László Sólyom, former president of the republic, principal author of the 1989 constitution, and the first chief justice of the constitutional court, finds his life’s work in ruins. The constitution he was so proud of has been mutilated several times in the last year and a half, the constitutional court he presided over has become a shadow of its former self, and he was forced to leave the office of the presidency as ignominiously as he was elected to it.
Here is a much younger Sólyom at the time of the drafting of the 1989 constitution. On the right there is an also much younger “hippie” László Kövér.
Yet I feel little pity for the man because during his five years as president of the republic he showed not only political ineptitude but also blatant political bias in favor Viktor Orbán and his party. Now he can see what his favorite student is doing to Hungarian democracy and the rule of law.
Immediately after it became evident that Viktor Orbán didn’t want to see Sólyom as his president, Sólyom retired from the political scene. His only concern was the choice of a house the state was planning to buy for the former president. But eventually he made a few cautious remarks in defense of the constitution. As time went by, his voice grew louder and louder. This Friday, before an audience of history teachers, he unleashed his harshest criticism of the Orbán government’s trampling on the constitutional court and on the shortcomings of the new constitution. At last László Sólyom openly declared that the new Hungarian regime that was created by the “revolution at the polls” is no longer a constitutional state because the constitutional court’s prerogatives were so curtailed that there are areas in which the government’s powers are no longer limited.
If I had been László Sólyom, I wouldn’t have accepted the nomination for the presidency in the first place. I have no room here to go into the details of the whole shameful procedure, but the Fidesz leadership wasn’t at all sure that Sólyom would win the third time around when 50% of the votes is enough to elect a president. Voting for the president is by secret ballot, but in order to be sure of the outcome János Áder, in those days leader of the Fidesz caucus, personally checked each ballot. In fact, he sent back one Fidesz member who “made a mistake” to recast his ballot. However, it seems that Sólyom wanted to be president so badly that such illegality didn’t bother the legal scholar and the guardian of constitutionality.
But perhaps I’m too biased. Let’s see how the Americans regarded Sólyom at the end of 2008. The cable sent to Washington about László Sólyom was entitled “President Sólyom’s injudicious activism.” Good beginning, isn’t it. His supporters called him “principled” while his critics referred to him as “pedantic.” The Americans were not fans: “his minimal experience in economics and international affairs [is] combined with his personal animus toward the Prime Minister.” In addition, he was incapable of political compromise. He was described as “both myopic and politically tone-deaf.”
The friction between the prime minister and the president interfered with cooperation between the president’s office and the government bureaucracy. Ministry officials who tried to brief the president were often rebuffed, even on economic and foreign policy issues where Sólyom lacked experience. Yet, despite his inexperience he held strong opinions on these matters. For example, the president’s office declined to be briefed by the U.S. Embassy on Kosovo before Sólyom’s 2006 trip to Serbia. When the Americans mentioned their experience with Sólyom’s office they were told: “don’t feel bad–they’re not interested in hearing about Hungarian policy either.” And indeed, Sólyom made frequent visits to neighboring countries without previous consultation with the Foreign Ministry. The Hungarian diplomats never knew what the president would say the next time he was in Romania or in Slovakia. That went on until one day Slovakia got tired of President Sólyom’s “non-official” visits.
Fidesz was not altogether happy with Sólyom in spite of Sólyom’s obvious preference for Viktor Orbán and his party. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying to please Orbán and the Fidesz leadership. He was elated at the strong showing of Fidesz at the 2010 elections. He gushed about the happy moment that had arrived. He hoped until the bitter end that Fidesz would accept him for another five years. But by late May one of the Fidesz luminaries, Zoltán Pokorni, announced in an interview that Sólyom can say goodbye to Sándor Palace. Sólyom later claimed that he was officially informed only on June 18, the day before Orbán and his family went on a short holiday to Bulgaria, that his services will not be required after August 5.
Interestingly enough, in the middle of a Fidesz attempt to topple the democratically elected government with the help of the rabble in September 2006, Sólyom talked about a moral crisis and intimated that Gyurcsány’s resignation would be in order. Yet Gyurcsány didn’t establish a regime that was “not constitutional” or that was “undemocratic.” Perhaps if Sólyom is so concerned with constitutionality, as he claims to be, he should use his authority and international connections to call attention to what’s going on in Hungary. He shouldn’t express his misgivings merely in front of a bunch of history teachers. If he doesn’t condemn the Orbán government for its undemocratic policies, he will never be able to clear his name as being one of those who during his five years in office assisted the rise of a party that is in the process of dismantling the very foundations of the young Hungarian democracy. It is time to say something to the world, not just to history teachers.