The President

Hungary’s current president is László Sólyom, former chief justice of the Constitutional Court. He was born in the city of Pécs in 1942, where he also received his law degree in 1965. For a year he worked as a librarian in the National Library, but a year later he was awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Jena (East Germany). He received his doctorate there in 1969. On his return to Hungary, he joined the Hungarian Academy’s Institute of Legal Research, where he worked as a researcher, free of teaching duties. In 1978, he became associate professor and later, in 1983, full professor at the Law Faculty of the University of Budapest [Eötvös Lóránt Tudományegyetem (ELTE)]. By all accounts, he is a fine legal scholar.

At the end of the 1980s he became involved in politics. He was one of the founding members of the Magyar Demokrata Fórum (MDF) and as one of the representatives of that party took part in the so-called Round Table Discussions where the peaceful transition from one-party dictatorship to democracy was hammered out between the opposition forces and the then ruling communist party. At the establishment of a German-style constitutional court in 1989, he became one of the justices of the eleven-member court and a year later became chief justice, a position he held for eight years, until 1999. He became president of the country on June 7, 2005.

The Hungarian president is elected for a five-year term which can be extended only once for another five years. Anyone can nominate a person, but the nomination must be signed by at least fifty members of parliament. That part is easy. It is more difficult to achieve the necessary two-thirds of the "yes" votes in the first round of elections. It was only between 1994 and 1998 that the coalition parties had a two-thirds majority in parliament. Ever since then, the president has had to go through a fairly humiliating procedure: the voting must be repeated two more times, when at last, in the third round, a simple majority is enough. That is what happened to Sólyom’s predecessor, Ferenc Mádl, who was the governing Fidesz’s candidate five years earlier.

One could ask how it was possible that in 2005 when the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition had a majority, however slim, Sólyom was elected. Everybody knew that his sympathies lay with the right and not with the left-liberal side. Indeed, Sólyom’s election was the perhaps the greatest miscalculation and blunder of the MSZP from 2002 to date.

What happened? The MSZP is a gathering of people of all sorts of political views.  There are at least two wings: the left and the liberal or social democratic wings. The left wing’s leader is the speaker of the house, Katalin Szili, another Pécs native, another graduate of the Pécs law school. It is quite clear from Szili’s occasional utterances and writings that she is no friend of Prime Minister Gyurcsány and that she would lead the Hungarian Socialist Party in a much more old-fashioned socialist direction. Gyurcsány, on the other hand, models himself on Tony Blair. Szili has a large following inside and outside the party.

When Gyurcsány was elected with an overwhelming majority to replace Péter Medgyessy as prime minister, Szili and some of her friends got it into their heads that the party should nominate her for the post of president. There were some obvious negatives to this plan, among them her lack of foreign language skills. But the MSZP went ahead with her nomination. The problem was that the coalition partner SZDSZ announced that they would not support Szili’s nomination, which in practical terms meant that there wouldn’t be enough votes for Szili even in the third round. The MSZP didn’t change its mind. They insisted on Szili. Szili’s supporters were sure that they would receive some votes even from the opposition because Szili was not only a "real" social democrat, but also a practicing Catholic  who belongs to the more nationalistic group of socialists. For example, she voted for dual citizenship for Hungarians living in the neighbouring countries at a referendum on the question when her party opposed the measure.

Well, it didn’t work out as Szili’s supporters imagined. The MDF and the SZDSZ came up with their own candidate, László Sólyom, who in the third round was duly elected. Mind you, there was a bit of a blemish on the electioral process. The election is supposed to be secret but the Fidesz wanted to be sure that no one voted the "wrong way," and therefore the head of the Fidesz caucus duly checked every Fidesz parliamentary member’s vote. Sólyom, who is allegedly a guardian of democratic principles, didn’t complain about this flagrant violation of the law. He took the job which apparently he really coveted.

His two years in office has had its ups and downs. Mostly downs, but the story of Sólyom’s presidency needs another blog. Continuation tomorrow.