Regime Consolidation: A Missed Opportunity
The new constitution in Hungary is not anti-democratic; however, it does harm to the conditions of Hungary’s medium- and long-term political stability.
The reasons for this are the following:
- There is no wider political support behind the new constitution than what the governing parties can grant; thus in the long run, Hungarian society may become distrustful of the new political regime, just as it did of the former constitutional system formed in 1989-90.
- The new constitution and the upcoming supplementary laws requiring a two-thirds majority result in such personal and organizational changes in the system of political institutions that aim to secure the position of the present governing parties even beyond the electoral cycle. Thisinevitably leads to deepening political cleavages.
- The opposition forces have declared their aim to gain a two-thirds majority at the next general elections, which also intensifies political conflicts. The aim will be not simply to take governmental powers but to overthrow the current regime as a whole.
- The system remains unstable, and thus it is going to be more difficult to strengthen people’s trust in institutions. The argument that has been used against the revoked constitution, namely that it was provisional, will be used against the new constitution, too.
- The new constitution enhances governability only in the short run; governmental efficiency may deteriorate over the next governmental cycles because of the overregulation caused by a huge number of laws requiring a two-thirds majority.
- The new constitution makes a shift towards centralization and weakens the government’s counterbalances, especially by narrowing the competence of the Constitutional Court. This is a legitimate move of Fidesz-KDNP in order to enhance the governmental efficiency. Meanwhile, the hand of the future governments will be tied in several fields.
Weakening governmental stability on the middle run
- The present government fills the leading positions of independent institutions with people standing close to it, who also have mandates that go beyond the present cycle. This step limits the elbow room of future governments, and thus entails the chance of strong and systematic political conflicts. The most controversial decision of the government (a political plot according to the judges’ organizations) is that the constitution pulls down the retiring age: it will be 62 years instead of the present 70. This means that approximately 300 positions will have to be fulfilled after judges are retired.
- The next government may have restricted power from an economic point of view, too:
- The most important is the regulation concerning the reduction of state debt. The Parliament cannot accept a budget that increases public debt (except for the case of an economic crisis), and its level cannot exceed 50% of the GDP. This strict regulation conveys a positive message in the short run: the government is committed to reduce the debt. However, this limitation may restrict the scope of economic policy in the long run.
- The new constitution names the HUF as Hungary’s legal tender, which means that the introduction of the euro will be possible only if a two-thirds support of the prevailing parliament is granted. This entails a great potential for political blackmail for the opposition in the future.
- According to the new constitution, the Fiscal Council would have a right of veto the budget, and the President of the Republic would have the right to dissolve the Parliament in case it does not adopt a budget until March. Thus the Fiscal Council (with Fidesz-close members in the coming years) and the president together could overthrow the government. This may in fact undermine the stability of future governments. But this possibility risks the government’s stability for only one year in case Fidesz gets overthrown in 2014. In this case, Pál Schmitt’s mandate will expire in 2015, and the current parliamentary majority will have the power to elect a new president.
- With the adoption of the new constitution the modification of the constitutional system has not come to an end. According to the constitution, the following areas will be re-regulated by laws requiring a two-thirds majority:
- The Parliament is planning to adopt more than 30 laws that require a two-thirds vote until the end of the year. Some of these will regulate institutions and areas that have been regulated by laws adopted by a simple majority.
Consolidation put off
- Following the regime change in 1989-90, the social consolidation of the Hungarian constitutional system has not been accomplished. People’s disappointment with economic and social relations as well as their dissatisfaction with consecutive governments ranged over the whole of the political system. The erosion of trust in institutions accelerated during the last ten years. The index measuring the demand for extreme right-wing ideology (DEREX) developed by Political Capital shows that the proportion of respondents who were critical of the system grew from 12 to 46 per cent between 2002 and 2009. Respondents were distrustful of the political elite, the legal system, the judiciary and international institutions at the same time. One of the most important aims of the creation of a new constitution initiated by Fidesz-KDNP, which got a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010, would have been to change this situation. However, this plan has clearly failed.
- The government made an attempt to create the semblance of participation in the constitution drafting process by sending out questionnaires to the more than 8 million voters, but neither interest organizations nor the political parties of the opposition were given any roles in the drafting process. Two of the latter, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and Politics Can Be Different (LMP) expressed their protest by staying away from both the parliamentary debate and the final vote. The new constitution was eventually passed by 261 representatives of the governing parties and one independent MP. The parliamentary faction of Jobbik and two other independent MPs did not support it (there were 44 votes against and one abstention). This means that the new constitution was only supported by the governing parties, which involves the risk that if the popularity of Fidesz-KDNP is on the ebb, the support for the new constitution may also be eroded.
- The legitimacy of the new constitution is strongly tied to the governing parties. This problem could be resolved by a referendum or new general elections. The government, however, rejects these solutions at the moment. They will not hold a referendum, but there is a slight chance of elections brought forward to 2012, which could also confirm the new constitution. The chance of elections brought forward is marked by the governing parties’ haste to adopt all other laws requiring a two-thirds majority until the end of 2011. However, there seems to be little chance of calling for elections: the austerity measures detailed by the government in the Széll Kálmán Plan and the Convergence Program are expected to be the most perceptible in 2012, and this would harm Fidesz-KDNP’s chances to win again, especially as their support is diminishing.
- The demonstrations against the new constitution made it clear that political actors opposing the present government are thinking about the necessity of gaining a two-thirds majority at the next elections. Opposing the government implies opposing the new constitution, too. This will inevitably lead to the intensification of political conflicts: political opponents will strive to gain an overwhelming majority, which pushes political life in Hungary towards even more conflicts and thwarts the consolidation of the political system.