Since the middle of January, the question of conscription has been in the center of public attention in Hungary. László Kövér, Speaker of the Parliament, declared in a newspaper interview that the abolition of compulsory military service was a catastrophic fault but restoring conscripted military would cost much more money than maintaining the current volunteer system. The speaker’s statements led to a widespread debate regarding military service in Hungary. Leader of the parliamentary group of Fidesz expressed plans to change the current system but did not mention any exact agenda. The majority of opposition parties immediately objected the idea.
The Hungarian Socialist party considers the restoration of conscription unrealistic, the Democratic Coalition claimed that the government is trying to diminish the rights of young people for its own ideological reasons. Dialogue for Hungary stated that this measure would only accelerate the large scale emigration of young Hungarians. Moreover, another parliamentary party called the idea of conscription a ‘phantasmagoria’ and a distraction from the real issues the government should handle.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán entered the debate a day later and to calm the situation he categorically denied the existence of government plans for the restoration of compulsory military service. This is significant because such open disagreements are rare in the governing coalition.
What makes this even more interesting is the fact that pro-conscription Fidesz politicians are on the same platform with the extreme right. Gábor Vona, leader of Jobbik stated that his party has been a supporter of compulsory military service in the last 10 years. Jobbik politicians elaborated that they support “voluntary conscription” which would mean that while all male citizens of age would receive their draft notice, they would have the choice to opt-out of military service.
This is not the first time that the governing Fidesz-KDNP coalition is trying to overbid Jobbik in issues raised by the right wing extremists – previous examples are discussions on the reintroduction of death penalty and taking up an extremely aggressive anti-immigration stance. From this aspect, the debate on conscription seems to be nothing more than a political skirmish, a communication battle for the voters of Jobbik because the chances of reintroducing conscription are low and it would certainly prove to be very unpopular among mainstream Hungarian voters.
There is also a constitutional obstacle of conscription: the new Hungarian Constitution inherited the relevant regulation from the previous basic law which allows conscription in two clearly defined situations. Compulsory military service can only be introduced in either a national state of emergency or in a so-called “state of preventive defence”. State of emergency can be announced in a military emergency, and it has to be declared by the parliament with a two-thirds majority of all members of the legislation. The state of preventive defence is also declared by the parliament but only the two-thirds majority of present members is required. This means that the parliament cannot enact conscription in peacetime without the amendment of the constitution – which is unlikely considering that the Fidesz-KDNP coalition lost their two-thirds majority when the independent Zoltán Kész won a by-election last year.
Besides the constitutional obstacles, the restoration of compulsory military service would not only be unpopular but also very expensive. The national budget would be burdened by the costs of training and provisions of conscripted young soldiers, and by the extensive administrative costs of drafting. Hungarian economy would probably also suffer from the loss of work force. This would also be a wrong and expensive way of improving Hungarian national defence. Modern wars are fought by smaller and smaller numbers of soldiers and the importance of modern technology is increasing rapidly. Technological development of Hungarian armed forces would be not only more beneficial for the country’s defence capabilities, but also for the economy.
Taking all this into account, the government probably has no plans to reintroduce compulsory military service. Fidesz politicians started pushing a controversial issue and they are testing the reaction of the public and opposition parties, with the intention of supporting the majority opinion in the end. They can gain voter support either way, with the possibility of weakening their right-wing competition, Jobbik. This is not the first time the governing parties use this strategy – it is, however, quite alarming that they introduce right-wing rhetoric into mainstream politics so effortlessly. These tactics aim to merge the more moderate Jobbik supporters into the voter base of Fidesz but this bears the risk of pushing the parties policy position into an even more radical and authoritarian direction.