The metamorphosis of the leader of the Hungarian right (III)

Today’s topic is an important one: the impossible situation created by a prosecutor’s office in the hands of a party. Specifically in the hands of Fidesz, who uses it for political gain and for the avoidance of criminal responsibility. The question is how that could have happened.

Here at warp speed (at least for me) is a trip through history. After the 1867 Compromise, because of the dual nature of the Monarchy, a Hungarian judicial system had to be established. During 1871 several laws were enacted that among other things created a hierarchy of prosecutors’ offices headed by the “chief prosecutor.” Those were the halcyon days when the appointed chief prosecutor, Sándor Kozma, headed the institution for a quarter of a century to everybody’s satisfaction! The Hungarian prosecutor’s office, as in all other European countries, was subordinated to the ministry of justice and “was obliged to follow its instructions.”

That was the situation until 1949, the “year of revolution,” as it was dubbed by Mátyás Rákosi’s communist party. The “revolution” in this case meant a turn-about. An abrupt change from a multi-party democracy to a one-party dictatorship. One of the important organizational changes in the prosecutorial hierarchy was that it was no longer the ministry of justice that exercised authority over the edifice but parliament. A parliament that was no more than a rubber stamp and convened only a few days a year. So basically the prosecutor’s office was taken out of the hands of the government and served the needs of the party. The title “chief prosecutor” was not good enough for Rákosi and his comrades. They renamed the head of the organization “supreme prosecutor” under whom served several “chief prosecutors.”

Change of regime or not in 1989-1990, this has remained the situation to this day, including the inflationary titles (that I admit I have tended to undertranslate in this blog). Only once, during the tenure of Ibolya Dávid as minister of justice, was an attempt made to change the practically independent status of the prosecutor’s office. Because of the opposition of MSZP and SZDSZ the suggestion was rejected; they feared that such a move would result in the undue influence of the government parties over the prosecutor’s office. This was a short-sighted response because, despite the fact that in a couple of years MSZP and SZDSZ found themselves in power again, the supreme prosecutor was Viktor Orbán’s man.

How did that happen? The first supreme prosecutor after the change of regime was Kálmán Györgyi, formerly a professor of criminal law. He was elected by an overwhelming majority of parliament for a six-year term. In 1996 he was reelected, again by a very large majority, for another six years. However, in 2000, after a brief conversation with János Áder, speaker of the house, he abruptly resigned. Because Györgyi refused to detail the reasons for his resignation all sorts of rumors circulated, among them that Áder blackmailed Györgyi with some dirt on his wife. Most likely Györgyi resigned because he became tired of the political attempts to influence his decisions. For instance, he was planning to bring charges against the composition of ORTT, the body overseeing the affairs of Hungarian radio and television broadcasting. As it stood, only the government parties were represented in ORTT. Áder, in rather typical Fidesz fashion, perhaps due to the leaders’ youth, announced that Györgyi’s opinion “was irrelevant.” What followed was the supreme prosecutor’s abrupt resignation.

I have the feeling that Kálmán Györgyi regretted this decision, either immediately or later when he saw the consequences of his impetuous action. One of the peculiarities and one of the many shortcomings of Hungarian constitutional law is the election by parliament of the supreme prosecutor with a simple majority vote. However, his removal requires two-thirds of the votes. Fidesz came up with the name of Péter Polt, then associate ombudsman, earlier Fidesz politician, and an old chum of Viktor Orbán et al.

Péter Polt in 2000

Although he looked younger than he was (the photo is from 2000), his professional background was far too thin to be seriously considered for the job. In fact, Ibolya Dávid couldn’t bring herself to support Orbán’s candidate, so she and her MDF delegation backed another man. Yet Orbán succeeded in installing Polt with the assistance of István Csurka’s anti-Semitic party. Orbán was never to finicky about how he managed to achieve his aims.

Debreczeni, no friend of Hungary’s first president Árpád Göncz, blames him for countersigning Polt’s appointment and thus lending his support to this outrageous decision. However, even Debreczeni has to admit that Göncz had only a couple of months left in his tenure and, even if he hadn’t signed it, his successor, Fidesz-picked Ferenc Mádl would have. In my opinion by that time Göncz, getting on in years, was becoming too tired and too disgusted with the ways of the Orbán government. Why pick yet another fight?

Between 2000 and 2002 Polt proved to be a faithful executor of Fidesz’s and Orbán’s will. But his real value to Fidesz became evident after 2002 when he was instrumental in making sure that none of the possible criminal cases–and there were plenty–ever got to court. His office either dropped charges or simply sabotaged the investigation. It was widely rumored that there were serious differences of opinion between the police that wanted to investigate and the prosecutor’s office that forbade them to proceed.

