Constitutionally autocratic?

 Whenever we went on long car journeys when I was a child, my parents would try to curb my blisteringly irritating ways by handing me an “I Spy” book. Each of these brilliant little volumes – so beloved of weary parents – would be on a particular theme (cars, countryside, etc.), and every time you spotted a particular item in one of the books, you would win points proportionate to the scarcity of whatever it happened to be. In recent years, my affection for these little books has been dulled somewhat by the realisation that the bright red Delorian I spent hours searching for didn’t actually exist, but even so, I often find myself wishing that someone would write a tongue-in-cheek “I Spy” book for adults on politics. Spotting some things – like, say, an American President with a thick French accent – would obviously win you a whole mountain of points. But some things – the political equivalents of pickup trucks – are much easier to spot.

In the spotters’ guide to governments, autocracy is perhaps the easiest to recognise. It may be a little uncommon, but it’s so distinctive, you can’t miss it. Indeed, autocracy is so simple to spot that even the twelfth-century political “I Spy” champion, John of Salisbury, was able to sum it up quite simply. In his Policratus, he observed that what distinguished a legitimate government from a tyranny was the willingness to rule in accordance with an objective standard of law for the benefit of the people. To disregard the law, or to legislate without the common good in mind was the very hallmark of tyrannical or autocratic government. No doubt John of Salisbury would have awarded only one point for spotting it.

Even the most untrained political spotter could not fail to recognise that Hungary is already far gone on the path to autocracy. After his party, Fidesz, was swept back into power last spring with 53% of the vote, Viktor Orbán launched on a programme of radical reforms which culminated in the enactment of the country’s first post-Communist constitution on January 1. Taken together, Orbán’s reforms are little short of staggering. Quite apart from constitutional clauses redefining the status of religions, the character of marriage, and the rights of the foetus, the shape of Hungary’s new political order is more reactionary and authoritarian than merely conservative. With the foundation of a new national media board packed with party loyalists and invested with sweeping powers, the freedom of the press has been threatened. An expanded judiciary has been purged and staffed with political allies, while its capacity to review legislation and to question budgetary matters has been dramatically curtailed. And to top it all off, new electoral laws have redrawn boundaries in such a way that it is almost impossible for any party other than Fidesz to form a government.

It is perhaps no surprise that Orbán’s reforms have drawn intense criticisms from an international community well-versed in the ways of political “I Spy”. Taking heed of mounting popular protests, the often reticent U.S. State Department has expressed grave concerns, and anticipating the European Commission’s measures against Hungary, Jean Asselborn, the Luxembourgian Foreign Minister, argued that the country’s new constitution clearly violated both the spirit and the letter of EU treaties. Mirroring former Prime Minister George Bajnai’s attack on what is being seen as a blatant attack on democratic freedoms, Die Welt has dubbed Hungary a “Führerstaat”, and Nobel prize-winning economic Paul Krugman has vehemently condemned “the re-establishment of authoritarian rule”.

But the funny thing about “I Spy” is that it really isn’t concerned with fostering understanding. It simply obliges you to take things entirely on face value. Just as the most radically different kit-cars were bundled into the same category, regardless of the bits they happened to be made of, so there is a tendency in political “I Spy” to overlook the importance of the past in shaping present conditions. History and context simply don’t play a part in the fine art of spotting. Although it is not difficult to recognise in Orbán’s Hungary all the distinguishing characteristics of an emergent autocracy, simply ticking it off as a proto-tyranny in our “I Spy” book leads us no closer to understanding how and why the new political order has come into being. And without this understanding, criticism of Hungary’s constitution is little better than facile name-calling.

By American and Western European standards, there is, of course, no doubt that the new Hungarian constitution falls very far short of the liberal democratic ideal. But it is vital to recognise that those same American and Western European standards have been shaped by a very definite series of historical developments, based around a sequence of essentially liberal revolutions, and the gradual victory of the discourse of rights over crude nationalism. Although Hungary has been welcomed into the European Union, it has come to stand alongside France, Germany, and the United Kingdom with the heritage of a radically different historical tradition in which democracy has played a far less important role than nationalism.

Subscribe now
ps subscription image no tote bag no discount

Subscribe now

Get unlimited access to OnPoint, the Big Picture, and the entire PS archive of more than 14,000 commentaries, plus our annual magazine, for less than $2 a week.


