Wednesday, 13 March 2013

HUNGARY: '' Constitutional Changes'': The Altered Democracy in Europe

Lawmakers in Budapest overwhelmingly approved a package of constitutional changes on Monday. In addition to tightening laws regarding election campaigns, education, homelessness and family rights, the amendment severely limited the influence of the country's constitutional court.

The last constitution was based on a communist-era document rewritten in 1989 as Hungary became a democracy after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The court had previously struck down policies included in Orbán's Fundamental Law, as his new constitution is called. But Monday's amendment stipulated that none of the court's decisions made between 1989 and 2011 -- the time before the new constitution came into effect -- could be used as precedents in future rulings.

Among the most controversial aspects of the reform are severe limitations on the power of the constitutional court. The court will now be allowed to review the constitution or amendments to it based only on formal procedural aspects, not on their actual content. Additionally, all the court's decisions prior to the date when the country's new constitution came into force in 2012 are to be invalidated, essentially eliminating precedence.

Freedom of expression is also to be limited when it damages the broadly defined "dignity of the Hungarian nation." Students will be required to stay and work in Hungary for a certain time after finishing a university degree, or else pay tuition fees -- a measure meant to curb the emigration of highly-educated workers and academics.

The reforms also write into the constitution certain laws that had previously been overturned and deemed unconstitutional by the high court, making them essentially untouchable.These include a ban on the homeless from loitering in public spaces, and allowance of the state to prosecute them for violations; a ban on electoral campaign advertising in private media; and an exclusion of umarried, childless or same-sex couples in the official definition of family.

European Union leaders have called for action against a controversial constitutional amendment passed on Monday by right-wing populists, which opponents say threatens democratic values.

Washington and Human Rights Watch also expressed concerns on Monday that Orbán and his conservative Fidesz party, which holds a two-thirds majority in Hungary's parliament, are systematically limiting democratic rights with their fourth amendment to the new constitution since it took effect just over a year ago.

When the right-wing politicians in Hungary pushed their new constitution through in 2011, European leaders didn't want a big conflict. They had to save the euro, thus their crisis-ridden, non-euro neighbour Hungary remained the target of their concern. After Budapest successfully ignored the complaints of Europe's leaders, the West returned to business as usual. The European Council passed a friendly resolution, and Brussels gave the green light for budgetary aid in Budapest. They had said their piece, and eased their conscience.

The half-hearted European reactions have not only failed to improve things in Hungary, they have also made them worse. Criticism without consequences only serves to convince doubters that their government is strong and will prevail against powerful enemies. If Brussels only makes a show of strength when it's about money, then it just confirms the clichéd image that Orbán has created of Europe.

Democracy thrives on the painstaking art of compromise. The opposition must be included; it needs to be heard. This is not a luxury, but a necessity. Orbán isn't protecting his country. He is leading it into a dangerous rigidity. But things that are too hard break all too easily.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist

Photo-Credit: AFP: Victor Orbán