Tag Archives: constitutional amendments

Vona, under vicious attack, may yet outfox Orbán

Viktor Orbán is bent on the destruction of Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, and with him the whole party. I know it was only two weeks ago that I wrote a post titled “Power struggle on the Hungarian right?” but I think that recent political developments warrant a second look.

By now I believe that this struggle is more than a turf war between two right-wing parties. Since Jobbik succeeded in foiling Viktor Orbán’s plan to amend the constitution, Fidesz has put Jobbik and its chairman squarely into the enemy camp, along with the parties on the left. Before the confrontation over the amendments Viktor Orbán viewed Jobbik not only as his competition on the right but also as an ally on whom he could call in time of need. Therefore, Fidesz criticism of Jobbik was always muted. But by now these relatively amicable relations have frayed to such an extent that Lajos Kósa, head of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation, declared two days ago that even Ferenc Gyurcsány was a more decent politician than Gábor Vona. In Fidesz vocabulary one cannot find a more damning description of a political opponent.

Viktor Orbán has come to realize that Jobbik is behaving like a full-fledged opposition party, which from the look of things seems to have surprised him. And he is hitting back hard, which makes the Jobbik leadership fight back even harder. The result is that there are more and more signs of a commonality of interests among all opposition parties. For the time being both sides deny that they have any plans for even limited cooperation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they changed their minds in the not too distant future. Because, let’s face it, without some cooperation between the left- and right-wing opposition parties Viktor Orbán cannot be unseated in 2018. In fact, if nothing changes, Orbán might die in office. After all, he is only 55 years old.

Viktor Orbán, who had taken Jobbik for granted, feels double-crossed. And we know that in such circumstances Orbán goes into attack mode. The first move was to launch a media campaign against Jobbik. The Fidesz propaganda machine dredged up all of Jobbik’s past sins, real and invented. Ripost.hu found “shocking evidence” that Jobbik is behind the murder of a policeman by an armed right-winger, which is a fabrication. On the other hand, Jobbik does have plenty to hide, including murky relations with Russia and contacts with far-right organizations in Hungary. The Hungarian security offices surely have plenty of incriminating evidence, including photos. Some of this material is being given to Fidesz-friendly media outlets to embarrass the party.

But everywhere they turn they encounter common skeletons in the closet. Ripost.hu made a big deal of the fact that Adrien Szaniszló, who works for Jobbik’s “foreign affairs cabinet,” was born in Moscow, which seems to be an indelible stain on one’s pedigree. The problem is that she is the daughter of Ferenc Szaniszló, a controversial commentator on the right-wing Echo TV, whose high decoration from Zoltán Balog a few years back was greeted with such an outcry that Balog had to ask Szaniszló to return the award. As for Adrien Szaniszló birthplace, it is something she couldn’t help. Her father was Magyar Televízió’s correspondent in Moscow.

It seems that the propaganda ministry didn’t think that warming up these old stories had been effective enough. So they recycled Terry Black’s 2013 story of Vona’s alleged homosexuality. Such stories make a huge splash in Hungary. In 2015 Klára Ungár, a former SZDSZ member of parliament who is openly gay, wrote on her Facebook page: “Viktor blabbers about those members of the gay community who do not provoke and explains why this is a good thing. What do Máté Kocsis and Szájer say to that? Surely they agree and that’s why they are hiding.” Viktor’s blabbering refers to a speech he gave in which he explained that one can live peacefully with gays as long as they don’t make too much noise. He added that gays are different, and therefore they don’t deserve the same rights as heterosexuals. He was referring to the marriage of same sex couples. That’s what got Ungár’s goat. Szájer had the good sense to remain quiet, but Kocsis sued Ungár and lost the case on appeal.

Fidesz was in an uproar over Ungár’s accusations and made a big deal about the immorality of resorting to such methods in order to discredit someone. But now that the government and its servile media are doing the same thing, Fidesz leaders no longer have such compunctions. In fact, Ungár’s little note on Facebook cannot be compared to the onslaught against Vona. I have no idea how successful the smear campaign will be, but the pro-Fidesz media is convinced that it’s working. For example, Ripost.hu claims that Vona finds this accusation so damaging that Jobbik created a special “crisis center” to handle the fallout. It’s no wonder, Riport.hu continues, since in the past Jobbik was a homophobic party that “on several occasions sharply condemned any homosexual relations and, in fact, demanded harsher penalties than are in the existing criminal code.”

I don’t know about the crisis center, but Vona’s wife posted an open letter to Anikó Lévai, wife of Viktor Orbán, asking her to intercede with her husband to put an end to these ad hominem attacks on her husband. She understands that there is “confusion, resentfulness, and vindictiveness” because of the failed constitutional amendments, but political fights should remain within the realm of politics. “I suspect that you are the last person he perhaps still listens to.” To which the website Kolozsvári Szalonna responded: “I want to warn you not to expect miracles from Anikó Lévai, who has as much say in this affair as in her own shitty little life.”

Gábor Vona and his wife, Krisztina Szabó

Gábor Vona and his wife, Krisztina Szabó

If Magyar Nemzet’s information is correct, Gábor Vona is not retreating. In fact, he is ready for a second round with Viktor Orbán. Fidesz already announced that it is abandoning the constitutional amendments and that by the end of the year the sale of residency bonds will also come to an end. Apparently, Jobbik is planning to resubmit the Fidesz bill on the amendments as its own. Only half a sentence will be added to the original text: “settlement requests for financial compensation” cannot be considered.

