A few days ago Viktor Orbán delivered a speech commemorating the 145th anniversary of the establishment of Hungary’s modern prosecutorial system in 1871. In 1991, on the 120th anniversary of the occasion, at the suggestion of Kálmán Györgyi, chief prosecutor at the time, the decision was made to celebrate the event every year. As part of the observance, prosecutors whose work merits special recognition receive the Sándor Kozma Prize. Kozma was the first royal chief prosecutor of Hungary between 1871 and 1896.
Until 1990 the prosecutor’s office was subordinated to the ministry of justice, as is the case in most European countries. After the change of regime, however, in an attempt to stave off undue state power over the judiciary, the new constitution declared the prosecutorial structure independent of the government. The result, even before the arrival of Peter Polt as chief prosecutor in 2000, was problematic. “Independence” in reality meant “responsible to no one.” A state within the state. At one point, during the first Orbán administration, Minister of Justice Ibolya Dávid did attempt to end the independence of the prosecutorial system and place it under her ministry, but because of the opposition’s objections the idea was dropped.
The last time that Orbán appeared at this festive occasion and delivered a speech was in 2012. At that time his message centered on the relationship between the government and the prosecution. He argued against an artificially forced distance between the two. This year he lauded the present system of prosecutorial independence, although he had to admit, most likely because Kálmán Györgyi was in the audience, that earlier he had argued rather vehemently with the former chief prosecutor in favor of placing the prosecution under the government. Now, however, he seems to be satisfied with the current arrangement. He had to admit, he said, that Györgyi was right. Of course. The pseudo-independence the prosecutorial hierarchy suits Viktor Orbán perfectly.
After a few more or less incomprehensible sentences, the prime minister came to the defense of the prosecutors under the leadership of Péter Polt. Opposition politicians consider Péter Polt the kingpin who keeps Viktor Orbán’s corrupt government in power, and they are openly asking for his resignation. They promise him jail time once Viktor Orbán is gone. So, the prime minister wanted show his support. He blamed these attacks on the prosecutor’s office on the West, where such openly critical remarks from politicians against the courts and the prosecution are commonplace. “This is one of the less desirable results of our membership in the European Union.” Naturally, Orbán encouraged them to forge ahead and do their work to the best of their ability, listening only to their own consciences.
It was at that point that he came to his core message, which some people, like András Bruck, consider to be “the most frightening speech of [Orbán’s] life.” In his view, ever since World War II, when we talked about “competitiveness” we were thinking of economic growth. The most successful nations were the ones that could provide the most prosperity for their citizens. But now Viktor Orbán believes that in the next two decades there will be a distinct change: the most successful countries will be the ones that will be able to create “order, legality, and orderliness.” How these conditions will help Hungary in the “race against time” is not clear to me.
Although the connection between order and competitiveness may be fuzzy, Orbán’s discussion of party politics and the question of order, legality, and orderliness is unfortunately crystal clear. His argument goes something like this. In the post-war developed world the most important legitimizing factor was the state of the economy. Right-of-center and left-of-center came and went, but “they all remained within the system, within the elite, within the same cultural milieu.” They were all thinking about the world in a similar way. Parties that were thinking in a novel way couldn’t enter the political structure. It was “a stable system, which will now change.” Over the past sixty years people accepted the same basic political structure because, with only few exceptions, governments were able to provide greater prosperity. “This era, ladies and gentlemen and deeply honored chief prosecutor, is over.”
If we take these sentences at face value, as András Bruck did, one could conclude that “Orbán in essence acknowledged that Hungary is not only unable to create prosperity and social security for its citizens but doesn’t even want to.” But, as usual, Viktor Orbán is never that straightforward. He can’t possibly abandon his habit of double-talk. It is true, he continued, that the European Union will be unable to provide sustained prosperity for its citizens, but this prediction is not true for all EU countries. There will be exceptions. “Thank God, we Central Europeans are not doomed to the fate outlined above because Central Europe’s economic growth surpasses that of the European Union.” Unless the leaders of the region do something very stupid, there will be continued growth in this part of the world for the next 10-15 years. So, in Central Europe the legitimating force of economic success, unlike in the West, will remain. In addition, of course, to the new organizing principles of order, legality, and orderliness.
Hungary will be doubly blessed. One blessing is that Hungary, just like all other European countries, will be led by governments and/or parties that in no way resemble the traditional governments/parties we have been used to in democratic countries. Given the Hungarian prime minister’s political philosophy, he is almost certainly talking about those right-wing, even extremist, new formations in Western Europe whose leaders are such enthusiastic supporters of Viktor Orbán. These parties and the governments they form will then enforce law and order with the assistance of the “independent” prosecution, the police, and perhaps even the army. A frightening prospect, if he is allowed to make good on it. It is up to the Hungarian people to make sure that he doesn’t have the opportunity to make his dreams even more of a reality than they already are.