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Hungary: Constitutional Amendments Planned

(Sept. 10, 2013) On August 28, 2013, Hungary’s State Secretary of Justice, Robert Repassy, announced that the government would adjust the recent, highly controversial amendments to the country’s Constitution (Fundamental Law) adopted by the Parliament in March 2013. The modifications that will become the fifth amendment of the Fundamental Law were initiated, Repassy indicated, chiefly as a result of pressure from the European Union and various human rights organizations, which had criticized the March revisions as infringing certain fundamental rights. (Margit Feher, Hungary to Amend Constitution to Quell EU Criticism, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (Aug. 29, 2013); Wendy Zeldin, Hungary: Constitutional Amendments Adopted, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Mar. 19, 2013); Magyarország Alaptörvénye [Fundamental Law of Hungary] (2011. április 25; consolidated amended version in force on Apr. 1, 2013) ) MAGYAR KOZLONY [Official Gazette of Hungary], No. 55 (Apr. 1, 2013).)

The proposed changes include new measures whereby

  • the Constitution would accord religious communities equal legal standing with recognized churches;
  • the courts, not Parliament, would formally recognize religious communities and churches based on criteria in a new bill, but Parliament will reserve the right, through a two-thirds majority vote, to decide whether a religious community or church may become an “accepted church,” i.e., one granted such privileges as tax relief or tax incentives by the state;
  • the ban on political party advertisements on commercial television and radio stations would be modified so that the parties may advertise, free of charge and with equal air time, on such media, not just on public service broadcasts, prior to elections. The provision would apply not just to European Union elections, but to Hungarian parliamentary elections; the government had previously opposed lifting the advertising restriction on the latter;
  • the possibility of court cases being relocated from one court to another would be eliminated;
  • a provision stating that the state could levy additional taxes if the European Court of Justice imposed a fine upon the country would be deleted; and
  • the National Bank of Hungary would be merged with the country’s financial markets watchdog. (Feher, supra; Pablo Gorondi, Hungary to Make More Changes to New Constitution, THE HUFFINGTON POST (Aug. 29, 2013); Kimberly Bennett, Hungary to Propose Further Constitutional Amendments, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Aug. 30, 2013).)

According to some analysts, the government was not in fact ceding much ground, despite Repassy’s announcement. In the view of Julia Lakatos of the Center for Fair Political Analysis, the measures make “it seem like Hungary had listened to its critics while not ‘actually changing the status quo.'” (Gorondi, supra.) For example, she stated, because commercial media will not be allowed to charge for the campaign ads and equal air time must be given to all the qualified political parties, “[t]his makes it unlikely any ads will be run.” (Id.)

It is expected that the modifications will be passed by the Parliament in September, and come into force on October 1. (Id.; Feher, supra.)