Such a move would put Viktor Orbán in a very awkward situation. I assume he would not agree to allow Jobbik’s, or any other opposition party’s, bill to reach the floor. Every proposed bill first has to go to committee, where it will probably die. But how will Viktor Orbán explain that his precious bill is not important enough to be discussed and voted on? Even the extra half sentence should be acceptable to Fidesz because the government has already decided to stop the sale of residency bonds. So why should it be dead on arrival?

This is shaping up to be the third major political embarrassment for the infallible political genius. Gábor Vona is obviously a talented politician who has managed to do something no other opposition party has: score a major victory over Viktor Orbán’s government not just once but perhaps twice.

And that’s not all. Vona seems to have something else up his sleeve. In connection with the clearly dirty business of residency bonds the opposition parties suggested setting up a special parliamentary committee to investigate the matter. Naturally, the Fidesz majority voted the proposal down. Jobbik called a meeting of opposition parties, to which representatives of LMP, Együtt, and the Liberals showed up. They decided that the four parties should form an extra-parliamentary “shadow committee” to investigate the affairs of Antal Rogán’s off-shore middlemen active in the residency bond business. The parties’ bigwigs still have to give their blessing to the idea, but the comments of LMP’s Bernadett Szél were promising. In her opinion, alternative political instruments are necessary because no meaningful work can take place in the Fidesz-ruled parliament. Such an extra-parliamentary body can be as effective as an official one, she said.

The work of a shadow committee might have an invigorating effect on the opposition. I must say that I find the idea attractive.

November 12, 2016

Domestic retreat and preparation for a battle with Brussels

After spending two days away from the Hungarian scene it is time to return. In government circles the rejoicing over Donald Trump’s election continues unabated. Trump’s victory seems to have energized Viktor Orbán for his renewed fight against the European Union. His preparation for the next battle comes, however, after a number of serious domestic political setbacks. The biggest blow was parliament’s failure to pass the constitutional amendments designed at least in part to strengthen his hand in his negotiations with Brussels.

For a day or so there was talk of dragging the amendments back to parliament for another try, but as of yesterday the government seems to have decided to abandon them. János Lázár, at his Thursday afternoon press conference, made that announcement, adding that unfortunately the opposition parties for selfish political reasons had turned against their own country. Századvég, the government’s servile pollster, promptly published a new poll showing that 85% of Hungarians find it dangerous that the opposition prevented the passage of the constitutional amendments.

Despite this setback, Lázár assured the country that the government will fight to the end to save Hungary from foreign hordes. Of course, if the government doesn’t succeed in Brussels, the fault will lie with the unpatriotic left and right opposition parties. Viktor Orbán’s ire is especially directed against Jobbik. He has always accused the parties on the left of being the agents of Brussels, but by now he has come to realize that “Jobbik is also on the side of Brussels.” Jobbik no longer represents the interests of the Hungarian people. Instead, “they represent the point of view of Brussels in Hungarian politics.” The attacks on Jobbik and in particular on Gábor Vona have intensified in the last few days. It seems that Viktor Orbán’s hatred of Jobbik and its leader at the moment surpasses his hatred of the democratic opposition.

Yet at the same press conference Lázár announced the government’s decision to put an end to the “residency bonds” after all. It was this bond program that prompted Jobbik not to vote in favor of the amendments. This decision doesn’t seem to be tied to a possible future vote on the constitutional amendments. Instead, it looks as if the government is trying to find existing provisions in the constitution to justify the prohibition of foreign populaces’ settlement on Hungarian soil. The scandals that have surrounded the sale of these residency bonds, quite independently from the program’s being exploited by Jobbik for its own political purposes, were becoming a burden on the Orbán government. Giving up these bonds is most likely a painful sacrifice for both the government and the intermediaries who have made a killing on them. The government will be deprived of huge amounts of instant cash which is sorely needed, especially since right now practically no money is coming from Brussels.

The government also had to retreat on the issue of Ghaith Pharaon’s visa. He is the man who has been on both the FBI’s and Interpol’s list of criminals who are being sought. Pharaon in the last few months has been buying up valuable pieces of real estate in Hungary and has close working relations with Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law. At the beginning of this scandal Viktor Orbán in parliament called the American charges against Pharaon “a game of the U.S. secret services,” but, after a lot of contradictory statements, Lázár at last announced that as of November 1 Pharaon has no Hungarian visa and therefore cannot legally enter the country.

Today came another setback for the government. You may recall that I wrote a post in October about government plans for a system of what I called Fidesz party courts. These courts would have functioned under an entirely separate judicial system that would have dealt exclusively with matters pertaining to the various branches of the administration. It was especially worrisome that half of the judges assigned to these courts would have been people who had had at least ten years of experience in public service, which would have made their judicial independence highly questionable.

The reaction to the announcement about the planned administrative courts was one of outrage among the judges and in the public at large. Even Tünde Handó, head of the Országos Bírósági Hivatal, a close friend of the Orbán and the wife of József Szájer, Fidesz MEP in Brussels, objected. However, László Trócsányi, minister of justice, continued to press for a separate administrative court system. Eventually, even Tünde Handó, who had written a 32-page objection to the plan, was forced to half-heartedly support some of the new law’s proposals. Well, today the same Tünde Handó, to everybody’s great surprise, announced on Inforádió’s Aréna program that no changes will be made to the present judiciary system. She repeated her belief that there are enough judges in the present system who can handle cases connected with the state administration. We don’t yet know what made Trócsányi retreat from his forceful insistence on the scheme. At the time of the controversy, he claimed that he had been working on this “reform” ever since he became minister of justice in 2014. Giving up so easily strikes me as odd. Perhaps Fidesz didn’t have enough votes to pass it.

