Is Hungary on the verge of democratic collapse? Blikk

Media law, oppressing private pension funds, decrease of the retirement age of judges and other similar issues have already received harsh feedback from the international political world, during Viktor Orbán’s second era as a prime minister. 

Recently, the Hungarian media has been intensely covering and debating the current governmental measures, regarding the education, the central bank, and the most controversial implications - the amendments of the constitution.

The first scandal was the decrease in the number of admissible state-financed university students, and the cut in budget, hand-in-hand with the obligation of university students to sign a bounding contract, which aims to set a number of conditions on them to stay within the country after finishing school. These new regulations naturally induced general dissatisfaction among students, who in response, organized a series of demonstrations all over the country. 

The second action was the appointment of the finance minister, at that time still in office, to the presidential position of the Central Bank. This raised significant concerns about the further independence of the monetary institution. In addition there have also been worries about the future responsible monetary policy, since Mr. Matolcsy has received a lot of criticism about his “unorthodox” economic policies. And so it was not a surprise that it was quite negative news for the investors, that now he is about the lead the Hungarian National Bank.

What also turned out to be quite unwelcome among foreign investors was that Orbán referred to a possible limitation on foreign banks presence within Hungary. Also, he created a conversion of foreign-currency loans into forint-based ones. As a result, the forint reached its weakest level during the past few months, which can be interpreted as an intention to depreciate the currency, thus increasing export (as explained by Bloomberg). (In my personal opinion it is not enough to raise exports or foreign investments, given the current political environment.) 

The last drop, which also rang the alarming bells within the EU was, that yesterday the President of the Republic (?) signed the modifications of the Hungarian Constitution (or ground norm), which is considered to endanger the democratic principles of the separation of powers, thus the checks and balances and democracy as an institution.

The “constitutional” events

On the 11th of March, despite the previous request of the EU to halt the decision over the laws modifying the constitution, before they can be evaluated by experts, the parliament (, in which the current governmental party Fidesz has a 2/3 majority), passed them anyway. Soon after they were revealed, people began to gather around the Presidential Palace, to protest against the parliament’s act, and to ask the President, János Áder, not to sign these modifications, which are unacceptable for the citizens.

The Council of Europe and the European Commission also immediately reacted to the decision:

“These amendments raise concerns with respect to the principle of the rule of law, EU law and Council of Europe standards”

stated José Manuel Barroso and Thorborn Jagland in their common announcement.

Martin Schulz expressed his regrets and worries about the safety of democratic norms within Hungary. Angela Merkel, for the first time criticized openly the governmental actions at her meeting with János Áder, and reminded the government about the huge responsibility that a 2/3 majority poses.

The media also raised voices against the current situation. For instance, according to the magazine “Die Welt ”, Orbán destroys the culture of the “legal state” and the rule of law. One of the strongest critics of such measures was László Sólyom - a former President of Hungary, who was previously a judge of the Constitutional Court. He asked Áder to reject the amendments, since in his opinion, the Orbán government uses the Constitution for its daily political purposes.

Despite all the above, Áder János, who before his election to be the President was a leading member of the governmental party, has signed the amendments, hence, they can now enter into force:

“It is obviously my constitutional obligation to sign and proclaim the current amendments, regardless of who is in favor of it, and whether I agree with it or not”

As “Wienerzeitung ” has published, Viviane Reding, European justice commissioner, warned Hungary, that in response to these amendments, the EU might suspend some of the fund payments, saying, that 

“The European Commission is the guardian of the treaties and laws and cannot be an impassive onlooker when a country is violating the basic rights laid down in the treaties"

What caused the outcry?

The most ambiguous initiatives are the ones that narrow higher educational laws, family law, elections, homelessness and the authority of the Constitutional Court. 

The first of them are ones,  which previously the Constitutional Court itself had declared unconstitutional. 

Regarding the elections, the amendments would restrict political advertising. They ban paid political advertisements and permit the appearance only for the unpaid ones and only in the Hungarian public media and other restrictions during elections.

About homelessness, although, the new Constitutional provisions state, that local and central governments aspire to find a place to stay for everyone without shelter, in the next paragraph, it entitles such authorities to implement restrictive measures, point-blank,  to  enable to fine or imprison terms of “habitual stay in public places”, which might indicate the criminalization of homelessness. 

University students, on the other hand, might only be entitled to financial grants if they work in Hungary after graduation (just try to harmonize this with the free movement of labor force principle within the EU).

The restrictions on the Constitutional Court, at the same time, are considered more severe. Previously it was even questioned that the government had mitigated the power of the Court in decisions regarding laws on public finances, during the times when sovereign debt exceeds half of the budget. The latest amendment deprives the Constitutional Court from the right to decide over constitutional amendments, whether they are Constitutional or not. Such power is reduced only to judge whether such regulations are created and adopted in accordance with the related procedural rules. This provision is feared by many critics, to undermine democratic values, human rights and the functions of the Court to act as a guardian of constitutional principles.

Since now these points will constitute part of the constitution, only a two-third majority will be able to change them in the future, which would make it harder to any newly elected governments to change them.

One of the strongest critics of such measures was László Sólyom, former President of Hungary, who previously was judge of the Constitutional Court.

The prime-minister, Viktor Orbán, after the announcement of the accepted amendments, was subject to several critical questions in Brussels. Orbán confidently responded to the questions, some of them with evasive answers, declaring that Fidesz is a party elected by the Hungarians, which has induced radical changes, mitigated the indebtedness of the country and improved its perspectives for future growth. On the other hand, he found it absurd that as he said, he received critics only one day before the decision over the above amendments. He was defending the sovereign status of Hungary by addressing that Hungary has worked for long for its liberty, it is not willing to give it up, referring to the unwanted intrusion by the EU into domestic resolutions.

One thing is sure, the confusion and criticism on Orbán’s government is prevalent at an international level, but still it has several supporters within Hungary. Is it just media turmoil generated to penetrate the government, or is it true that the government is dismantling democracy? Well, I will leave this to your opinion.