Whose constitution?

At the moment it looks as if the new constitution that was considered to be key to Viktor Orbán’s plans for the country’s “renewal” might be a document drafted only by Fidesz and Jobbik. At least Jobbik’s András Baczó announced today that the party has decided to return and participate in the process. Earlier MSZP announced that it would not take part in “the circus,” as they called the hurried writing of this important document. If tomorrow LMP decides on non-participation, as is likely, the new Hungarian constitution will be written by a party that is, according to its leader’s description, right wing, Christian and nationalist, and Jobbik, a party of the extreme right reflecting an ideology that can be described as neo-Nazi. What a prospect.

It must be embarrassing and perhaps also politically uncomfortable for Fidesz to be in this situation, especially after the U.S. State Department made it clear that “a constitution is not just another law–it needs to reflect not only universal values but also a broad non-partisan consensus on how to structure a country’s governance,” as Pamela Quanrud, assistant undersecretary for Europe, said in her speech at the panel discussion organized by the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies the other day. Surely, a constitution that is drafted by two right-wing parties will not “reflect the general will of a substantial portion of the population” and therefore it will be suspect in the eyes of foreign governments of democratic persuasion.

In the last few days, there have been attempts to persuade the other parties to participate in the process, but it seems that the only result is Jobbik’s return, which certainly isn’t helping Fidesz’s situation. Orbán made a mistake at the very beginning when he pretty well allowed the Christian Democratic Party (or rather non-party) to run the show in the parliamentary subcommittee created to lay down the principles on which the text of the constitution will be based. The chairman of the subcommittee is the Christian Democrat László Salamon who has a mission: to make sure that the new constitution contains three important “Christian values.” First, life begins at conception and thus the rather liberal abortion laws must be changed; second, marriage is a bond between a man and a woman; and finally, legal families must have special privileges as opposed to the ever increasing number of “families” where the couple never married.

On Salamon’s insistence, these “Christian values” were included in a seventeen-page summary of the basic concepts of the new constitution. Salamon duly passed this document on to Fidesz. The two government parties just held a three-day meeting in Siófok where among other things the recommendations of Salamon’s subcommittee were discussed. Great was Salamon’s surprise when he, like all the other participants, received a shortened version of his document from which his three “Christian values” were missing. He was outraged. According to Salamon, as far as he and his party are concerned these were to be the cornerstones of the new constitution and if these items are missing one ought not even bother to create a new document. He threatened that the Christian Democrats would refuse to vote for the denuded constitution. Orbán wasn’t moved because in his opinion any tightening of the present law on abortion would mean his party’s fall at the next elections if not earlier.

But there were other points of contention between Viktor Orbán and the Christian Democrats. Orbán, realizing that this Fidesz-Christian Democratic-Jobbik constitution will not float abroad, pretty well sidestepped Salamon and his subcommittee and appointed a new body headed by József Szájer, a European parliamentary member. Szájer’s committee by now is the second non-parliamentary body that is supposed “to think about the concepts of a new constitution.” This new committee is an odd one just as the earlier one was. The members are János Csáki, a businessman and currently Hungarian ambassador in London; József Pálinkás, a physicist and president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; Zsigmond Járai, economist and former president of the Hungarian National Bank; and Katalin Szili, former MSZP speaker of the house who belonged to MSZP’s left wing. Szili’s role in this whole sordid business is outright shameful. Moreover, what these people know about constitutional law is a mystery to everybody.

One can easily imagine Salamon’s reaction to the creation of this new committee. Moreover, Szájer came up with an entirely new plan; he announced at the meeting yesterday that they will “put aside” the seventeen-page recommendations of Salamon’s committee and instead will ask every party to submit their own ideas about the new constitution. Fidesz is trying to coax the other parties back to the drafting table.

Today Ferenc Gyurcsány in his blog expressed his own opinion about the conditions under which MSZP might be willing to cooperate on the drafting of a new constitution. He outlined three conditions for joining the talks: (1) For the acceptance of a new constitution 80% of parliament must vote for it. Here I should mention that during the Horn government (1994-1998) there was an attempt to adopt a new constitution and the government in anticipation changed the law for this sole purpose. In fact, the government didn’t manage to get the necessary votes. Fidesz a few months ago got rid of this provision. (2) All the “bogus” committees that were set up by Viktor Orbán should be disbanded and again with 80% of the votes a parliamentary body drawing on all parties should be established. (3) Before the constitution is adopted there should be a referendum.

It is highly unlikely that Fidesz will agree to these demands. It is also highly unlikely that MSZP and LMP will be enticed by Szájer’s offer because by now they most likely don’t trust anything Fidesz says or does. Perhaps the best thing would be simply to announce a temporary retreat. Perhaps a later date might be more conducive to the creation of a new constitution. After all, the present one is democratic and functional. Yes, perhaps it could be written more elegantly and more precisely, but it will do for a few more years since it worked reasonably well in the last twenty years. But such a retreat would be difficult, especially after Orbán made such a big deal out of the constitution in his latest speech.

According to the media, the three-day meeting in Siófok was supposed to discuss the austerity program the world has been anxiously waiting for. Yet it seems that the topic wasn’t even mentioned. Let’s hope that the pieces are in place and no discussion was necessary because everybody is expecting Orbán to announce the details of the austerity program in parliament on Monday.

February 11, 2011