In the face of these retreats the government consoled itself with the wonderful news of Donald Trump’s election. Here are a couple of typical expressions of delight on the part of Viktor Orbán, the only prime minister in the European Union who believes we are seeing the beginning of “a better future for the world with the new president.” Brexit “was the knocking on the door of this new era, but now we have stepped over its threshold.” The future will be bright because “the days of liberal non-democracy are coming to an end and we can return to real democracy.” Orbán seems to define “real democracy” as a political system in which “we can return to straight, honest talk freed of the paralyzing constraints of political correctness.” We have seen what Fidesz means by “straight and honest talk” in the last 14 years if not longer. And we can admire what straight and honest talk produced in the United States during this dreadful year of campaigning.

self-confidence

Finally, I should say something about a special meeting of the 28 EU foreign ministers called together by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister for the coming Sunday. The foreign ministers at their regular session on Monday will be discussing the situation in Turkey. The special meeting is supposed “to assess the implications of Donald Trump’s victory as America’s allies brace for the unknown.” I heard a fleeting remark on Klubrádió (but can’t find written confirmation of it) that the Hungarian foreign minister, István Szijjártó, will not attend the special meeting. Perhaps an undersecretary will represent Hungary. If this is true, the Orbán government would be making a statement about its own divergent opinion of the result of the U.S. election.

The Hungarian government is not at all worried. On the contrary, Viktor Orbán and his minions are looking forward to a wonderful new world. He heads the list of “Europe’s extreme right leaders [who] revel in Trump’s victory.” Euractiv.com puts him in the company of Nigel Farage of Britain’s UKIP, Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Beatrix von Storch of Germany’s AfD, Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom party, Tom Van Grieken of Vlaams Belang (Belgium’s far-right Flemish separatist party), Nikolaos Michaloliakos of Greece’s Golden Dawn party, and Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front. Among these politicians Orbán is the only one who is not the leader of a saber-rattling far-right opposition party but is the prime minister of a country that is a member of the European Union. Ah, but just wait, he would say. The dominoes are falling.

November 11, 2016

The constitutional amendments failed: Another blow to Orbán

As soon as I turned my computer on this morning, a desk-top notification from a Hungarian internet news site informed me that the vote on Viktor Orbán’s amendments to the constitution had failed. He needed 133 votes and came up two short. Those opposition parties that have recognized delegations abstained, and three of the ten independent members voted “no.” I must admit I was surprised because, in the last few days when I repeatedly heard from Fidesz politicians that they would go ahead with the vote on November 8 as planned, I was certain that Viktor Orbán had already secured the two extra votes necessary for another Fidesz parliamentary success.

I was even more surprised when I read the article, which claimed that this defeat was actually a great victory for Viktor Orbán in the long run. And it wasn’t only this media outlet that seemed to be convinced that no matter what happens, Fidesz always wins. But that’s just not the case. It’s high time to abandon this increasingly unfounded assumption. Over the last few months Viktor Orbán’s strategy has suffered several serious setbacks. This last one is perhaps the worst.

All along Orbán had argued that his government needs a valid referendum, which would strengthen his position in his negotiations with Brussels. If the European Union is confronted with the fact that more than 50% of the Hungarian electorate stands fast behind him, he will have a much easier time defending Hungary’s strongly anti-migrant position in the European Council. But the referendum was not valid. Far from it. The opposition parties’ call for a boycott was effective. Only 39% of the electorate showed up. Admittedly, 98% of those who went to the polls supported Orbán’s purposely misleading and meaningless question. No, they didn’t want to have compulsory quotas unless parliament approves them. Who could say “yes” to that? Not too many people.

Orbán and his closest associates who gathered after the result became known looked as if they were attending a funeral. But by the next day Orbán was ready to give a positive spin to the outcome. The overwhelming number of “no” votes proves that his support is larger than ever before. In 2014, 2.2 million people voted for Fidesz, but 3.3 million people supported Fidesz’s referendum. A new unity, he said, has emerged behind his party. This large mandate means that the government party can amend the constitution regardless of its failure to secure a valid referendum.

But the failure of the referendum undercut Viktor Orbán’s clout in the European Union’s community. Many EU officials and members of the European Parliament expressed their relief that the referendum was not valid. The Hungarian people are wiser than their government, Martin Schulz said.

Then came the proposed amendments. Some people judged them to be totally unnecessary and meaningless. Others believed that certain sections of the amendments might be useful in attacking the very constitution of the European Union.

Initially, passing the proposed amendments seemed foolproof. The government assumed it would have the support of Jobbik, the party that used to be a radical right party but by now is practically indistinguishable from Fidesz. Jobbik supported the referendum because its followers are against immigration at least as much as, if not more than, Fidesz voters. But the Jobbik leadership saw an opportunity. Since Fidesz needed the Jobbik votes in parliament, the party decided to demand a price for its support: the immediate cessation of the sale of so-called residency bonds. The program is a fantastic deal for those who have 300 million euros to purchase a five-year bond in exchange for a residency permit and free movement within the European Union. And a good deal as well for those who benefit from the corruption that permeates the program.

