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Unpacking the Meaning of the ‘Backsliding Hungarian Democracy’

“There are two principles so basic as to constitute axioms of conservative thinking. First, the principle that there is no general politics of conservatism. The forms of conservatism will be as varied as the forms of social order”

Sir Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism, 1980

The most common question that I have received since I joined UCL’s Conservative Society relates to the democratic backslide of Hungary, more specifically the role of the governing Fidesz-KDNP coalition in this. To investigate this question, in this article I explore Hungarian conservatism. To do so the reader must keep in mind Scruton’s first principle, that there is no general politics of ‘conservatism’. As Hungary has a different form of social order in contrast to the United Kingdom, Hungarian conservatism is different from what ‘conservatism’ means in Britain.

On the other hand, it can be generalised that continuity, the preservation of social order, sovereignty and the rule of law are critical areas for conservatives regardless of nationality. This article assesses these factors (primarily through by using the example of the new Hungarian constitution), to provide the reader with an insight into Hungarian conservatism. Instead of using the oversimplified catch-all phrase of ‘backsliding Hungarian democracy’ this article intends to reveal the complexity of this issue. The overall aim is to judge whether Fidesz (in its context) can or cannot be described as a conservative party.

The Continuity & Preservation of Social Order

The act of re-writing the constitution in 2012 has been interpreted as proof of Hungary’s democratic backslide, as it removed checks-and-balances and weakened the Constitutional Court. It has much criticism from both the US government and from the European Union. In the long run, it contributed to the downgrading of Hungary on the Freedom House scores, making it the first EU member-state designated as ‘partially free’. The session in which the new constitution was ratified (262 ayes, 44 nays, 1 abstain) was boycotted by the (left-wing) opposition. Their participation was not needed – since 2010 Fidesz has a supermajority in the Országház (Hungarian Parliament), which means that by having more than 2/3 of the seats, any legislation can be passed or amended by Fidesz without having to negotiate with the opposition.

Golden Bull (Source:Wikipedia)

It is important to note, that in 2012 the previous constitution was not amended, it was completely re-written. Fidesz claimed to have an appealing conservative justification for the needing to re-write the constitution. To understand the underlying reasoning, it is essential to consider the historic development of the Hungarian constitution. Its roots go back as far as the “Golden Bull” issued in 1222, which is, by and large, the Hungarian equivalent of the Magna Charta Libertatum of 1215. The Golden Bull placed restrictions on the power of the king, as well as defined the rights of the Hungarian nobility. Initially, the Bull (and the countless legislations built on it) were not explicitly regarded as Hungary’s constitution.

Much like the British constitution today, the Hungarian constitution was not written down for centuries. It was not until 1949 that Hungary ratified its first written constitution. However, due to World War II, the freshly accepted constitution was based on the soviet model, which meant that the previous natural development of the Hungarian legal system was disregarded. Suddenly, the systematic evolution of (most) Hungarian laws was changed to something new. This new legalistic approach which was introduced by the communists was not embedded in the traditions of the country, therefore, the continuity of the state was broken.

Holy Crown (Source: Wikipedia)

To exemplify why the continuity of the Hungarian statehood was broken, consider the case of the Holy Crown. The Holy Crown – much like the British Crown – embodies both the sovereignty of Hungary and its constitutionalism (Doctrine of the Holy Crown – Szent Korona-tan). The Holy Crown personifies the ‘principle of sovereignty’ which shall not be confused with the specific sovereign itself, with a human, who lives and then dies, while the office of the Sovereign endures. Therefore, the person who has the authority as a sovereign is subordinate to the ‘principle of sovereignty’, which is the Holy Crown. The Doctrine of the Holy Crown shows that the Crown is more than a simple historic item – it has been considered to be the symbol of Hungarian statehood since the times of Saint Stephen (Szent István – founder of the Hungarian state, 1001).

The role of the Holy Crown was marginalised during the communist period. When in 1978 the Holy Crown was given back to Hungary (it was taken to the USA after World War II) it was exhibited in the Hungarian National Museum, as a historic relic. It had little significance as a national symbol (for instance, it did not appear in the Hungarian coat of arm, as its place on the top of the crest was replaced with the red star), which broke the historic perception of Hungarian national sovereignty.

However, since the 1990s it is again part of the crest, and in 2000, the first Fidesz government (Fidesz gov. I: 1998-2002, Fidesz gov. II-IV: 2010-today) placed the Holy Crown on the rotunda of the Országház (Hungarian Parliament). Thereby, the Holy Crown as the symbol of Hungarian statehood was restored.

