Parliamentary committees: Huge upheaval

It was almost a month ago that I talked about the allocation of parliamentary committee chairmanships. In the Hungarian Parliament most of the work is done in the eighteen or nineteen parliamentary committees. Of course, this is the case in the U.S. Congress as well and there as here some committees are more important than others. But, in Hungary, as opposed to the United States the parliamentary committees are not all chaired by members of the majority party; a certain number are headed by members of the opposition. By law, the committee on national security belongs to the opposition. It has also been customary for the foreign relations committee and the finance committee to be led by opposition members. Or at least this was the case in the last eight years. Thus, the chairman of the committee on national security was István Simicskó, undersecretary of defense in the Orbán government; the finance committee was headed by Mihály Varga, minister of finance  between 1998 and 2002; and the chair of the foreign relations committee was Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the ministry of foreign affairs under János Martonyi.

Of the seventeen or eighteen committees in the Gurcsány-Bajnai government eight were headed by Fidesz. Earlier I wondered whether Viktor Orbán's party would be that generous with the opposition. Well, on the surface they seemed to be fair. They offered six chairmanships and they specified which six they had in mind. The committee on foreign relations wasn't among them. I wasn't terribly surprised about that because this particular post seems to have a special significance for the Fidesz government. They kept the post to themselves between 1998 and 2002 as well. But otherwise out of the nineteen committee chairmanships they offered the opposition (1) family, youth, social welfare; (2) finance; (3) employment and labor; (4) environment; (5) national security, and (6) consumer protection.

Sounds fine but there was a rub. The three opposition parties had to agree among themselves how to divvy up these six chairmanships. First, LMP with 17 seats demanded an equal share with the other two parties whose caucuses are much larger. MSZP offered a division of 3:2:1 while LMP insisted on 2:2:2. Eventually that issue was settled;  LMP chose as its one committee chairmanship environment. Considering their origins as a green party, that was an obvious choice.

Then there was the seating arrangement which they agreed on easily enough but I find the final result peculiar. The Hungarian parliament's seating arrangement resembles a horseshoe. In the last eight years Fidesz occupied the right side and MSZP the left side and in between sat MDF and SZDSZ, from right to left. That pretty well reflected the ideological makeup of the parties. But now the situation has changed. There is a party farther to the right than Fidesz and one would think that the far right seats should be occupied by the members of the Jobbik delegation, followed by the huge Fidesz-KDNP caucus. Then I would place LMP and to its left MSZP. But no. Fidesz insisted on the whole right side of the horseshoe. LMP refused to sit next to Jobbik and thus LMP members will be to the left of Fidesz followed by Jobbik and MSZP on the left side of the horseshoe with an aisle in between. I suspect that among the reasons Fidesz insisted on the far right position in the chamber was that they wanted to distinguish themselves from Jobbik and to spatially associate the "two extreme parties" whom they often enough accused of collusion.

Then came the real outrage. LMP was satisfied with the chairmanship of the committee on the environment but Jobbik and MSZP still had to agree on how to share the remaining five posts. Jobbik insisted on the committees on national security and finance, the two most important positions. However, MSZP also considered the finance committee essential and since MSZP suggested a new committee on consumer protection they felt they had to pick that as well. So, to make a long story short MSZP eventually settled for the committees of finance, labor and employment, and consumer protection, letting Jobbik have national security and sport, youth, and family.

Well, it was at this point that all hell broke loose. Even liberal media sympathetic to MSZP were enraged. How could MSZP agree to let Jobbik have the chairmanship of such an important committee? After all, national security is a sensitive area that shouldn't be entrusted to a neo-nazi party. Fidesz from the background was smiling broadly. Once again, it looked as if Jobbik and MSZP were working hand in hand. The negotiators of MSZP had been fooled.

The MSZP top brass split on the issue. Some people turned against Attila Mesterházy and Ildikó Lendvai who led the negotiations. Liberal critics of MSZP claimed that MSZP simply picked the finance committee because one of the important party leaders, Imre Szekeres, needed a position and a secretary. András Schiffer, head of the LMP delegation, made the same accusation, adding that the pay of the chairman of the finance committee is higher than some of the others. I heard that interview and considered it very nasty and most likely unfair.

The fact is that the finance committee is a very important one. I would find it difficult to see a Jobbik member running it, especially since delicate negotiations with the IMF and the EU will continue and Jobbik's opinion of these institutions is anything but complimentary. On the other hand there is the question of national security and Jobbik. A lethal combination given Jobbik's close relations with the Arrows of Hungarians, a terrorist organization whose members are in jail at the moment awaiting trial. Mind you, ordinary members of the committee get every bit of information that the chairman receives. Therefore Jobbik's very presence on that particular committee is problematic quite independently of whether it chairs the committee or not.

In hindsight it is clear that MSZP should have refused Fidesz's proposal that the opposition parties handle the allocation of chairmanships by themselves. It was clear from day one that this is not an opposition comprised of like-minded parties. There is a neo-nazi party with whom any kind of negotiation can be lethal. As it was. MSZP should have thrown the ball back and let Fidesz decide who will get what.

In any case, Attila Mesterházy and Ildikó Lendvai got so much flak that after a five-hour-long meeting of the parliamentary delegation yesterday the decision was made to sign the general agreement but with the proviso that MSZP doesn't agree to Jobbik's providing any member to the committee on national security. According to the house rules, in such a case the decision lies with the speaker of the house. He will have to suggest people for chairman, deputy chairmen, and members. So Pál Schmitt, former Olympic champion and earlier Fidesz delegate to the European Parliament who was named to the post, will have to decide.

MSZP got off the hook but its supporters are mighty upset.

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Oh be a bit more cynical, Eva!
Szekeres has, shall we say, a certain reputation.
And MSZP has difficult-to-meet financing needs, especially now they no longer have ministries.
And the finance committee has a big say over flows of budgetary money.
I know, I know, lesser of two evils, etc – but MSZP is at least as dirty as any other party in Hungary.

Eva S. Balogh

Alias3T: “And the finance committee has a big say over flows of budgetary money.”
That I think is a misunderstanding. Parties can’t get money from the budget through legitimate channels like the committee on finance.