Constitutional Reforms: Hungary Steps Away from European Democracy

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Photo Gallery: Hungary's Drift Away from Europe Photos
DPA

As expected, the Hungarian parliament on Monday evening passed a package of constitutional amendments that legal experts say are an affront to democracy. Berlin, Brussels and Washington all voiced their concern in the run up to the vote. Leaders in Budapest, however, were unfazed.

Hungarian President János Áder arrived in Berlin on Monday for what might look merely like a standard bilateral meeting between two EU leaders. But the relationship between the European Union and Hungary is anything but normal these days. Budapest, after all, bid farewell on Monday to many of the values that define the 27-member club.

Prime Minster Viktor Orbán, like Áder a member of the conservative Fidesz party, has expanded his power dramatically. While the head of state was in Berlin, the prime minister moved ahead with a highly controversial package of amendments to the country's constitution. The amendments weaken the country's constitutional court, the last defender of Hungary's constitutional state, and they limit the independence of the entire judiciary branch.

In other words, a country at the center of the European Union is moving away from the principles of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

The vote on Monday evening in Budapest easily provided Fidesz with the two-thirds majority it needed to pass the amendments, with 265 voting in favor, 11 against and 33 abstaining.

László Kövér, president of Hungarian parliament and one of the most influential men in the country, was a primary mover behind the cause. He is a veteran leader of Fidesz and, when it comes to issues of nationhood and country, he doesn't shy away from confrontation. Last Friday, in an interview with the conservative broadcaster Hír TV, he laid out his theory that the world was conspiring against Hungary.

International capitals, the EU and the United States had singled out Hungary as a "symbol of their Cold War," he said, simply because the government in Budapest had rejected the "forced path of liberalism." His rhetoric made use of the same slogans that the extreme right in Hungary has used for years.

Strong Criticism at Home and Abroad

The occasion for Kövér's tirade was the debate over constitutional reform. Yet despite massive critique from both within Hungary and abroad, he refused to consider cancelling or postponing the Monday vote.

Hungarian civil rights organizations and opposition parties spent weeks protesting the changes, with thousands of people turning out for a demonstration in front of the parliamentary building in Budapest on Saturday. Following criticism from the European Council, the European Parliament and the US State Department, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso personally appealed to Prime Minister Orbán to delay the vote last week. But several leading Fidesz politicians made it clear that there was no chance of a postponement.

That the constitutional amendments do, in fact, represent a serious departure from the principles of liberal democracy and civil rights is a view shared by the opposition, EU policymakers and also legal scholars. Hungarian constitutional law expert Gábor Halmai has called the reforms a "systematic abolishment of the constitutional order," while Hamburg-based European law expert Markus Kotzur calls the changes "highly problematic."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is due to meet with President Áder on Tuesday, said the German government "has left no doubt that Europe is a community of values, and that we expect these values to be lived out." A spokeswoman for the European Commission also said the EU's executive branch "will not hesitate to use all the instruments at our disposal to make sure that member states comply with their obligations."

Limits on Free Speech, Legal Precedence

Among the most controversial aspects of the reform are severe limitations on the power of the constitutional court. The court will now be allowed to review the constitution or amendments to it based only on formal procedural aspects, not on their actual content. Additionally, all the court's decisions prior to the date when the country's new constitution came into force in 2012 are to be invalidated, essentially eliminating precedence.

Freedom of expression is also to be limited when it damages the broadly defined "dignity of the Hungarian nation." Students will be required to stay and work in Hungary for a certain time after finishing a university degree, or else pay tuition fees -- a measure meant to curb the emigration of highly-educated workers and academics.

The reforms also write into the constitution certain laws that had previously been overturned and deemed unconstitutional by the high court, making them essentially untouchable.These include a ban on the homeless from loitering in public spaces, and allowance of the state to prosecute them for violations; a ban on electoral campaign advertising in private media; and an exclusion of umarried, childless or same-sex couples in the official definition of family.