After Britain, Hungary has perhaps the longest constitutional history of any European country, and its first identifiable constitution – the ‘Golden Bull’ – dates back to 1222. From the very beginning, however, Hungary’s approach to its constitution carried little implication of protecting the rights of ordinary people. Although the Golden Bull established a right of resistance to the abuse of royal authority, this right belonged only to a highly restricted noble oligarchy which jealously protected the privilege for centuries to come. In his Tripartitum Opus Juris Consuetudinarii Inclyti Regni Hungariae (1514) – a vast codification of Hungarian law that was to remain the defining work on constitutional matters until well into the twentieth century – István Werbőcy reaffirmed that the king’s power was limited by law, but deliberately stripped all non-nobles of rights, thus essentially excluding 90% of the populace from the political process. Untouched by the effects of the French Revolution and almost unscathed by the uprisings of 1848, this extremely restrictive constitutional arrangement remained ingrained in the Hungarian imagination. Even Hungary’s greatest nineteenth-century ‘liberal’ hero, Lajos Kossuth was reluctant to advocate broadening the political franchise too strongly, and the preservation of the ‘old’ constitution remained a commonly accepted political priority until well into the twentieth century. After the fall of the monarchy in the wake of the First World War, the right to vote was only gradually and grudgingly extended under the autocratic Regent, Miklós Horthy, and even then was greeted with comparatively little excitement. Oppressive though it may have been, the Communist constitution of 1949 was relatively unoriginal in the limitations it placed on the political rights of the individual, and it is striking that the round-table talks which were held after the collapse of the Soviet Union showed a surprising lack of enthusiasm for the extension of democratic rights.

The peculiar character of Hungary’s constitutional past is perhaps best explained in relation to the colossal importance which has historically been attached to national identity by a people who have traditionally viewed themselves as having been oppressed and mistreated by foreigners. Despite themselves being an immigrant people whose roots are most likely to be found in western Siberia, Hungarians – or Magyars – perceived themselves as under threat from foreigners – including Romanians, Germans, and today’s Slovaks – almost from the moment they arrived in the Carpathian Basin, and the Golden Bull itself specifically limited the influence of foreigners. This desire to protect themselves against alien dangers only grew stronger. Ravaged by the Mongols in the early thirteenth century, Hungary found itself under Angevin kings, before eventually succumbing to Habsburg rule and suffering the indignity of defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks. With a substantial portion of Hungary’s original territory in Ottoman hands, and the bulk of the country ruled by an increasingly absolutist and ethnically intolerant Austrian monarchy, Magyar identity became the central issue in Hungarian politics. Regardless of the devastating economic and political effects it had had down the centuries, the Golden Bull came to be viewed as an affirmation of the Hungarians’ right to govern themselves (however imperfectly), and the preservation of the old constitution’s implicit sense of Magyar ‘national’ identity was at the core of resistance to the centralisation of what was to become known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the period 1789-1848 – which could easily be described as the ‘Age of Revolutions’ – recognition of the identity and autonomy of the Magyar people, not the extension of democratic rights or the accountability of public officials, was the central issue. Defending the absolute value of the ‘old’ Hungarian constitution against the ‘abomination’ of rule of Vienna in the mid-1840s, Kossuth proudly asserted that he would never accept any other nationality other than Magyar under the authority of the Holy Crown, and demanded that Hungarian – rather than Latin or German – should be used in every sphere of public life. More than a century later, and with the legacy of Horthy’s vigorous promotion of Magyar identity still strongly felt, Hungarian autonomy became a central feature of opposition to a Communist government which danced to Moscow’s tune, and in the round-table talks which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the concept of ‘Hungary’ was perhaps the single most important concern of the architects of the new politics. Indeed, the institution of Western-style democracy after 1990 is apt to seem like something of an artificial importation, and it is still the case that Hungarian national identity – inextricably bound up with perceptions of language, ethnicity, and a deeply-ingrained sense of Catholic devotion – rather than democratic rights, continues to be at the forefront of contemporary politics to an extent which is entirely alien to America and Western Europe.

