The first draft of the Hungarian constitution was released late last night. It contains the ideas of the Fidesz-KDNP coalition and, as Gergely Gulyás, one of the framers, told the journalist János Dési in this morning's "Jam" on ATV, there are several points that may not be included in the final version.
A day before its release Marion Smith, a graduate fellow at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies, wrote an article about the new Hungarian constitution in The Foundry, a conservative news blog of The Heritage Foundation "whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditonal American values, and a strong national defense." The Heritage Foundation has had strong ties with Fidesz. Even if the White House, under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, didn't welcome Viktor Orbán, the Heritage Foundation always had a welcome mat out for the Hungarian prime minister.
Marion Smith, who seems to be a student of the American revolution and the constitution, talks at length about the drafting of the U.S. constitution. James Madison "steeped himself in the classics and studied the early Greek democracies and Roman republic in order to learn from their successes and avoid their mistakes." John Locke and Montesqueieu were inspirations. Madison arrived with a draft, which then was debated for five months in Philadelphia. The debates focused on philosophical points, the proper relationship between government and society, and the best methods to limit governmental power.
Marion Smith admits that the five weeks allowed for the discussion of the Hungarian constitution seems to be very short, but he consoles himself and his readers with the fact that "the constitutional process begun last September has gone according to schedule." He brushes off the criticism that the constitution will be the product of only one party "without opposition support." He misleads his readers by claiming that this new constitution will "replace the amended communist constitution of 1949." In 1989 the original document was completely rewritten, not just amended.
Finally Smith expresses his hope that the new Hungarian constitution will resemble "America's own [that] was anchored in the universal truths set forth in the Declaration of Independence." According to him, "it takes serious philosophical work to apply timeless truths to the particular circumstances at hand." Otherwise, Smith would seem to be unfamiliar with the current constitution because he thinks that "the world will watch with expectation Hungary's new experiment in establishing good government."
Well, to think of József Szájer and Gergely Gulyás as the Hungarian Madisons makes me laugh. As for the establishment of good government, most people realize that there was no burning need for a new constitution without which there could be no good government. The Fidesz urge to draft a new constitution was almost an afterthought: once they came up with the idea of a "revolution" they had to find a way to make their revolution permanent.
The reactions to the released draft are mixed and still somewhat superficial. There simply hasn't been enough time to ponder all the details and their possible implications. Some changes may not be as important as some critics fear. To give a few examples: there are today 19 "counties" (megyék) in Hungary. In the new constitution they are called "vármegyék," a term that was discontinued in 1945. Or, the name of the supreme court of Hungary (Legfelsőbb Bíróság) wil revert back to Kúria, the name of the institution between 1867 and 1945. Critics charge that the Orbán government is returning to the times of the Horthy regime. And some people feel that changing the name of the country from Magyar Köztársaság (Hungarian Republic) to Magyarország (Hungary) shows Fidesz's dislike of the very institution of the republic.
These changes may not by themselves have great significance. Let's face it, no one calls Hungary Magyar Köztársaság in ordinary speech. Moreover, it makes sense to keep traditional names for certain institutions. I was, for example, pleased to hear a few years ago that the reestablished appellate courts would be called by their traditional name: "ítélőtáblák." The important consideration is not the name but how the institution functions. Unfortunately, there are signs in this draft that the independence of the courts might not be assured. And it is worrisome that the government will appoint the heads of counties.
There are some very distasteful elements in the constitutional draft, especially in the preamble. Because President Pál Schmitt succeeded in putting his two cents worth into the constitution, Hungarians are supposed to avoid foreign words. This kind of nonsense was tried once, naturally during the first Orbán government, when on store fronts foreign words had to be translated into Hungarian. Once Orbán was gone so were the signs. And now that most Hungarians have learned what "preambulum" means, they can forget the word. It will either be called "national creed" (nemzeti hitvallás) expressing a mixture of nationalism and religiosity or, perhaps more acceptably, "national manifesto" (nemzeti nyilatkozat).
The first sentence of the constitution is the first line of the Hungarian national anthem: "God bless the Hungarians!" and the last sentence of the preamble is the hackneyed Fidesz slogan that appeared on the ill-fated declaration that had to be displayed in government offices: "Be there peace, freedom, and harmony." I hope for their own sake that they leave these out because otherwise no one will be able to deny that this is a Fidesz constitution and nothing more.
If we compare the American and the new Hungarian constitutions there is one very basic difference. The first three words of the preamble to the U.S. Constitution are: "We the People of the United States…" The new Hungarian constitution says in its second sentence that "we, the members of the Hungarian nation, at the beginning of the new millennium with responsibility for every Hungarian, state the following…" This is a huge difference. The American constitution talks about all people living in a geographic area while the Hungarian draft talks exclusively about the members of the Hungarian nation. Perhaps the framers are so insensitive that they don't realize the possible consequences of this formulation. I see no explanation in the constitution or elsewhere about who is considered to be a member of the Hungarian nation. Who will decide? When in common parlance Gypsies refer to non-Gypsies as "magyarok" and non-Gypsies don't consider Gypsies Hungarians, we may be in trouble.
This is just the very beginning. It continues with a litany about the greatness of the nation and its intellectual and spiritual unity. But more about all this tomorrow.