The day after the news broke that János Lázár decided to disregard the thumbs-down decision of the constitutional court re the whopping 92% tax levied on amounts over two million forints received as either severence pay or as a retirement package Zsófia Mihancsik, a liberal journalist and editor-in-chief of Galamus, was taken aback that the constitutional court was silent. Most of the time I agree with Zsófia Mihancsik whom I consider one of the most democratically minded, talented and brave journalists in Hungary, but this time I thought that the constitutional court made the right decision. It is better to wait and see what the reaction is. Moreover, although I can't peer into the heads of the judges, somehow I don't think that they expected such a reaction from the government. So, they had to sit down and calmly assess the situation and only then come out with a dignified and well thought out statement. I think they managed to do that.
Before I translate part of the court's statement, let me say a few things about what we are learning about the background of the government's decision. According to some analysts the idea of the 92% surtax was hatched sometime during the summer. At roughly the same time Lajos Kósa–who by the way talks too much although not always in a coherent fashion–said something about temporary constitutional restraints concerning the economy. Some people consider that a sign that there were talks about coming up with such a tax and that the legally trained Fidesz leaders already knew that it would not float in the constitutional court. Hence the Kósa's reference to constitutional restraints on economic issues.
Yesterday Viktor Orbán's personal spokesman Péter Szijjártó tried to make a big deal out of this issue even though there were relatively few people who received substantial benefit packages. Why risk a confrontation with the constitutional court over a rather small amount of money which could easily be handled through the courts on an individual basis? This morning I heard an explanation that sounded logical to me. The Orbán government is planning to fire about 5% of the civil servants. Here the amount of money the government would have to pay by way of compensation would be considerable. They already took one step to reduce the rights of workers. Earlier a civil servant couldn't be let go without reason, but in the first days of the Orbán administration a law was passed that now allows the firing of civil servants without any justification and with only two months' notice. However, these people may be entitled to fairly large severance packages, and when we are talking about thousands and thousands of people the amount the government would have to dole out would be significant. Most likely that's why the government is so desperate to have this legislation passed that it is even willing to have a huge fight with the constitutional court.
As for who knew and who didn't know about the decision. Origo, the Internet paper, has very good connections with high-level Fidesz politicians who are ready to talk. Its journalists seem to know that the Fidesz answer to the constitutional court was Orbán's decision and most likely it was not discussed with too many people. We already know from Péter Harrach (KDNP) that he as head of the Christian Democratic caucus was not consulted. The Christian Democratic chief and deputy prime minister, Zsolt Semjén, also knew nothing about it. Since then in fact Harrach expressed his hope that the bill that was deemed unconstitutional can be modified.
But it seems that even Tibor Navracsics, the more important deputy prime minister of the two, wasn't privy to the decision. According to Origo's informant, Navracsics doesn't like "solutions that can be assailed on constitutional grounds." According to another informant who is a member of the party's top decision-making body, the presidium, there is the likelihood that they will change the bill in such a way that it may pass muster with the constitutional court the second time around.
Meanwhile the opposition is organizing but in typical fashion they cannot put aside their differences. András Schiffer, the leader of the parliamentary delegation of LMP, in an interview with Olga Kálmán that is already available in transcription verbally abused Ferenc Gyurcsány. I understand that László Sólyom had an aversion to Gyurcsány and that András Schiffer has a very close relationship with the former president, but sometimes it's prudent to follow the proverb that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Well, the upshot of it is that LMP refuses to march together with the Hungarian Democratic Charta and Gyurcsány's new Democratic Coalition. They will march alone. I don't want to be a Cassandra but the last time LMP refused to cooperate with MSZP at the Budapest local elections LMP did very poorly. They lost about half of their voters. As it stands now the Democratic Charta will demonstrate on November 2 at 5 p.m. in front of the statue of Imre Nagy. As far as I know Gyurcsány will be one of the speakers. MSZP leaders will also attend, but the party has more grandiose goals and is planning a nationwide demonstration for November 27.
And now, at last, is the constitutional court's statement. András Sereg, the head of the press department of the court, stated that "the preservation of the unaltered legal competence of the Constitutional Court is the guarantee of the Hungarian constitutional order. The Hungarian court's practice of constitutional control of legislation agrees fully with that of other European constitutional courts. There are two requirements the court must keep in mind. The control must be applied to all pieces of legislation equally and those it deems unconstitutional are declared null and void."
As for changing the competence of the court, the institution "would like to call the attention of the government to the fact that the legislative body must consider the possibility of control emanating from the Court of the European Union and the Court of Human Rights on issues that it now wants to take away from the Constitutional Court." This is a court where the great majority of the judges is not antagonistic to Fidesz. To the contrary. Therefore I wouldn't advise Viktor Orbán to antagonize them. It would be bad strategy.