Hungary’s New and Dangerous Constitution

Eva Balogh explains the constitutional reform effort of Hungary’s right wing government and argues that it should fail.

In the last few months the Western European press was full of news about Hungary. Not the most flattering news. It slowly dawned on people outside of the country that something was wrong with the new Hungarian government that won a landslide electoral victory almost a year ago.

Signs of trouble, at least for those who live in Hungary or those who follow political events in the country, were evident from the very beginning. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, an acronym of sorts for “young democrats,” is neither young nor democratic anymore. Sometime in 1993 the party under the guidance of Orbán, who was then a thirty-year old liberal, edged slowly but surely toward the right. Whether Orbán was always attracted to right-wing ideology or whether he decided to switch sides for political expediency is a topic of debate among political analysts.

Today Fidesz is a nationalist party with a rightist ideology that eerily resembles that of Gyula Gömbös, Hungary’s prime minister between 1932 and 1936.

Gömbös tried to introduce a political system in Hungary that mimicked Benito Mussolini’s fascism. It was only his early death that prevented him from succeeding.

Western readers often find Orbán’s Fidesz described as “conservative” or “right of center.” I would like to correct that wholly inaccurate label. Fidesz under the leadership of Viktor Orbán is moving far to the right.

This week, Adam Michnik, former Polish dissident and chief editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, warned Orbán, his old comrade in arms: “Viktor, this road leads to dictatorship.”

What has happened since the election last April? A lot, unfortunately. Fidesz won 53 percent of the vote but because of the pecularities of the Hungarian electoral system, the party managed to attain over two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. The Fidesz members of parliament were all hand picked by the new prime minister. Potential opponents were set aside. They became members of the European Parliament or were paid off with some lucrative job. Anyone who has since made what Orbán deemed to be a political mistake has been thrown out of the party or demoted.

Under the current Hungarian constitution a party with a two-thirds majority can do practically anything. So Orbán undertook the complete reworking of the Hungarian political system. He put his own men into important “independent” positions including the Accounting Office that supposedly supervises the government’s finances and the Office of the Chief Prosecutor. Right now he is working on doing the same to the Office of the Chief Justice. If he didn’t like a particular ruling of the Constitutional Court, his two-thirds majority voting bloc simply stripped the court of some of its powers. The President’s Office was filled with a man of limited intelligence who is a servile puppet. One could continue.

About all this the outside world knew little until Orbán made the mistake of drafting a media law that would muzzle the written and electronic press. The attack on the freedom of journalists resonated across the world. What is more, Orbán introduced his legislation at the very end of December of last year, mere weeks before Hungary assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Then came two solid months of wrangling over the media law between the European Commission and the Hungarian government. Orbán initially insisted that the would not allow any changes in the law but eventually had to relent. Under European pressure, some changes were made and voted on only recently, but the European Parliament remained dissatisfied. Once again, Hungary has insisted that it will not change a word in the legislation but it might not be the end of the story.

Since the media law was enacted, Fidesz and its ally the Jobbik party have worked on rewriting their country’s constitution. While other opposition parties originally sent delegates to the committee entrusted with drafting the constitution, it soon became clear that not one of their suggestions would be included in the final draft. They determined, moreover, that their participation could be injurious to their own interests. Let Fidesz with the assistance of the far-right Jobbik come up with a constitution and it will be very difficult to convince the world that it is anything more than a party document that cannot serve the interests of the entire nation.

Fidesz leaders have in recent weeks tried to convince the green liberal LMP to join them in the effort after all. Although LMP can’t always decide whether they hate the socialists or Fidesz more, their leaders refused to budge.

Before 1949 Hungary had no written constitution. The Hungarian legal system functioned very much like that of Great Britain. In 1949, during the Rákosi period, a Hungarian version of the Stalinist Soviet constitution was adopted. With the change of regime in 1989-1990 something had to be done in a hurry. Thus liberal minded constitutional lawyers began rewriting the 1949 document. Their rewrite was so thorough that only a few sentences remained from the Stalinist version. Yet the 1949 date remained. This “oversight” allowed Orbán to claim that the current charter is in fact a communist one.

If one had asked the leaders of Fidesz whether they favored drafting a new constitution from scratch just several years ago, most would probably have said “no.” Orbán himself only complained about the preamble which he didn’t think was dignified enough. But then came the overwhelming electoral victory and Orbán discovered that there was a “revolution in the voting booths.” A revolution that demanded a new foundation.

There was a lot of confusion about when the work on the new constitution should start and how long it would take to draft a new basic law. Orbán at first talked about two years, then one year and suddenly the nation was told that the new constitution had to be done by Easter Monday. This is very much in line with Orbán’s image of himself and his work. A few years ago he borrowed the words of Jesus Christ sending his disciplines forth to spread the faith.

The text of the constitution was almost entirely written by a single Fidesz parliamentarian whose only knowledge of constitutional law derives from having attended law school with his friend Viktor Orbán.

The preamble, which Fidesz politicians insist on calling “the national creed,” is a verbose and confused account of Hungarian history and a nationalistic wish list for a glorious future. The body of the constitution still needs a lot of scrutiny but at first glance it seems that this constitution’s importance lies in making sure that the present government and Fidesz can remain in power for at least twelve more years.

A Hungarian political philosopher who is not known for his optimism said that while the old constitution served the country for some twenty years, the new one is unlikely to be around for long. He may well be right. A year after the stunning Fidesz victory, this week, during Hungary’s national holiday celebrating the revolution of 1848, more people demonstrated against the government than listened to Viktor Orbán’s speech telling the European Union to get lost.

For more, read “The first draft of the new Hungarian constitution, Parts I, II and III” at the author’s blog, Hungarian Spectrum.