Questions Remaining about Thomas Melia’s Critical Assessment of the Hungarian Government

Perhaps another, longer post would be in order to explain the democratic theory on which Thomas Melia’s criticisms of Hungary are based and the reasons why he presented a laundry-list of critical issues which, in his opinion, pose a great threat to Hungary’s democratic institutions. To be sure, he is not alone in his criticism. The US has now joined a longer list of respectable institutions – among them the European Parliament and the Venice Commission – who have expressed their own worries regarding Hungary’s recent political developments.

Rather than going into the details of why all of these institutions concur in their views that, since the 2010 elections, Hungary is on a path to disassembling its democratic institutions (a post that you can expect to appear on this blog in the future), here I will only focus on what I find the most immediately striking and peculiar about this affair: the reception of Melia’s views in Hungary.

So far, we have seen three responses from Fidesz, Hungary’s governing party. First the one that seems to have received the greatest attention: the unofficial dismissal of the criticisms in vulgar language on Tamás Deutsch’s Twitter feed. Unfortunately, it did manage to derail considerable attention from the issues at hand.

Secondly, Péter Szijjártó, spokesman for Viktor Orbán’s government framed the issue in terms of his claim that Fidesz’s 2/3 majority in the parliament amounts to a mandate from the people for the changes they have undertaken and passed into the law of the country. Legally speaking, this might be the case, as far as constitutional theory is concerned, however, the opinions are rather mixed. The Fidesz government’s position on this matter poses exactly the same theoretical problem as Hitler’s electoral victory and consequent constitution-writing activity did before the Second World War – namely, that legally, and perhaps even philosophically, the Nazi’s mandate to rewrite the constitution was undeniable, yet… yet there is no way that this constitution corresponded to the will of the German people (to this brief summary of a longer discussion, one usually also adds that perhaps the constitution of Weimar Germany’s  should have prevented this contingency). This of course is not to say that Fidesz is like Hitler – only that, from the perspective of constitutional law, we are dealing with the same complex problem. So the goverment’s reactions seem to get precisely to the crux of the matter – and I am optimistic that the Hungarian people still have a chance to express their opinions about how to interpret the mandate they have given to their government in 2010.

Thirdly, we have Zsolt Németh’s “the best defense is to go on the offensive” reactions to the affair. As Assistant Deputy to Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Németh is similar in rank to his counterpart in the US, Thomas Melia, so we should consider his statements Hungary’s official diplomatic response to Melia’s testimony before the US House committee (or the closest we are going to get to such a thing in a public statement). Mr. Németh stressed that previously the Hungarian government criticized the US, namely in relation to their torture of prisoners in Guantanamo. At the same time, he hit a tone of reconciliation: he expressed hope that the US and Hungary can work their way through their disagreements and reach an agreement on these issues. It is not for nothing that Mr. Németh is a professional diplomat – he was able to speak to public opinion at home while showing willingness to compromise.

The same need to remain open to criticism from abroad, and to be gracious in receiving it, however, was not typical of the Hungarian media. In what follows, I am limit myself only to the responses of moderate and oppositionary news portals, so as to avoid the excesses of the more nationalistic sentiments one can also found expressed in some media outlets. Even the most left-wing opinions, however, astounding. They are astoundingly on the mark in some respects, and at the same time absolutely off the mark in others.

Let me start with where they hit the nail right on its head. Those who show concern about Hungary’s international reputation jump into the fray precisely by continuing the discussion opened up by Mr. Szijjártó about the will of the Hungarian people (Mr. Szijjártó may have only meant to close the discussion, but that’s not the point).

Here’s the question upon which this debate between the people and their government might turn. Is the “will” of persons who happen to be members of the government, just because it also happens to be the “will” of the government (its institution) automatically the “will” of the people? In fact, the question is this: what kind of a constitution makes sure that the will of the people coincide with the will of the government – regardless of who’s on government, and regardless of what the hot-button political questions are at the time.

The above mentioned democratic theory, which Mr. Melia happens to be an expert of, is precisely where one might find suggestions for solving this problem (in what is known as the theory of democratic representation). Since no one has the ultimate answers, this theory provides suggestions (more than one, as long as it is well done). Under discussion right now is the fact that the response that Hungary’s new constitution gives to these questions is not one of these suggestions. In fact, the response contained in the new Hungarian constitution is much more arbitrary than the institutional design provided for ensuring popular representation in the previous constitution. This is why “foreigners,” from the Venice Commission all the way to the US, decided to urge caution.

There nevertheless remains, even in the most left-wing responses to Mr. Melia’s remarks, a certain defiance of these above-mentioned foreigners. It is not uncommon to read views that start out with questions like “why should we worry about what the world thinks about us” or “how is this a democracy if Western powers can still tell us what to do – how did anything change from Communist times if we can’t just do whatever we want.”

There is a fundamental misunderstanding here about why one might do what others suggest. The Hungarian knee-jerk reaction – that one either has to please masters or become a pariah in the world – seems to be too deeply ingrained in certain Hungarian political circles, and it’s getting the better of them: the ability to play as equals on the world-stage. I collapsed many steps of my argument on this point, but you can find it -phrased in relation to the European Parliament’s resolution to review the new Hungarian constitution about whether it is in compliance with international human rights legislation – here.

I close, therefore, with the questions that remain with us in view of the Melia affair. One: why do Hungarians (or those in the Hungarian “nation” who object to reconsidering the principles so onerous to so many different international organizations) believe that they need a different kind of “democracy.” Just why is Hungary so special? Two: if the answer is that the Hungarian situation is a special one, then why is it more special than the situation in, say, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland? Why do these other Eastern-European states not need to have resort to “special” measures ensuring “democracy” in their countries? Three: if Hungary institutes a “democracy” that is qualitatively very different from what the rest of the world knows as a democracy, why should we not call this new regime a different regime, or a regime other than a democracy. Not all systems in which the people vote are democracies, after all. Four: why should one dismiss opinions voiced from countries with a variety of democratic traditions – and what is wrong with learning from centuries of experience, or from academic expertise? Is Hungary so special it must reinvent what has already been invented? And if so, is it not fair to ask whether the Hungarians’ supposedly unique and innovative solutions for century-old problems of political philosophy are really as flawless as they believe?

This entry was posted in constitution, Deutsch Tamás, English-language Hungarian news, European Union, Fidesz, Hungarian, Hungary, Németh Zsolt, parliament, Péter Szijjártó, Thomas Melia, US-Hungarian diplomatic relationships, Viktor Orbán, Western criticism of Hungary. Bookmark the permalink.

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