Some politicians on the left were convinced that Gábor Vona either didn’t issue an ultimatum or that, if he did, he wouldn’t follow through on it. Well, they were wrong on both counts. Vona did deliver an ultimatum, and he meant every word of it.

Initially Orbán opted to oblige. It seemed that these amendments were so important to him that he would swallow a huge one and stop selling residency bonds to mostly Chinese and Russian businessmen. But then he changed his mind.

Fidesz announced that it would go ahead as scheduled, putting the amendments to a vote on November 8. Jobbik politicians swore that their 24-member delegation would not vote for the amendments. And so, if the opposition members on the left remained steadfast, the package of amendments was doomed. They did, and it was.

With this defeat Orbán can no longer go to Brussels and say that his hands are tied not only by 3.3 million Hungarian patriots but also by a two-thirds majority of the parliament. And that even if he wanted to, he couldn’t agree to accept any quotas. Today’s vote is a huge failure. Months of political maneuvering by Orbán have led nowhere.

A couple of foreign commentators concur. They note that this defeat will most likely weaken him “in his long-running fight with Brussels.” It is a personal blow to the prime minister. BBC’s Nick Thorpe described it as the second blow in a month, the first, of course, being the referendum itself. No constitutional amendment has ever been defeated since 1990, the beginning of the Third Republic. Since 2011 Fidesz easily pushed through six amendments. Well, things have changed.

Although, as I noted earlier, a few newspapers looked at the parliamentary vote as a success for a politician who is unbeatable, several others saw it quite differently, as a defeat that will hurt Fidesz both in the short and the long run. Jobbik’s strategy was praised by such until recently pro-Fidesz media as Válasz. Jobbik’s position is very simple: “neither poor nor rich migrants” should come to Hungary. Gábor Török, the well-known political commentator, called Jobbik the clear winner of this game. Until recently, Jobbik wasn’t a distinct political actor because the parties on the left conflated it with Fidesz. But in the last two weeks Jobbik was the leading force in the opposition’s attack on Fidesz. The left was nowhere.

Bálint Molnár, one of the editors of Kolozsvári Szalonna (Bacon à la Kolozsvár), and I seem to agree on the significance of what happened this morning in parliament. Let me quote: “I don’t agree with those who claim that Fidesz-KDNP, headed by someone named Orbán, won the match even if he was worsted. In my opinion, no one won here. On his own playing field, according to his own rules, he has burned an incredible amount of money and yet the seventh amendment of the Orbán all-mighty basic botchery has failed badly. The Young Democrats managed to bungle the all-time most expensive public opinion poll. That’s the essence of it. That is the situation. The hero, the martyr, the knight of a border fortress [végvári vitéz], the general of all Hungarians fell on his face…. For the first time since 2010 Orbán has tumbled and sunk to his knees.”

amendment-vote

Photo: Attila Kisbenedek / AFP

That pretty well sums it up. After this it will be difficult for Orbán to play the strong man who flexes his muscles.

I would like to call special attention to the photo Kolozsvári Szalonna attached to their piece on today’s vote in parliament. As soon as it became known that the government proposal had failed, Orbán got up and darted toward the exit. Gergely Gulyás, his eyes cast downward, may well be afraid of what’s waiting for him as the man responsible for legislative acts. He was full of self-confidence about easy sailing for this piece of legislation. Péter Harrach is scratching his head as if doesn’t know what to make of the situation.

Orbán is no longer accustomed to defeat. I’m sure he will take it very hard. And lash out.

November 8, 2016

Gábor Vona and Viktor Orbán: Who will win this political game?

At the end of yesterday’s post I indicated that Gábor Vona, chairman of Jobbik, had just announced his party’s refusal to support the government party’s quest for another round of amendments to the constitution that would introduce a number of changes related to the settlement of foreigners in Hungary. Earlier I wrote an analysis of the notion of constitutional identity, which is the linchpin of the otherwise meaningless constitutional amendments, and published an English translation of the amendments themselves.

The government considers these amendments vital to Viktor Orbán’s impending battle with Brussels over a possibly mandatory distribution of refugees. But changing the constitution requires a two-thirds majority in parliament, which Fidesz-KDNP currently doesn’t have. The government party had been counting on the support of Jobbik, the only opposition party that was wholeheartedly behind the amendments. In fact, it was Jobbik that, from the beginning, championed for constitutional amendments instead of a referendum. Fidesz, however, rejected the proposal and embarked on an expensive, divisive referendum that in the end turned out to be invalid.

What followed was a typical Viktor Orbán move: regardless of the failure of his referendum he decided to go ahead with the amendments to the constitution. But there was a rub. Jobbik demanded a price for its members’ votes, which Gábor Vona set forth early in the game.

For starters, Vona said that he wanted to meet with the prime minister in private. In the last six years, however, it has never happened that the ruler of Hungary sat down alone with an opposition leader. Granting such a privilege to Vona was too demeaning, so Orbán organized a series of “consultations,” starting with Zsolt Semjén of the Christian Democratic Party and his own deputy, which everybody thought was a joke. Then he sent a message to Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, who foolishly accepted the invitation, which he kept secret from the rest of the leading politicians of his party. Once the meeting became known, Molnár tried to explain himself away by saying that the consultation was not about the amendments but about the summit that is taking place at this very moment in Brussels. Since when does Viktor Orbán have consultations with opposition party chiefs about summits?

