Three cheers for the IMF, the EU, and the ratings agencies!!!

Hungary’s new constitution came into force on January 1.  This was not good news.

Engineered by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, the new constitution has a number of unsavory elements.

The Constitutional Court, which serves as a check on government power, has been weakened in several ways (e.g., packing it with new judges, having its jurisdiction curtailed, and restricting access to it).  The ordinary court system has also been assaulted by lowering the retirement age from 70 to 62, allowing the government to fill the judiciary with judges favorable to its views, as well as allowing the government to decide which judges hear which cases.  According to Princeton’s Kim Lane Scheppele: “The independence of the judiciary is over when a government puts its own judges onto the bench, moves them around at will, and then selects which ones get particular cases to decide.”

Other elements of the constitutional changes include:

  • Reforming the elections commission and parliamentary redistricting–both with the intent of securing the dominance of the Fidesz party.
  • Lengthening terms of important officials, including the public prosecutor, the head of the state audit office, the head of the national judicial office, and the head of the media board–all currently filled by Fidesz loyalists.
  • Requiring a two thirds super-majority in parliament, making it difficult to reverse these new rules.
  • Enacting a conservative religious social doctrine, even though the country is overwhelmingly secular (only 21 percent of the population attend any kind of church services), and deregistering over 348 of the previously recognized  362 religious communities (including those of the Methodists, Pentecostals, Adventists, Reform Jews, the Salvation Army, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus).

The domestic opposition, human rights groups, and Secretary of State Clinton (among others) have protested; however, it is not clear how effective these moves will be.

Interestingly, the aspect of the Fidesz putsch that has been most effectively countered is the attempt to run roughshod over the central bank, the Hungarian National Bank.  The Fidesz measure would have merged the central bank with the national financial regulator and placed both under the head of the amalgamated agency.  This would have effectively demoted head of the previously independent central bank, András Simor.

It has long been accepted wisdom that monetary policy is too important to be left to the politicians.  The reason for this is that because monetary policy could be used for political purposes, such as lowering interest rate just before an election to help the governing party, it is best left to non-partisan officials.

Although international opposition to the non-economic aspects of the constitutional putsch have been appropriate, the response to the attempts to meddle with the central bank have been even more effective.  Hungarian loans from international agencies, needed to prop up the currency, have been endangered and Hungary’s credit rating has been downgraded to junk status.  These moves appear to have forced Orbán to back off  of his attempt to strangle the central bank.

The response was so swift and so effective because money was at stake. With lots of dubious European sovereign debt already floating around, nobody–including the IMF–is going to lend money to a country that is on the point of destroying a vital national institution.  Nor are the ratings agencies going to certify such countries as good credit risks.

Let’s hope that internal and external pressure will help to overturn the rest of Orbán’s putsch.