On the road to dictatorship

Although I promised Open Dog that I would give some details about Ferenc Gyurcsány's student days in Pécs, life intervened. Today Hungary witnessed perhaps the greatest attack on a democratic country's constitutional order. Democratically minded people are in total shock. They still can't quite believe what happened during the course of the day.

This morning at 11:30 a.m. MTI reported the unanimous decision of the constitutional court: the 98% retroactive extra tax on any income over two million forints received either as a retirement package or as severence pay was deemed unconstitutional. This newly adopted law was of course applicable only at publicly financed institutions. Trade unions rightly pointed out that this new law might affect people who after forty years as lowly paid teachers would be deprived of their retirement package. Therefore several individuals and institutions asked the constitutional court to review this new law. Most likely the government also had its doubts concerning the constitutionality of this piece of legislation because it waited until László Sólyom was out of the way. Pál Schmitt, the handpicked patsy, signed it on his very first day in office.

My first reaction after hearing the decision of the court was total astonishment and joy. I was very worried that even the constitutional court would be nothing more than an instrument of a government with few democratic impulses. Yet here it was, a unanimous decision. Even Orbán's old friend István Stumpf considered this law unconstitutional. So, I reasoned, there is hope. The courts will stop Orbán's dictatorial steps and will put an end to this madness.

My relief was short-lived. At 2.30 p.m. came the news that János Lázár, the head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, announced that he is seeking a change in the constitution so that the constitutional court would be barred from rendering decisions on any subject on which a plebiscite cannot be held. Since no referendum can be held on topics that in any way have an effect on the budget, it is clear that the constitutional court, after the proposed constitutional change, will not have the right to make decisions such as they just made concerning the 98% extra tax. And, he added, at the same time they will pass the "unconstitutional" law in an unaltered form. The constitutional court can hang itself. Who are they to say no to the two-thirds revolution of Fidesz? Their decision only meant to Orbán and his friends "that the old constitution is unable to give proper answers to the problems of the people."

It seems that the constitutional court itself was in a revolutionary mood because two hours after Lázár's threat to narrow its competence it handed down another decision which was a direct assault against one of the pieces of legislation enacted by the Fidesz parliament. To give a brief background. There is an institution called Gazdasági Versenyhivatal that is the watchdog over fair economic competition in the world of business. It has a chairman and two vice chairmen who are appointed for six-year terms at different times. Orbán, who likes to have his own men in every post, was relieved to learn that the chairman's six-year term would be up within a few months. But, how annoying, the two vice-chairmen still had years to go. Ah, but only a minor annoyance. Parliament passed a piece of legislation to change the law so that with the expiration of the chairman's term the terms of the two vice-chairmen would also come to an end. That law was suspect to László Sólyom, who sent it on to the constitutional court for constitutional "control." And the court today agreed with Sólyom.

Meanwhile the opposition was stunned. It was LMP that first reacted rather forcefully. A couple of hours after Lázár's announcement that they would change the constitution to narrow the competence of the constitutional court András Schiffer, the head of LMP's parliamentary delegation, announced that "Fidesz today declared war on constitutional democracy" and the government party "crossed the Rubicon." According to him Fidesz's methods "must be the envy even of Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan." Therefore, LMP will no longer be represented on the parliamentary committee that was established to work out the new constitution.

Let's stop here and backtrack a bit. I haven't had time to report on Ferenc Gyurcsány's political activities of late. He decided that it was time to get involved in politics again. It seems that he would like to reorganize MSZP not just structurally but also ideologically. He thinks that MSZP must open itself toward the center and that it should collect either as party members or sympathizers people who have not been MSZP voters in the past.

MSZP is made up of different "platforms." These platforms, there are six or seven of them, seem to be conglomerations of like-minded people. Gyurcsány decided to set up a new platform called Demokratikus Koalíció which is different from the others in the sense that one doesn't need to be a party member to join. He was recruiting only on the Internet and within two weeks or so the new platform gained more than 3,000 members. Just to give an idea of what that means: all the other platforms have no more than 100-200 members each. Last week the platform had its first meeting: close to 1,000 people showed up in a tent set up in Szent István Park.

Gyurcsány at this meeting to enthusiastic cheers suggested that MSZP shouldn't take part in the constitutional committee's work because by being there it associates itself with the future constitution which in no way will reflect any of the ideas held dear by the party.

