By Neil Buckley in London and Kester Eddy in Budapest
Just last week, Gabor Ivanyi, head pastor of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship, an independent Methodist congregation in Budapest, was celebrating. Hungary’s top court had annulled a controversial law last year that reduced the number of officially recognised churches from more than 350 to little more than two dozen.
The court said the churches law – part of a new constitution introduced by the government of Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party in January 2012 – could lead to politically motivated decisions on recognition. Pastor Ivanyi’s group lost its church status, hitting its funding and charitable work including tending daily to 1,000 homeless people.
“The Fellowship, in God’s name, welcomes the constitutional court ruling with joy. [The church law] destroyed the right to freedom of conscience and religion,” he wrote in an email.
The joy may not last. Amendments being debated by Hungary’s parliament and voted on next week are set to restore both the bulk of the church law and many controversial parts of the new constitution that the constitutional court or European institutions had successfully challenged.
The turnround has taken not just Pastor Ivanyi but the international community by surprise.
The 2012 constitution, and associated “cardinal” laws on different areas also passed by a two-thirds parliamentary majority, was denounced by critics as a “constitutional coup”. They said it weakened democratic checks and balances and endangered media freedom and independence of the judiciary.
Though in piecemeal fashion, the European Commission won some changes to the media and judiciary laws. The Council of Europe, the continent’s top human rights body, secured alterations to the church and justice laws.
Hungary’s constitutional court also struck down some elements, despite being composed increasingly of Fidesz appointees.
Now, critics warn, 14 pages of constitutional amendments could reverse much of that.
“Orban views checks and balances as outdated instruments to tame his will and, accordingly, he is doing his best to remove any obstacle from the glorious road of his ‘revolution’,” said Gordon Bajnai, Hungary’s technocratic prime minister in 2009-10 after the collapse of a discredited socialist government.
Mr Bajnai said the amendments reincorporate into the constitution “all those [areas where] decisions taken by the constitutional court . . . repealed some pivotal elements of Orban’s revolution”.
Mr Orban’s government always insisted Hungary needed a constitutional “reboot” after too long relying on a rewritten Stalin-era constitution. It rebuffed criticisms of the new fundamental law as groundless and orchestrated by its arch-foes, the socialists.
The government this week said criticism was again misplaced and the amendments were anyway being introduced in a Fidesz MP’s private member’s bill, not a government bill.
But why take such provocative action now?
One reason may be that Fidesz’s ratings have fallen sharply since it won 53 per cent of votes in 2010 parliament elections and two-thirds of seats. Recent polls have shown its support at below a quarter of all voters, though large numbers answer “don’t know” or “won’t vote”.
Economic output shrank 1.7 per cent last year – exacerbated, say economists, by Fidesz’s unorthodox policies. But Mr Orban has found blaming foreign banks and EU “interference” resonates politically.
“In some elements it’s just popular [with voters],” says Tamas Boros, director of Policy Solutions, a Budapest think tank.
He adds that Mr Orban takes any defeat badly. “It’s [Fidesz’s] philosophy to aim to win all fights; that no one else should have a say on these issues,” says Mr Boros.
Kim Lane Scheppele, director of Princeton University’s law and public affairs programme, who has monitored Hungary’s new constitution, says legal complexities also played a part.
A constitutional court judgment in December raised the risk of an “unravelling of [Fidesz’s] constitutional system”. The government had to address that risk – and took the opportunity to reinsert some contentious elements.
European Commission officials said it was unclear how serious the latest developments in Budapest would become, but they were monitoring them. The problem if Hungary’s parliament does pass the amendments, say EU experts, is Brussels already used most of its limited tools to deal with backsliding on democratic standards last year – but now Budapest is fighting back.