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Lessons from Hungary: Supermajorities as the Ultimate Threat to Constitutional Law

A nation’s ability to amend their constitution is vital to the functioning of their state. After all, a country cannot be built on a fixed constitution that can never be amended, as that government would quickly become obsolete and ineffective. However, all constitutions give different amounts of amending power to the government in charge. For example, Hungary grants any government with a supermajority (or ⅔ of the seats in Parliament) the power to amend any aspect of the constitution. In stark contrast, the United States has a much tougher amendment process as it must be accepted by both ⅔ of Congress and ¾ of the states. The dismantling of Hungary’s constitution by Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party proves how the holes of the former model can easily result in dangerous democratic backsliding. 

After the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, Hungary found itself a reborn nation with the freedom to create the government it desired. To realize this freedom, they had to first create a constitution. However, during this transition period to a new government, constitutional drafters worried about two things. They worried that Hungarian politics would naturally descend into a myriad of fractured parties to the point where no party could actually form a majority government, meaning nothing would be accomplished. To suppress these initial qualms, the drafters incorporated an election law into the constitution that favored large parties by using extra seat bonuses.1 They also worried that the constitution created then would be almost impossible to amend, quickly making it obsolete. As a result, they granted any government which possessed more than ⅔ of Parliament’s seats the right to alter any aspect of the constitution.2 In effect, the drafters of the constitutions made it easy to form supermajorities and gave those supermajorities complete power to change or even rewrite the constitution. These aspects of the constitution were almost immediately exploited by the Fidesz party after they attained a supermajority.

The Fidesz party that is currently in power was first elected in 2010. The financial catastrophe brought on by the Socialists pushed Hungarians to vote for the center-right party into power. The results were astonishing, as after just one election cycle, Orbán’s Fidesz party was “within touching distance of the two-thirds of seats” needed to start revising the constitution.3 Fidesz’s coalition with the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) gave the new government in power their supermajority status and the right to change the constitution. Viktor Orbán, former Prime Minister of Hungary from 1998 to 2002, had a new desire to secure his power for the foreseeable future, likely fueled by the sting of his defeat in 2002. Fidesz wasted no time in rewriting the constitution, as the committee for drafting one was formed in 2010 and the new constitution was adopted in 2012. 

The new constitution (as well as all the amendments Fidesz would make later on) were all adopted for the purpose of centralizing and exercising Orbán’s autocratic control over the country. State control of the media is essential to any autocratic government, as it shuts down any dissent and ensures only a pro-government stance is pushed on the people. The constitutional revisions allowed for the creation of the Media Council, headed by a political appointee with close ties to the government. This group has the authority to financially choke independent news outlets out of existence and pressure independent reporters to quit. This, along with additional unclear media regulations, is forcing news organizations to self-censor themselves in the fear that they might break a rule that could shut down their entire business.4 As a result, all that remains are pro-Orbán news outlets. This political centralization is a common theme throughout the past decade, as these revisions have allowed the government to prohibit citizens from voting based on certain “disabilities.”5 Of course, the government can define what these disabilities are, meaning they can decide who votes and who doesn’t. Even recently, the Fidesz party has been proposing more revisions to expand the power of Orbán when he declares a state of emergency, something he can declare at any time that suspends Parliament and grants him authoritarian control. Since Orbán has been able to amend the constitution to centralize his power, he has now been able to exercise near-authoritarian control.6 This has included, but has not been limited to, restricting religious freedoms for non-Catholics, oppressing members of the LGBTQ+ community, failing to save Hungary’s national airline to benefit his friend’s budget airline, and even lining his cronies’ pockets with European Union money. With just one supermajority election in 2010, Orbán has been able to secure almost complete authoritarian control over the country. 

Even if Orbán ever loses his supermajority (which he has briefly once before), the revisions the Fidesz party made to the constitution have severely hampered the Hungarian justice system to the point where they can barely contest any laws passed by the Fidesz-controlled Parliament. The revised constitution contains two cardinal laws that regulate Hungary’s judiciary. These laws give the president of the National Judicial Office, someone guaranteed to have a pro-Fidesz allegiance as it is a position elected by Parliament, various sweeping powers. The president can oversee judicial appointments, move judges to other courts “without their consent,” and move cases to other courts if the president considers a court “overburdened.”7 In effect, the president can appoint pro-Fidesz judges, move anti-Fidesz judges to less relevant courts, and can move cases to other courts if that case is unlikely to win in its current court, which he can simply classify as the court being overburdened. However, this was not enough, as Orbán needed to actually pack the courts with pro-Fidesz judges to immediately have a loyal court. That is why the revised constitution came with the Transition Act, which lowered the retirement age for judges from 70 to 62. This forced 274 judges to retire, allowing those spots to be filled with pro-Fidesz appointees.8 With the loyalty of the court secured, the Fidesz party now has complete leisure to pass whatever they please, regardless of whether they have a supermajority or not (proven by the Fidesz party simply passing legislation that had been previously blocked by the courts before the constitutional changes). 

Supermajorities are dangerous. The Fidesz party in Hungary wiped away all constitutional law that would be associated with a healthy democracy. In its place, it wrote a constitution that centralizes and exercises Orbán’s power, whether he retains a supermajority or not. Admittedly, most parliamentary systems are not as extreme as Hungary’s in that supermajorities can only alter certain aspects of the constitution. However, a supermajority altering any part of their constitution with ease is still a frightening thought. It just takes an election of one supermajority to completely alter a country’s path. Once they have this power, they can alter the constitution, permanently stay in power, and continuously pass laws that will forever impact the people, even if they fail to retain their supermajority. It is imperative that these parliamentary systems adopt a check on this power that reflects the current wishes of the people, like the United States has in their requirement of ratification by ¾ of the states. Constitutional law should act as a check on a government’s power, not something that can be easily altered by any aspiring autocratic government.

[1] “To allay the first of these worries, the framers opted for an election law that put its thumb on the scale in favor of larger parties-effectively using extra seat bonuses as a means of ensuring stable government,” as quoted in Miklós Bánkuti, Gábor Halmai, and Kim Lane Scheppele, “Hungary’s Illiberal Turn: Disabling the Constitution,” Journal of Democracy 23, no. 3 (July 2012): 138. 

[2] “In order to address the second concern, the amendment rule in the new constitution allowed a single two-thirds majority of parliament to alter any provision of the constitutional text,” as quoted in “Wrong Direction on Rights | Assessing the Impact of Hungary’s New Constitution and Laws,” Human Rights Watch, May 16, 2013,

[3] Krisztina Than and Gergely Szakacs, “Fidesz Wins Hungary Election with Strong Mandate” (Reuters, April 12, 2010),

[4] “Independent media outlets have told Human Rights Watch that they now conduct self-censorship as a result of unclear regulations and feel the pressure of declining public and private advertising revenue. The editorial content of public television has been subject to political interference, and editors and journalists who opposed that interference have lost their jobs as part of a larger number of redundancies justified on the grounds of restructuring,” as quoted in “Wrong Direction on Rights | Assessing the Impact of Hungary’s New Constitution and Laws.”

[5] “Wrong Direction on Rights | Assessing the Impact of Hungary’s New Constitution and Laws.”

[6] Vlad Makszimov, “Orbán to Change the Constitution, Again,” EURACTIV, April 22, 2022,

[7] “Wrong Direction on Rights | Assessing the Impact of Hungary’s New Constitution and Laws.”

[8] “Wrong Direction on Rights | Assessing the Impact of Hungary’s New Constitution and Laws.”

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