Fidesz likes pomp and circumstance. It was during the first Orbán government that Viktor Orbán came up with the idea of a large, expensive inaugural ceremony for the president. After all, if in the United States there is such a thing Hungary should have one too. The Gyurcsány government by contrast didn't want to make a big deal out of László Sólyom's inauguration, among other things because his election to the post was a fiasco from the government's point of view. It practically never happens that parties that have a majority in parliament end up with the candidate of the opposition.
This year there are at least two very good reasons to dispense with the pomp and circumstance that costs millions. First, the generally gloomy economic prospects and Hungary's shaky finances. Second, the devastation from the flood that left thousands of people homeless. In fact, public sentiment is very much against such extravagances. August 20 is a national holiday (St. Stephen's Day) when it is customary to have fireworks over the Danube in Budapest and fireworks in other bigger cities as well. A group of people started a campaign on Facebook to scrap the fireworks and asked the government to give the money thus saved to the victims of the flood. In a few days more than 50,000 people signed up supporting the suggestion. Subsequently, official opinion confirmed that the great majority of Hungarians agreed with the people on Facebook: 75% didn't want the firework displays.
Oh, but such "celebrations" are important to Fidesz. On such occasions they are celebrating themselves in addition to the founding of the state in the year 1000. The fancier the better. So they were in a quandary. The people don't want fireworks, but by golly they want them very badly. It would be the first really big celebration of their own. For a few weeks they dragged their feet and then came the verdict: there will be firework displays but more modest than usual. The rest of the money will not go to the victims directly but will be used to rebuild damaged public buildings.
Public sentiment also didn't deter Fidesz from making a big deal out of the inauguration of Viktor Orbán's hand-picked man, Pál Schmitt. According to estimates it cost 120 million forints, including entertainment and "refreshments".
The original plan included an inauguration on St. George Square (Szent György tér), right in front of Sándor Palace, the headquarters of the president and his staff of fifty. But nature intervened and because of an impending storm it was held in the courtyard of the Palace under a tent before about 200 invited guests. Several prominent people were absent. The most glaring absentee was László Sólyom himself. The day before he passed on to Schmitt all the necessary information concerning official affairs and gave him a copy of his recently published collection of speeches. He also told Schmitt that he would stand next to him as "the invisible president." As for his absence, Sólyom told his staff earlier that he was not going to the inauguration because "he doesn't want to disturb the celebration of the plebeians with his presence." Apparently, Sólyom has a wry sense of humor. He was referring to Schmitt's reference to the distant and somewhat aristocratic demeanor of Sólyom while he described himself as "the man of the people" (az emberek embere).
Neither MSZP nor LMP was represented. As it turned out, the organizers initially didn't even plan to invite anyone from the opposition parties, but after questions from the media they thought the better of it. So yesterday afternoon they sent out the belated invitations for this morning's ceremony. Only Jobbik graciously accepted; the party was represented by the deputy leader of the Jobbik parliamentary delegation, Márton Gyöngyösi.
Schmitt's speech lasted twenty minutes. The transcript of the complete speech is available on the web site of galamus.hu. His speech began with a quotation from Albert Wass, a Transylvanian Hungarian writer of dubious literary value and even more dubious political views. Here and there I wrote about him briefly in the past and I promise that sometime I will spend a whole blog post on the man and his work. I have been hesitant to tackle the subject because I must admit that I have never read anything by him. Some people consider him to be a towering figure of Hungarian prose while others deem him a second- or even third-rate writer. He was condemned to death in absentia by a Romanian court after World War II. They accused him of murdering Romanians and Jews. His defenders claim that it was a show trial and that Wass had nothing to do with the murders. However, we know that in emigration (he ended up in the United States) he had strong links to some of the former leaders of Ferenc Szálasi's Arrowcross party and wrote antisemitic treatises. He also started a publishing house where extremely right-wing publications appeared about Hungarian history and politics. In any case, he is a controversial figure and a favorite of the extreme right. For Schmitt to start his speech with an Albert Wass quotation was truly inappropriate.
After paying homage to his three predecessors, Árpád Göncz, Ferenc Mádl (who was present by the way), and László Sólyom, he promised to fulfill his duties to the best of his abilities. He made a fleeting reference to the "revolution of the many" as opposed to other revolutions that only few people led. And because there was a revolution surely there must be a new constitution as well. And now comes the surprising part: the defender of the current constitution wants to have a role in writing another one. I think this is a misunderstanding of his job. But he will be engaged and he promised to do everything in his power to have a constitution that will reflect "the interest and the will of the people." And what should be in that new constitution? A reference to the Holy Crown of St. Stephen. Also, there must a reference to the fact the Hungary is a Christian nation. And a little bit later we find out that there should be a reference to "sports" in the constitution! I don't know about sports, but it seems to be carved in stone that there will be references to the Holy Crown and Christianity in the new constitution.
If Sólyom as president was particularly concerned with the environment, Schmitt will also have his "causes." He picked three. The first is the purity of the Hungarian language. It seems that Schmitt, like many of his generation, views the language used today as less pure than the Hungarian they learned in school. It bothers them to no end that foreign words are creeping into the Hungarian language. During the Rákosi and Kádár regimes very few Russian words were adopted: kulák, kolhoz, and such words. But today English words are arriving in the Hungarian vocabulary with fantastic speed due to imported technology and cultural trends. The Orbán government once tried to "purify" the language and adopted a law forbidding English-language signs not accompanied by translation on storefronts. The law was stillborn. Now it seems that we'll have a second purification attempt spearheaded by the new president. If Hungarians are not careful they will soon have a Hungarian language law similar to Fico's in Slovakia.
His second aim is to promote healthful living and regular exercise. Only ten percent of Hungarians engage in any physical activity and it is beginning to show. I fully support such an attempt but I have the feeling that Pál Schmitt's urgings will not be enough to change national habits.
His third goal is "lifelong learning." Well, that might be a good idea because the very concept seems to be alien to Hungarians. But again, he mentions "the Hungarian intelligence that is admired and envied by the world," a reference I find not only wrong but harmful.
And what will his most important task be? "The service of the unity of the Hungarian nation 15 million strong." Once I wrote about this alleged 15 million Hungarians and proved that there are no 15 million Hungarians in the first place. He promised to continue Sólyom's travels to everywhere Hungarians live. Well, we know how much trouble Sólyom's zeal caused and one can only hope that Schmitt will show restraint in this respect.
Now he can start signing the bills that are pouring into his office from his former deputy speaker of the house, Sándor Lezsák. Lezsák waited until the government could be sure that the bills would arrive at the Sándor Palace after Pál Schmitt took office. Perhaps the most contested and most worrisome bill concerns the media. Everybody was sure that László Sólyom would send it on to the constitutional court, but I'm almost certain that Schmitt will not. Of course, Schmitt is no constitutional expert, but the government made sure that practically the whole staff was fired and that new people will be giving him advice. Out of the fifty people only six remained. I don't know who they are. Perhaps the cleaning ladies. Jokes aside, we know of one person who is staying on: the head of protocol who happens to be the wife of György Szabad, historian and speaker of the house in the Antall government and by now a faithful Fidesz supporter.
Meanwhile, Sólyom will have a secretariat for life and an ample budget. I wouldn't be surprised if he suddenly spoke more often than he did while in office. In this case he might do some good as a guardian of the constitution. More good than he did while in office.