The long-awaited meeting between Vona and Orbán took place on October 18. In the days leading up to the meeting, Jobbik spokesmen repeatedly indicated that the party would support Orbán and that the Jobbik delegation would cast its votes with Fidesz-KDNP, guaranteeing an easy passage of the amendments. After all, this is what they wanted all along. Yes, but Jobbik was in a perfect position to demand something in exchange for its support of the government party. Vona’s demand was that the government cease selling residency bonds to wealthy Chinese, Russian, and Arab businessmen.

The residency bond sale, which I described as a “colossal swindle,” is the brainchild of Árpád Habony and Antal Rogán. Habony is safely deposited in London. Rogán, on the other hand, has been under incredible pressure, mostly because of Népszabadság’s revelations about his most likely ill-gotten wealth. The residency bond scheme has been severely criticized not only by the opposition but by some higher-up Fidesz leaders as well. In fact, in the last few weeks there were indications that the scheme would be modified. But I very much doubt that Orbán had the total cessation of the program in mind. And this is what Vona demands. If poor immigrants can’t settle in Hungary, rich ones shouldn’t be able to either.

The outcry against the Jobbik demand was not restricted to the government party. Gyula Molnár, chairman of MSZP, also condemned it in almost identical words. Bence Tuzson, one of the many spokesmen of the prime minister’s office, called it “kufárkodás” (profiteering) while Molnár considered it “seftelés” (conducting business in a dishonorable way). The two words are practically synonymous. For good measure Molnár added that Vona’s behavior is “political prostitution” pure and simple.

I am amazed at these reactions. In the world of politics this kind of give and take is perfectly normal. If Viktor Orbán needs the help of Gábor Vona’s party, it is natural that Jobbik will want something in return. After the meeting, Vona talked to the press and announced that Viktor Orbán had rejected his proposal, but a few minutes later Orbán sent a message via Tuzson saying that “he will consider the request of Vona.”

The Hungarian media started speculating about whether Orbán would meet Vona’s demands. Szabolcs Dull of Index simply could not imagine that it will be Viktor Orbán who has to knuckle under. After all, Orbán has convinced the Hungarian public that he is always the one who comes out on top. He is always the winner. In fact, Dull suggested, Orbán wants to get rid of the troublesome residency bonds anyway, and therefore he will readily concede to Vona’s demands. In fact, “he will kill two birds with one stone: he will be able to restructure the residency bond scheme and will receive Jobbik’s endorsement.”

Dull’s theory collapsed less than ten hours later when the government indicated that it has no intention of scrapping the residency bond program. Yesterday, around noon, Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz caucus, announced that in their opinion the two issues, the bonds and the settlement of foreigners, have nothing to do with one another and suggested that Fidesz isn’t counting on the votes of Jobbik. They hope to get the necessary two votes from the “independent” members of parliament. Who these “independent” members would be is not entirely clear, but some Fidesz politicians indicated that they think a few “patriotic” Jobbik members could be found who would turn against Vona. By this afternoon most Hungarian journalists were convinced that Fidesz will put the amendments to a vote on November 8 even if they are not assured of Jobbik’s support.

Antal Rogán, carrying Viktor Orbán's briefcase in Maastricht, October 20, 2016

Antal Rogán, carrying Viktor Orbán’s briefcase in Maastricht today

In trying to win concessions from Orbán, did Vona sow the seeds of his own destruction? Today Magyar Nemzet speculated about why a Fidesz defeat would actually be good for Fidesz and bad for Jobbik. If the amendments are not passed and if Brussels insists on compulsory quotas, Fidesz can blame Jobbik.

Tamás Fábián of Index found this hypothesis compelling, adding that from information he received from people close to Orbán, “Brussels cannot be stopped and within months the compulsory quotas will be forthcoming.” If that is the case, “Jobbik politicians will never be able to get rid of the label of being traitors,” which Lajos Kósa already pinned on them. Fábián is convinced that Vona made a fatal mistake by presenting Orbán with an ultimatum. “He started on a narrow path and will suffer heavy blows along the way.”

Fábián also predicted that the sale of residency bonds will be continued, even if with some adjustments. Although in the last few days Fidesz spokesmen did talk about fundamental changes, two weeks ago Orbán called the program “a successful construction.”

I might add that despite all the dirt that was unearthed about Antal Rogán, he seems to have nothing to fear. Orbán will not let him go. I was astonished to see Rogán in Brussels, walking right behind Orbán. Since when do propaganda ministers go to summits in Brussels? I guess the government is sending a message that he is still under the protection of the prime minister.

October 20, 2016

The much-heralded seventh amendment to the Hungarian Constitution

Changing the constitution is a frequent affair in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. The amendment promulgated today is the seventh since April 2012. So by now the ministry of justice can draft these amendments with relative ease and great speed. Admittedly, we don’t know when work began on this latest touch-up because the Orbán government kept its preparation secret.

According to Hungarian law, no referendum can be held on issues related to the constitution. Yet even before the “refugee” referendum was held, it was obvious that the result of a successful referendum would be a constitutional amendment.

"Five years old Hungary's Basic Law. God bless the Hungarians! April 25, 2016" Great celebration by Magyar Posta

“Hungary’s Basic Law five years old. God bless the Hungarians! April 25, 2016” Great celebration by Magyar Posta

Well, the referendum turned out not to be valid, but such setbacks don’t deter Viktor Orbán. Today László Trócsányi, minister of justice, submitted the government’s proposed amendments to the constitution. The text of the amendments is accompanied by a fairly lengthy justification. Under the heading “General Justifications” we can read:

At the referendum held on October 2, 98% of the electorate voted ‘no’ for forced settlement. With this act the new unity for Hungary came into existence. This new unity is above parties; it considers the defense of Hungary’s sovereignty and the rejection of settlement quotas to be national issues.

