The president, the king and the pope

Let’s go out again on the terrace of the Sándor Palace with that fabulous view, where Sólyom very sharply criticized the government and its prime minister. Although he had announced shortly after his election that he would speak only when necessary and when the situation warranted, he didn’t keep his promise. His critics accuse him of speaking at the wrong times and about the wrong things. It is also somewhat unusual that the president would give such a lengthy–almost an hour long–interview. Why did he speak right now? As Prime Minister Gyurcsány said in an interview a day before yesterday: "The president surely had a reason, but I have no idea what this reason could be."

In my analysis of this interview I will heavily rely on József Debreczeni’s lengthy article on the subject in Népszava (July 19, 2007). I have a high opinion of Debreczeni, former MDF politician, now publicist. Debreczeni wrote three very good biographies of the prime ministers. His first book was on József Antall, whom he surely admired, the second on Viktor Orbán, whose activities he watched with mixed feelings, but on the whole it was not a critical book, and his last one on Ferenc Gyurcsány whom he holds in high regard.

Debreczeni quotes Sólyom as saying that "in the last year … there were two events which pose the most serious theoretical questions of the whole period of our new democracy." The first is: "What may a politician do in a democracy, how far can he go in trying to reach his goals, what kind of instruments can he employ?" Here he clearly referred to Gyurcsány’s speech given in very passionate terms to the MSZP MPs, trying to convince them that the reforms could not be postponed and that the whole political elite, right and left, were guilty of lies. Lies to themselves that some remnants of the old socialist system didn’t need to be dismantled. The second serious question was, in his eyes, Horn’s decoration or rather its lack thereof because when Horn claims even today that he was "defending the public order" he actually claims that 1956 was a counterrevolution. When "today’s whole democratic regime is based on that revolution."

Debreczeni rightly points out that the 1956 revolution has only symbolic significance today. It’s enough to think of the 1956 demand as continued socialist ownership or neutrality to know that today’s democracy and market economy has practically nothing to do with 1956. And, of course, Hungary is not a neutral country, but part of NATO. Yet Debreczeni thinks that Horn didn’t deserve the decoration not because he was defending the "legal order" in December 1956, but because even today he doesn’t realize that he was on the wrong side.

Sólyom’s other criticism about Gyurcsány’s truthfulness is much more problematic. He repeated his demand that the prime minister should apologize because–in his opinion–Gyurcsány hadn’t done the "proper" apology. Gyurcsány apologized for the four-letter words and the occasionally sloppy formulation of his thoughts, but what Sólyom wants him to apologize for is not telling "the truth and nothing but the truth" in the election campaign. Of course, this is ridiculous. Who has ever seen a politician who would keep all the promises made in the campaign? When Medgyessy fulfilled his promises he almost bankrupted the country! The government’s coalition parties didn’t falsify the numbers, everybody knew that the deficit was high and that because of the "convergence program" the new government would have to decrease the deficit and that could be done only by belt tightening. It’s true that the deficit turned out to be even higher than they expected, but it would have been very difficult to campaign "with the whole truth" when the opponents promised pie in the sky to the electorate. The MSZP and the SZDSZ promised a great deal less.

Now comes the real problem with Sólyom’s interview. He admits that "the opposition attacks the institutions of democracy," yet he doesn’t consider that to be a really serious problem today. Why Horn? Why not Orbán? Surely, attacking democratic institutions is a much more serious problem than Horn’s opinion of the revolution of 1956. Why doesn’t Orbán have to apologize? And here I don’t even talk about the very unfair lumping together of the MDF and the Fidesz as "the opposition." The MDF in no way attacks the democratic institutions and behaves in a most democratic manner. In sum, Debreczeni accuses Sólyom of a very serious bias in favor of the Fidesz. He goes so far to call it perhaps unconstitutional, especially in light of the fact that the constitution states that the president is the embodiment of the nation’s unity.

Debreczeni’s other criticism is that the president should be "above parties," but Sólyom is not above  parties but against the parties and that can be dangerous. After all, the existence of parties is an integral part of parliamentary democracy. Sólyom was elected–with some difficulty–by the parties in parliament, but since his name surfaced from the members of a civil environmental group he looks upon himself as the candidate of the "people.’ This sounds like Orbán’s populist drivel. So, basically, parties on the one hand and the "people" on the other hand. People against parties. A frightening prospect.

Finally came something that tops it all. The reporter inquired whether "the people will understand" his lofty ideas. Sólyom answered: "I hope so. The last time I talked to the Spanish king and asked him what a president can do without any power just as a king without any power, he answered that it took thirty years to make the people understand." The reporter called his attention to the fact that he didn’t have thirty years. His next example was the Pope himself. He stressed his visits to different parts of the country, talking to the people. "I went to the most important parts of the country and this is almost like when the Pope goes somewhere and kisses the ground. . . . I don’t kiss the ground, but I met with the people." With Debreczeni I can say: "Mr. President, please be careful; you may find yourself on dangerous ground!"