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Hungary's new constitution from 1 January: undemocratic or just weak?

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The extremely ‘unified’ structure of the Hungarian constitution is among the major causes of inefficient governance during the past two decades, says one philosopher from Budapest

The new constitution replaces one which dates back to the stalinist era (1949) but was completely revised during the democratic transition in 1989-90. One concern raised in connection with the new constitution in Hungary was that it might not respect the principle of ‘separation of powers’ - assuming that ‘separation of powers’ is a universal ideal of constitutionalism. Professor Béla Pokol, a renowned but eccentric social scientist recently elected a member of the constitutional court, disagrees. He maintains that, like other European constitutions, the current Hungarian constitution is not based on the principle of separation of powers and the new constitution shouldn’t be either. He blames this ‘false interpretation’ for the inefficiency of the Hungarian governmental system over the past two decades.

EU vs US systems

The contrast between the popular belief concerning ‘separation of powers’ and Pokol’s opinion may be traced back to a misunderstanding: ‘separation of powers’ means completely different things on either side of the Atlantic. In the US there are two real powers: both the president and the congress are mandated directly by the people. These organs are completely separated because neither needs the confidence or approval of the other to execute the powers vested in them. Yet their powers cannot take effect unless both organs cooperate with each other.

Read young Hungarians and their views on the new constitution here

In contrast, ‘separation of powers’ in Europe means ‘division of powers’ in a weak sense. While state competences are divided between different branches, these branches are not necessarily separated from each other. In Europe, the executive branch is subordinate to the legislative branch, needing its confidence in order to stay in office. European parliamentary constitutions still retain the structure of absolute monarchies, in which there is only one ultimate power: formerly the king, now the parliament. In some cases, the linkage between the government and the parliament is particularly strong: ‘constructive motion of no-confidence’, a concept used both in Germany and in Hungary, means that the parliament cannot withdraw confidence from the prime minister unless his successor is nominated at the same time. This makes the government so stable that it almost inevitably shares the fate of the parliament. In the history of modern Germany, constructive motion of no-confidence was initiated only twice and got through successfully only once (by Helmut Kohl against Helmut Schmidt in 1982). As it is exactly this model of parliamentarism (also called chancellor democracy) which Hungary has adopted, Pokol may be right in arguing that the Hungarian constitution is not based on the principle of separation of powers.

The case of Hungary

However, the inefficiency of the Hungarian political system has not been caused by a ‘false interpretation’ of the constitution, as Pokol says, but by the constitutional model of ‘chancellor democracy' itself. A stable government is not necessarily an efficient government. ‘Constructive motion of no-confidence’ tends to keep governments in power even if their performance is very poor. Unfortunately, this is not a merely theoretical or marginal possibility: Hungary spent seven of the past twenty years under governments who were too weak to undertake important measures but completed their terms nevertheless. For example, under the conservative government in power from 1990 to 1994 one million jobs disappeared, with many of the former employees going onto disability pension or taking early retirement, thereby overburdening the social system. Twenty years on, Hungary still hasn’t recovered the lost jobs or employees and party politics continues to be oriented on pensioners. More recently, the socialist government of 2006 to 2010 was unable to reduce social expenditures or to streamline state bureaucracy and as a result they increased public debt by half. Hungary was virtually ungoverned in more than one-third of this period - a luxury no country can afford.

Hungary has had two major political crises since the democratic transition: the first was the so-called ‘taxi-drivers' blockade’ in October 1990, when taxi-drivers completely blocked main traffic routes in protest against a long-denied increase in the price of petrol. The second was the scandal triggered by the so-called Őszöd speech in September 2006, when a secret speech by the prime minister admitting lies during the election campaign was made public. Both events shook the newly elected government in such a way that it lost its ability to implement its policy once and for all. However, both remained in power for the rest of the term because internal critics of the ruling coalition and the opposition could not agree on who should follow the unpopular and politically weak prime minister.

The extremely ‘unified’ structure of the Hungarian constitution is among the major causes of inefficient governance during the past two decades. No wonder that proposals have been made to abandon the concept of ‘constructive motion of no-confidence’ or to find another solution that could prevent the future Hungarian political system coming to a dead end. The final version of the new constitution does not change the old structure, so there is a danger that Hungarian politics will spend 35% of the time doing nothing. Even under the new constitution.