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The Hungarian model of democracy

The Fidesz party claimed it would reverse diminishing trust toward politicians. But did the Hungarian people, or the international community, fully understand what was being promised?

András Palatitz
24 June 2011

The President of the Republic Pál Schmitt gave his blessing to the new constitution of Hungary on Easter Monday. The ceremony, apart from manifesting the government's choice of religious and nationalist symbolism, laid down the cornerstone of the new model of Hungarian democracy. The Fidesz-KDNP government has intentionally abandoned Hungary’s social and political heritage, breaking with a political consensus shared by most Hungarian political forces since the democratic transition of 1989.

Making use of its constitutional majority in the parliament, it has produced a one-party constitution, and assembled a one-party Media Council that limits the freedom of speech. Moreover, the rule of law has been severely redirected towards monopolistic control, the Constitutional Court is now strongly biased towards the government, and the former Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány is being prosecuted for misuse of his authority in a prosecution he accuses of political bias. On top of that, the reform of the Election Act has granted dual citizenship and therefore the right to vote to the approximately one million Hungarians living in neighbouring countries, which is intended to give the Fidesz a new set of loyal voters in case of a possible loss of popularity at the national level. Finally, the official name of the country has been altered from ‘Republic of Hungary’ to just ‘Hungary’.

Is this a typical case of the ‘fallacy of electoralism’, the ‘rise of the predatory state or illiberal democracies’, or quite the contrary, an autonomous and legitimate experiment in standardising concepts and principles of democracy in order to cope with the discontents of globalisation and the financial crisis? Although indices measuring the quality of democracy have shown declining tendencies, Hungary is still regarded as a member of the set of full democracies. The ‘national revival’ constitution codifies the democratic rule of law and the separation of powers. As the current president of the European Council, Hungary leads debate on crucial European issues. Opinion polls suggest that despite its rapid decrease, the government’s popular support still offers a legitimate basis for governing. In terms of its overall political environment, Hungary is seldom compared with an Asian or Latin-American country: but at the moment the only difference is geographical. The accumulation of power and tendency towards dismantling the system of built-in democratic checks and balances are clear signs of a profound regime change.

These tendencies in policy-making and ideology were apparent to citizens at the time of the parliamentary elections in 2010: the Fidesz’s party agenda claimed it would reinvigorate democracy to reverse diminishing social trust toward politicians. But elements of this reform only took shape after the ballot victory. However, trust in the ‘politics of hope’ is not the only reason why both the Hungarian voters and the international society placed confidence in the current Hungarian governance. Defining democracy and implementing its criteria internationally after the financial crisis seems to be taking even longer than individual countries’ experiments to provide alternatives. European diversity in this context means that governments such as the Hungarian government can defend their right to create their own language of democracy exclusively for the national political market, on the grounds that they are participating in the promotion of deliberative democracy and stronger European integration at the international level.

This Hungarian ‘linguistic politics’ not only tries to manipulate international perception, but is used as a way of maximizing power. An example of this is the renaming of the Supreme Court to ‘Kúria’, an archaic name for the institution that dates back to before 1949. Aside from being a romanticized reminder of a splendid golden age, this provides the government with a pretext for replacing the incumbent members of the Court with its own adherents. When the government had the media law modified, which was claimed to be a “pyrrhic victory for the European Union”, the Hungarian Government’s concessions were parked in the small print relating to ‘technical adjustments’ in Hungarian. In this way, the government relies on highly professional communication advisers to use politics in the vernacular as a means of national manipulation and as an experiment in standardizing the concept of democracy for its own benefit.

Although there is a lack of up-to-date information on denominational affiliations and the decline of faith in Hungary, it is clear that Christianity has re-emerged in official communications as a tool for the preservation of nationhood. Prime minister Viktor Orbán emphasised the symbolic similarity of Jesus’ resurrection to the birth of the new constitution. It was also no coincidence that the constitution was signed on Easter Monday. The new set of basic laws apparently bears epochal significance.

The gap between constitutional liberalism and democracy is being widened by this government’s practices in power. As in the case of other central-eastern-European countries, constitutionalism in Hungary has nothing to do with the demos itself. At the time of the ’89 transition the political elite could not afford to risk the failure of a referendum on basic laws, intended to clear the ground for democracy. Nowadays the referendum is the only instrument which can provide political stability and legitimacy for a democratic constitution. The National Electoral Commission has rejected a popular initiative for a referendum on the new constitution, confining the right to create the constitution exclusively to the parliament.

Opinion polls suggest that the popularity of the government is increasingly on the wane. Efforts to legitimise governance and the new constitution by the process of “national consultation”, i.e. surveys set up in accordance with governmental goals, do little to reflect the independent opinions of the public. And if we accept as an institutional criterion of democracy that it must provide guarantees of civil control and the separation of powers, the recent process of the Hungarian constitutionalism only prolongs the vacuum of legitimacy.

The ‘politics of hope’ in Hungary, framed by religious and linguistic components, has led to a socially fragile and politically questionable situation where stable governance is subordinated to faith rather than rationality. There is little doubt that the restoration of common sense will be extremely costly and inevitably a challenge for future governments.

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