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Democracy on Life Support: Are the “reforms” entrenched?

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These are long versions of the answers that experts gave us for the Lead Article “Democracy on Life Support” which deals with the rollback of democracy in some Eastern European countries. The article is focusing on the situation in Hungary. Below you find the answers from our three interviewees to the following question…

How entrenched do you think Orbán’s “reforms” already are? Do you think the next government could reset them, if there is a change in political attitudes? Are there any reforms that will be extremely hard to set back to the pre-Orbán state?

Hartmann: In Hungary, there is an unlucky combination of an uncompromising, hard-line government which is entitled with a two-thirds majority in parliament allowing it to change the constitution at will. This has led to a fundamental restructuring of the political and legal system, most noticeable in the curtailment of powers of the Constitutional Court. In a nutshell, Fidesz has seriously weakened the checks and balances originally provided for in the constitution. Any government which wishes to undo these changes will have to secure a two-thirds majority as well, which will require intensive political efforts and a successful coalition-building, as it appears to be highly unlikely that Hungarians will grant any other political party such an overwhelming mandate again as it gave to Fidesz. In a highly polarized society as Hungary is, this will prove to be a very arduous task.

Even if the constitutional changes might be reversed or modified, the political posts of nominally independent state institutions still are filled with loyal Fidesz-supporters. The rightist government thereby firmly anchored its reactionary policies in institutional changes and strategic nominations. Even if voted out of office, the framework it currently sets will be hard to undo.

Citizen X: The ambitions of the second Orbán-government are high, and sometimes even too confident. The implementation of the new constitution was timely and acceptable, the preceding and following institutional changes (the restructuring of the Media Council and the Constitutional Court or other national public institutions) are likely to prevail in the long term as well. In my opinion, the task of a possible new government would not be the re-reforming of the recently implemented and/or reformed basic systems of the state, but rather the qualitative proofing and refinement of them. Instead of the reprivatisation of the private pension funds, an individual account system could be introduced to the state pension system, the personal income tax system could be reformed into a double-rate tax system in case of extra income, and as for education, students should get access to new resources of stipendium. In my opinion, two years of symbolic governance (with giving double citizenship to over-border Hungarians or with the reconstruction of the main square around the Parliament), was enough, the situation of the country now can only be stabilized through a real social and economic recovery.

Szálkai: I believe that Fidesz still has a great chance to win the next elections in 2014, as it does not have a real alternative that is acceptable for the majority of the Hungarian society. Moreover, the second strongest political party is currently the right-fringe, anti-EU Jobbik, the election of which would lead to a more serious decline in democratic and European values in Hungary. Even if the next government will be a committed follower of these values, I am very pessimistic about the resetting of the laws that can only be changed with a two-third majority. The ongoing reform of the electoral districts will contribute to the difficulties in the restoration as well. However, there is another negative change that I find more important and will be extremely hard to restore in the course of time, and that is the significantly decreased trust in democratic institutions.


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Tom Fries Twitter: @tom_friesTom

Erstwhile neuroscientist ('97-'00), rowing coach ('99-'10), business student ('07-'09) and cupcake entrepreneur ('09). Now enjoying international work in the Germany and Washington offices of one of Germany's most prominent think tanks.