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Is the rule of law in danger?

April 8th, 2013

As mutual accusations spiral frenetically, left-wing commentators accuse the government of destroying constitutional democracy, while they are being accused by their right-wing counterparts of fuelling foreign criticism of Hungary.

In Heti Válasz (print edition), political analyst Gábor G. Fodor dismisses the wave of “criticism abroad and in Hungary,” which alleges that the government is systematically dismantling constitutional democracy. The main accusation is that the Fidesz parliamentary majority wants to abolish an elaborate system of checks and balances, namely by restricting the competence of the Constitutional Court to review legislation. In actual fact, some of the Acts scrapped by the Court have tended to resurface in a slightly modified version in the constitution itself. The latest amendments to the Basic Law also stipulate that the Constitutional Court can only strike down constitutional provisions on formal grounds (like for instance the absence of the prescribed two thirds majority when they are passed by the Assembly). G. Fodor argues that the Court has never had the right to revise the Constitution. Some experts argue that in case there is a constitutional emergency, it nevertheless should do so. G. Fodor believes, on the other hand, that the separation of powers which is so fundamental in a democracy does not allow that to happen. The Constitutional Court, he writes, is the guardian of the constitution, and if it started considering itself as the depositary of sovereignty, then it would itself destroy the system of checks and balances.

In 168 Óra, Tamás Mészáros rejects a similar argument expressed by Parliament Speaker László Kövér. In a recent interview Mr Kövér harshly criticised Constitutional Court Judge István Stumpf, who served as Chancellery Minister in the first Fidesz government, from 1998 to 2002 and who was elected to the court by the Fidesz dominated parliament in 2010. Mr Stumpf suggested that “not even a constituent majority can stand over and above any control,” which means that in the event that the majority introduces in the constitution rules in contradiction with basic international norms, the Constitutional Court would have a right to intervene. Mr Kövér argued that such an approach would contradict the principle of the separation of powers. Mészáros says such a stance is typical of the government’s arrogance, for it implies that the majority can do whatever it wishes, without any limitations from anyone else. He says the government’s tactics are very simple: they accuse their critics of intending to do what they are actually doing themselves – in this case “killing constitutional democracy.”

In his weekly editorial, Demokrata editor András Bencsik suggests that “the time is nearly ripe for a fourth peace march, to repel an attack by the Comintern”.  His Comintern (or Communist International) reference is to a group of left-wing German and Austrian artists and writers who demanded joint international action in order to “liberate Hungary,” in an open letter at the end of March. Bencsik pokes fun at their appeal for “unity among all those who want a democratic and republican Hungary.” The new Basic Law itself declares that Hungary is a republic, he remarks, and there are a multitude of political parties,  a Constitutional Court and regular byelections between nationwide ones. In their appeal the German and Austrian critics complain that “the Orbán government is undisturbed in its efforts to build a right-wing regime.” Bencsik asks why the government should build a left-wing regime after the left-wing parties were voted out of office, mainly because of their corrupt practices. Bencsik is also one of the organisers of the three pro-government “peace marches,” and expresses the conviction that it is more or less high time to hold  the fourth one, this time against what he regards as left-wing interference in Hungarian affairs.

In HVG, László Seres says the open letter by the group of German and Austrian artists and authors is further proof of the simple mindedness of leftist intellectuals in the West who cannot help using old anti-fascist stereotypes. He suspects that what they would like for Hungary would be a kind of Socialist régime that he deems no better than “the present right-wing one.” The liberal-conservative commentator thinks fascism has a lot more in common with the left wing than with conservatism. At the same time he does not believe Hungary’s present rulers are conservative, as they have mounted an offensive against the multinationals and the banks and practically nationalised the compulsory pension funds. All in all, Seres suggests that what is being erected in Hungary is “a dictatorship of the colour grey,” where people shy away from expressing their opinions. “Seen superficially,” he writes, what we are witnessing reminds him of (the last Communist party general secretary) “Károly Grósz’s land,” though  “without the totalitarian machinery” of the Communist system. Quoting Jonah Goldman’s book “Liberal Fascism” recently published in Hungarian, Seres finds that the criteria the neo-conservative thinker uses to define fascism do fit the present government’s practices – although Goldman used them to describe American progressives and to trace a continuous line from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to present day American liberals.

In Magyar Nemzet (print edition), János Pelle takes up his pen in defence of one controversial point among the recent constitutional amendments, described by critics as imposing limits on free speech. At issue is a new paragraph which empowers parliament to ban acts which denigrate “the Hungarian nation, as well as ethnic, racial or religious communities” and to allow individual members of those communities to sue the perpetrators. Critics say that this provision opens the way for anyone to be sued for offending the “dignity of the nation,” while Pelle argues that this article finally establishes the basis for a law banning hate speech. The Socialists tried to introduce such legislation while they were in power, but their law was struck down by the Constitutional Court. Now that the idea is enshrined in the Basic Law, Pelle continues, a future Act against hate speech cannot be scrapped by the judges.

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