Friday, March 15, 2013

March 15, 1848--Hungary's Democratic Revolution Still Resonates Today



Today marks the 165th Anniversary of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution, one of Hungary's three national holidays (the others being the October 1956 Revolution against Soviet rule and St. Stephen’s Day of state foundation on August 20). While Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán is currently at an EU Summit in Brussels, claiming that he can better represent Hungary’s national interests there, a number of rallies and festivities were planned for today (several since cancelled due to weather conditions) at Kossuth Square, the National Museum, the Buda Castle, and at Kálvin tér.

In Brussels and more generally, critics are exhorting the FIDESZ government reverse course on recent changes to the constitution, debating possible sanctions from the EU if Hungary fails to comply.

Given Hungary's current constitutional crisis, it is worth taking a look at what the March 15 holiday is really about.  Although, the 1848 Revolution is more widely known as the (ultimately failed) attempt to throw off the yoke of the Austrian Empire--and thus as a nationalist movement for political independence against Habsburg dominion--March 15, 1848 was actually a day of pro-democratic demonstrations by Hungary’s most celebrated political reformers (including Sándor Petőfi, István Széchenyi, Lajos Kossuth, and Józef Bem) against internal autocratic rule.

On the morning of March 15, 165 years ago today, Hungarian revolutionary, Sándor Petőfi, and fellow dissenters marched from the Pilvax Café to the medical university of Pest, where they were joined by medical students, and from there about 1,000 young people went to printing houses to copy Petőfi’s Nemzeti dal (National Song) and a list of 12 demands. Then held a demonstration at the National Museum, and then marched to the Pest city council, where they demanded support for their demands.  From there, they decamped to Buda where they held a protest before the Imperial Governing Council.  In the end, Emperor Ferninand declined to use military force against the demonstrators and agreed to sign the list of 12 demands.

The 12 points
What the Hungarian nation wants.
Let there be peace, liberty, and concord.
(1)    We demand the freedom of the press, the abolition of censorship.
(2)    Independent Hungarian government in Buda-Pest.
(3)    Annual national assembly in Pest.
(4)    Civil and religious equality before the law.
(5)    National army.
(6)    Equal distribution of tax burdens.
(7)    Abolition of land tenure.
(8)    Juries and courts based on an equal legal representation.
(9)    A national bank.
(10) The army must take an oath on the Constitution, send our soldiers home and take foreign soldiers away.
(11)  Setting free the political prisoners.
(12)  Union with Transylvania.

The result of the March 15, 1848 demonstrations was the Governor-General establishing a Hungarian Parliament, with Lajos Batthyány as its first Prime Minister.  The new government then passed a sweeping package of reforms called the "April laws", creating the basis for a liberal democracy.

From the 1848 list of demands, Points (1), (4), (6), and (8) are still relevant for Hungarians today with regard to the conflict between pro- and anti-government groups.

Indeed, today marks the continuation of several-years internal battle against the current government’s efforts to, as many critics put it, dismantle a constitutional democracy.  Their positions are ably articulated here and here; what hangs in the balance today is whether the current prime minister will sign an amendment of the new constitution that will massively restrict the independence of the Hungarian constitutional court.

On March 11, an overwhelming majority of MEPs in the Hungarian parliament passed a 15-page amendment (also called the "Fourth Amendment) to its controversial constitution, that had been passed one year ago by the FIDESZ super-majority in parliament.  


Hungary’s Constitutional Court can no longer reject constitutional amendments on matters of substance—only on procedural grounds. The court must also ignore more than 20 years of legal precedent, basing future rulings on the constitution enacted in January 2012.  What may seem like an arcane legal manoeuvre has profound significance. The measures open the door for the government to use the constitution to pass new laws that might otherwise be rejected by the Constitutional Court. The process has already started. The amendments, the fourth round since the constitution was enacted, included several laws the court had previously thrown out, including provisions that allow local authorities to penalise the homeless, to limit political advertising in election campaigns and to force university graduates who get state funding to work in Hungary after graduation. As these will now be part of the constitution, they can be amended only by a two-thirds majority, limiting the scope of future governments to change them. 

Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton professor and close observer of constitutional developments in Hungary, summarizes the substance of the new amendments in a guest post in Paul Krugman's New York Times blog:

The new constitutional amendment (again) kills off the independence of the judiciary, brings universities under (even more) governmental control, opens the door to political prosecutions, criminalizes homelessness, makes the recognition of religious groups dependent on their cooperation with the government and weakens human rights guarantees across the board. Moreover, the constitution will now buffer the government from further financial sanctions by permitting it to take all fines for noncompliance with the constitution or with European law and pass them on to the Hungarian population as special taxes, not payable by the normal state budget.

In a subsequent guest post in Krugman's blog, Scheppele notes that everything now rides on whether the Hungarian president now signs this into law:

If it is signed by the Hungarian President, János Áder, the “Fourth Amendment” will wipe out more than 20 years of Constitutional Court decisions protecting human rights and it will reverse concessions made to Europe over the last year of difficult bargaining as the Fidesz government has tightened its grip on power.


The Nation has linked to a vlog of Márton Gulyás (Kretakor theater), who summarized the stakes of the conflict over the constitution.

Today more than ever, the principles of the Hungarian Revolution echo through the ages; and reminds one that democracy has a very long history in Hungary; let us hope that it has a long future as well. 

Happy March 15, Hungary!