Another Sólyom nomination, another rejection

What a fiasco: President László Sólyom's nominee, the second one, for the post of chief justice of the Supreme Court failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority in parliament. The first one, András Baka, for years a member of the European Court of Justice, didn't even get the approval of the National Council of Jurisprudence (a body comprised of judges and the minister of justice). The problem was his lack of experience in the Hungarian legal system. The job description clearly states that the nominee must have at least six years of experience as a judge in the Hungarian court system. Baka never worked as a judge in Hungary. President Sólyom was furious, but he should have read the job description before he nominated Baka.

Some months went by. A few days ago Sólyom came up with his new candidate. The surprise was that the nominee was a woman. A first. She has had thirty years of experience as a judge. Currently she heads one of the appellate courts (ítélőtáblák) recently established, or more precisely reestablished, in order to lighten the heavy burden on the Supreme Court. From day one rumors had it that Mrs. Havasi, née Mária Orbán (no relative of Viktor Orbán), would have difficulty receiving the two-thirds majority because the MSZP caucus was not too keen on her. There can be at least three reasons for the socialists' dislike of Mrs. Havasi. One is her reputation for being far too sympathetic to Fidesz. MSZP was worried that the same thing might happen at the very top of the court system as had happened with the chief prosecutor, Péter Polt, who brazenly served his former party. (Earlier he had been a Fidesz candidate at one of the elections.) Admittedly, there are differences. Polt was young and without any experience and his party affiliation was clear. However, the socialists'  fear was most likely reinforced when Fidesz and the Christian Democrats enthuasiastically endorsed Mrs. Havasi and promised to vote for her. The second possible reason, most analysts suspect, is that the socialists wanted to punish, for the umpteenth time, President Sólyom for his peculiar way of interpreting his right of nomination. In his opinion, he doesn't have to consult with politicians; he just comes up with a name and expects parliament to accept it. Well, as we know politics doesn't work that way. The third publicly stated reason is that Mrs. Havasi has no foreign language skills and her scholarly output is slim to nonexistent. Ildikó Lendvai, leader of the MSZP delegation, claimed this afternoon that the MSZP members listened to legal experts pro and con and came to the conclusion that Mrs. Havasi simply doesn't have the necessary stature in judicial circles to succeed in implementing the promised and very necessary reforms.

Sólyom's candidates have failed so many times that it is really embarrassing. Embarrassing chiefly for him. But he is a stubborn fellow. He will not change his ways. In the past, when his predecessors had the opportunity to nominate somebody for a post, they invited the heads of the parliamentary delegations for an informal chat to find out what their reactions were. If the former presidents (Göncz and Mádl) realized that their candidate's election was hopeless, they came up with somebody else who was acceptable. Sólyom's interpretation of the constitution precludes such consultation. He nominates, parliament accepts. And if parliament doesn't accept then he is very angry or in this case so furious that he demands that his candidate be accepted or else. Not a very smart thing to do.

The details. Right after her name surfaced Mrs. Havasi told every possible journalist and politician that she was going to reform the court system. Surely, reform is necessary, but somehow I don't think that it was too savvy of her to tell everybody who was ready to listen that she was going to get rid of the many incompetent and/or crooked judges. One can imagine what the reaction to these threats might be in judicial circles. Whether nervous about her zealotry or simply not impressed with her, the National Council of Jurisprudence's vote showed the split within the body. Their endorsement of her was lukewarm: 7 for and 6 against. When she went out of her way to stress her zeal for reform, I had the strong suspicion that this radical talk was meant to counterbalance her reputation as someone whose political views were close to the right. Perhaps she thought that if she portrayed herself as a reformer she would get the votes of SZDSZ and MSZP. Well, it worked with SZDSZ and with some of the liberal public figures outside of parliament but it didn't convince most of the MSZP members who were allowed to vote according to their conscience. It seems that most MSZP members' conscience told them to push the "no" button. The vote was secret. From the 364 members present, there were 355 valid and 9 invalid votes. The vote count was 203 in favor, 152 against, shy of the necessary two-thirds.

The vote was barely over when President Sólyom ran out, ahead of his candidate, from the parliamentary gallery. He was so angry that he was visibly shaking. In his fury he called MSZP (Magyar Szocialista Párt) MSZMP (Magyar Szocialista Munkáspárt), the name of the party of János Kádár! (Some people think that perhaps it was not a mistake but that he made the "mistake" purposely.) He then resolutely repeated that he would resubmit the name of Mrs. Havasi "to give parliament an opportunity to right a wrong decision." Moreover, the man who speaks German and English quite well suddenly didn't think that the knowledge of a foreign language was important. After all, it is not in the job description! The reaction was inevitable. Ildikó Lendvai, leader of the MSZP delegation retorted: President Sólyom's job is to nominate, the parliament's to vote. The president's job is not to criticize the decision of parliament. Well said.

The liberal press seems to be on Sólyom's side rather than that of parliament. Perhaps they were impressed by Mrs. Havasi's alleged reforming spirit. Some of the liberal intellectuals who gathered in the Hungarian Democratic Charta movement openly supported her. I would remind these people that László Sólyom became president mostly because of the same liberal circle's support. And that didn't work out too well. Will Mrs. Havasi be accepted the second time around? I have no way of knowing, and I don't wish her ill. But Mr. Sólyom must learn the rules of the political game. He can't behave as if he were above politics. No, he is a political actor who is unfortunately totally unfit for the job.