All that was legal, by the way, thanks to the genuises in the Hungarian governmental bureaucracy. The story goes back to 1998, during the Horn government, when the ministry of justice began work on a new criminal code. The work continued, but it was only in 2003 that the code came into force. The code included a provision that–and now let me quote Péter Kende–“the prosecutor’s office is not only the guardian of lawfulness but much more than that: it is the overlord of the cases. It could freely decide whether there will be an investigation or not. It could also determine whether the prosecutors themselves want to conduct the investigation or not. During the tenure of Kálmán Györgyi the practice was that the police investigated, from time to time they reported to the prosecutors, and the prosecutor’s office intervened only to make sure that the police investigation was proceeding within legal bounds…. Now the situation is entirely different, the prosecutors can tell the police what to do. For example, question X or Y or not…. A dangerous situation developed as a result because if the prosecutor’s office has direct supervision over the police then the legal control of the investigation is gone. Thus there is no one who is actually responsible. This is absurd but this is how it is.”

It would take too long to cite some of the cases that were swept under the rug by Polt and his men. Polt made sure in the first few months of his tenure that the old guard was booted out. One day he fired eight chief prosecutors, one in Budapest and seven county heads. He replaced them with his own people. I will mention here only one case. Yes, the infamous Kaya Ibrahim affair. Although the story of selling sixteen companies on the same day by Csaba Schlecht came to be known in 1998, shortly after Orbán became prime minister, the case in the fall of 2002 was still nowhere. Among other things Polt claimed in parliament that they couldn’t proceed with it because they couldn’t find Csaba Schlecht. At this point Gábor Világosi (SZDSZ),  telephone book in hand, pointed to page 572 where there was Csaba Schlecht’s address and telephone number!

It was at that time that Péter Bárándy, later minister of justice, at the time secretary of the Chamber of Advocates in Budapest, with unusual honesty proclaimed that he was ashamed on behalf of the whole Hungarian legal profession. In his opinion what Csaba Schlecht did was “a serious crime that deserved a jail sentence of two to eight years” ( Csaba Schlecht was never brought to court and with him disappeared the information on the failed businesses of István Stumpf, László Kövér, Viktor Orbán, and Lajos Simicska, just to mention those names my readers should be familiar with.

After six years Polt was booted out, but unfortunately nothing has really changed since. The president is supposed to nominate a candidate for the job while parliament approves or doesn’t approve his nomination. László Sólyom’s predecessors had the good sense to consult with the party leaders concerning their choices. If they realized that the candidate had no chance of ever getting approved they came up with another name. Sólyom refused to follow this custom. He had to suffer quite a few bumps because of his stubborn adherence to something he considers to be a legal ideal. After trying several men eventually he picked a former military prosecutor close to the retirement age of seventy. Thus his candidate couldn’t serve for the normal six years. Perhaps the party leaders became tired of the whole thing, but eventually they accepted Tamás Kovács who began his tenure by saying that he sees no reason to change anything in the prosecutor’s office. No personnel changes, no nothing. Peter Polt is still working in the supreme prosecutor’s office. He is heading the department that handles criminal cases. One of Kovács’s deputies is the same man Polt brought in. The prosecutor’s office under Kovács works in exactly the same way as under Polt. I think it is enough to mention the case of UD Zrt. (I wrote about this case on September 12, 2008 with the title “Hungarian Watergate?”) It seems more and more that from such victims as Ibolya Dávid and Károly Herény the prosecutor’s office managed to create culprits. They will be lucky if they don’t end up in jail when clearly they were the targets of Fidesz’s attempts to annihilate MDF and get rid of a party that they hate so much because Dávid and some of her friends refused to play ball.

The leaks from the prosecutor’s office have been constant. Magyar Nemzet knows everything earlier than the people involved. For example, the Fidesz paper knew before György Szilvássy that the prosecutors wanted to question him not as a witness but as an accused. The main responsibility for the lack of domestic tranquility in Hungary lies with the totally corrupt legal establishment. Prosecutors and judges alike. With the judges incompetence also plays a major role. What to do about this? One would need a government with a very strong mandate (two-thirds majority?) that would be able to change the laws governing the criminal code or the “independence” of the prosecutor’s office. Unfortunately, I don’t think that we can expect this from an Orbán government that so desperately hopes to achieve such a mandate next year. After all, it is Orbán and his party that are largely responsible for and the beneficiaries of the current situation.