the impoverished Roma ethnic-minority who make up around seven to 10 percent of the population -- do not have the stable jobs or spare cash needed to apply for the credit. The measures mostly benefit middle- and higher-income earners, according to Dorottya Szikra, a sociologist at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. "Increasing child support payments -- unchanged for 10 years -- or providing more social housing would benefit more families," she told AFP. But the government has come out fighting against criticism of the plan. When Sweden's Social Affairs Minister Annika Strandhall said the action plan was "alarming" and "reeked of the 1930s", Hungary's Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto was quick to respond. "Hungary is spending its money on families rather than migrants," he retorted. While the results of the new 'baby boom' plan will only be visible over the long term, polls suggest at least a short-term bounce for Orban. That is welcome news for his Fidesz party that has seen a recent dip in support over controversial labour reforms that triggered a wave of street protests.