The common will of the 98% obliges parliament to endow it with legal force. This amendment is based on the will of a 98% majority, 3 million 300 thousand people. This is more than the electoral support of any party in the past quarter century.

So, let’s see what Trócsányi and his men in the justice ministry came up with. The translation was done by Ben Novák of The Budapest Beacon. I assume that eventually the government will make its official English version available.

♦ ♦ ♦

A sentence will be added to the much criticized Preamble, the National Avowal.

After the sentence that reads “We honour the achievements of our historical constitution and we honour the Holy Crown, which embodies the constitutional continuity of Hungary’s statehood and the unity of the nation,” the following sentence will appear: “We hold that the defense of our constitutional self-identity, which is rooted in our historical constitution, is the fundamental responsibility of the state.”

Paragraph 2 of Article E of the Fundamental Law will be amended to read:

Hungary, as a Member State of the European Union and in accordance with the international treaty, will act to the extent necessary to be in accordance with the rights and responsibilities granted by the founding treaty, in conjunction with powers granted to it under the Fundamental Law together with other Member States and European Union institutions. The powers referred to in this paragraph must be in harmony with the fundamental rights and freedoms established in the Fundamental Law and, in addition, they must not limit Hungary’s inalienable rights concerning its territorial integrity, its population, its form of government, and its state structure.

Article R of Article 3 (paragraph 4) will be amended to include:

It is the responsibility of every state institution to defend Hungary’s constitutional identity.

Article 4 (1), paragraphs 1-3 will be replaced with the following text:

(1) No alien population can be settled in Hungary. Foreign citizens, not including the citizens of countries in the European Economic Area, in accordance with the procedures established by the National Assembly for Hungarian Territory, may have their documentation individually evaluated by Hungarian authorities.

(2) Hungarian citizens on Hungarian territory cannot be deported from Hungarian territory, and those outside the country may return whenever they so choose. Foreigners residing on Hungarian territory may be deported only by means of legal adjudication. It is forbidden to perform mass deportations.

(3) No person can be deported to a state, nor can any person be extradited to any state, where they are in danger, discriminated against, subject to persecution, or where they are at risk of any other form of inhumane treatment or penalty.

Paragraph 4 of Article XIV will be expanded with the following text:

(4) Hungary will provide asylum to non-Hungarian citizens if the person’s country of origin or other countries do not provide protection, and also to those who, in their homeland or place of residence, are persecuted for their race, ethnicity, social standing, religion, or political convictions, or if their fear of persecution is grounded.

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It’s been only a few hours since the text of the amendments was made available, so few commentaries have appeared. One came from Csaba Molnár, a deputy chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció, who put it bluntly: Orbán conned the country with these amendments. He used a somewhat indelicate comparison which I will translate here as “the amendments have no teeth.” In his opinion the amendments are simply a rewriting of currently effective Hungarian and European laws. They are no more than eyewash (szemfényvesztés).

Péter Magyari of 444.hu finds the wording vague and elastic. He pays special attention to paragraph 4 of article XIV which, in his opinion, doesn’t preclude the execution of quota decisions but only describes its road map. All in all, he thinks the text is cautious and elastic, so the European Commission will most likely accept it.

Now the question is what Gábor Vona of Jobbik will say to the amendments. After all, without his support Fidesz doesn’t have enough votes to pass them. The democratic parties already announced their refusal to engage in any discussion about them. DK, in fact, because of Fidesz’s attitude toward the results of the referendum, the “sanctimonious” amendment of the constitution and what happened to Népszabadság, will boycott parliament. From the little we know about Jobbik’s reaction, it looks as if Vona, who wants to have a private discussion with Orbán about the issue, also finds the text far too cautious and elastic. He and his party want certain changes. What these changes are we don’t know yet, but people suspect that Jobbik considers the amendments too wishy-washy.

I’m sure that legal scholars better versed in European law will find Trócsányi’s amendments a great deal more sophisticated than meets the eye. I’m looking forward to a lively debate on the subject.

October 10, 2016

Hungary’s “constitutional identity”: What does it mean?

After we learned the results of the refugee quota referendum I wrote a short post, leaving an analysis of the referendum’s consequences for a later date. I did, however, indicate that Viktor Orbán was planning to change the constitution for the seventh time since its framing in April 2012. It was also already obvious that Orbán would try to make a huge victory out of a failed referendum. And indeed, in a day or so, new ads appeared touting that 98% of Hungarians are behind the government’s efforts to save Hungary from migrants. No Hungarian government has had such overwhelming support and the government cannot ignore the wishes of 3.3 million people, they claimed. Therefore, although legally the referendum was not valid, it was a major political success. The government simply cannot ignore the wishes of so many people.

