Giacomo Manca, an intern at New Eastern Europe, talks to Katalin Vida and Csaba Jelinek from Hallgatói Hálózat, a student group involved in the Hungarian opposition, which started during the protests against higher education reforms.
We are extremely pleased to announce that this interview launches our new column: New Eastern Europe's New Voices, or New Voices, for short, which focuses on publishing and accepts contributions from students writing about Central and Eastern Europe.
GIACOMO MANCA: We often read about Viktor Orbán’s government in the European media. The Hungarian constitution was approved a year ago, and is famous for having been the product of just one political party. Why did the government decide to rewrite the constitution?
CSABA JELINEK: The previous constitution was connected with a change in the regime. The constitution was passed in 1949 and modified several times by the socialist regime. At the end of the socialist regime and during the transition, the main changes to the constitution were made. After the transition, the socialist constitution survived but with heavy modifications. This process took place with a wide consensus among the parties. The current constitution was instead approved and implemented by the current government, which is made up of just one big party. They won the elections gaining the two-thirds of seats in parliament thanks to a distortion of the electoral system. Viktor Orbán won the polls with the 55 per cent of the votes, amounting to around 2 million people. The votes of these 2 million people, being a constitutional majority, allowed them to rewrite the constitution autonomously.
KATHALIN VIDA: They even renamed the constitution the Fundamental Law. The whole process went really quickly, without any consultation with experts or opposition parties, and of course without the accuracy that such an important thing needs. At first, they said that this constitution would be carved in the stone, but after just one year, there have already been four amendments! The length of this amendment constitution and of the constitution itself, shows that they are trying to regulate every detail of the constitution in order to prevent it from being changeable in the future.
There have been reports about the loss of power of the Constitutional Court after the fourth constitutional amendment approved in March of this year by parliament. Could you briefly explain the aim of the new constitution and the changes introduced by the amendment?
CJ: A year ago the new constitution was written in at 45 pages long. This last amendment adds another 15 pages to the constitution, although there are indeed a lot of issues which were addressed by this amendment. The Constitutional Court is experiencing a constant decrease in its autonomy, and since this amendment all decisions made that were made by the Constitutional Court before have been nullified. It is not possible anymore to refer to these decisions anymore. Moreover, the members of the Constitutional Court have a temporary mandate. Many mandates are currently getting close to the end, and already more than 50 per cent of the current members have been appointed by this new government. There is a majority of conservative judges in the Court, who have nullified all the previous decisions to create a new interpretation of the constitution.
KV: Many issues which were previously stated by the Constitutional Court are now against the new constitution (approved in 2011). The government put many modifications into the constitution, with the definition of the family being one of these modifications. Last year the government defined the family as a union between a man and a woman with children. In December 2012 the Constitutional Court stated that this kind of strict definition is against the constitution. They nullified the law that contained this sentence. What the government did is to actually put this definition into the constitution, so that now it cannot be revised anymore.
How do civil society and public opinion perceive the new constitution approved in 2011 and the amendment in 2013?
KV: That’s a good question! We don’t know what the majority of people think about the constitution. I think that the popularity of Fidesz is decreasing, but this doesn’t mean that it corresponds to an actual increase in the opposition parties. To me, this means that the number of people who don’t feel represented by any party is growing.
CJ: I would also say that the constitution and the institutional system of liberal democracy could be seen as the tip of the iceberg in this situation. It is something really abstract for the majority, and ordinary people don’t really care about what the constitution is. What matters for them is how to survive in their daily lives. One big danger is that on the top of the modifications of the liberal democratic asset, a neoliberal economic policy has been undertaken which is widening the differences between the upper and lower stratums of society. Thus, inequalities are rising. One group of society which is really benefiting from the current policies are the pensioners, who have managed to increase the value of their pensions. However, all the other stratums of society is experiencing a downward spiral: ordinary workers, the middle class, students and especially the poor marginalised people. The situation is still good for the upper class, but all other social groups are in a deeply problematic situation.
Do you think that the Fidesz government doesn't have a high level of popularity that brought it to the power in 2010?
CJ: I don’t think they have the same level anymore. The government consensus should be around 25 per cent at the moment, but there is a clear periodicity in the popularity of the government parties. After elections it tends to decrease and then when the campaign starts it rises again. At the moment I feel they are at the lowest peak in their popularity, and we will see how they succeed in next year's electoral campaign.
KV: The electorate is mainly composed of upper and middle class conservatives, as well as pensioners. Of course Fidesz needs many more people to win the elections, and we are looking forward to the surprises that the electoral campaign will bring. Actually it seems that the campaign has just started recently; with a clear example being the announcement of the reduction of utility costs. This happened a few weeks ago and is of course a symbolic attempt to show that parliament cares about the everyday lives of the people. This populist rhetoric is actually hitting a nerve. In Hungary utility costs are really high, and in this way Orbán can still build a stronger consensus.