Last night on the Újságíró Klub, a weekly political program of four journalists discussing the events of the past week, the question of MSZP's participation came up. Led by János Avar, the consensus was that MSZP shouldn't boycott the work of the constitutional committee. Avar, who is no friend of Ferenc Gyurcsány, pretty well accused him of trying to sow dissension within the party which at present would be a suicidal move. There should be no criticism levelled against the leadership from within.

Well, what do you think happened after LMP announced its withdrawal from the committee? Naturally, MSZP followed suit. But what else could they have done? It would have been better if they had made this decision on their own, but now they really couldn't do anything else. They would have been better off listening to Gyurcsány.

And finally, Gyurcsány called for a joint demonstration of all democrats in defense of the constitutional court. LMP's answer? They won't demonstrate together with Gyurcsány and MSZP. They will hold a separate demonstration. I understand their reasoning, but there is strength in numbers. This is a case in which the future of Hungarian democracy might trump party politics.

 

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An
Guest

As I was reading your blog I thought, “Finally LMP is waking up”. But then, after reading the last paragraph, I think they still have some waking up to do.

Pete H.
Guest

A few questions. How much of the political decision making in Hungary is done by a plebiscite? And the new proposal would apply only to descisons made by plebiscite or to those that could potentially be made by plebiscite? I am just wondering how big a part of the political process will now be removed from any checks and balances.
In addition, I would think that such a change in the constitution would not be welcomed by international businesses, or perhaps even Hungarian businesses.
Finally, is the rest of the Fidesz leadership behind this proposal?
I have been on the fence regarding how dictatorial I felt OV is. Part of me considered that it might be a case of overreaching early on in this new government. But, the pattern is now very clear and this move would put the nail in the coffin.

Paul
Guest

So, what we all feared has begun.
And the propaganda continues – 53% of the vote equals a “two thirds revolution”.
I feared for Hungary, but hoped I was being pessimistic. Now I see what we’re really up against and I am very, very depressed.

OpenDog
Guest

According to Lázár (I hope I’m translating this right): The current powers of the Supreme Court (Constitutional Court) were necessary after the fall of the communism but they are unjustified now after the consolidation of democracy.
WTF? After we have all the rights we need nobody to protect them?

Rigó Jancsi
Guest

First a muzzle to the public media, then “borrowing” retirement payments, now demolishing the constitutional court. Are we in Europe? Or are those the inheritated characteristics of the horse people of the East, and we should call this country Orbanistan?

Mark
Guest

“And finally, Gyurcsány called for a joint demonstration of all democrats in defense of the constitutional court. LMP’s answer? They won’t demonstrate together with Gyurcsány and MSZP. They will hold a separate demonstration. I understand their reasoning.”
I’m not sure I do. Supporting people who defend democracy is not the same as endorsing their views on other issues, or as indicating approval of their personalities. I think LMP ought perhaps to listen to Benjamin Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Mark
Guest

OpenDog: “WTF? After we have all the rights we need nobody to protect them?”
FIDESZ hasn’t actually made too much of a secret of their attitude on this score. After all the “nation” needs no protection from its “natural” representatives, or its “wise leader”. Those who need their rights protecting are “Communists”, “traitors” or the “corrupt”, who are not part of the “nation” anyway.
I’m actually quite surprised that anyone is surprised. It has been pretty obvious that FIDESZ is not a normal, democratic right-wing party, but something much more unpleasant since 2002. There have been some absolute illusions and a lot of wishful thinking about FIDESZ, even among its own membership.

GW
Guest

Mark wrote:
“Supporting people who defend democracy is not the same as endorsing their views on other issues, or as indicating approval of their personalities.”
I agree with you, but unfortunately, my strong impression is that this is a far too subtle principle for the contemporary Hungarian political system in which, at least in the governing party, personality trumps all recognizable lines of policy and ideology.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Mark: “They [LMP] won’t demonstrate together with Gyurcsány and MSZP. They will hold a separate demonstration. I understand their reasoning.” I’m not sure I do.
I should have added “from their own point of view.” They are desperate to keep a separate profile, but I think that this strategy actually works against them. For example, by refusing to support an independent candidate for mayor in Budapest I think they lost a lot of their voters. By refusing to cooperate with other anti-Fidesz forces and putting up their own very weak candidate for mayor they actually helped Tarlós to win.