The results of the referendum gave Orbán another political weapon. He cleverly equated the number of “no” votes with support for his party and his government. He declared “a new unity for Hungary,” which stands squarely behind him not just on the migrant issue but also on all matters connected with overarching national questions. Of course, as we know from Publicus Intézet’s poll, if national elections had been held on October 2, only 28% of the electorate would have voted for Fidesz and not 40% as Orbán claims now on the basis of the referendum results. The only opposition party that supported the quota referendum was Jobbik but, again judging from public opinion polls, Jobbik voters’ enthusiasm was a great deal less than that of Fidesz voters. Tipping the results in favor of Orbán’s newly discovered “unity” were those naïve souls among the supporters of the democratic parties who didn’t realize that a “no” vote was a “yes” vote for Viktor Orbán.

Orbán’s plan is to convert some of those extra one million people who were misled by the incredible anti-refugee propaganda to faithful Fidesz supporters and thus achieve the desired two-thirds majority again in 2018 or earlier. The most likely candidates for the enlargement of the Fidesz camp are the Jobbik voters who, following the call of their party, voted “no” on October 2. That would mean the destruction of the already weakened Jobbik by absorbing its supporters. For the time being, however, Gábor Vona has the upper hand. He can demand a very high price for his party’s support of the constitutional amendments. All democratic parties have already announced their intention to boycott discussions related to constitutional changes, and since Fidesz no longer has the necessary two-thirds majority Orbán needs the votes of Jobbik. But as an op-ed article in valasz.hu predicted, Jobbik might be the next victim of Viktor Orbán. Interestingly, Boris Kálnoky, Budapest correspondent of the Austrian Die Presse, also considers Orbán’s announcement of “a new unity” a declaration of war against Jobbik.

The constitutional amendments are shrouded in mystery, but by yesterday we learned that the government will invoke a fashionable legal notion called “constitutional identity.” This legal construct has such a huge literature, whole books were devoted to the subject, that what I can say about it here is not more than what I learned in a short description of a book by Gary Jeffrey Jacobsohn. Jacobsohn argues that “a constitution acquires an identity through experience—from a mix of the political aspirations and commitments that express a nation’s past and the desire to transcend that past.” I assume that after reading this description you are as puzzled as I was when I first read it. I became a bit more enlightened after I took a quick look at an article that appeared in the Utrecht Law Review by Leonard F. M. Besselink titled “National and constitutional identity before and after Lisbon.” This article then led me to the text of the Lisbon Treaty in which there is no mention of “constitutional identity.” It does, however, talk about “national identities” in Article 4.2, which reads:

The Union shall respect the equality of Member States before the Treaties as well as their national identities, inherent in their fundamental structures, political and constitutional, inclusive of regional and local self-government. It shall respect their essential State functions, including ensuring the territorial integrity of the State, maintaining law and order and safeguarding national security. In particular, national security remains the sole responsibility of each Member State.

Justice Minister László Trócsányi and Undersecretary Bence Tuzson in charge of communication

Justice Minister László Trócsányi and Undersecretary Bence Tuzson in charge of communication

I suspect this is what László Trócsányi, minister of justice and former member of the constitutional court, has in mind. It looks as if Trócsányi finds the idea of “constitutional identity” an important and handy legal construct. According to vs.hu, at the time of the ratification of the Lisbon treaty, at the request of a private person, the Hungarian constitutional court examined whether the treaty transgresses the sovereignty of Hungary. The court rejected the brief, but Trócsányi filed a concurring opinion in which he stated that “the member states have kept their right to determine the fundamental tenets of their constitution, which are indispensable for the maintenance of their constitutional identity.” In other words, over the centuries the Hungarians who settled in the Carpathian Basin created a specific cultural and ethnic identity. This identity would be violated by large settlements of people coming from a different cultural and religious background. I assume this will be the main argument of the Hungarian government against the contentions of those who claim the supremacy of EU law over the laws of a member state. Judging from the fact that Hungarian constitutional scholars already wildly disagree over the Hungarian government’s interpretation of “constitutional identity,” I suspect that Trócsányi’s brainchild might not be so easy to defend.

By now I more or less understand what Trócsányi is getting at, but I was nonetheless completely baffled by what he said at this morning’s press conference. He announced that the amendments will touch on Hungary’s territory, its population (népesség), populace/population (lakosság), the structure of the state (állami berendezkedés), and the form of government (államforma). This sounds outright frightening. Let’s start with the most intriguing one: the form of government. Surely, Trócsányi is not thinking of calling back the Habsburgs or returning to the “free electors” active between the two world wars, so I don’t know what he has in mind. Changing the structure of the state is equally worrisome. Will they introduce a presidential form of government with Viktor Orbán at its head? And what on earth can it mean that the amendments will touch on the territory of Hungary? Are they planning to move a few rivers to make the country bigger, because surely they cannot contemplate renegotiating the Treaty of Trianon. Finally, I have no idea what the difference is between “népesség” and “lakosság.”

We can expect turbulent times in Hungary, that’s for sure. I also wonder what Brussels will think of the latest brainstorm of Viktor Orbán and his team.

October 6, 2016

The deadly embrace of Hungarian television propaganda

Yesterday, while waiting for the results of the anti-refugee referendum, I decided to take a look at Channel M1, one of Magyar Televízió’s four or five channels. This particular channel is devoted to news and political discussions. I must admit that I hadn’t bothered to watch it before, though of course I knew that since 2010, when Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won the election, MTV had become a servile mouthpiece of government propaganda. I heard all the jokes about its being the Hungarian version of North Korean Television and that anyone who has a cable connection avoids M1 like the plague. Insufferable, unwatchable, disgraceful; these were the verdicts coming from Hungary. And then, yes, there’s the astonishing €160,191,200 yearly budget on channels few people watch, although MTV can be received across the country and beyond. (Of the private stations, only RTL Klub and TV2 have nationwide coverage.) Well, yesterday I took the plunge.

