Constitutional affairs

Among various possible forms of oblivion there is one that I would qualify as significant for our current purposes and that is beginning, or rebeginning. In the context of the current situation in Hungary, this term means a radical inauguration of the present and a denial of the past. “The emblematic ritual form of the beginning or the rebeginning would be the initiation, that under variable modalities, is always presented as procreation and birth. (…) The future to be found does not yet have a shape, or more precisely, it has the inceptive shape of the present,” writes the French cultural anthropologist, Marc Augé, who focused throughout his carreer on the relation between experience, locality and language. The new Hungarian constitution came into force on 1 January this year, designed by members and supporters of the Fidesz party without really consulting with anyone else. The document is built on religious and historical symbolism. The desire to create a new constitution which would work out the deficiencies of the mishmash, revised constitution of 1989 was generally welcomed (the previous one was adopted by the Communist Parliament in 1949). Yet the draft proposed by the Fidesz/KDNP coalition raised huge concerns over whether it could guarantee justice, fundamental rights, equality for all citizens, whether the independence of the justice system and various institutions would be preserved, and whether it would provide future governments that would have anything less than a two-thirds majority with a possibility to make changes.The list of concerns can go on, but I would rather point out another, perhaps the most striking issue. President Pár Schmitt considers the new constitution to be “the most significant document of Hungary’s rebirth”, and “the first step towards demolishing and clearing the remnants of Communism”. It is becoming clear that the governing elites have declared a “war” against the “ghost of Communism” that is still haunting Hungary and the new constitution legitimises this war. In light of this crusade, a number other recent developments have become more legible, such as the complete reconstruction of the square in front of the Parliament building in Budapest to its pre-1944 state; renaming of streets, parks, etc. or even the claim by Fidesz that the Hungarian Socialist Party is the legal successor of former communist parties. Fidesz also regards its leaders as collectively and individually responsible for all criminal activities of the communist parties that existed in the past.

Suppressing rememberingThese are not symbolic but formative and violent acts committed towards Hungarian society. And they will have unforeseeable consequences, especially when we consider how forced repression of memories, ignorance of the knowledge of the past and the healing effect of storytelling have become part and parcel of social practices in Hungary. How is it possible to create a sense of unity and community by using arbitrarily chosen past experiences? What does citizenship mean if people with different pasts cannot be equal parts of the whole? Can a society function in the long run if some 60 years are erased from its social consciousness?The current government made a mistake when it chose amnesia as the preferred instrument of creating a collective conscience. Augé claims that amnesia “periodically relieves people from the burden of the past” and “leads to the misrepresentation and falsification of history”. It is the “archetype of the steady decline of history: for the sake of metaphysically denying the past, the former heroics of the ancestors are sacrificed and they themselves are presented in a pale and tragicomic light. In this form of history, the absurd prevails and the present generation loses out.”I recall walking with my friends of various political views through Vörösmarty square in the Spring 2010 when Fidesz was celebrating their victory in parliamentary elections, having won two-thirds of the seats. Although none of us were particularly happy with the election results, we all clung to, what now seems, an overly optimistic belief that the winners’ humbleness and cooperation would guide all governmental actions. Almost two years later, on 2 January 2012, we stood in front of the Opera with the same people, now united by disagreement with the government, to show our opposition to the new constitution, while the government and its sympathisers were celebrating inside on public money (the Fidesz festivities for the new constitution cost almost 13 million HUF/approx. 43 000 EUR).

Crushed hopes turn into action

“We did not, we could not believe but they really did it. The government with the enactment of the new constitution buried the third Hungarian Republic. There is a lot of work invested in this one and a half year long destruction” said Miklós Szűcs, a painter, at the January protest. He carried on saying that “it is almost impossible to list everything they did: ridiculed the work of the Court of Justice and the institution of the presidency; stole private pension funds; withdrew money from culture, strangled freedom of media; took the last and only opposition radio channel off the air; took the legal status of small churches; decrease the quality of schools; gave a public theatre to the extreme right-wing party; deteriorated our saving with a catastrophic fiscal policy; went against the EU. They are making a miserable, carousing hick-town out of our country in the middle of Europe.” Laszlo Majtenyi, the former head of the country’s media authority, spoke at the rally saying: “The prime minister took an oath to defend the constitution, but instead, he overthrew it. Tonight, the Opera is the home of hypocrisy and the street is the home of constitutional virtues.”It was the first time that opposition groups, from political parties to civil organizations, political dissidents, joined forces. Indeed, I believe any opposition of a particular community defined in racial, religious, ethnic or other terms would be “destined to end up as a kind of ghetto”, as political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue. Power has a tendency to ghettoise its opposition, and the more extreme the power, the more it needs to isolate the dissent. So, in order for the opposition to subvert the essentialist and exclusionist discourse of authority, it needs to stay a loosely structured, autonomous movement that is delocalized, decentralized. It also needs to unite people who are willing to work together.Hardt and Negri also claim that power “cannot be resisted by a project aimed at a limited, local autonomy. We cannot move back to any previous social form, nor move forward in isolation. Rather, we must push through Power to come out the other side.” It is possible, that making alliances that in the past seemed unnecessary or even unlikely before, joining up members of civil society, academics, NGOs, politicians, is one way to push through power here.People in Hungary are learning to organize and participate in demonstrations. The January demonstration was more than an entertaining event, though: while the rest of the platforms to express opposition, in other words liberal ideas, have been blocked, prohibited or closed down, these gatherings could give impetus, shape and focus to both individuals and collective forces to develop. The government seems to realize this. In nervous anticipation, it reserved Budapest’s entire downtown area for 15 March, national celebration of the 1848 Revolution. For the opposition, this will be the next occasion to take the streets. What’s more, this won’t be the last time either, since it seems that the March 15 reservation will also be valid in 2013 and 2014. The request for a large-scale opposition rally on any of those dates has not been granted yet.

published: 16. 6. 2013