We’ve already had several instances of Lex This and Lex That when a piece of legislation was specifically written to suit one person. The first such Lex was Lex Szapáry named for György Szapáry, the current Hungarian ambassador to Washington. The law in force at the time stated that the compulsory retirement age for diplomats was 70, but Viktor Orbán’s choice for the Washington post was seventy-two. No problem. The law was changed and Szapáry duly appointed. Or, there was a new, Fidesz-introduced rule that former members of the armed forces cannot play any political role for five years after leaving the army or the police force. But the lawmakers as usual were in too much of a hurry and didn’t realize that an important Fidesz member of parliament had left the army only three years earlier. Oops! No problem, let’s change the law. And they lowered the cut-off point to three years.
Now we have a new law dealing with parliamentary rules. The parliament functioned quite well for twenty-two years with the old rules. But Fidesz insists on changing everything they can lay their hands on. It would have been logical to make the changes at the end of the session, during the summer recess. But then, they couldn’t have prevented Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), from forming a parliamentary caucus, called “frakció” in Hungarian.
According to some legal opinions, for example that of Vera Lánczos in an article on Galamus last November, DK was illegally prevented from forming a caucus already last October. I don’t want to go into all the legal pettifoggery that went on, but the DK members’ request for a caucus of their own was denied on the alleged difference between the meaning of two words: “kilép” and “kiválik.” Here are the English equivalents from the Hungarian-English dictionary: kilép = resign, leave, quit; kiválik = leave, separate, quit, part from. Hard to find a significant difference between the two. The upshot of the legal wrangling was that DK members couldn’t form a caucus then, but–as the house rule then in effect stated–they will be able to do so after sitting as independents for six months. The six months will be up in April. So, that’s why the rush to come up with new house rules.
Then there are financial considerations. A caucus can spend 5.8 million forints on the everyday running of business; in addition it receives a fairly large subsidy based on the number of MPs. In the case of DK that would be 95 million forints this year. Next year the amount would be even larger; under the more generous new rules DK would receive 117 million forints. So, if DK is not allowed to form an official parliamentary group, it will be deprived of about 200 million forints between now and the 2014 elections.What are the advantages of being able to form such a caucus? More than we might think. Independent members don’t have the right to speak before the scheduled agenda of the day (napirend előtti felszólalás). Neither do they have the right to respond to speeches delivered before the official agenda. They have only limited access to interpellation, that is questioning members of the government on specific issues. Officially recognized caucuses have the right to one interpellation at every plenary session while the independents’ right is restricted by their number. In the current session that would mean that DK members could interpellate only three times in this current session of parliament. Membership on parliamentary committees is also limited for the independent members. According to the current parliamentary rules every parliamentary caucus must be represented on all committees. Currently there are twenty committees. Thus if DK could establish a caucus, each DK member could serve on two committees. An independent, by contrast, can serve on only one committee, and even that is not compulsory. For example, Ferenc Gyurcsány is not a member of any committee. I’m sure that is not a coincidence.
The new set of house rules, 120 pages in length, is the result of hard work that most likely began immediately after the issue of Gurcsány and the nine other MSZP parliamentarians who left the party came up. That is clear from László Kövér’s immediate reaction to the question. Within days, he announced that he was against the formation of new caucuses by members of parliament who had been originally elected as members of another party. Thus an MSZP member of parliament must sit with MSZP and vote according to MSZP dictates even if, despite the changed circumstances, his conscience dictates otherwise. The framers of the current house rules, on the other hand, emphasized the right of an MP to change affiliation because otherwise the political structure becomes solidified. It goes against democratic principles and the free will of an MP to act according to his conscience.
So, what is DK doing about it? A couple of days ago Ágnes Vadai, one of the ten DK parliamentary members, asked the Christian Democrats (KDNP) to support DK in their struggle to form a caucus. After all, argued Vadai, KDNP has a separate caucus although it didn’t enter the race as a separate party. The KDNP answer was, I think correctly, that their situation cannot be compared to DK because KDNP was on the ballot in a hyphenated form: Fidesz-KDNP. Mind you, KDNP’s support cannot even be measured by the pollsters.
This law as it affects DK is certainly retroactive and therefore unconstitutional. DK can turn to international forums, but by the time there is any resolution of the issue a new election campaign season might be in full swing. Although according to some polls DK already has enough support to have parliamentary representation, that calculation is based on the old electoral law. Under the new, more Fidesz-friendly one their fate is less secure. The electoral law will most likely be attacked by international forums as ten other cardinal laws have already been, but we cannot know how much Fidesz will see fit to change.
Everything is in flux, including the negotiations with the IMF. Meanwhile the Hungarian people are in a deep slumber. In Esztergom, an important referendum was not valid because only 35% of the population bothered to vote instead of the necessary 50%. Mind you, those who did vote supported the beleaguered independent mayor of Esztergom, Éva Tétényi.
Let me add a conversation I came across this morning. A reporter was talking to demonstrators at the March 15 gathering in support of Viktor Orbán and his government. The man who was interviewed is not educated as is clear from his grammar. The demonstrator: “We are dissatisfied too, because those who were poor is even poorer now, the rich richer. So, in our opinion this change didn’t bring anything good. This is how we feel.” The reporter: “Then are you for or against the government?” The demonstrator: “We are for the government, but we don’t agree with it.”
Now, you can laugh or cry.