26th Jan 2020

Hungary's democratic checks and balances in danger

  • The Hungarian parliament: Fidesz' powerful majority makes normal checks and balances all the more important (Photo: EUobserver)

The Hungarian constitution's democratic safeguards are falling victim to changes brought in by the the new centre-right Fidesz government, a survey by the Eotvos Institute commissioned by the weekly HGV magazine has found.

The analysis is based on the answers of a team of constitutional experts to a list of 10 questions. The replies are summed up in a monthly "democracy index," now published for the second time. Out of the 10 indicators, six went down compared to June, three improved and one remained unchanged.

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On the positive side, the score for freedom of expression and the media, for human dignity and executive transparency went up over the past month.

Respondents saw the independence of executive institutions fall from 4.86 to 4.33 on a 10 point scale, however. The functioning of parliamentary democracy as outlined in the constitution decreased from 6.36 to 6.08 while the accountability of the government vis-a-vis parliament went down from 4.48 to 4.25.

The constitutional experts also worry because they feel less and less heed is being paid to the constitution's underlying principles (6.12 down to 5.77).

In the experts' view, the most disturbing aspect of decay is the promotion of Fidesz loyalists as heads of supposedly independent institutions.

The Hungarian media abounds in stories of pro-government appointments to lead authorities such as the Court of Auditors, the Constitutional Court, the Hungarian Tax Authorities, the National Election Committee and to senior posts in the police. Huge efforts are also being made to set up a new media and telecommunications authority with a leader appointed for a nine-year term.

The cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently employed populist language to accuse the head of the Hungarian National Bank of taking inadequate financial decision. The aim was to "assist" his resignation.

Promoting cronies has a disastrous impact on the effectiveness of constitutional checks and balances, the experts say. In order to act in accordance with the constitution, institutions need to be independent.

Under "normal circumstances," a number of personnel-related and other guarantees secure the independent work of the institutions by minimising government influence on their decisions. But with the current government's overwhelming majority (263 seats in the 386 seat parliament), the institutions' autonomy is more important than ever, the Eotvos Insitute says. Fidesz can nominate and vote for its favourites without any recourse to the opposition.

In one example, HVG highlighted the recently-modified nomination process for constitutional judges. Previously, each parliamentary party held one seat on the nomination committee. Now, the committee's composition has been changed to reflect the ratios of the parties' seats in parliament. The new model favours Fidesz, which can now choose judges freely.

The election of party politician Pal Schmitt as the country's president discredited yet another office meant to check the government's power. Unlike his predecessor Laszlo Solyom, experts do not expect Mr Schmitt to act as a defender of human and minority rights and democracy.

Mr Schmitt, for his part, confirmed suspicions by announcing that he did "not want to be a barrier to law-making but rather the engine of the government's stamina."

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