Sólyom is a strange bird. Pun intended because the word "sólyom" means "falcon" in English. Those who know him claim that he is exceedingly vain. Moreover, he seems to think that his opinions are infallible. This elevated self-image is coupled with an awkward appearance, a speech defect, an uninspiring speaking style, and a total lack of diplomatic skills. He is a gaunt man on whose frame his suit seems too big. He looks decidedly ill at ease on ceremonial occasions.
Given his questionable election to his post he is not shy about his prerogatives and his role as the oracle of the national will. He told his "people" that he will not speak often, only when his words are "important." He added that he doesn’t want to be a popular president. In this quest he has certainly succeeded. The first president of the third republic, Árpád Göncz, was beloved. He was everybody’s Uncle Árpi. His approval rating was always the highest among all the politicians. Even his less endearing successor, Ferenc Mádl, enjoyed a surprising popularity although he wasn’t "the embodiment of national unity" as the constitution states. The polls still indicated that the president was the most popular politician. Well, that has changed since June 2005: at one point Sólyom’s popularity dropped below Katalin Szili, the speaker of the house, and Ibolya Dávid, head of the MDF.
Why is Sólyom not popular when there is a certain aura surrounding the office quite independently from the person who occupies it? He seems to antagonize almost everybody, including foreign dignitaries. One of his first "important" announcements was that he would not visit the United States as long as immigration officers take fingerprints. This might be a defensible opinion and action of a private person, but not of head of state whose travels are not pleasure trips.
Then came the affair of the radar. Hungary as a member of NATO is obliged to set up one more radar station to ensure complete coverage of Hungary’s airspace. Hungary is a pretty flat country and therefore it is not easy to find elevations suitable for setting up a radar tower. During the Orbán government the decision was made to install the tower on top of the highest peak of the Mecsek mountain in southern Hungary, a short distance from the city of Pécs. The actual work on the project was to have begun after the Fidesz was no longer in power. It was at that time that the environmentalists appeared on the stage. They discovered a rare wild rose which apparently grows only where a road would have to be built leading to the radar station. They were ready to defend the wild rose with their own bodies. They guarded the mountain day and night, lay on the ground, and thus prevented the beginning of the work. At this point came Sólyom, the environmentalist. He and his wife joined the demonstrators for a little stroll. Keep in mind that the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces whose safety may depend on this radar station (still not built and a proposed new location still in dispute).
A few months later came the affair of the New Year’s speech. It has been customary for the president to make a speech at midnight wishing everybody the very best for the new year. Sólyom decided that midnight was not an appropriate time. The speech was given on New Year’s Day but there was no Hungarian flag behind him. When questioned why the flag was missing, he announced that New Year’s Day is not a national holiday. Now, the right got offended.
Then came the infamous March 15th, a national holiday when different decorations are given to deserving individuals. Sólyom had "misgivings" about three of the people receiving awards. All three had some important, but not negative, role to play in the Kádár regime. The constitution is not very explicit about how much say the president has in awarding these decorations. Until now the government suggested the names and the president handed out the decorations. Sólyom obliged but refused to shake hands with one of the recipients. An outcry followed. People considered the behavior boorish. Even Sólyom admitted that perhaps he would not repeat the act if faced with a similar situation.
However, immediately after March 15th he turned to the constitutional court and asked the judges to make a ruling whether the president must accept the recommended persons if he personally doesn’t like the nominee’s past. This is especially interesting because when he was chief justice several of his opinions limited the role of the president. But then, of course, Árpád Göncz, a liberal, was president and not László Sólyom, the all-knowing oracle.
August 20th, another national holiday, was memorable again. Sólyom, along with the prime minister, was supposed to be present at the raising of the flag. The president decided not to be in the country on the national holiday. He celebrated the day in Transylvania, Romania. The suspicion was that he didn’t want to be seen with Ferenc Gyurcsány.
Then came the attack of the national television station in late September by about 200 men who actually managed to get inside the building, robbed the cafeteria, burned cars, and behaved in an altogether unspeakable manner. This was the action of a mob, allegedly because the prime minister "lied." (A very unfortunate and easily misconstrued speech of Gyurcsány became public.) At this delicate moment Sólyom poured oil on fire by making a speech in which he practically demanded the resignation of the prime minister.
Sólyom further antagonized the parties by not consulting with them before he suggested names for certain positions: chief prosecutor and ombudsmen. According to the constitution the president nominates people for these positions but the parliament must vote on them. Thus, it is only prudent to inquire from the parties whether a certain person is acceptable to them or not. According to Sólyom, this is not only not necessary but outright wrong. He nominates without any consultation because this way independent people will occupy these posts. First he picked a virtually unknown prosecutor with little practical experience for the chief prosecutor’s post. This man was not acceptable to the MSZP and the SZDSZ. Failure. The second nominee was confirmed. Then came two ombudsmen, one was confirmed, the other not. He came up with a new name but it seems that now the Fidesz will not vote for Sólyom’s nominee. Meanwhile the parliamentary session is over, so there will be no ombudsman until September and most likely not even then. Sólyom is a stubborn fellow and if his second nominee fails to be confirmed he will nominate another one (or the same), again without consultation.
And now comes the icing on the cake. The government decided to give the highest civilian decoration to Gyula Horn on his seventy-fifth birthday. Horn was the foreign minister when Hungary opened its borders to tens of thousands of East Germans who found refuge in Hungary. Horn, together with the Austrian foreign minister, cut the wire fence between the two countries, thus putting an end to the division of Europe. He was the man who at the time when Hungary was still a member of the Warsaw Pact talked about Hungary’s plans to join the NATO. Horn received every conceivable decoration in Germany and elsewhere, but he had never received anything in Hungary. During Mádl’s presidency the government tried to decorate him but Mádl refused, saying that Horn was on the wrong side in 1956. Gyurcsány now tried again, but Sólyom had "misgivings." He said that he would wait until he hears the verdict of the constitutional court concerning his powers in this respect. I had no doubt what the verdict was going to be. The current judges don’t dare to go against the almighty, all-knowing former chief justice’s opinions. If Sólyom asks them to make a ruling he knows what he is doing, they think. And indeed, yesterday came the verdict: the president has the power to veto a nomination if he thinks that the nominee’s past doesn’t conform to the "values of democratic" Hungary.
This morning came his decision: no decoration for Horn.