First, let me say a few things about the building. Work on it began in 1885 and went on for seventeen years. It was designed in the Gothic Revival style of the 1830s and was grandiose. Perhaps as grandiose as the then Hungarian political elite imagined Hungary to be. The building itself is 268 meters long and 123 meters wide. Forty kilograms of gold were used to gild the interior. There are thirteen elevators, innumerable corridors, and a huge gallery. There are two chambers because in those days the Hungarian parliament followed the British practice–a house of lords and a house of commons. Today the upper house's chamber is rarely used, though here and there one hears rumblings about reestablishing the upper house. For the time being one doesn't have to take them seriously.
The chamber used for parliamentary sessions is impressive, especially the galleries. But even the floor (using an American expression, as in "on the floor of the Senate") is grandiose. The first row of seats is covered in red velvet; the rest are upholstered in leather. The first row is reserved for ministers of the government; hence in Hungarian one of the synonyms for a ministerial post is "velvet chair" (bársony szék). The speaker of the house (házelnök, president of the house in Hungarian) sits in the middle on a throne-like podium. At the moment the speaker of the house is Katalin Szili who, on the whole, is handling her duties quite well. She has several deputies, one from each party with a parliamentary caucus, who occasionally take over her duties. The galleries are reserved for visitors and the press. Until László Sólyom became president, if a president wanted to attend a parliamentary session, he could sit in the first row in a designated seat. Sólyom decided that sitting with the government was too cozy and opted instead to sit in the gallery, in a box right across from the speaker of the house.
When Gordon Bajnai was confirmed as the new prime minister, he had to wend his way through the corridors to appear in the president's box because Sólyom wanted to congratulate him. One of the MSZP members called the president a boor. Because, he said, the one who congratulates goes to the celebrant and not vice versa. However some protocol expert (by now retired) apparently found it perfectly acceptable. It's another thing, in my opinion, that by this move Sólyom wanted to define his relation to the prime minister and the government. But, as someone called Bajnai, the "boy scout" smilingly obliged.
Here is the view of the chamber from the other end, showing the box to which the president decided to move. In the middle of the first row one can see two shorter sets of chairs. On the left the first chair is where the current prime minister sits. Next to him the minister in charge of his office. The two chairs on the right side of the aisle are now vacant. But if the prime minister were, for example, Viktor Orbán, he would sit in the middle on the right side of the aisle. Behind the prime minister sits Ildikó Lendvai, the former head of the MSZP caucus, and next to her Attila Mesterházy, her successor. While the prime minister spoke for almost twenty minutes last Monday, the camera remained focused on him and those who sat directly behind him. So we could watch MSZP members passing notes to each other. Lendvai got at least three notes during this period. It's also always amusing to watch the eighty-four-year-old Iván Vitányi who is still sharp but obviously bored. He is always present but his eyes are inevitably closed.
It is usually on Mondays that the prime minister addresses parliament. Heads of each causus are then allowed five minutes to respond. So we hear from Tibor Navracsics of Fidesz, Attila Mesterházy of MSZP, János Kóka of SZDSZ, and finally either the leader of KDNP (Christian Democratic People's Party) or one his deputies. Before MDF lost its right to form a caucus either Károly Herényi, head of the caucus, or Ibolya Dávid, his deputy, also spoke.
I watched at least an hour's worth of the Monday session and tried to compare the atmosphere to the pre-Bajnai period. First of all, Fidesz and KDNP decided to stay in the chamber while Bajnai spoke. That is a welcome change. And the atmosphere is different. Bajnai is very low-keyed and a bit dull, although he can speak quite well without notes. He is not eloquent but rather businesslike. However, Tibor Navracsics responded to Bajnai in exactly the same manner, sarcastic and somewhat shrill, as if he were talking to Ferenc Gyurcsány. All the while his great admirer who sits next to him, Mrs. Pelcz neé Ildikó Gál, nodded vigorously and smiled broadly when she thought that Navracsics said something terribly clever. And there was plenty of opportunity to nod and smile because Navracsics as usual tore into Bajnai. What kind of economic crisis solving government is it that still doesn't have a minister of the economy and development? What can Bajnai come up with when he was part and parcel of the government that caused all the problems? In the past it was in answers to Navracsics that Gyurcsány shined. He was witty and cutting and gave back to Navracsics in kind. But a new man, a new way of dealing with the opposition. I would have liked to know what went on in Navracsics's head when the quiet-spoken Bajnai replied: "I seem to discover a certain amount of agreement in Mr. Navracsics's speech." Mrs. Pelcz was outraged: "What agreement?"–that was written all over her face. And Bajnai continued: "I'm sorry if I got you into trouble!" Big laughter on the left.
A similar situation occurred after Mihály Varga gave a five-minute harangue about the economic missteps of the government past and present. The new minister of finance, Péter Oszkó, answered. Oszkó is also a soft-spoken fellow. Varga's insulting speech was answered briefly as if he didn't even hear any of the accusations. Oszkó's reaction was: "I welcome every constructive suggestion. My door is always open."
I don't know what Fidesz's frontmen will do in these new circumstances. Can they go on as before or will they have to come out with something better, or at least different? I don't know.
Finally, videos of the Hungarian parliamentary sessions are available on the internet. To view them one needs Real Player's latest version. The Monday session I'm writing about here can be accessed at http://tinyurl.com/dhx2ul Just click on the Videó/Felsz. idő and you will be able to listen to any speech you are interested in.