Hungary—What a constitutional coup looks like

The writer of this piece uses the term “Constitutional Revolution” and that’s accurate as far as it goes. It is a revolution, and it did change the Hungarian constitution.

But it’s also a coup — it converts a constitutional democracy into a constitutional dictatorship, one designed to keep the current rulers in power indefinitely.

The background: Hungary is one of the first states in Europe (and in the European Union) to slide back into dictatorship as a result of (1) the worldwide economic crisis and (2) the abortive mishandling of the crisis in Europe.

Paul Krugman wrote about that here. This is a guest columnist on Krugman’s blog, Kim Lane Scheppele, to explain what happened more fully.

I consider this a must read article. This is one of the two ways a constitutional coup works. (Points for those who can identify the Midwestern states in which this is actually operating today.)

Scheppele begins (my emphasis):

In a free and fair election last spring in Hungary, the center-right political party, Fidesz, got 53% of the vote. This translated into 68% of the seats in the parliament under Hungary’s current disproportionate election law. With this supermajority, Fidesz won the power to change the constitution. They have used this power in the most extreme way at every turn, amending the constitution ten times in their first year in office and then enacting a wholly new constitution [pdf] that will take effect on January 1, 2012.

This constitutional activity has transformed the legal landscape to remove checks on the power of the government and put virtually all power into the hands of the current governing party for the foreseeable future.

This excellent post takes us through all of the steps, including (my summary):

▪ Neutering the judiciary (interesting set of specifics here)
▪ Party control over election supervision
▪ Redrawing electoral districts to guarantee electoral wins well into the future
▪ Neutering of human rights, data protection and minority affairs ombudsmen
▪ Intimidating the press through the ability to bankrupt media outlets through fines
▪ Embedding major changes into law by requiring a super-majority to overturn them

And on and on. I especially liked this part, again from the article:

The new constitution also accepts conservative Christian social doctrine as state policy, in a country where only 21% of the population attends any religious services at all. The fetus is protected from the moment of conception. Marriage is only legal if between a man and a woman. The constitution “recognize(s) the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood” and holds that “the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence.” While these religious beliefs are hard-wired into the constitution, a new law on the status of religion cut the number of state-recognized churches to only fourteen, deregistering 348 other churches.

As I said, a must-read.

This is a problem for the EU; how will it respond to dictatorships springing up within its borders? The article makes clear that Brussels has concerns. The new Hungarian government is so far unresponsive to them.

It’s clear that, barring fighting in the streets — real fighting, against the Hungarian army, should they choose to support the new regime — the coup will be next to impossible to reverse.

Ahem: Once you give away your democracy, you don’t get it back by asking.

Now about my opening comment, that this is “one of the two ways a constitutional coup works.”

Constitutions have two forms — the written form, and the “as practiced” form. You can make revolutionary changes to either and kill your democracy. In Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere, Republican governors and legislators are overturning written constitutions with actual laws.

But at the federal level, the constitution is as much “by agreement” as it is written. “By agreement” the president can order assassination of U.S. citizens. Obama did it; no one who matters complained.

President Whoever now has that right; the next step will be to move the definition of “acceptable target” until it includes political enemies. For example, any bets on whether the phrase “eco-terrorist” is going to get new life? The list of demons is endless in a country defined by demonization — especially of the liberal left by the powerful authoritarian right.

A second area of change to our “by agreement” constitution is the role of the judiciary. Does the Supreme Court have the right to intervene politically in presidential elections? After Bush v Gore, you’d have to say Yes. The next step is to refine (move) the definition of When.

There are many of these areas of “by agreement” constitutional drift. Not prosecuting holders of very high political office, no matter the crime, is a third. The list is long.

For these reasons, it’s safe to say that the U.S., at both the state and federal levels, is itself undergoing a constitutional revolution (and frankly, has been since Nixon was pardoned).

A strong suggestion, therefore: do read that article. It’s easier to spot what’s going on when it’s a Hungarian frog being boiled. Ahem.


Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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