In 1989 when the Third Hungarian Republic was proclaimed (ending the communist period), the text of the 1949 constitution was amended so heavily that only one sentence remained untouched – that the capital city of the country is Budapest. Given the circumstances in 1989 these constitutional amendments were described as ‘provisional’. Critics claimed that in terms of continuity it still represented the same document which was introduced by the communists. So, there were demands that Hungary’s new constitution had to go back to its original roots (to the ‘ancient constitution’, whose development started with the Golden Bull) and therefore, the 1949 constitution needed to be completely replaced, not just amended.

Finally, after decades, the issue was revived by the Fidesz-KDNP coalition after they won the 2010 election. In 2012 when the constitution was re-written, Fidesz claimed to have introduced a document which now builds on the ‘achievements’ of the ‘ancient constitution’. Therefore, – they argued – it restored the legal continuity of the Hungarian state after the crude ruptures of the communist era.

While restoring historic realities and reviving the continuity of a social order might be an appealing concept to a conservative reader, needless to say, this issue is far more complex. For instance, while the constitution claimed to ‘build on’ the ‘achievements’ of the ‘ancient constitution’ it remained unclear what these ‘achievements’ are. There was no public discourse to settle this question, as the new constitution was imposed from above with only little consultation with the public or the opposition. There is even a rumour that part of the constitution was drafted on an iPad on a train to Budapest, implying that re-writing the constitution was a Fidesz-only project, executed fast, without much consideration.   

Furthermore, it must be noted that the ‘restoration’ of the past was not done wholeheartedly. For instance, historically Hungary used to have a bicameral parliament, which became unicameral only during the communist period. In 2012, the upper chamber was not restored, leaving part of the world’s 3rd biggest parliamentary building unused. It also did not give the President the old powers exercised by the King or his regent and did not restore the pre-war system of administration of the counties. Therefore, even when considering historic continuity, the extent of the restoration is easily debatable.

In short, while there was a conservative justification behind the introduction of the new Fundamental Law (Hungarian constitution) the real motives of the move can be easily questioned. Especially because – many argued – it strengthened the political power of the current government. This led to claims that the constitution weakened Hungarian democracy.

Sovereignty & the Rule of Law

By abandoning the Soviet-style constitution, the Fundamental Law also waved goodbye to the transition period of 1989, consolidating a new structure of governance. To understand the significance of this declaration, it is important to consider the Fundamental Law’s approach to history and the turbulent early years of the Third Hungarian Republic.

The Nemzeti Hitvallás (National Vow, which is a new element in the constitution) claims that the country lost its sovereignty in 1944 which was regained only in 1990. It implies that the interim period was illegitimate, and for historic legitimacy Hungary needs to go back to the period before 1944, when the continuity of the state was not yet broken. The regime in power before 1944 was a nationalistic government under which antisemitic legislations were passed, victimising Hungarian Jews, many of whom were deported amidst World War II.

The constitution is not the only case in which when this regime (Horthy Era), which was characterised by many wrongdoings, is used as a source of legitimacy by Fidesz. Therefore, the declaration, that the period before 1944 was legitimate and the period after 1944 was illegitimate, overlooks the many grievances that it poses to the different strata of Hungarian society.

Young Victor Orbán 1989, Reburial of Imre Nagy (Source: Wikipedia)

While the period between 1990 (beginning of the Third Hungarian Republic, when the country regained its sovereignty – according to the constitution – ) and 2010 (Fidesz is elected with a 2/3 supermajority) is deemed legitimate by the Fundamental Law, it is much despised by Fidesz. The ‘sin’ of the transition period of 1989 (which ended in 2012 with the Fundamental Law) was the superficial transformation of the old regime, which was done by negotiating with the old, communist elite.

The transition away from the communist regime happened through peaceful Round Table Talks in Hungary, which allowed communist structures to partially survive in the new, democratic society. For instance, the MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party, for long it was the most popular left-wing party in the country) is the successor party of the MSZMP (Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party; the ruling party under Communism). It enabled former cadres to carry on with their ‘carriers’ post-communism. Moreover, the light transitional justice (e.g. officials of the old regime could continue pursuing public office in the Third Republic) and the ambiguity of the privatisation process, both render 1989 Janus-faced in the eyes of Fidesz and many others.

It is not only Fidesz which considers the transition period to be deceitful. Poland’s PiS (ring-wing governing party, charged with deteriorating the Polish democracy) also claims that the transformation process only started in 1989, which was then led astray by old nomenklatura and was betrayed by its new elite. Therefore, they advocate the need for a new Forth Republic to make a real break from communism.

In defence of the transformations back in the 1990s József Antall (first Hungarian PM of the Third Republic, from MDF) said ‘would you have preferred a revolution’ (Tetszettek volna forradalmat csinálni!). It sarcastically explains that the regime changes in 1989 were peaceful and that there would have been no chance of a thorough transformation of the system at the time. Compromises had to be made, therefore, elements of the communist ‘ancien regime’ endured.