The European Union and the international media have criticised Orbán’s policies, his relation with the IMF, and the purpose of rewriting the constitution quite harshly. What explanation has the prime minister given for these measures? What is the main long-term goal of the government?
KV: With the IMF issue, it seems that the government is trying to give the image to Hungarians that they are freedom fighters, that they want to be independent from international institutions, and establish their own national Hungarian capitalist class. There is a kind of criticism of globalisation in it.
CJ: The idea is that they are trying to fight for the independence of the Hungarian nation threatened by foreign capitalists, American and so on! It is not just a true criticism of globalisation; it has this nationalistic “clothing” rhetoric. Hearing them you might think that their claims are similar to Western European and North American leftist criticism and protests. Fidesz held a huge march with a hundred thousand people saying that Hungary wouldn’t be a colony of the international capitalists. Of course behind the anti-globalisation critics there is a strong nationalistic and chauvinist background. They attempt to focus on the point that they want to avoid foreign capital investment in Hungary, and that they are trying to replace it with national capital investors; meaning their friends, and the oligarchs behind them. They want to replace the IMF with Hungarian capital, to have control over the energy prices. They are also trying to take back the national bank, judiciary system and Constitutional Court; and they are trying to take over the major democratic institutions, or link them to the government and augment its control on them. All the speeches on cultural heritage are based on nationalistic and chauvinist rhetoric.
Could you be a bit more specific about their economic policy?
CJ: I would call it a neo-mercantilist economic policy, which is trying to defend the independence of Hungary from Western European capitalist corporations, institutions and companies; but also shows a strong takeover social policy, welfare system and social benefits. Apart from pensioners, which represents a huge base of the constituency, they are also pressuring the other groups: the unemployed (with a reduction in unemployment benefits), the poor, and the students (through financial cuts to education).
KV: They are also doing something quite frightening: the criminalisation of poverty and the homeless.
Do you mean that an oligarch system being established in Hungary?
CJ: Yes, frankly, I would use this word.
KV: The idea is to make Hungary more independent from the outside world. However, reducing the amount that companies are allowed to charge by 10 per cent, is a policy that will make companies become unprofitable; thus, it will then be easier to nationalise them.
How has the collapse of the Hungarian Socialist Party that ruled for eight years been possible?
KV: The reason for this huge collapse is that after their re-election in 2006 Ferenc Gyurcsány, the then-prime minister during a closed-door meeting of the prime minister's party (the Hungarian Socialist Party) admitted that they had lied about the situation of the country during the electoral campaign of the year before. This admission leaked out in the media and created a huge scandal. Since 2006 many right-wing groups have demonstrated in the streets against him, but he didn’t resign until 2009. He managed the situation pretty poorly and the whole party popularity was killed.
CJ: Moreover, there was huge corruption cases at the beginning of their second term. Gyurcsány’s government set some very unsustainable policies targeting groups such as teachers and state employees: they paid them on the 13th and 14th day of the month. Their financial policies lead the Hungarian economy into debt. When they reached the crisis, the huge accumulated debt made Hungary really vulnerable. The lower classes felt the crisis really harshly because of this previously unsustainable economic policy. When the government asked for IMF funds, the value of the forint went up, and corruption cases destroyed their popularity. After the scandal, huge riots broke out in the streets; the building of state television was besieged in a very violent manifestation. After all these troubles, the prime minister decided to step down, and Fidesz took advantage of this situation. They were able to communicate in a clever way and succeeded in the political destruction of Gyurcsány’s credibility. The economic crisis also contributed in pushing down his popularity.
Which democratic opposition parties have possibilities in next year's elections?
KV: The socialist party has quite old members and still hasn’t renovated its ruling class. I don’t think that any youngster would vote for them at this point. Since leaving the Hungarian Socialist Party, Gyurcsány has founded a new party for himself, the Democratic Coalition, but young people would not vote for them either. There is then a green liberal party, called Politics Can Be Different but they have just split, and the guys who left this party founded another party called 2014 Together. This party is led by Gordon Bajnai, the prime minister who was in charge for a year after Gyurcsány finally resigned in 2009. He is trying to come back to the politics and is actually quite a charismatic guy.
CJ: There are many players in the field after the huge vacancy in the left political side caused by the elections. There is a huge divisive line among these, the socialist party keeps just 10-15 per cent of the consensus and will run for the elections. Then there is Gordon Bajnai. Thus, the opposition is really divided. There is a group that sees the priority in collaborating to get rid of Orbán and sees him as a threat to democracy, while another part of the left says that it is necessary to go for long-term goals. However, the change in the electoral system will make it even harder to change the government after the next elections in 2014. This is actually the current debate in Hungary; the discussion is still open to the public in how the opposition parties should join forces.
This interview is the first part of a conversation with Katalin Vida and Csaba Jelinek, from Hallgatói Hálózat, a student group involved in the Hungarian opposition. The second will appear on this column in the next few weeks.
Giacomo Manca is an intern at New Eastern Europe. Currently, he is studying for a MA in International Relations at the University of Bologna.