Hungarian Parliament | Dávid Harangozó

New constitution passed

April 18, 2011

Hungarian lawmakers have on Monday approved the country’s new constitution that will take effect on 1 January 2012. Passing the bill into law required a two-thirds majority which which was provided by the governing Fidesz and its satellite party Christian Democrats.

The new constitution was approved with 262 votes, while 44 MPs said 'No’ and there was one abstention. The Socialist Party and the green Politics Can Be Different (LMP) boycotted the vote, just like the whole process of drafting the new constitution. Their argument was that it was but an attempt to entrench power for the government while limiting civil liberties.
The government said the new basic law will allow Hungary to complete the transition from communism to democracy started over 20 years ago, put the country on a sound economic footing and prevent the kind of political scandals that tainted the previous government.
Several points of the new constitution have been criticised both by civic groups in Hungary and by foreign organisations such as Amnesty International that said some of its points were "especially disconcerting". The German Foreign Ministry voiced its concerns this Monday.
Among others, the new constitution:
- weakens the powers of the Constitutional Court (although this "temporary" measure lasts only until state debt sinks to below 50% of GDP from the current 80%. Until then, however, the court can only overrule legislation on the budget, tax and customs issues if they infringe basic rights to life and human dignity, the protection of personal data and freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
- stipulates that amending legislation on taxes and pension require a two-thirds majority; allows to pass lifetime prison sentences without the possibility for parole; stipulates that the life of the fetus should be protected from conception; and limits marriages to between a man and a woman.
The constitution will also affect the central bank (NBH), as the law governing the NBH will be elevated from simple majority to a two-third super-majority. While the six-year terms of the Governor and two Deputy Gvernors remained unchanged, from next year, it will be the President of the Republic that will have the right to appoint all three of them, while up to date the Governor has had the right to pick his two deputies.
The constitution also sets a debt ceiling, which says the country’s public debt must not exceed 50% of the previous year's GDP except under extraordinary circumstances or a prolonged and significant recession.
As long as debt exceeds this limit, Parliament must run a budget surplus to ensure debt remains on a downwards trajectory. The constitution does not set a deadline for cutting state debt to 50%.
The new constitution states Hungary's legal tender is the forint (HUF). Needless to say, changing this will also require a two-thirds majority, which may not be easy if upon the country’s accession to the euro zone the then government has no two-thirds majority. Government officials, including the Prime Minister said adopting the euro is not an option before 2020.
Some of the changes made to appointment rules are seen as Fidesz cementing its power for a period it may not be governing, anymore. For instance, the Constitutional Court will have 15 members instead of 11, but Parliament will elect them for 12 years rather than nine years now. A new institution, the "Kuria", is established to oversee the judicial system whose Chairman will be elected by Parliament for nine years. The Constitution also confirms legislation by the previous administration, lengthening the term of the chief prosecutor to nine years from six, and doubles the mandate of the head of the State Audit Office to 12 years.
Local governments will be elected for five instead of four years to abolish a link to the parliamentary elections cycle, and the government will have veto right to their borrowing.


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