Losing two to nothing? The Hungarian government and the opposition

Today (the 13th) was not a lucky day for Ferenc Gyurcsány and the MSZP. The first blow came earlier this morning when it became known that President László Sólyom had vetoed a bill which tried to change the civil code in order to wage a more effective campaign against hate speech. The second came when the five-party discussions concerning salaries of the parliamentary members were shipwrecked by the Fidesz.

Sólyom sent the bill to the Constitutional Court for "norm control," i.e. for the judges to decide on the bill’s constitutionality. However, he already announced that he personally finds the bill unconstitutional in several respects. Considering that he used to be the chief justice of that court, I doubt that the judges will go against their former colleague. As for the salaries, the MSZP’s representative at the discussions first said that he was so stymied that he admitted defeat. Tonight, however, while being interviewed together with István Balsai, his Fidesz counterpart, he announced that he had changed his mind and will fight on. Of course, there is still the possibility of a referendum.

Let’s start with the constitutionality of the civil code changes. The civil code, which was changed by a simple majority of parliament, originally stated that an individual could sue if a threat or a denigrating remark is directed against him personally. ("You deserve to die. You are a criminal.") But no suit can be brought if such a threat or denigrating remark is directed against a group. ("Jews deserve to die. Gypsies are criminals.") They changed the civil code in such a way that those who as members of a group find themselves attacked could bring legal action. This is what Sólyom found unconstitutional. One of his objections is that as the result of the proposed change "one denigrating remark could bring about many thousands of civil suits and possible compensation that would disproportionately limit the free expression of opinion." Moreover, he added, if such denigrating expressions cannot be uttered, then their refutation is also impossible. Finally, he objected to a certain passage that would also allow legal aid offices to bring suits, not just individuals. Sólyom couldn’t resist mentioning that the ministry of justice, which was responsible for the preparation of the bill, should have known his opinion on this question because years ago he wrote a paper on the subject. Touché! The young Gergely Bárándy, MSZP MP and son of the former minister of justice, whose brain child the bill was, expressed his optimism that the Constitutional Court would find the bill constitutional. In his place I would be less optimistic.

And now comes the thorny question of the salaries. I spent a whole blog on the topic (Salaries of Hungarian parliamentary members, November 10, 2007) and therefore it is not necessary to go into the excruciating details of the untaxed perks of the Hungarian lawmakers. Ferenc Gyurcsány in his transparency package said that the five parties should agree on such changes in this murky practice that would not increase overall compensation but would make all compensation taxable. The people who worked on the question came up with the solution: no allowances but the official salary should be tripled.

Viktor Orbán was the first to raise his voice against raising the salaries of the MPs. Well, we know that the salaries wouldn’t really be raised, but perhaps the less sophisticated voter would believe that prior to the proposed changes the members received little money (but still more than they deserve!) and now these awful socialists want to triple their salaries when the country is in an economic crisis. Orbán announced that if this change takes place, he "forbids" (like some kind of feudal lord) his party’s representatives to accept their new salaries. Well, after this announcement, it was expected that the five parties would not come to an agreement. Or, more precisely, four would agree and one wouldn’t. István Balsai, the Fidesz representative to the five-party negotiations concerning salaries, is a very unsympathetic man (at least in my eyes). So let me vent. He is capable of the greatest demagoguery, which is unexpected from a former minister of justice. Also, the hatred of his opponents is written all over his face. Hitting below the belt is one of his favorite forms of attack. As he tried to defend the indefensible, one could have felt sorry for him if he were just a bit more likeable.

In any case, Balsai’s performance on Olga Kálmán’s program (Straight Talk, ATV) obviously got under the skin of the MSZP representative, István Göndör, who right then and there changed his mind and said he would fight and would not give up. I might add here an interesting linguistic tidbit. Conducting shady economic transactions is called "mutyizás." I did a little research on this word, especially because it was not familiar to me. It seems that the word comes from the French "moitié" which apparently originally was a term used by card players. Two or more players played together for money which in case of winning they shared. At least this is what I found in the old Pallas Lexikon (1897). However, today the meaning of the word can be used in a wider sense–from kickbacks to any kind of transaction that is not quite cricket. For example, the current practice of compensation for parliamentary members. Göndör and the MSZP announced that the Fidesz voted for "mutyizás." But it’s easy to anticipate the Fidesz explanations of their action that feed into people’s economic fears and their distrust of politicians (particularly of the other persuasion).