Paul
Guest

Éva – a quick off-topic request: Can you do a piece on the background to the Ágnes Geréb situation when you get a chance?
Thanks.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

To Mark and GW. There might be a change in Hungarian political behavior. I just read that MSZP and LMP will cooperate and will go together to Schmitt and ask for his help. That’s a good development although going to Schmitt is like writing a letter to Santa Claus.
One more observation. After seeing a few interviews, it looks to me that some people within Fidesz think that the Orbán-Lázár response to the decision of the constitutional court was a huge mistake. I saw an interview with Péter Harrach yesterday and this morning one with Gergely Gulyás. I got the distinct impression that there will be a debate about this within the party. Hard to say what the outcome of this debate will be because this was Orbán’s decision. He may again threaten them with his resignation if they refuse to accept his decision. Apparently that is what he did with the nomination of Schmitt.

Hank
Guest

Eva: “After seeing a few interviews, it looks to me that some people within Fidesz think that the Orbán-Lázár response to the decision of the constitutional court was a huge mistake.”
Let me add to this that there was even a critical editorial in Magyar Nemzet this morning, saying that this move might not be wise and democracy should be dear to all of us.
I agree that this is an interesting development, but I’m still not too optimistic about the possible outcome. Maybe there will be some superficial changes in their plans, but like I said before, OV and his clique are totally convinced they have a mandate for four years (at least) to do as they please, and in their view debate, dissent, democratic procedures, etc. are only distractions from their goal, i.e. the installation of their authoritarian System of National Cooperation.

Mark
Guest

Hank: “Maybe there will be some superficial changes in their plans, but like I said before, OV and his clique are totally convinced they have a mandate for four years (at least) to do as they please, and in their view debate, dissent, democratic procedures, etc.”
The interesting question though is whether that “clique” will continue to have the support of all the elements that make up FIDESZ-KDNP. Since its reconstitution as a broad “alliance” in 2004 it has been a potentially unstable construction. There is scope for attrition not only to the centre, but also to the right. If it starts to seriously fragment – though that is more likely to happen over the economy than this – then it will be the end of the road.

Gábor
Guest

Mark: “I’m actually quite surprised that anyone is surprised.”
At least I can report myself as not being surprised. Rather confirmed 🙂

Mark
Guest

Éva: “They are desperate to keep a separate profile, but I think that this strategy actually works against them.”
What I find most interesting is their failure to develop any really distinctive profile at all. This is not normally a problem for Green parties, with their mix of political ecology, libertarianism on social issues, and leftism on economic ones. And if they advocated this mix clearly they would look distinctive in Hungary. But their lack of any distinctive stance over Kolontár, which should have been a political gift for them, was amazing.
The other thing that puzzles me, when one compares LMP to its sisters in Germany or the UK is its lack of connection to residents’ associations, and local activism around support for small businesses (campaigns against new Tescos hypermarkets have been a very fruitful recruiting ground in the UK), planning issues, and environmental campaigns. It seems to almost lack a base in community campaigning at all.

Passing Stranger
Guest

Now it is my turn not to be surprised – LMP are basically a bunch of Budapest twentysomething intellectuals that hang around in Romkertek on friday nights. I couldn’t for a moment imagine any of them doing something so uncool as picketing a Tesco. And, or course, they would not be seen dead slushing through poisonous red mud wearing wellingtons.

Kevin Moore
Guest

Many Fidesz people disagree with this new move. Not because it is fair to steal public money in the form of severance pay, something the ‘socialists’ were doing all the time, but because this step against the Constitutional Court (with capital letters, dear Eva) makes a precedent where retroactive taxes may be imposed on anyone by any government in the future, without control.
The worst thing in this case is that the government’s new legislation could be easily amended to conform the Constitution. I think, in warm blood, the government picked the worse choice. Magyar Nemzet, the paper you label nothing more than a mouthpiece, of course goes against Lázár’s new move, as it is decent.
I hope the government reconsiders because this step is not even necessary to carry out their will, but damages their democratic reputation. (Not the non-existent reputation in your eyes: I’m talking about sane people who are no fans of Communist dictatorships.)

An
Guest

@Mark: “The other thing that puzzles me, when one compares LMP to its sisters in Germany or the UK is its lack of connection to residents’ associations, and local activism around support for small businesses (campaigns against new Tescos hypermarkets have been a very fruitful recruiting ground in the UK), planning issues, and environmental campaigns. It seems to almost lack a base in community campaigning at all.”
One reason for this would be the weakness of this type of local activism in Hungary. This is possibly the biggest weakness of democracy in Hungary: people tend to think that politics should be left to politicians and the parties and don’t recognize that they could have more influence on certain political/economic issues by organizing and supporting advocacy groups. Democracy could mean more than just casting your vote in every four years. I would guess it is a cultural/historical heritage: Hungarians tend to think that it is others’ (the state’s, the parties’, etc.) job to take care of them and they are reluctant to take the initiative.
We do take action when the stakes are really high, though…rebellion and revolution, yes, advocacy groups, local community activism.. not so much.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Kevin Moore: “. Magyar Nemzet, the paper you label nothing more than a mouthpiece, of course goes against Lázár’s new move”
Of couse, you must be kidding. Everybody is stunned because such thing almost never happens.