'Authoritarian System' Emerging

In the days leading up to the passage of the amendments, the opposition's rhetoric became sharper. András Schiffer, the otherwise reserved leader of the green-liberal party called "Politics Can Be Different" (LMP), said at a convention in Budapest on Saturday that an authoritarian system was emerging in Hungary, one in which no right was safe and constitutional law was being dissolved. The non-parliamentary opposition alliance "Together 2014" has called the reforms a "rampage against the constitutional order."

Hungarian constitutional expert Kolláth György said the constitutional amendments "destroy the system of checks and balances and overturns the mutual, trustful and pluralistic cooperation of the constitutional bodies. ... Likewise it is a rejection of the European values that Hungary once willingly accepted."

Such appraisals don't phase parliamentary speaker Kövér. Asked whether he thought a compromise was possible with government critics, he answered: "It's unlikely that we would find a compromise with representatives who see even same-sex marriage as conceivable."

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1. " An Affront to Democracy" Are you Joking?
sylvesterthecat 03/11/2013
You may not like what the Hungarians are doing and no doubt when measured against the German, British or even French systems of government, fall short of the desired standard but how can Mr Versek suppress hoots of ironic laughter, while writing such words as: A spokeswoman for the European Commission also said the EU's executive branch "will not hesitate to use all the instruments at our disposal to make sure that member states comply with their obligations." Following criticism from the European Council, the European Parliament and the US State Department, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso personally appealed to Prime Minister Orbán to delay the vote last week. Wow! righteous anger and condemnation from that paragon of democracy and rectitude, the European Commission and company. The very organisation that demanded that the people in countries who return the wrong answer in EU referendums, are required to vote again until they get the correct answer. That same organisation that deposed elected governments then set up 'Quisling'technocratic governments in Greece and Italy. Amazing, and were it not so outrageous, it would be funny that one of world's most anti-democratic unelected organisations should criticise an admittedly imperfect government, but one at least which had been elected by the Hungarian people. Do the Euro-fanatics still not see why government by the EUSSR is becoming increasingly loathsome to so many European people?
2. Values
zgps 03/12/2013
Is the Hungarian judiciary along with its allies an abstract concept incapable of self interest and political leanings? If a law is reasonable and does not encroach unduly on personal rights - by definition all laws encroach to some extent - and it is struck down, what recourse does the legislature have? For example: Would it not be more genuine to speak of the right to have the means to maintain a home, buy food, and pay for utilities than the right to sleep in public places.
3. This is incredibly sad news
degeneral 03/12/2013
The problem with the discussion involving this government is that there are hysterical voices screaming fascism every time the center-right gets into power (Kertesz, I'm looking at you). This makes conversation incredibly difficult. And also discredits all criticism, even though this government IS moving towards an authoriarian regime, so level-headed criticism IS warranted. Calling for Jewish brigades to fight on the street is not. (That was Popper, by the way.) Some of Fidesz's ideas are actually not bad (the tuition fee for students who leave the country is actually quite reasonable; after all why should a tax payer pay for free education if the graduate leaves the country), but on the whole they are damaging the democracy in Hungary, and damaging the economy. Don't forget why they got into power in the first place: the so-called liberals and socialists (I'm considering myself to be both yet I have no common grounds with those people) bled the country dry, stole and embezzled anything they could, and generated so much resentment that the electorate finally voted against them. They didn't vote for the Fidesz. They wanted the MSZP/SZDSZ gone. This is why LMP and Jobbik got their seats, too. (And perhaps this is why those supposedly liberal voices scream fascism all the time; they can't face the fact that their sweathearts were rejected by everyone on their own merit. That they are essentially cleptocrats.) Yet Orban and co took this vote as a license to do whatever their little heart desired. And this will end badly. They started by renaming streets and airports, and now they try to reshape the country. I weep for Hungary. I dearly wish to return there to live, but the economy (which is the result of both sides ineptitude and frankly criminal activities) and the political situation makes it impossible.
4. Keno Verseck& Hungary
johann84 03/13/2013
And we all know that the authour of this article is a very left leaning journalist. Furthermore it is interesting that the EU commission (which is unelected)didn't object when France banned the burkas, when in Germany children's books are rewritten to be politically correct (freedom of speech?) and the list could continue. Here I share the concerns of the UK regarding the ''democratic values'' of the EU and of course, double standards.
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