Hungary’s Constitution and Cardinal Laws – completing the political, institutional and intellectual renewal of Hungary. Essay of Tibor Navracsics Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Public Administration and Justice published on the Conservative Home website.
I wrote for Conservative Home in November about Hungary’s democratic development. This was partly in response to criticism that Hungary was backsliding on its commitment to European democratic values. It is important that the wider conservative family should understand the changes we are making to Hungarian society and the reasons for them.
My argument was that there is no one standard democratic model. Rather, there are many forms and variations around the world, all of which change and evolve continuously to meet contemporary challenges. Had democracies been incapable of adapting to changing realities, this form of government would not have proved to be the most successful over the past centuries.
The responses to my article were varied and illuminating. One question came up time and again. It related to Hungary’s new constitution and, specifically, the "cardinal laws" that the Hungarian Government is currently enacting. Conservative Home has kindly given me the opportunity to explain the purpose of these laws.
The historical context is important. Our new constitution, or Fundamental Law, will come into effect on 1 January 2012. It will replace a "temporary constitution" introduced by the communists in 1949. This deprived Hungarian citizens of their freedom, legitimised a one-party dictatorship and made Hungary a fiefdom of the Soviet Empire.
We gained our independence in 1989, but we did not gain a constitution. In the turmoil that followed the collapse of communism, the Hungarian Parliament left the communist constitution intact. It has been amended over the years through horse-trading behind closed doors, but without any public debate or consultation with the people.
It was therefore overwhelmingly obvious to the Hungarian electorate in 2010 that we needed a Fundamental Law that clearly lays down the ground rules for the relation between civil society and the state. That is what we have provided. We had hoped for the co-operation of our opponents in Parliament, and are well aware that a constitution should represent a national consensus and not a party-political ideology. Unfortunately the socialists in Parliament boycotted the constitutional discussions, and made clear at every point that consensus is not on their agenda.
Readers of Conservative Home will know that conservatives are subject to systematic demonization by their opponents, and that there is a knee-jerk reaction among liberal journalists against any policy or way of thinking that can be characterised as "right-wing". We in Fidesz have suffered from this, not in spite of our popularity but because of it. The intellectual establishment in my country has strong international networks that are eager to discredit us. Hence every way in which the new constitution can be represented as a "power grab" has been explored and exploited. I think this should be borne in mind by those who take the trouble to read our document.
We were acutely aware of the danger of attempting to solve all the structural problems inherited from the years of communist dictatorship in one document, and with one set of discussions. For this reason we make provision in the constitution for "cardinal laws", which will require a two-thirds vote of Parliament for their removal. These laws will be introduced only after further discussion. Despite the accusations of our opponents, they are not designed to entrench a particular ideology or political doctrine, but to decide matters of enduring public concern, which will be acknowledged to be such by all Hungarians.
It should be remembered that many issues which in Britain are settled by long-standing conventions or deeply embedded laws have never been properly discussed or decided in Hungary, despite their importance to the future of the country. For example the rules for the operation and financial management of political parties, for the protection of nationalities, for the establishment of regulatory bodies, for the regulation of the courts, for the distribution of powers between central and local government and for the fiscal status of churches. We took the view that such matters are delicate and to a large measure independent of each other, but nevertheless dependent on a constitutional framework that would endure through changes of government.
Hence we have proposed that they be governed by cardinal laws to be settled by Parliament after reviewing each matter. We believe that an impartial observer would, on looking through the Constitution, agree with us as to which matters require additional protection of this kind and which can be left to the fluctuating tide of politics.
Of course, if the number of such laws is too great, this might be seen as a threat to democracy, since cardinal laws are obstacles to change. Remember, however, that all constitutions serve as brakes on legislation, and that this is their point. The American Constitution, with its extensive amendments, and its case law delivered by a court of unelected judges over 200 years, has gone much further in constraining the freedoms of American citizens than we propose to go in governing the long-term future of Hungary.
The real question is one of balance: to what extent are the clauses of the constitution balanced by the powers of the legislature? We are aiming for the optimal solution to that problem, while recognising that the situation we have inherited is one that requires radical measures, if Hungary is to take its deserved place among the democracies of Europe.
In this way, Hungary’s new Fundamental Law will serve as the backbone of Hungarian democracy; and the cardinal laws will complete the political, institutional and intellectual renewal of the country. The Government is drawing a clear line under the post-communist period that has endured for the last 20 years.
Hungary and the Central Europe are undergoing dramatic changes. What is at stake is citizens’ belief that the State and its democratic institutions can serve their interests and use public money to improve their lives through quality public services, impartial judges, responsive public administration and stable institutions. Achieving this requires innovative policy approaches to adapt to the new economic reality. Just as the political compromises and institutional framework of 1989 failed to bring about efficient governance, so the old policy approaches will fail to achieve sustainable growth in the economy.
Not a single decision by this Government or its parliamentary majority runs counter to our values, which are rooted in human liberty. Attempts to portray the Government’s actions as steps that will weaken democracy reflect an ideological way of thinking that serves pure political motivations. As a Central European country, Hungary has learned what tragic consequences ideological thinking can have.