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New constitution nears completion

In what was reportedly a marathon-length meeting of the Fidesz management, the party’s executive has approved the draft of Hungary’s new constitution, which will be released on Wednesday or Thursday. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has already informed his group of representatives about provisions of the document, but only certain parts of the texts have been leaked.

Among significant changes, the draft would reinstate certain powers that were taken from the Constitutional Court last year. The Fidesz cabinet prohibited the panel from scrapping legislation involving the budget or taxation-related matters. At the same time, it is possible that a prerequisite would be introduced on exactly who may approach the Court with a case. Currently, the panel is required to accept submissions from anyone meeting the basic legal requirements.

Municipal governments on the other hand would be required to accept a painful cut to their autonomy. With the goal to reduce the extensive level of debt weighing on localities, they would be required to seek permission from the state if they wanted to take out bigger loans. This is seen as one of the key issues prone to evoke resistance from even within Fidesz, provided that the parliamentary group holds almost 80 politicians doubling as mayors in their towns and dozens more holding posts in local assemblies.

The restriction is also contained in the recently announced Széll Kálmán reform plan and has led to an open argument within the Fidesz ranks. In particular, Debrecen mayor Lajos Kósa raised strong criticism against the plan, feeling that municipalities are taking the blame for the negative state of the treasury despite the fact that the previous government greatly reduced local budgets. Nonetheless, the immense debts accumulated by local governments and the related deficits entail that Hungary will likely not be able to meet its 3.8% of GDP national deficit target this year.

Symbolic changes

The draft also contains a handful of symbolic changes. These include actually renaming the country to “Hungary” from the current official title of “Republic of Hungary”. The move would only involve a “rebranding” that would not change the Hungarian system from that of a republic.

In line with a proposal by President Pál Schmitt the opening declaration of the document would get a new title. Instead of the current “preambulum”, it would become a “national testament” beginning with the first line of Hungary’s national anthem. Schmitt argued for a new title given that it is a word of foreign origin which is therefore not Hungarian enough. The introductory passages will reference Hungary’s Christian traditions, the Holy Crown as well as the historic legacy of the 1956 revolution against Soviet occupation.

The Constitution will take clear stances on two key human rights issues that were a point of contention between Fidesz and its junior coalition partner, the Christian democratic KDNP. One of the matters is that of abortion, which the Christian democrats wanted restricted on a constitutional level by equating “prenatal life” with “human life”. Legal experts found this change would have necessitated changing standing abortion laws, something which Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made clear he does not want. The approved wording will not call for new legislation, but will nonetheless point out the state’s responsibility in protecting fetuses.

On the issue of gay marriage, however, the new basic document will cement a fully conservative approach. The document will state that marriage is the “union of a man and a woman”, thereby outlawing same-sex marriages. Government reps reportedly said they are fully aware that the decision will evoke protest from civil liberty advocates and gay rights groups. But they believe the issue has never been of such importance for the Hungarian public opinion that it would seriously impact the parties’ approval ratings.

Drafting unopposed

For weeks, Fidesz has been trying to involve the political opposition in the drafting process, urging them to present their own proposals that they would want to see in the final version of the statute. Although the governing sides hold a two-thirds House majority allowing them to easily pass through the text, they are apparently concerned about the political implications. There are fears that without the partaking of opponents, it will always be seen as a “Fidesz constitution” and thus lack popular support.

The socialist MSzP and the green LMP retired from the work of the drafting panel since they were dissatisfied with the amount of time given before the planned ratification of the documents later this year and also because the government refused to hold a referendum on ratification. The radical Jobbik also declared that it would not submit proposals of its own.