With this historical background in mind, Orbán’s autocratic package of reforms may seem rather less surprising than they might initially seem. Equipped with a history in which nationalism has traditionally played a much stronger role than Western-style democratic values, Hungary’s response to the political and economic travails of the last two years was always likely to be different to that of its European neighbours. With a sizeable proportion of Hungarians facing financial ruin as a result of having taken out mortgages or loans in Swiss Francs or Euros, confronting the devastating effects of a Europe-wide recession and the downgrading of its public debt by foreign ratings agencies, and enduring seemingly endless criticisms from the E.C., the I.M.F. and the United States, Viktor Orbán has simply fallen back on the familiar theme of reasserting a traditional, conservative vision of Hungarian nationhood in opposition to unwanted foreign influences. While the deeply conservative and Catholic content of the new constitution reflects a conscious reaffirmation of traditional Magyar identity by a party which perceives itself to be under undue pressure from other nations, Fidesz’ more overt attempts to transform Hungary’s political culture are indicative of a centuries-old sense of militant nationalism. Instinctively wary of television stations and newspapers being owned by non-Hungarians, and with a native suspicion of judges trained in the ways of the European courts, Orbán has attempted to keep Hungary’s media and judiciary Magyar. So too, cautious of having ‘alien’ influences (including both the E.C. and judges) interfere with an increasingly unstable budget, he has ensured that authority remains firmly in the – entirely Hungarian – hands of Fidesz. And while perhaps a little further removed from the lingering resentment of foreign influences, even electoral reforms can be seen as a continuation of a long-standing political tendency to prioritise the absolute sovereignty of the lands under the Holy Crown over any particular sense of democratic accountability.

While it may be easy to take note of Hungary’s recent slide towards autocratic government, an analysis of the country’s unique constitutional history seems to suggest that it is inadequate simply to tick it off in our “I Spy” book of world politics. When placed against the background of centuries defined not by the Enlightenment notions of political rights, but by a bitter struggle for national identity, Orbán’s programme of reform is perhaps a little more comprehensible, even if it remains fundamentally unpalatable.

But if Hungary’s new constitution can best be understood in a broader historical context, two potentially troubling questions present themselves. On the one hand, given the idiosyncratic nature of Hungary’s political history, is it meaningful to judge the quality of its democracy against the standards of nations which have followed a very different historical path? On the other hand, are the international community’s ‘history-free’ criticisms of Hungary’s constitutional reforms naïve?

However attractive it may be to believe that all individuals would – if given the choice – naturally chose to be members of a polity organised in accordance with liberal democratic values, it is mere hubris to imagine that the prominence which this belief has come to enjoy in North American and Western European political thought is the result merely of an irresistible, impersonal logic. We simply can’t ignore the role of history. Despite the colossal intellectual apparatus which has been erected on their foundations since the Enlightenment, the democratic values so intrinsic to the constitutions of the United States and France, for example, are the hard-won rewards for a long, and bitterly fought process of political development stretching back over more than three centuries. The democratic values which form the bedrock of our political sensibilities are, in other words, the product of our past, and are firmly embedded in the shared history of a community of closely-connected nations. Hungary, by contrast, has not shared in this process of historical development. For almost a millennium, it has trodden its own path, and the evolution of its political sensibilities has proceeded by a very different route.

By virtue of its long history of foreign oppression, Hungary has come to embrace a form of political reasoning based on entirely different values, and its experience of democracy has been mediated – and even distorted – by a profound attachment to national identity. Although Hungary and its Western European partners all signed up to the same treaty, in which democratic values were given pride of place, the meaning which these nations attached to those values was as different as their histories, and their apparent convergence little more than an accidental coincidence of pragmatic interests. As a consequence, it not only seems inappropriate to judge Hungary’s new constitution by North American or Western European democratic standards, but it also seems naïve in the extreme to attempt to divert Hungary from its path to autocracy using criticism and coercion. Given that its political identity has been shaped by the rhetoric of nationalism and foreign oppression, Hungary is operating on the basis of quite different premises, and is likely only to be goaded into further reactionary and autocratic reforms by persistent attacks from the E.C., the I.M.F., and the United States. Hungary is, in other words, a prisoner of its history, and if heed is not taken of the nature of this history, it is likely to become its victim once again. Distasteful and even irresponsible though it may appear, the international community must simply acknowledge the ‘otherness’ of Hungary’s condition, and leave it to develop in its own way, for better or for worse. In the end, “I Spy” has its limits, and while we continue on our political odyssey, we should merely content ourselves with looking out of the window and trying to understand the polities alongside our own.


Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated cookie policy and privacy policy.