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From Dictatorship to Democracy: Hungarians Unite in Drafting Constitution

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While the Arab world undergoes an historic transformation from oppression to liberty, this month the era of Soviet domination was finally and completely put to rest in Central Europe. The Government of the Republic of Hungary released its first national constitution ever, replacing the illegitimate and tyrannical constitution put in place by the Stalinists in 1949. When Communism fell in 1989, Hungary was the only post-Soviet state not to immediately establish a new constitution.

Prior to the Stalinist constitution, Hungary did not have a formal written constitution. Instead, its basic law was governed by the Doctrine of the Holy Crown (Szentkorona-tan), a complex tradition that underlies Hungary's historical, unwritten constitution until the 1947 Soviet-drafted constitution. For nearly 1000 years, it was on this basis that the idea of the state of Hungary was based, that determined Hungary's constitutional development from the Middle Ages to World War II, and which yields influence in public thinking on the constitution up to the present.

When the current government was elected in April 2010, newly elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban made it a priority to establish the first national constitution of Hungary. With a two-thirds majority in the Parliament, the Prime Minister's Fidesz party holds enough seats to replace the constitution currently in force, which has been reformed repeatedly since the fall of Communism in 1989. But even if it were to be amended 100 times, at its core it would still not be Hungarian.

To be Hungarian is to be resilient. It is to stand firm against forces that would seek to oppress, just as Louis Kossuth, István Széchenyi and the Hungarian freedom fighters of 1848 stood for civil equality and constitutional law in a time and place where such rights were unheard of, just as thousands of heroic citizens of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution stood firm against the barrage of communist bullets so Hungary might one day be a free democracy. The day to vindicate such sacrifices has come.

In July, the government established a multi-party committee to start working on a draft of the new constitution. All parties were asked to submit their version of the draft by 15 March 2011. Questionnaires were distributed to eight million Hungarian voters so citizens could be involved in the decision making process. To date, nearly one million forms have been completed and returned.

While many expect few institutional or structures changes to the government, it appears that several aspects of the constitution add to its historic nature.

First, to the great joy I am sure of Steve Jobs, it is the first national constitution to be drafted on an Apple iPad. Jozsef Szajer, chairman of the National Consultation Committee on the Constitution, drafted the entire "preamble" and much of the body of the constitution itself on his iPad.

The preamble of the constitution currently in force is a simple transition statement from the Soviet era into a multi-party democratic system: "In order to facilitate peaceful political transition into a constitutional state ready to realize a multiparty system, introduce parliamentary democracy, and promote conversion to a socially alert market economy, Parliament submits the following text as the authorized version - until the ratification of its replacement - of the Constitution of Hungary."

In the place of a preamble, the constitution recently unveiled by the National Consultation Committee on the Constitution includes a "national testament" or "national declaration". Beginning with the first line of Hungary's national anthem - "God Bless the Hungarian" - the introductory testament will refer to Hungary's Christian roots, the Holy Crown, and the legacy of the 1956 revolt against the Soviets.

Very interestingly, the testament also declares that Hungary does not accept the legal continuity of the 1949 constitution, which served as "the basis of a tyrannical rule." Since 1989, successive governments have talked about establishing a new constitution. Now, with the previously mentioned two-thirds majority, Parliament can finally establish a constitution that can, as the national testament states:

"acknowledge the suspension of our historic Constitution as a result of foreign occupation. We reject the applicability of statute of limitations to the inhuman crimes committed against the Hungarian nation and its citizens during the reign of the national socialist and the communist regimes".

Another interesting addition to the constitution would impact spending. The new constitution bars the Constitutional Court from evaluating legislation on budget and tax matters unless they were challenged on grounds of basic human rights. Spending restrictions in the constitution prescribe a debt cap, prohibiting sitting governments from taking out loans that would boost state debt to more than 50% of the previous year's GDP.

Life imprisonment without the possibility of parole could be included in Hungary's new constitution, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Saturday during a visit to the central office of the organization which processes the questionnaires in the government's survey on the new constitution. One of the questions in the survey asked voters if the constitution should stipulate that major crimes could be punished with actual life imprisonment, excluding the possibility of parole. Hungary is barred by treaty from implementing the death penalty.

While the new basic law does not appear to fundamentally change the structure of government in Hungary, the significance of the nation's first written constitution in 1000 years cannot be overemphasized. For the first time in their history, the Hungarian people have a document that reflects their identity, their beliefs, their history, their shared suffering, and their unity.