BUDAPEST: Hungary's prime minister shelved plans to introduce an Internet tax that had sparked major demonstrations and further concerns about civil liberties in the EU member state.
Proposed changes to the tax code that would have imposed a new levy on online data transfers "cannot be introduced in its current form," the right-wing Viktor Orban, 51, said in a morning radio interview.
He said that the legislation, which was to have been voted on in parliament Nov 17, would be amended and that a "national consultation" on the Internet and taxes would be organised starting in January.
"Nothing can be introduced in these circumstances," Orban said.
The proposed Internet tax was seen by Orban critics as the latest step to silence dissent, particularly since Hungarians have to go mostly online to find news that doesn't toe the government line.
More than 20,000 people took part in a demonstration against the measure in Budapest, and two days later over 50,000 took to the streets. There were also protests in other towns.
The European Union has criticised the proposed legislation, with a spokesman for EU digital commissioner Neelie Kroes calling it a "particularly bad idea" and "part of that pattern of actions which have limited freedoms" in Hungary.
Kroes said in a statement she was "very pleased" that it had been withdrawn.
"I'm proud the European Commission played a positive role in defending European values and a digital Europe," she said.
Since Orban swept to power in 2010 — he was re-elected this April, again with a two-thirds parliamentary majority — the premier has been accused of eroding democratic norms in the former Communist central European country.
Opponents at home and abroad say Orban has weakened the judiciary, muzzled the media and tweaked the electoral system in his favour.
In recent months foreign-funded non-governmental organisations have been raided for alleged financial irregularities.
US President Barack Obama in September singled out Hungary, together with military-ruled Egypt, as places where "endless regulations and overt intimidation increasingly target civil society".
With Hungary's main political opposition divided and weak, analysts say that the protests show that within society, Orban has less support than his crushing victories in parliamentary, European and local elections this year would suggest.
Friday's backtracking was unusual for Orban, experts say, as he has only done so on minor issues in the past and mostly to mollify critics abroad such as EU officials in Brussels or the European Central Bank.
"The retreat means Orban's Fidesz (party) realised that they can face bigger losses if they continue to walk down the path of introducing the tax," Kornelia Magyar of the Hungarian Progressive Institute told AFP.
But she expects more battles.
"The fact that Orban called for national consultations seems to suggest that this is not a definitive retreat," she added.
Protest organisers and opposition parties welcomed Orban's announcement with scepticism.
The leader of the Socialist Party (MSZP), Jozsef Tobias, said Orban wants to buy time. "Not this way, not now, not under this name, but after a hypocrite consultation under a different name, this tax will be proposed," Tobias told a press conference on Friday.
"He (Orban) heard, but didn't understand the voice of the people," said Balazs Gulyas, organiser of previous mass demonstrations in a video message on Facebook.
"We know him (Orban). We have no reason to trust his word," organisers said in a statement as another protest was planned for the evening to reject the tax. Organisers vowed to continue until the idea is scrapped completely. — AFP
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