Report of legal watchdogs: Serious problems with the Hungarian parliament’s activities

Four organizations involved with the law and human rights just published a report on the work of the new parliament. Three of the four are Hungarian branches of international organizations: Transparency International, TASZ or the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and the Helsinki Committee. The fourth is a strictly Hungarian organization called Károly Eötvös Institute established in 2003 with the help of the Soros Foundation. Károly Eötvös (1844-1916) was a politician and lawyer whose name is associated with the infamous Tiszaeszlár case (1882-83) in which he successfully defended a Jewish community falsely accused of murdering a young girl and using her blood for ritual purposes. I gave the links because each web site has an English version; for those not familiar with the Tiszaeszlár case Wikipedia offers a decent account.

Before I begin a summary of the report I should explain once again some of the intricacies of Hungarian parliamentary rules. Most of the time a bill is prepared and presented by the government. That usually takes months of work by the appropriate ministry. During the preparation of the bill the ministry by law must consult with groups that will be affected if the bill is passed. Normally experts are also consulted and their opinions can be scrutinized by members of parliament. So, it is a long and arduous affair. On the other hand, there is something called "bills proposed by individual members" that dispenses with all these compulsory stages of preparation. This "institution" was adopted to enable the opposition parties to take part in the legislative work of parliament. However, the practice is not restricted to members of the opposition, and in the last three months Fidesz has made extensive use of it. Of the 56 bills only 11 were proposed by the government, all the rest by individual Fidesz-KDNP members.

These bills were not the brilliant ideas of individual parliamentarians. Behind the flood of individual proposals was most likely a group of people who have been working furiously on various subjects that the party and Viktor Orbán found important. It was too much, too fast. Often these proposals were poorly prepared. Some of them had spelling and grammatical errors. Often there were internal discrepancies; sometimes important items were left out. In any case, most of them evidenced haste and carelessness. Equal speed was dictated by the speaker of the house, and thus there wasn't enough time to catch even the bigger problems with these bills. It often happened that the proposal was presented on Friday afternoon, on Monday morning it was discussed in committee and voted on without much discussion, and in the afternoon the bill was put to the floor for general discussion which they also closed on the same day. The result of this clever move was that no proposal for any modification could be suggested. Tuesday they scheduled the "detailed discussion." Usually there are only two sessions of parliament a week, and thus the following Monday the final vote was held. Even changes to the constitution were introduced and voted on in this manner.

As a result the public has been in the dark about the details of the proposed bills although some of them will have serious repercussions when it comes to the everyday life of citizens or the workings of Hungarian democracy. But nothing stopped the newly elected parliament with its huge Fidesz-KDNP majority. On average, bills were pushed through in nineteen days from the submission of a proposal to the final vote, but ten proposals were accepted within a week–that is, in two or three sessions. There were also bills that needed only one day to pass from start to finish. Within ten weeks parliament changed the constitution six times.

The result of this frenetic schedule was that it was almost impossible to follow the work of parliament. The justifications that accompanied the bills were neither detailed nor convincing. In important pieces of legislation, like the media law, justifications for certain proposals were summarized in single sentences. The justification for decreasing government subsidies to parties was simply that it was necessary to fulfill one of the goals outlined in the 29-point "action plan" introduced by Viktor Orbán in a great hurry after the Kósa-Szijjártó-Varga debacle that sent the forint plunging.

According to the legal experts of our watchdog organizations even bills proposed by the government were not prepared according to the rules and regulations currently on the books. For example, if the government wants to change the status of state employees, it will have to negotiate with the representatives of the employees. The ministry must also post the proposal on its web site and invite comments and suggestions. Of course, with this breakneck pace there was no time for such formalities. There was also no time to ascertain whether these new bills conformed to European Union laws. In fact, several observers have already predicted that the Orbán government might have to appear before the European Court because there was at least one occasion on which it knowingly violated EU dictates–namely, lowering the salary of the Hungarian National Bank's chairman, vice-chairmen, and the members of its Monetary Council. And most likely there will be others.

The first part of the report criticizes the way in which bills were prepared and passed. As is clear from this summary, the employees of these organizations found the whole process unsatisfactory and in certain cases illegal. But the substantive criticism is reserved for "the elimination of basic guarantees of a constitutional state." I will leave the discussion of this more weighty subject for tomorrow.

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Matt L

I agree Eva, this is a terrible shame, but Hungarian voters knew what could happen when they voted to give FIDESZ a 2/3rds majority in Parliament. In their haste to punish the Socialists, the voters neglected to think about little details like which party would uphold rule by law and had the basic competence to govern. Too bad, but the Hungarians have done it to themselves.

Eva S. Balogh

Matt L: “Too bad, but the Hungarians have done it to themselves.”
No argument here. Yes, they are responsible for the current state of affairs and they will pay handsomely for their mistake.

Kathlin Szikra

There is a fundamental misunderstanding in Hungary about Identity, Unity, Power and Plurality. Unfortunately unless these terms will be cleared and understood the majority of the country will continue to suffer.
Democracy is strengthened by plurality and through the involvement of the people (all citizens) and not through building an new kingdom in a new color.

John T

Kathlin – spot on 🙂