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Hungary: Stepping away from democracy

Hungary: Stepping away from democracy


A EU member state is rigorously undermining basic democratic virtues and its constitutional status: Hungary. Prime minister Victor Orban and his party hold a two-third majority, which they have taken advantage of to regress the democratic system. Democratic core principles such as free press, the constitution, the constitutional court, and the electoral law are under attack.

A two-third majority in parliament enables usually any government to take extensive decisions. Those decisions can be seen as legitimate, as the government is assured by the trust of a voters' majority. Yet in a democracy, it is self-evident that power has its limits; not all visions can be pursued. Democracy is based on common principles: a check of balance, independent courts, and a free media. Periodic elections may well result in a shift of power. The newly elected government must then be capable of modifying the previous course of policy. However, those common principles are at stake in Hungary. Prime minister Victor Orban and his administration are attacking the cornerstones of democracy:

The media

Orban and his parliament passed a law governing the media. The new law is vaguely written; its extent cannot yet be entirely grasped. But one thing is clear: independent and critical news coverage is at gunpoint. A new, state-run media council has the right to impose fines of up to $1 million for journalism it considers "unbalanced". Further, the council is in charge of distributing the broadcasting rights. Undesirable content can hence be removed from the media. The council is run by confidants of Orban; their term is secured for nine years – to protect the administration from criticism.

The constitution

A constitution safeguards the democratic system. Orban and his parliament are yet aiming to redesign this safeguard! A constitutional amendment is rushed through the parliament; its purpose is to secure Orban's power. The most crucial responsibilities are now residing in the hands of Orban and his confidants. The budget for example is no longer in the parliament's realm only, but is supervised by a board of Orban's followers. Other members of parliament are loosing their influence.

Even this step is not sufficient. Many policies and contents are locked down; future alterations will require a two-third majority. The whole administration needs to continue its power is a one-third of the parliament seats; this allocation of seats will enable Orban to block any two-third majority. Thus, even if Orban will loose the next election, his power will not be reduced: key policies and positions are extensively shielded from other parties' interference. Furthermore, the preamble is revised, now containing nationalistic rhetoric. This is an obvious setback to pre-democratic times.

The constitutional court

The constitutional court is a democratic core, as it ensures control. Nevertheless, the Orban administration did not shy away from redesigning Hungary's highest court. The number of its member has been extended; the additional judges are confidants of Orban. Thus, the government has not to fear the court's veto. Yet, a further ruling sets additional concerns. In its old set-up, the court stated that it will not assess constitutional amendments.

The electoral law

To ensure their power in the future, the administration does not (halt) freeze before the electoral law. Elections may result in a shift of power; a reform should hinder this scenario. Small parties are facing new obstacles: to enter an election, parties have to collect 1,500 signatures in 40 percent of their electoral districts, in only 21 days. As their main supporters reside in Budapest, the hurdle may well block the party to enter the parliament. The electoral law reform is not yet finished; further alterations are being discussed.

Hungary has provided Europe with another example of how fragile democracy can be. A bitter side-note is Hungary's transition from communism to democracy has been regarded as an unmitigated success. Now the country is 'cursed' with an administration holding a too large majority. Orban can change laws to keep himself in power without a coup d' état.

 Text by Vanessa Eggert


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