The lesson of the latest amendments to the Hungarian constitution

Viktor Orbán has once again caused a surprise to Europe. Reading the numerous articles in the German, Austrian, French and British press that dealt with the constitutional amendments adopted on the 11th of March, one gets the impression that the Hungarian government’s move is unprecedented or significantly more dangerous than the previous ones. Without disputing the significance of the fourth round of amendments, we argue that these reactions demonstrate that the Western European public, to a large extent, still has an inadequate grasp of the way political power is exercised by Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government, and in particular the tactics deployed by the prime minister to reach his goals.

Approximately one year ago the prime minister had presented to citizens the new constitution as a “foundation that would stand as solid as granite” the test of time. During the parliamentary session at which the debate on the latest amendments took place, Viktor Orbán did not waste one word on defending the clauses that effectively annihilate the powers of the last constitutional bulwark to the two-thirds majority: the constitutional Court. Instead, he used the occasion to launch a verbal attack on the independent court that had ruled in favour of private energy suppliers whom the government is forcing to cut their prices. In his speech, Orbán evoked an unholy alliance of private capital and the judiciary standing against ‘the people’ his government is seeking to defend.

Such attacks – far from being unprecedented – are in our view as significant and hazardous to democracy as constitutional amendments designed to remove the checks and balances that could put a break on the power of the executive. They are not only helpful in shifting the terms of the political debate when the executive has no valid arguments to defend its proposals, but in installing a climate of arbitrariness, uncertainty and fear under which citizens (acting in different roles and functions) may feel induced to regulate their behaviour. Although judges have so far resisted pressure exercised by government officials in certain cases, a number of media reports and interviews with former high-ranking officials have highlighted that public servants are turning a blind eye to the appearance of shady characters representing special interest groups inside public institutions. Another instance of self-regulation concerns individuals whose relatives are employed by local municipalities and who appear loath to speak out on political matters (not to mention attending opposition rallies). The triggers sparking these reactions are in most cases a mix of scepticism on the possibility of effectively resisting explicit or implicit demands and fear of negative repercussions. This cultural aspect of the political transformation under way in Hungary has been totally neglected by commentators writing about the country, as much as the fact that a growing number of people are leaving the country due to the lack of personal prospects and dismay at the direction things are going in the country.

The reduction of political reality to transformations in the legal domain has created the impression that in between the adoption of significant laws there must be a return to some kind of ‘normality’. This way of seeing things has also had an impact on the way a lot of European officials have handled the Hungarian government. It is not by accident that relations between the Hungarian government and the European Commission have improved since the row over the constitution that came into force on the 1st of January 2012. The Hungarian government – whose diplomatic offensive was significantly helped by the skills of foreign minister János Martonyi, – managed to entrench the perception that the heated debates created by the media law and the one-party constitution [1] will be followed by a period of consolidation, both in political and social life.

If you look at the surface – but only the surface – there was a degree of truth to this. The Hungarian government demonstrated flexibility by changing the most blatantly worrisome aspects of both mentioned legal frameworks (while also managing to safeguard their kernel). But (and this is again something that most European commentators and politicians were largely not aware of) 2012 was also the year when the government pushed through hugely significant educational reforms, which placed the whole schooling system firmly under state control. It was also the year in which significant portions of the land that belongs to the state were leased for a period of 20 years to entrepreneurs who belong to a close-knit circle that entertains extremely close ties with the governing party and has massively benefited from the change in government.

We are not sure that these critical changes (pushed through without any hesitation or significant change despite resistance on behalf of citizens and opposition parties) would have gone ahead if there hadn’t been a significant thaw in the country’s international relations. Orbán did not hesitate for one moment in the face of resistance from institutions and organized pressure groups from within the country (with the partial and notable exception of students), but he did make significant efforts, as well as a few concessions to calm and numb international criticism.

Will the latest amendments to the constitution change the way the majority of European politicians look at Hungary and Viktor Orbán’s government? On the 12th of March, one day after the adoption of the latest round of constitutional amendments, German chancellor Angela Merkel commented on the Hungarian situation. This is how the federal government’s homepage summarized her message to Hungarian president János Áder who was on an official state visit to Germany: “The chancellor spoke critically about the Hungarian parliament’s further amendments to the constitution. She repeatedly made the case for a responsible use of the two-thirds majority the Hungarian government has at its disposal in the parliament. The concerns of Hungary’s European partners and friends about the curtailing of the powers of the constitutional court, among other issues, must be taken seriously."  [2]

The German chancellor’s reaction goes further than earlier comments made by conservative European politicians. Only one year ago, MEPs of the EPP remained stalwart behind Orbán during a plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg focusing on the political developments in Hungary. [3] EPP Group Chairman Joseph Daul came to Orbán’s defence, arguing that the latter had come to power in a moment when the country was in a very unfavourable economic and political situation and that the new constitution was debated and approved by parliament. Merkel’s statement marks a clear departure from this line and will make it more difficult for Orbán to claim that criticism directed at his reforms and style of government is based on misunderstandings and misinformation.

Yet, one must also note that Merkel’s cautious warning to president Áder did not prevent the latter from declaring that he would sign the amendments two days after the vote in parliament. This is not to suggest that Orbán’s political friends should refrain from reminding him time and time again about the importance of observing democratic principles. What would be more helpful, though, is if European democrats – belonging to left, right and centre – finally put their differences aside with a view to formulating a common position against the centralization of political power. Behind-the-curtains diplomacy appears to have run its course and there is a real danger that unwelcome precedents become entrenched as norms, both in their place of birth and elsewhere.

[1] The constitution was adopted with 262 votes that came from the ranks of the Fidesz-KDNP party. Opposition parties either boycotted the vote or voted against the text.