Watching Channel M1 while the voting was in progress was a shocking experience. The intensity of the propaganda could easily be compared to the times of Mátyás Rákosi–if, that is, Hungary had had television broadcasting in those days. Friends of mine who worked as journalists during the last two decades of the Kádár regime tell me that, despite the limitations imposed on them by the regime, they had more freedom than those journalists who still work at MTV. The better ones were fired years ago; those who remained do what they are told.

I hate to think how much money MTV spent on this last-minute campaigning for a valid and successful referendum. One reporter was sent to Belgrade to interview “migrants” who are stuck there. Another went to France. Another was dispatched to the “capital of Székelyföld,” which is a fiction of the Hungarian right since there is no way Romania will grant autonomous status to the two counties where Hungarian-speaking Szeklers are in the majority. Another journalist stood in front of a former refugee camp in Debrecen.

The anchor at intervals asked for the latest developments in Belgrade. The correspondent there reported that the “migrants” are breathlessly waiting for word on the outcome of the referendum. If it is not valid, they are planning to storm the Hungarian border first thing Monday morning. Ten or fifteen minutes later the anchor got in touch with the reporter in Belgrade again for “the latest developments.”

Then came the turn of the reporter from France. She was in the village of Allex in southeastern France where, as several French- and English-language papers reported in mid-September that“furious villagers have plunged France’s asylum system into chaos after demanding a vote on whether to kick out migrants re-homed in their neighborhood.” Allex had to take 50 refugees and the locals, egged on by the Front National, created a situation that became explosive. They demanded a referendum, which couldn’t be held because localities cannot decide on immigration issues. This news was picked up by right-wing Hungarian internet sources like Origo, 888.hu, and Pestisracok.hu around September 15. So MTV sent a special correspondent to this village to record a conversation with the mayor about “the lack of democracy” in France.

The reporter in Csíkszereda told MTV’s audience in Hungary about the great enthusiasm among the Szeklers for this referendum. Népszabadság’s Bucharest correspondent, who was also in Csíkszereda, reported otherwise. According to the Hungarian consul-general, 17,525 people asked for ballots and instructions to vote on Sunday but 11,820 (67.45%) didn’t bother to pick them up. In Cluj/Kolozsvár the situation was a bit better. All in all, there was not much to see in Csíkszereda. Most people had already voted by mail and, as we know, more than 16% of the ballots were invalid. According to the National Election Office, 30,705 ballots came from Transylvania before October 1.

Then came the story of all the atrocities that “migrants” had committed in the last year or so in Hungary. The reporter stood in front of the by now empty barracks that used to house refugees in Debrecen. The whole neighborhood was ruined, there was litter everywhere, fighting broke out over some dispute about the Koran, every time they wanted something some migrants climbed up on a tower and threatened to jump if their demands were not met. In short, it was sheer hell and, if migrants were allowed to enter Hungary, the whole country would be like that. The story then continued with the “terrorists” in Röszke who threw rocks at the policemen, people at the Keleti Station, and the march toward Vienna. A long litany of atrocities committed by the “migrants.”

Finally came a series of interviews with politicians and ordinary citizens who all voted no and who explained their weighty reasons for doing so. These stories were packed into one hour of non-stop propaganda, which was outright stomach turning.

television-propaganda

I decided to write about the hour I spent on the state propaganda channel of a so-called democratic country because the defeat of Orbán’s referendum is even more momentous when viewed in the context of this government attempt at brainwashing voters.

Although most foreign and domestic observers consider the result a colossal failure for the Hungarian government, the Fidesz leadership gathered stone-faced in front of a small and somewhat artificially enthusiastic crowd to announce the government’s great victory. Journalists were forbidden to be present. In a short speech Viktor Orbán shamelessly claimed that nine out of ten Hungarians voted for the sovereignty of Hungary. “Brussels or Budapest. That was the question and we decided that the right of decision lies solely with Budapest.” Although I often get confused with numbers, I’m pretty sure that 2,978,144 is not 90% of 8,272,624 eligible voters.

As for his future plans concerning a change of the constitution, it is about as illegal as the referendum itself was. I know that Jobbik will support it because Gábor Vona’s original suggestion was a simple change of the constitution, which Fidesz refused to consider and instead launched the referendum campaign. We don’t yet know whether the democratic opposition parties will present a common front. So far DK and MSZP have announced that they will boycott any parliamentary action concerning an amendment to the constitution. The small Magyar Liberális Párt also expressed its disapproval of changing the constitution on account of the refugee quota issue.

Tomorrow I will attempt to shed some light on the very complicated issue of the relationship between the referendum and the constitution. Meanwhile we will see how Orbán handles this new situation. I suspect with belligerence and even more hateful speeches against both the refugees and the opposition. 444.hu recalled today an interview with Anikó Lévai, Orbán’s wife, in Story magazine a couple of years ago. She told the reporter that her husband is unable to lose and gave a couple of examples. When they run together, he pretends that he is close to chocking and is far behind, but in the last minute he revives and sprints ahead, beating her. Only once did it happen that they took part in a ski competition where she came in first and he second. By the time the results were announced Orbán had arranged to separate the sexes, and thus he was first in the men’s category. He is always ready to change the rules of the game. I think this is what we can expect.

October 3, 2016