Hungary turns away from democracy

Hungary has seen a stunning consolidation of power under President Orban. A new Constitution that took effect Jan. 1 appears to confirm a move toward more authoritarian rule.

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters
A Hungarian police officer in riot gear closes a road during a protest in central Budapest, last week. The ruling Fidesz party has pushed through a Constitution that effectively puts all power into Fidesz’s hands, critics say.

By some estimates, Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban is not just exiting the house of democracy. It has already left the building.

In the past year, Hungary has undergone an extraordinary consolidation of power by President Orban. No other nation in Europe has made such sweeping and overnight change in its basic laws and approach, and with little public consultation. The culminating event came Jan. 1 with a new Constitution that boldly favors the ruling party and has many European leaders shaking their heads. Coming at a time of economic crisis, the sudden shift is a challenge for democracy and rule of law in the heart of Europe, analysts say.

The protests of tens of thousands in Budapest Jan. 2 over the Constitution date to last March, when voters received an official questionnaire.

Orban, with a supermajority in parliament, was preparing to rewrite the nation's governing document. Enclosed were 12 questions seeking citizen feedback. Should a constitution protect future generations and family values? One asked about life prison sentences, another about biodiversity. None dealt with basic questions about how power is ordered and checked in a modern democracy.

In the end, it didn't matter.

Two weeks after the mailing, a single-draft constitution emerged, written on an iPad, as the author – a member of the ruling Fidesz party – bragged. By April 19, without debate on any other draft, the parliament ratified a radical new charter, saying it would go into effect Jan. 1 as something demanded by the people.

The new document "transformed the legal landscape to remove checks on the power of the government and put virtually all power into the hands of the current governing party," says Kim Lane Scheppele, an expert on comparative constitutions at Princeton University in New Jer­sey who spent four years in Budapest as a legal adviser. "It violates about all the rules of a modern constitution.... It's a hit-and-run constitution. It went through with such speed … and misrepresentation, and so little public understanding, that most Hungarians have no awareness of what has happened to them."

Those changes went largely unnoticed last spring when Hungary, which held the rotating presidency of the European Union, was simultaneously implementing harsh media laws requiring "balance" in reporting. Since then, journalists in Budapest have gone on hunger strikes, the constitutional preamble was written to recognize the role of Christianity in preserving the nation, and gypsies and minorities have been attacked. Orban replaced the director of the national theater with a playwright who is professedly anti-Semitic and hails from the Jobbik party, which won 17 percent of the 2010 vote.

So far right is Jobbik – it supports illegal paramilitary units that target gypsy camps – that Orban's conservative politics looks tame by comparison. "The elimination of all the central features of a pluralistic system means we are moving toward a one-party ruling system in which the prime minister and his little circle are trying to sell 19th-century romantic nationalism," former Foreign Minister Peter Balazs told the Monitor. "Many people are buying that. It is true that normal national ideas were missing during the communist period. But the prime minister is now misusing the national card."

Judicial independence has been dismantled: through court-packing, a new early retirement rule for judges, and the creation of a single figure (a Fidesz member) who oversees judges. The number of recognized churches has been reduced from 348 to 14. Election laws have redrawn voting districts to favor Fidesz. The Con­stitution even allows a challenge to the legitimacy of opposition Socialists, given its ties to the pre-1989 Soviet party.

The street protests, and Hungary's threat to nationalize its Central Bank, are a wake-up call to Europe. Hungary faces an economic meltdown and requires billions of euros to repay loans from 2008. But as Orban refused to assure the independence of the Central Bank, IMF and EU officers walked out of loan talks last month. 

On Jan. 6, Hungary's foreign minister said in a letter to EU partners and the European Commission that the government was willing to think about changing laws that are seen as a threat to the Central Bank's independence. "We stand ready to consider changing legislation, if necessary. This has never been and will not be a matter of prestige for my government," János Martonyi wrote in the letter, published by his ministry on Tuesday. 

Hungary has now begun talks with the IMF in Washington over a deal that could give the country much-needed funds to avoid a meltdown. The IMF may not be as stringent as the EU regarding the independence of the central bank.

Orban was elected in May 2010 with a 53 percent majority. A former dissident, he is impatient about procedural niceties, and famously self-confident. This fall, he brushed off criticism of the new Constitution from the EU's leading judges and scholars.

“No other European country has taken such drastic measures. But then, no other government has had the same majority, with the means to make change,” says Julia Lakatos of the Center for Fair Political Analysis in Budapest. "This is a 'hard' government, one that concentrates on effectiveness more than freedoms. That doesn't make Hungary nondemocratic. Much of the criticism from abroad is exaggerated."

Critics include US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, who said the Constitution should be reviewed to see if it met Europe's "common good" standards.

Some Hungarian analysts say that even if a new government wanted to, it would struggle to change the Constitution.

“In our assessment, a very dark assessment, one can say with sadness that the rule of law is now over, and it has been over for quite a long time," says Marta Pardavi, co-chairwoman of the Helsinki Committee of Hungary. "Gradually, not with one blow, but a series of blows, the democratic ethos is being killed. This is a test for Europe. It sets a very bad precedent that could spill over, given the economic crisis."

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