Hungary: Orbán's constitution, a dangerous anachronism

19 April 2011
Népszabadság Budapest

Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, Budapest, September 2010.
Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán, Budapest, September 2010.

The new Hungarian constitution approved by parliament on 18 April amounts to a milestone in the "national revolution" undertaken by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. However, the daily Népszabadság argues that it recycles 19th century ideas which are a danger to the country.

This constitution is the brainchild of the government that legally holds power in this country – i.e. that of the dictatorship of a parliamentary majority [Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz which currently occupies two thirds of the seats in parliament]. It is such an anachronism that we can evoke a 19th century thinker, de Tocqueville, to realise that the dictatorship of the majority is a real danger to society.

This majority confuses “people” and “nation,” and sacrifices both on the altar of conflict between internal powers. When it sees fit, it places the People (that is to say the nation, in the 19th century sense of the term) before the State, and makes this the main point of reference for a strong government that will naturally be for the good of the people, the nation (“the population”). It views the State (the common interest) as a construction that can be imposed from above on the community of citizens. It breaks with European traditions and creates the conditions for authoritarian politics.

Traditionally in Europe, the constitution is a framework defined by the community of citizens for the conduct of common life. As we are not living through a revolutionary period, this framework cannot be defined by a parliamentary majority, because in a democracy the parliamentary majority is subject to change, while the constitution is supposed to endure and serve the interests of the entire community in a manner that is independent of political fluctuation. Wise countries entrust this legal guardianship to a group of representatives from different political backgrounds rather than to referenda of doubtful value.

The new constitution is not a citizens’ constitution. This, since Hobbes and Locke, would have been a community consensus based on the free will of citizens to govern common life. Hobbes and Locke have been criticised for failing to take into account that a community organised on these principles would not be viable, because the social contract must also take into account the cultural heritage that is specific to the community.

Majority of Hungarians remain indifferent to this new constitution

The authors of the new constitution were conscious of this, a fact that amplifies their responsibility for a definition of cultural space in which the citizens of Hungary must (should) live. This space is the product of the victory of the current majority in the cultural struggle – as if there can be a winner in this Kulturkampf. In short they are trying to breathe new life into principles which played a revolutionary role in the 19th century, but which today are slogans for populism. The symbols of times past are little more than allegories. They are trying to impose a monochrome nationalism that refers to the crown of Saint Stephen [the 10th century founder of the kingdom of Hungary] instead of a multi-hued patriotism, at a time when Hungary is part of the European community, whose nation states have been replaced by cultural states.

In this regard, we should bear in mind one of the fundamental ideas of Saint Augustine’s De civitate Dei [The City of God] – that constitutions and written laws do not confer any moral obligation if they are not the expression of a constitution inscribed in the minds of citizens. Without such moral support, the force of the state can be a major threat.

The overwhelming majority of Hungarians remain indifferent to this new constitution. This majority will begin to protest when they have to contend with laws drafted in line with the spirit of the National Creed [included as a preamble to the new constitution], which will make them uncomfortable. And when the community is then forced to seek a legal framework to express its discontent, without finding one, it will certainly miss the abandoned constitution of the 3rd Republic. For the nation, this will be a descent into hell.

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