As the essence of the communist rule was to involve virtually everyone in the maintenance of the regime (by compulsory celebrations, massive use of informers etc.), a throughout transition would have required a comprehensive examination of those who collaborated during the communist period. But Hungary chose to live and let live, rather than to open-up old wounds. There was little effort to punish guilty communists, many of whom continued to receive generous pensions after the dictatorship collapsed. The rational was to turn a blind eye to the sins of “the average little men.” It was deemed to be the most adequate way to reconcile society with itself.

The revolution needed to eradicate the old system, which was absent in 1989 (according to József Antall) , came in 2010. When Orbán learnt that he had won the supermajority, he claimed that there was:

“a revolution in the polling booths (fülkeforradalom) (…) We learned the lesson of the fall of communism, namely that systems cannot be changed, only toppled and overthrown before creating a new one. This day, Hungarians have overthrown the system and created a new one. The old system of leaders abusing their powers and using it for personal gains was replaced by a new system, the system of national unity.”

Victor Orbán – election victory speech

The transition period was now ended, and now, a new regime is being formed.

This new system of national unity was not meant figuratively. Not a long after the electoral victory, the System of National Cooperation (Nemzeti Együttműködési Rendszer – NER) was established. The NER is (claimed to be) the new social contract between Hungarians and the state, however, in the parliament it was supported only by Fidesz-KDNP MPs. The declaration of the NER is displayed on the wall of every building belonging to the executive branch, while the buildings belonging to the other branches of power are merely encouraged to display it.

It is hard to define what the NER is exactly, as many argue that in reality the new Fundamental Law is the NER’s constitution. Probably the easiest (and biased) definition of the NER is that it is the Orbán-regime. It is not only an attempt to consolidate a new elite, loyal to Fidesz (members of this elite are sarcastically called ‘NER knights’ (NER-lovagok)), but it is also the top-down centralisation of the country.

Orbán was always open about building a new (illiberal) state. The magnitude of the changes introduced by Fidesz can be best represented by numbers: between 2010-2014 over 800 laws were passed, 365 of which were passed in the first 20 months, which included the amendment of 49 cardinal laws (which requires a 2/3 majority). It is hard to think of any element of the state which remained untouched. From the electoral laws, through land reform, to media legislations, everything was somehow transformed in the last decade.

Needless to say, many of the changes seem to favour individuals close to Fidesz. The rise of Lőrinc Mészáros, a former pipefitter, who became one of the richest persons in the country, is probably the best example of the bias of the new system. Mészáros is an old friend of Viktor Orbán, who now owns a media empire, broadcasting news which invariably sheds a positive light on the government.

As the Fidesz-KDNP policies exploit and transform the law rather than being obedient to its constraints and mindful of its limitations, they appear to be authoritarian rather than conservative. These policies and transformations point towards an ambiguous relationship between Fidesz and the rule of law. This ‘relationship’ has reached a new low, when amidst the Coronavirus crisis, the parliament enabled the government to govern by decree.

The move was criticised as there was no sunset clause for these special powers, although, eventually, they expired faster than similar legislation in the United Kingdom (the Hungarian government no longer governs by decree). In short, it is unsurprising that many of the Fidesz policies are regarded as authoritarian endeavours.

Conclusion

It is this final point, the building a ‘new system’ and remodelling of institutions, which makes me, personally, believe that Fidesz is not a conservative party. Respect for the rule of law and institutions should be at the heart of conservative policies. No single regime can be trusted enough to replace institutions which are built upon the wisdom of multiple generations. This is true even in the context of the turbulent past of Hungary. 1989 can be debated, but the institutions created during the transition period were not all flawed and should not all be replaced by the unilateral decisions of a single government.  

If this is accepted as a fair conclusion, it begs the question, to whom should conservative Hungarians vote for? Is there a viable alternative? There is no other (relevant) Hungarian party which claims itself to be conservative. The other party on the political right is Jobbik which is antisemitic and on the verge of collapse. Therefore, I find it unsurprising that many Hungarian conservatives ended up voting for Fidesz. Others violated their personal beliefs and voted for the left. As both positions can be justified (from a conservative point of view), I do not find them shameful or outrageous. Neither decision was taken lightly, they are both a result of a great struggle.

Though it is a bit out of the blue, as a concluding remark, I would like to add how much I am grateful to this Society. As a Hungarian, during these tempestuous circumstances at home, where conservatism is associated with the ambiguous actions of our government, I found it hard to accept my own conservative beliefs. As such, I am very enthusiastic about the Conservative party and equally thankful for the UCL Tories. You have shown me that conservative politics can be fair, pragmatic, and democratic – for which I will be forever immensely grateful.

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