This is the third time that I'm writing about President László Sólyom's obstinate insistence on his "independence" from politics, expressed in his rather peculiar way of nominating people for jobs. He can put forth names for the positions of chief justice, chief prosecutor, and ombudsmen, but the final decision lies with parliament. His predecessors worked with representatives of the parliamentary parties to find candidates who would have the necessary number of votes in parliament. To be more precise, the president came up with a name and then sounded out the representatives. If it became clear that the person wouldn't have the necessary two-thirds majority (or simple majority in the case of the chief prosecutor) then the president tried to find another person more acceptable. Sólyom decided that this procedure was not in the spirit of the constitution. Instead, he nominates someone he considers to be most qualified for the job and believes that parliament should accept his choice. Such an interpretation of the constitution, even for a layman, sounds outright wrong. The parliamentary parties, not without reason, claimed that Sólyom was overstepping his bounds. The president was obstinate, and parliament responded in kind. One after the other of Sólyom's nominations ended in failure. If I calculated right, since the summer of 2006 Sólyom failed at least eleven times. Some of his nominees were voted down twice.
Hungary has no chief justice. Hasn't had one for well over a year when Sólyom nominated András Baka for the position of chief justice. I wrote about this nomination on May 10, 2008 (László Sólyom refuses to budge). At that time the National Jurisdictional Committee, a body of 14 members (judges, the minister of justice, chief prosecutor and two members of parliament's judicial committee) voted him down, asserting that András Baka had no experience as a judge in Hungary. He spent 17 years (1991-2008) in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. That didn't deter Sólyom; the president went ahead with his nomination, saying that after all the committee's decision was close. SZDSZ announced that its members would not vote for Baka, and MSZP allowed its members to vote according to their conscience. The result was predictable. The vote was secret, but the suspicion lingered that MSZP and SZDSZ were not alone in withholding their votes, although Fidesz claimed full support.
A few months later Sólyom came up with a new candidate. This time a woman, Mrs. Havasi née Mária Orbán (no relation of Viktor Orbán). I wrote about that fiasco on December 9, 2008 (Another Sólyom nomination, another rejection). The National Jurisdictional Committee this time endorsed her, but the endorsement was lukewarm: 7 for and 6 against. This time SZDSZ backed her but MSZP members again could vote according to their conscience. Out of 355 valid votes she received 203 in favor and 152 against, shy of the necessary two-thirds. Sólyom was so furious that he could barely speak but, however falteringly, he told the public that he was going to resubmit Mrs. Havasi's name because after all the vote was close. He would "give parliament an opportunity to right a wrong decision." And indeed, in March of this year Sólyom dragged her back to parliament where she was voted down again. This time she received a few more votes, 230 instead of 203, but for acceptance she needed 256. She was not willing to have her name submitted a third time.
Then a few weeks ago I was surprised to hear that Sólyom was returning to his original candidate, András Baka. The president's rationale was that it had been more than a year since he was turned down, allegedly because he had no experience as a judge in Hungary. But Baka had spent the past year in the Hungarian court system. Indeed, the reaction was positive. A year ago MSZP wasn't willing to endorse him because of his lack of experience. This time around Gergely Bárándy, the young legal expert of the party, indicated that Baka was acceptable to them. The vote in parliament took place yesterday afternoon. In the morning MSZP, suspicious that Fidesz had changed its position on the nomination, asked the members of the committee dealing with parliamentary rules to change the custom of voting by secret ballot. MSZP was willing unanimously and openly to vote for András Baka. But the request was denied by members of the other parties. In the afternoon the secret ballot took place. Three hundred and forty-six members voted of the 385 present.There were an unusually high number of spoiled votes (54). There were 184 votes in favor and 108 against. Fidesz immediately charged that "MSZP lied." MSZP said that their members would vote for Baka and look what happened. Indignantly Fidesz and KDNP walked out. Although the vote was secret, there are some signs that it was Fidesz-KDNP members who refused to vote for Baka and not MSZP. Viktor Orbán, for example, must have known ahead of the final tally that Baka hadn't been approved because he left his seat at 4:05 p.m., about half an hour before the result was announced. He was supposed to stay to congratulate the winner. So presumably he knew there was no winner that day. Another telling sign that the spoiled ballots most likely came from the right side of the aisle is that there was also a secret ballot for Gyula Tóth (MSZP) for one of the recording secretary positions. Interestingly, among the ballots for him there were 37 spoiled ones. Surely, MSZP members wouldn't spoil their votes for one of their own!
Fidesz's answer to all this is that after all Fidesz voted for Mr. Baka the last time around and they also voted for Mrs. Havasi. Why should they vote against him now? The answer from the other side is: yes, that's the case, but then they knew full well that MSZP would not vote for the candidate so their affirmative vote didn't make any difference. MSZP suspects that Fidesz simply doesn't want a chief justice nominated by László Sólyom. Next year after the elections, when they figure they'll have their much desired two-thirds majority, they can pick whomever they want, someone ideologically akin. Most likely they will also scotch László Sólyom's reappointment. He was a difficult fellow for the socialist government, and it is unlikely that he would be easier to handle after Viktor Orbán's victory.
Sólyom's first reaction as usual was the wrong one. In a huff-puff he announced that "there is no use of nominating anyone with this parliament." Well, that's most likely exactly what Fidesz wanted to hear. At this point Attila Mesterházy moved into high gear and last night wrote an open letter to Sólyom asking him to renominate András Baka. MSZP would be willing to have open voting where they could prove that the MSZP caucus voted unanimously for Baka. It took Sólyom only a few hours to decide to accept the offer. I guess he realized that it wasn't MSZP that was lying but the other side. Perhaps it also occurred to him that although he has been courting Orbán and manifesting his rightist sympathies Orbán and his team are not grateful. His head will roll anyway next year if Fidesz wins the elections. And most likely he figured out Fidesz's game plan and didn't want to allow the election of a thoroughly partisan chief justice next year.