More serious problems with the new Hungarian constitution

I promise this is the last post on the constitution. Yes, I know, I spent too much time on the “national creed” but I don’t think that it was a total waste of time. After all, beside the historical inaccuracies there are a number of provisions that might have far-reaching implications.

I read quite a few analyses of the draft that minimized the significance of certain changes introduced in the main text of this new constitution. The first word usually is “thank God at least it doesn’t completely undo the power structure of the Third Republic.” Thanks for small favors. After all, even Fidesz cannot come up with a constitution that openly admits that Hungary is no longer a democratic country but an autocracy. That much honesty we can’t expect from these guys.

However, a careful reading of the text reveals that a substantial narrowing of the democratic structure is being attempted here. The subtle and not so subtle changes in wording aim at ensuring Fidesz’s political influence in the future, perhaps for decades. Even if Fidesz loses the next elections the rewritten constitution will help Viktor Orbán and his cohorts make the work of the next government well nigh impossible. In addition, Fidesz seems to want to reduce social services to a minimum and to cut the remaining checks and balances even further.

Here are some of the more worrisome new provisions. Let’s start with the constitutional court. Although Gergely Gulyás and János Lázár often claimed that the competence of the court will be restored in the new constitution, that is not the case. The court will not be able to rule on financial matters. Also, there will be a change in the election process and the tenure of the chief justice. Today the chief justice is elected by his fellow justices for a period of three years. According to the new constitution he will be elected by parliament for a twelve-year term. One must keep in mind that the frequent reference to the Hungarian parliament as the best guarantee of the present regime’s democratic practices is a laugh. After all, the Fidesz-KDNP members of parliament were hand-picked by Viktor Orbán himself, and not one of them would dare go against the chief’s will. So, basically, it depends on Viktor Orbán alone who will be elected to what position.

At the moment Péter Paczolay is the chief justice; he was elected in 2008. Thus his term as chief justice expires this year. So, let’s assume that “parliament” elects István Stumpf, a member of the first Orbán government. He will be the chief justice until 2023.

I wrote earlier that the Supreme Court (Legfelsőbb Bíróság) will be replaced by the traditional court known as the Kúria. That may and most likely will mean the replacement of András Baka as head of the Supreme Court. András Baka was nominated by László Sólyom and Baka is not exactly the favorite of the current government. Especially since he had grave reservations about the nullification of crimes committed during the 2006 September-October events.

The new constitution also extends the tenure of the chairman of the national bank. Currently it is six years but if the constitution is accepted, and why wouldn’t it be, the new bank chairman will be able to serve for nine years. András Simor’s tenure will expire in 2013–that is, if he has enough perseverance–and therefore a Fidesz man can fill the position until 2022.

The positions of chief prosecutor and head of the accounting office were taken care of earlier. Péter Polt, a key member of what Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) called in a 2001 article the “szervezett felvilág” (organized upperworld instead of underworld), may remain in his position until he reaches the age of seventy (2025) because his possible successor must also be elected by a two-thirds majority. The head of the accounting office, László Domokos, received a twelve-year term. He will be there until 2022. In brief, if we start counting with the beginning of the current Fidesz government these key posts will remain in Fidesz hands through three election cycles.

The role of the “annoying” ombudsmen will be seriously curtailed. Currently there are four ombudsmen (human rights, privacy issues, minority issues, and environmental issues). From here on there will be only one ombudsman who may name a certain number of deputies. Máté Szabó (human rights) most likely will be removed because he is an especially bothersome fellow. Considering that the Hungarian government in its role as rotating president of the European Union made solving the Roma issue an important goal, its elimination of the position of ombudsman for minorities, currently held by a man of Gypsy origins, is interesting to say the least. I might also note that while the constitution is defending sign language, minority languages are not mentioned in the document.

There are serious attempts in the constitution to eliminate elements of the welfare state. For example, here are a couple of important changes. The current constitution declares that “the citizens of the Hungarian Republic have the right to social security.” The new draft states that “Hungary is endeavoring to provide social security to all its citizens.” As for pensions for citizens, the current constitution talks about “the right to provisions in old age” while the new one states that “Hungary contributes to the provision of livelihood in old age.” That explains an item in the new constitution: “adult children are obliged to provide for parents in need.”

Although most people thought that the hair-raising idea of extra votes on behalf of children under the age of eighteen will not be included in the draft, this crazy notion made its appearance after all. Originally, it was the idea of József Szájer (MEP) who allegedly drafted the new constitution on his iPad, but by now this notion has gained a certain respectability within Fidesz circles. For example, yesterday Lajos Kósa, one of the vice chairmen of the party, gave an interview to the far-right Magyar Hírlap in which in his usual blunt way he announced that the old folks who are the most conscientious voters shouldn’t be the ones who decide the future. I guess, after all, they will be dead in ten years or so and their children and grandchildren will be stranded with their choices. That’s why young and middle-aged people should have extra votes. I would like to remind Mr. Kósa what happened to Fidesz in 1993-94 when Viktor Orbán said something similar about those old folks. Within a few months, Fidesz moved from a leading position to having the smallest parliamentary delegation in the House.

I’m sure that a more careful comparison of the two constitutions will reveal additional substantive provisions that might change the course of Hungary’s future. But for the time being there is enough here to ponder on.

March 13, 2011