Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Viktor Orbán and Hungary’s Constitution

David Koyzis


May 17, 2013

By David Koyzis

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is no stranger to controversy. Still in his 20s when the communist régime was phased out in his native Hungary, he organized the Alliance of Young Democrats, known in its abbreviated form as Fidesz, now the ruling party in that country. Originally libertarian, Fidesz changed its orientation in the mid-1990s in a conservative direction, leading to its eventual expulsion from the Liberal International (the world federation of liberal and progressive political parties). Fidesz now allies itself with the European People’s Party in the larger European context, and currently enjoys a two-thirds majority in Parliament along with its coalition partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party.

This parliamentary supermajority has invited much of the criticism leveled at Orbán’s government. Critics, including the European Union, the Council of Europe, and even the United States, have charged him with using this overwhelming power to cripple the opposition and thereby subvert Hungarian democracy.

What has Orbán done? His most significant act has been the adoption of a new constitution, the Fundamental Law. While the other former communist states of eastern Europe adopted new constitutions shortly after the old regimes collapsed, Hungary continued for two more decades under its 1949 constitution. Once Fidesz returned to power with such overwhelming popular support, Orbán adopted a fresh constitution, which took effect at the beginning of last year.

Among other things, the new Fundamental Law recognizes “the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood” and honors its historic king, St. Stephen, who “built the Hungarian State on solid ground and made our country a part of Christian Europe one thousand years ago.” It acknowledges the role of the family in the nation, recognizes marriage as a union of a man and a woman, and claims to defend human life from conception. It also changes the country’s name from Republic of Hungary to Hungary, upholding the historic position of the cherished Crown of St. Stephen as the repository of the country’s values and political life.

The Fundamental Law is bound to elicit criticism in a largely secularized Europe, where any reference to Christianity or a monarchical past appears retrogressive. Yet many believe that the danger of Orbán’s premiership lies less in the articulation of his vision than in the specific actions he has taken in fleshing it out. Max Berley portrays Orbán’s reforms as a power grab aimed at consolidating prime ministerial power and eroding the checks and balances within the political system. These reforms include the appointment of a close associate to the governorship of the central bank, a ban on political advertising in all but state-owned media, and stripping the Constitutional Court of its authority to determine the constitutionality of laws, which critics believe endangers an independent judiciary. George Szirtes charges that Hungary is on a fast track to the past under Orbán’s leadership.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Hungary’s emissary to the Vatican argues that his country’s new constitution is far from conflicting with the principles of the European Union. “The real founding fathers of the European Union,” according to Ambassador Gábor Gy?riványi, “planned to base the Union on Christian values, and expressed the notion that European democracy can only be viable if constructed on the Christian basis.” An editorial in The Scotsman similarly defends Orbán’s reforms, claiming that the Second Hungarian uprising is as inspirational as the first, an allusion to Budapest’s unsuccessful 1956 effort to throw off Moscow’s yoke.

Who is right? Is Orbán a potential dictator or a patriotic constitutional democrat? A reading of an English translation of the Fundamental Law reveals nothing particularly offensive to democratic institutions, except possibly for article D, which commits the state to bearing responsibility for the millions of ethnic Hungarians living in the surrounding states.

All the same, a central difficulty remains. A written constitution should represent a national consensus transcending partisan divisions. In the United States, Democrats and Republicans alike venerate our constitution, despite their other differences. The same cannot be said of Hungary’s new Fundamental Law, which represents only Fidesz and its allies. Because Fidesz will not always enjoy a two-thirds majority in parliament, the opposition may decide to scrap the constitution and start over once they return to office.

Orbán would have done better to convene an all-party constitutional conference to hammer out a document commanding broader consensus. Because he did not do so, it remains to be seen whether the Fundamental Law will survive the next change of government.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of Political Visions and Illusions (2003) and has completed a second book on authority, office, and the image of God, forthcoming from Pickwick Publications, a division of Wipf & Stock. 

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”