Hungary’s democracy is in danger, not so much because of individual articles of the country’s new constitution, but because of their alarming cumulative effect, especially in the document’s relentless use (or abuse) of as many as 50 “cardinal laws,” which can only be revised or repealed by a two-thirds supermajority in future parliaments.
The European Commission’s warning to Hungary last Wednesday may seem timid, with its expression of concern about such matters as the retirement age of judges, but it is an unprecedented political step for the bureaucratic commission.
When Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister, and his Fidesz party first became famous, he and it were anti-Soviet libertarians. Now, they stand for an overwrought nationalism that leaps out from the pages from the constitution. The Soviet-era constitution of 1949 certainly needed to be replaced, but Fidesz is now taking an unethical advantage of its two-thirds parliamentary majority to entrench a very extensive legislative program, making it difficult for future governments to make changes – unless they too have equally large majorities.
In Continental Europe, “organic” or “cardinal” laws are not unusual, being statutes with quasi-constitutional status that provide frameworks for governmental activity.
But the new Hungarian Constitution, already bulky in itself, requires a host of cardinal acts covering a large range of spheres, including financial regulation, policing, pensions, family law, rights of ethnic groups, churches, political parties and more.
It is paradoxically fortunate that Mr. Orban, like his predecessors, is a bad financial manager. Hungary will need help to remain solvent. Consequently, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund have considerable leverage for insisting on reasonably democratic governance.
Comparisons of Mr. Orban to Admiral Horthy, the fascist ruler of Hungary from 1920 to 1944, are exaggerated, but the attempt of his government to enact a program that future administrations will be hard-pressed to change is anti-democratic; external pressure from the EU, the IMF and others is amply justified.