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The Continuity of the Hungarian Constitution by Lili Zemplényi

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Culture & Society

The Continuity of the Hungarian Constitution

Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism argued that the metaphor which says that the state is like a person is central to conservative thinking[1]. People are organisms, which are born, can be healthy, get sick, nourish themselves and they can also die. Guiding their physical existence people have a reason – the physical body and the consciousness are mutually dependent on each other, as while reason informs the body how to react to needs, it cannot continue its existence without an organic life. Similarly to a person, the organism of a society can also live, flourish and die. The reason instructing, forming and constituting the self-image of a society is its constitution. The constitution is the bond, which unites the state and the society as reason and passion coexist in a human organism. As such a ‘constitution endows the life of society with continuity and will’[2].

Much like in most other countries in Europe, the constitutional development of Hungary can be traced back to medieval times. The first period of the country’s constitutional evolution can be characterised with a struggle between the monarch and the nobility, defining and settling customs, the rights of the parties, and constraints on the power of the sovereign. Later, the constitution—while it preserved its fundamental constitutional tradition—evolved in a way that it enabled the establishment of a responsible government with a popularly elected legislature. The new ideas which were gradually adopted into the constitution show a pattern of evolution, ‘thus supporting the notion that the historic constitution was the result of an organic development’[3]. This organic development of the Hungarian constitution endowed the nation with its self-image, will and continuity as Roger Scruton argued. 

While the Hungarian constitution was organically developing for hundreds of years, its evolution was broken in 1949, when the first written constitution of Hungary was codified. The 1949 Constitution was adopted when the country was already under the full control of the Hungarian Working People’s Party. The constitution did not build on Hungary’s previous constitutional evolution; instead, it was based on the 1936 Soviet Constitution. As this constitution and the ideas in it were alien to the previous life and experiences of the Hungarian society, the adoption of the 1949 broke the natural development of the Hungarian constitution. 

In 1989, the Hungarian constitution was not changed, but merely amended. Since Hungary had its first democratic elections after the collapse of communism in 1990, in 1989 the legislation which amended the constitution lacked democratic legitimacy – the amendments were a result of a series of negotiations between the former communist ruling elite and the opposition[4]. Although the constitution was so heavily changed that only one sentence (which claimed that the capital city of the country is Budapest) remained untouched; the constitution was widely criticised for its roots in the 1949 Constitution[5]. Critics urged to introduce a brand-new constitution which is written (entirely) by a group of democratically elected representatives of the people. While in 1989 the argument in favour of the amendments were that the current constitution is only provisional, until a new constitution is written, in the 1990s no political party took up the role of drafting and passing a new constitution. As a result, by the mere passing of time, people forgot about the ‘provisional’ nature of the 1989 constitutional amendments. 

The legitimacy deficit of the constitution had almost fallen out of public memory when in 2010 the Fidesz party raised the question again

They argued that the transition is yet unfinished as elements of the previous regime remain at place, and that if they are elected with a landslide victory, they would make up for the failures of the regime change by introducing a new constitution. Although during the campaign period, Fidesz did not reveal how the proposed new constitution would look like, and as they did win the elections with a 2/3 majority, they delivered on their promise and crafted a new constitution. Their main argument in favour of introducing a new constitution was that this is the only way of restoring and reviving the historic evolution of the Hungarian constitution, which is needed to endow the society with ‘will and continuity’.

The opposition strictly objected to the Fundamental Law – they were not willing to take part in discussing it and most of the oppositional parties left the session in protest when the voting was held on the constitution (the Fundamental Law entered into force on 1 January 2012). One of the opposition’s main objections was that the Fundamental Law wished to build on the ‘achievements of the ancient constitution’, while the nature of these ‘achievements’ were vaguely defined, if at all. They argued that the vague definitions risk going back to the interwar interpretation of the historic constitution which was used to legitimise authoritarianism and the horrors of the Second World War[6]. Furthermore, even if all ambiguities of definitions and terms can be settled, what applicability the historical constitution has today?[7] With the introduction of the 1949 Constitution, the constitutional traditions and the life of Hungary’s previous constitutional evolution was broken – did it not die therefore, so can (and should) it be revived artificially? 

The questions and concerns about the possibility of restoring the continuity of the Hungarian constitution after the ruptures of Communism pose a serious challenge to the central metaphor of conservatism – societies are born, live and die like humans. But can they (be) resurrect(ed)? 


Lili Zemplényi, trainee at Danube Institute


[1]Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism. (2nd edn, Macmillian, 1984), 50–51. 

[2]Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism. (2nd edn, Macmillian, 1984), 51. 

[3] László Komáromi, ‘A History of the Hungarian Constitution: Law, Government and Political Culture in Central Europe’, Parliaments, Estates and Representation, 41/1 (2021), 124.

[4] Gábor Halmai, ‘The Evolution and Gestalt of the Hungarian Constitution’, Ius Publicum Europeum, (2019), https://me.eui.eu/wp-content/uploads/sites/385/2018/09/IPE_Hungary_English_Halmai.pdf, accessed 30 Nov. 2021.

[5] Kálmán Pócza, ‘Chapter 10: Is Revival Possible? – Theoretical Reflections on the Historical Constitution’, A History of the Hungarian Constitution – Law, Government and Political Culture in Central Europe (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2019), 211. 

[6]  Kálmán Pócza, ‘Chapter 10: Is Revival Possible? – Theoretical Reflections on the Historical Constitution’, A History of the Hungarian Constitution – Law, Government and Political Culture in Central Europe (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2019), 212. 

[7]  Kálmán Pócza, ‘Chapter 10: Is Revival Possible? – Theoretical Reflections on the Historical Constitution’, A History of the Hungarian Constitution – Law, Government and Political Culture in Central Europe (Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2019), 216–217. 

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