Kevin Moore
Guest

No matter how you try to disparage MN’s position on this topic, it still holds true that they disagree with Lázár’s move (as they also disagreed with sending troops to Iraq back then), going against Fidesz.

Paul Haynes
Guest

Kevin – so that’s two disagreements in, oh, how many years?

OpenDog
Guest

Well, Matild Torkos, who wrote the editorial, had another interesting piece 2 days ago:
http://www.mno.hu/portal/744417 (sorry, it is in Hungarian).
She was referring to the elections as “the so called 2/3 revolution”. Something’s up …

Passing Stranger
Guest

‘Government isn’t a team, but a loose confederacy of warring tribes’. I suppose this is true for Fidesz as well. I once met a MN journalist, who said he did not support Fidesz. He preferred Jobbik….

GW
Guest

Passing Stranger wrote:
“I once met a MN journalist, who said he did not support Fidesz. He preferred Jobbik….”
One of the real dangers here is that it opens up a big window for Jobbik to claim the democratic bona fides that it has long insisted it has and FIDESZ does not have.

Alias3T
Guest

Well, let see how Jobbik votes on the law first.
This is the first occasion on which there are signs that the Fidesz caucus’s voting discipline might break down. It would only take a handful of votes for Fidesz to be short of the two thirds.
If that happens, it’s extremely damaging to Orban’s authority – the spell will be broken.
The alternative is that it passes, but with Jobbik votes (though it looks like they’ll vote against). That’s arguably worse, because it makes Orban look dependent on Jobbik.

Paul Haynes
Guest

Imagine Vona retiring to his secret den, genuflecting before his life-sized portrait of Hitler, and crying out “that bastard Orbán has beaten us to it!”.
Well, it cheered me up for a few minutes…

whoever
Guest

‘LMP are basically a bunch of Budapest twentysomething intellectuals that hang around in Romkertek on friday nights.’
This is true enough to make me laugh a bit, but it doesn’t alter the fact that for many people LMP were the only ‘quasi-acceptable’ alternative on the ballot sheet this year, and for that they deserve a bit of recognition for their services to democracy, however grudging or qualified. We shouldn’t put them on a pedestal, but many of the LMP are in the unique situation of actually being able to be something other than being politicians, which is not something you could say about the majority of the MSZP or Fidesz, for example. For all the frustation they provide, you’d have to say the LMP are a Good Thing, albeit a Good Thing only in the context of Hungarian politics in 2010.

Joe Simon
Guest

‘Road to Dictatorship’. This clearly is an
overreaction. Let us put this in a perspective. In Canada recently the conservative government ‘prorogued’ the
Parliament, governing without it so as to
avoid being defeated. The head of state,
a patsy Eva would say, duly signed the order. In the US there is a surge of the
extreme right. They want to abolish even the modest public health program that Obama initiated. Is this not like Nero playing the violin while Rome was burning?
Yes we should be on guard for democracy in Hungary but this ‘Road to Dictatorship’ is
really a hysterical approach, peevish and
somewhat petulant. Eva should be on the barricades fighting the Tea Party and other
extremists in her own backyard if democracy is dear to her heart. Orban wants to be a forceful leader. Obama should follow his example.

An
Guest

@Joe Simon: You should read Eva’s blogs more carefully… I think Orban gets some of his ideas straight from Fox News 🙂 And some from the worst of the Kadar regime… a really bad combination of populist right and left wing ideas. Right: the role of religion, nationalism, left: the supremacy of state over the individual, anti-capitalism. And the emphasis is on “populist”.
Yes, he wants to be a strong leader, but with a total disrespect for democratic principles. Strong leaders don’t necessarily have to be anti-democratic.

Paul
Guest

Interesting as Joe’s post is, there is no logic at all in the argument (which I assume he is putting forward) that because there was ‘undemocratic’ behaviour in Canada and there are right-wing nutters in the USA, OV is NOT on the road to dictatorship in Hungary.
OV and Fidesz should be judged on the basis of what they are doing in Hungary, not on what might or might not be going on elsewhere. And, on that basis, democracy looks quite severely under threat in Hungary.
And they’ve barely started yet.

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