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A New Constitution for Hungary

Yesterday afternoon, the Hungarian Parliament voted overwhelmingly to adopt a new constitution. In so doing, Hungary became the last formerly communist country in the region to throw off the specter of its recent past and adopt a fundamental law of its own making. Article of Mr. Navracsics is deputy prime minister of Hungary in the The Wall Street Journal.
Created: 19th April, 2011 11:31 | Last updated: 19th April, 2011 11:32
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Yesterday afternoon, the Hungarian Parliament voted overwhelmingly to adopt a new constitution. In so doing, Hungary became the last formerly communist country in the region to throw off the specter of its recent past and adopt a fundamental law of its own making.

The new constitution has great symbolic and practical significance. It provides a foundation for the spiritual and intellectual renewal of Hungary. It reflects the past, present and future of the nation, and the fundamental values of the Hungarian people.

On a practical level, it will revise and update a legal framework that was formulated under the communists in 1949. Despite revisions since 1989, large parts of the original text remained until yesterday.

However, some have voiced concerns about the contents of the document and the process for enacting it. Most of these have been speculative and inaccurate. The end of the parliamentary process is an appropriate time to address these criticisms head-on and to dispel some of the prevailing myths.

First, it is wholly without foundation to claim, as some have done, that the process has been rushed. A new constitution has been a goal of successive Hungarian governments since 1989. Debate about it has been ongoing for the last 20 years.

A new constitution was a key pledge in this government's April 2010 election campaign. Formal consultation started soon after the elections, in June of last year. All of Hungary's opposition parties, and numerous expert and civil society groups, were invited to participate. The majority did so and provided invaluable input.

In addition, the government conducted an unprecedented public consultation exercise. Questionnaires were sent to eight million voters. More than one million responses were incorporated in the drafting process.

Some have also suggested that the new text erodes the checks and balances of Hungary's democratic institutions. It plainly does not. The constitution enshrines a classic separation of powers between Hungary's legislature, executive and judiciary. It upholds parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

It also introduces some much-needed simplification. For instance, the number of ombudsmen will be reduced to one from four, and the overlap between the roles of the Executive Court and the Constitutional Court will be removed.

The Constitutional Court will become the court of last resort for citizens. It will no longer be able to rule on tax and budgetary issues, which will rightly remain the preserve of an elected parliament.

References in the new constitution to Christianity and the Holy Crown are not discriminatory, as some have alleged. They are simply an acknowledgment of the importance that Christianity has played in Hungarian history.

Such references are not unconventional in European constitutions and they place no limitation on people's freedom to practice other faiths. In fact, the new constitution will celebrate and protect the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity of Hungary's citizens.

On the subject of rights, the constitution enshrines in full the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. It therefore declares the inviolability of human dignity, the right to freedom, the security of the person and the protection of private property.

The constitution places special emphasis on the protection of children, mothers, young people, the elderly and people with disabilities. Like other European constitutions, it states that marriage is possible only between a man and a woman. However, same-sex couples are entitled to the same legal protections as heterosexual couples through registered partnerships.

The constitution also highlights the significance of the protection of families and human life, but it does not tie the concept of "family" to marriage. Hence, single-parent families enjoy identical rights in the area of family support.

So the constitution could not be clearer in its commitment to equal rights and opportunity.

On the vexed question of the right to life, the new constitution will not change the existing law: Hungary's governing parties have agreed that the constitution should not amend in any way the 1992 Act on the Protection of Fetal Life. By protecting the life of the fetus, the new constitution confirms the rulings of the Constitutional Court over the course of the last two decades.

Regarding ethnic diversity, the constitution declares that all nationalities living in Hungary are part of the Hungarian political community. The constitution protects their languages and culture, their right to use their own language and receive education in their mother tongue, their right to free establishment and their right to stand in local and national elections.

Concerning Hungarians living outside Hungary's borders, the new constitution states that Hungary takes responsibility for the fate of all Hungarians, both within and beyond its borders, just as the previous constitution did.

The constitution will not decide the question of voting rights for Hungarian citizens who do not reside in Hungary. This question will be addressed in the course of the upcoming parliamentary debate on the Act on Electoral Procedure. Politicians in the governing party have already made it clear that they wish to follow the widespread European practice on this issue—namely, to grant voting rights in some form to everyone with Hungarian citizenship.

Lastly, regarding public finances, the constitution will introduce strict rules that will prevent any future government from bankrupting the country again. Cutting state debt is one of the government's main goals. State debt is currently more than 80% of GDP. This places an enormous burden on the Hungarian economy.

For this reason, under the new constitution, no government will be able to adopt a budget that increases the level of state debt. By continuously bearing down on public debt, we aim to achieve a debt ratio of 50% by the end of this decade.

Taken together, the measures in Hungary's new constitution conform fully with European tradition. They strengthen Hungary's commitment to individual freedom, democracy and the rule of law. They preserve the traditions of Hungarian parliamentarianism and the institutions of state.

Most importantly, the constitution draws a line under the last 20 years, and locks in the values of the political transition of 1989-90.

Mr. Navracsics is deputy prime minister of Hungary.

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