In recent months Hungary has figured prominently in the news, partly as the country that currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, but also because of issues of domestic policy, which usually do not arouse much international interest. In general only negative headlines create a big stir. Frequent mention in the press and public opinion can itself be something of a warning.
At the beginning of the year Hungary was the target of many critical attacks, both domestically and internationally, primarily from socialist and leftist liberal circles, because of the new law regulating the media. Someone who does not live in Hungary might well imagine a veritable state of emergency with regards to the media, a paralyzed press, charges brought against journalists, all opposition silenced. In contrast, the press continues to judge, criticize, and debate. In the meantime it has become apparent to all that media laws across Europe contain restrictions similar to those for which Hungary is currently being attacked. Furthermore, the government has adopted the modifications proposed by the competent representatives of the European Union, most of which were merely technical in nature. In other words the hysteria that arose concerning the issue of freedom of the press had no basis in fact.
No less absurd was the subsequent resolution according to which parlamentarians of the European Union condemned Hungary for a law that had the approval of the competent authorities of the Union itself and comes into effect with European consent. This contradiction indicates that the motives underlying the critical assessments had nothing to do with an alleged attack on the freedom of the press, but rather were something entirely different.
The real problem is that as of 2002, Hungary has lost the leading role it previously played in the region. The Hungarian economy has not exploited the advantages that came with becoming a member state. Public debt has risen steeply and the global financial crisis has put the country in a critical position. For its unusually grievous mistakes the voters punished the left-wing government, which had ruled for two parliamentary cycles, with unusual severity, giving a two-thirds parliamentary majority to the centre-right coalition under Viktor Orbán.
Taking into consideration the fact that the population of the country could hardly endure further burdens, the new government took unusual measures to address the difficulties that had arisen and to stimulate economic growth. It imposed a crisis tax on the banking sector, energy providers, the largest commercial networks, which even in a time of economic crisis continued to show remarkable profits.
The government also made a difficult decision regarding the quasi-nationalization of private pension funds, which were introduced only fifteen years ago as an obligation of every taxpayer, but in a manner that did not give due consideration to the consequences. These funds, which it was hoped in 1995 would stabilize the pension system, were very inefficient and created a danger of financial instability. Another factor that threatened to bankrupt the state was that while the vast majority of pension contributions flowed into private accounts, the state made the actual pension payments, which in accordance with the earlier system were financed in practice almost entirely with public funds. The system, which bore no trace of rational financial planning, played a very significant role in the indebtedness of the state. In 2004, in response to a question concerning the reasons underlying the rapid growth of debt, the prime minister at the time replied that the state was using loans to make pension payments.
Considering these facts, one has every reason to suspect that the explanation for the hostility towards the Orbán government that has gathered strength across Europe lies in its adoption of these determined measures, which are an affront to the interests of big business.
No mention is made, however, of the affronts to its interests Hungarian society had endured over the past decades. It has had to suffer the trials of the rule of a party-state in almost every sphere of political, cultural, and economic life.
Over the past twenty years it has cost an enormous effort to society and the freely elected governments to pave the road to the new world. The policies of the left-wing, liberal governments have dramatically increased debt, particularly in the critical years of the second half of the past decade, and they have been unable to deal with the widespread problems of economic recession.
This touched off the domestic political crisis that lasted until 2010 and culminated in the sweeping victory of the centre-right coalition led by Viktor Orbán. The two-thirds parliamentary majority gave the government an unusual responsibility and the inevitable possibility to amend the constitutional framework. The reform of the constitutional framework also figured in the campaign programme and vision for the future of the governing coalition. It must now use the power with which it has been invested. And it would be wrong to fail to include in the new constitution significant demands for structural reform to ensure political, social, and economic development.
However, it is important to note that in its fundamental principles the 1989 Constitution has met the requirements of a parliamentary democracy and free market economy, and it has ensured the functioning of the state. But there are many issues to which it was not ideally suited, for instance public holding of strategic elements of national wealth or checks on excessive indebtedness, and it did not make it possible to enforce the dissolution in 2005 of a government that had lost moral legitimacy and support among voters after having been compelled to acknowledge publicly that it had repeatedly lied.
From a historical perspective the Constitution in effect in 1989–2011 in Hungary dates back to the era of the dictatorship, and to this day Hungary has not had a constitution that was adopted under the rule of a democratically elected government! Until 1949 an ensemble of legal practices, customs, and laws that evolved over centuries of history functioned as a sort of historical constitution. The Constitution adopted in 1949, a local variant of the Soviet Stalinist Constitution that sanctioned the communist takeover of power, swept all this to the side. In 1989, the party state fighting a sort of rear guard action, was given a determining role in the approval of the changes that had been won by the new democratic forces, changes that ensured transition.
The new law consists of two fundamental and significantly different parts. The introduction, which is roughly a page and a half and bears the title National Creed, plays the typical role of a preamble. It is followed by some thirty pages of text that establish in writing the customary contents of a constitution.
The majority of debates concerning the Constitution do not concern the stipulations of the greatest importance. There is broad consensus on these issues in Hungary, in spite of the fact that for political reasons the opposition has boycotted the process of drafting the new Constitution.
The creators of the draft proposal quite clearly strove to avoid encumbering the work with questions that would spark particularly heated debates from the perspective of party politics. This is why the text often indicates that detailed regulations will be determined later, in laws to be passed by a two-thirds majority. Considering that, from a legislative perspective, the Constitution itself is merely one of the laws that must be passed by a two-thirds majority, this solution unambiguously serves to foster debate of important questions of detail and later to create cooperation across party lines in addressing individual questions.
One of the peculiar characteristics of the drafting of a new Constitution today is that it has been taking place at a moment of considerable economic and political tension. Thus in spite of all intentions to limit it to matters of principle, it cannot simply be an enshrinement of general or abstract values. The experiences of the past two decades in some cases demand more practical thinking, first and foremost in questions of the budget and economy. This explains the stipulation that in the future state debt cannot exceed half of the GDP of the previous year. Alongside the values of the Christian-Humanist tradition, the European demographic crisis, which threatens Hungary as well, justifies the prominent role of the Constitution in the defence of the family, including the definition of marriage as a contract between a man and a woman. It is worth noting that the Constitution enshrines the principle of the protection of the life of a foetus while at the same time, respecting currently widespread practice, does not change the laws permitting abortion. The question of the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court was the subject of considerable debate. Few people know that since it began to function in 1990 the Constitutional Court has managed to secure for itself a role above the legislative power of parliament (which in and of itself would be sufficient justification for drafting a new constitution). The draft proposal attempts to remedy this imbalance of power, decreasing the role of this extremely important institution, but thereby merely bringing it in line with European norms.
The National Creed, the page and a half declaration of values sometimes referred to as the National Proclamation, has been the cause of more emotionally fraught debate than the essential questions. It contains, alongside fundamental universal principles, values of decisive importance in the thousand year tradition of Hungarian statehood. For instance the text of the constitution begins with the first line of the Hungarian national anthem: “God, bless the Hungarian.” In the first statement addressing national identity, national values, and historical tradition it says, “One thousand years ago our king Saint Stephen established the Hungarian State on solid foundations and made our homeland part of Christian Europe.”
The time arived for a democratic Hungary to create its Constitution. Perhaps there was no specific, direct compulsion to do so at the moment, but one could hardly contend that there was no historical need. The Constitution is approved by parliament now and when it becomes effective, in 2012, the many important new parts, as well as the provisions that are already in effect but now in their new phrasing have new force, will play a sine qua non role in Hungary’s general and constitutional renewal and in the expression of European values and the European heritage of constitutional law.