On June 14, 2016, a united opposition prevented the adoption of a proposal intended to re-regulate the use of posters and billboards by political parties. The bill, among other things, included the stipulation that if the provider of advertising surfaces sells spaces at a price lower than the current market value, such an action would be considered to be hidden and forbidden party financing. Since a portion of the bill dealt with party financing, in order to pass, the bill needed a two-thirds majority of the members present.
The proposal was submitted in response to thousands of Jobbik billboards carrying the message that while ordinary citizens work, the members of the political elite and their friendly oligarchs steal the country blind. Viktor Orbán’s fury over the posters was only reinforced when he learned that Jobbik had rented the advertising surfaces from one of Lajos Simicska’s business ventures, Mahír, for practically peanuts. Simicska would like nothing more than to get rid of his former friend turned enemy Viktor Orbán at the next national election in the spring of 2018, and he was prepared to be generous to Jobbik in its anti-Fidesz billboard campaign.
The government party was two persons short of the magic two-thirds majority, and therefore it was imperative that all the members of the Fidesz and KDNP delegations showed up. Even György Rubovszky of KDNP, who died a week later, attended the session. The hope was that either a few opposition members would be absent or that the politically diverse opposition would not be well disciplined. But everyone was there with the exception of Lajos Oláh of DK, who was on his way to the hospital with kidney stones. And every member of the opposition voted against the bill. So Fidesz was left with only one absentee, which wasn’t enough. The bill failed to be enacted.
Within hours, however, the government party announced that the bill would be resubmitted. The president of the parliament called for an extraordinary session, where the only item on the agenda was the poster law nicknamed by its co-sponsor Lajos Kósa “Lex Csicska.” Csicska is a person who in jail or in a reformatory is forced to serve others. In this case, the “csicska” is Jobbik, the party which, they claim, is simply an instrument of Simicska’s design against Viktor Orbán and his government.
Since the session was not a scheduled one, the hope again was that many opposition members would be unable to attend. At the same time, just to be sure, Fidesz politicians began negotiations with several opposition parties and members, hoping to get partners to push through this bill that Viktor Orbán found so important. A few days ago I devoted a post to MSZP’s decision to submit a proposal of their own, which was not a hit with the other parties and which was eventually torpedoed by László Botka, the party’s candidate for the premiership. Thus, it looked as if there was no chance for Lex Csicska to be adopted. Moreover, on the day of the extraordinary session (Friday, June 22) Viktor Orbán was supposed to be in Brussels. And György Rubovszky died on June 21, a day before the crucial vote. Yet Viktor Orbán announced that he has no plans to return because “his boss,” i.e. the leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, doesn’t think that his presence is necessary. It was at this point that I became mighty suspicious that the legal wizards of Fidesz had found some clever work-around solution.
And indeed, late on Thursday evening, when Orbán was already in Brussels, the public learned that Fidesz will not resubmit the original law which had been voted down a week earlier. Rather, members of parliament will have to vote on amendments to a 2016 law on the defense of community image (településkép), which required only a simple majority to pass. In Hungary the central government lays down the parameters of what towns can and cannot do in burnishing their images. The original law dealt with advertisements, posters, billboards but only commercial ones, advertising everything from beer to toothpaste. Expanding this law to give municipalities the authority to restrict party advertising is, according to most legal scholars, unconstitutional because the Hungarian Constitution specifically states that “the detailed rules for the operation and management of political parties shall be laid down in a cardinal Act.”
But that wasn’t the only trick Fidesz employed. Gergely Gulyás, deputy speaker of parliament responsible for legislation, breaking house rules, introduced MSZP’s proposal, which was never officially submitted for consideration, as an amendment, putting MSZP in the uncomfortable position that their members had to vote against their own “amendment.” The vote was 123 in favor and 68 against. Fidesz-KDNP parliamentarians knew ahead of time what was coming, so of their 130 members only 123 showed up. On the other hand, all 68 members of the opposition parties and the independents were present and voted against the bill.
Although legal scholars believe that the Constitutional Court should find this law unconstitutional, they admit that, given the composition of the 15-member body, the judges may just rubber stamp it. Zoltán Fleck, professor of sociology of law at ELTE’s law school, with a certain sadness remarked that he wasn’t really surprised to hear about this latest Fidesz ploy because in Hungary “the rule of law has long been officially terminated.” György Magyar, Simicska’s lawyer and civil activist, also tore the law apart on his blog.
An amusing story connected to the passage of this bill shows the cynicism of most of those Fidesz members of parliament who serve as voting robots. Máriusz Révész (Fidesz), under pressure from a journalist of 24.hu about the strange transformation of a law that requires a two-thirds majority into one that needs only a simple majority, got mighty confused. After a lot of prevarication, he blurted out: “obviously this time it is not happening according to the law.” So, he basically confirmed the opposition’s criticism that Fidesz acted illegally. It is not something the Fidesz leadership easily forgives. This afternoon Index, which reported on the 24.hu story, received a letter from Révész in which he tried to convince them that he wasn’t talking about the law itself but about illicit party financing.
Albert Gazda of Magyar Nemzet wrote an opinion piece titled “The cowardly Fidesz.” As the title suggests, Gazda looks upon this latest Fidesz trick, which he considers primitive even by the party’s own low moral and intellectual standards, as a sign of weakness. “Here is the first spectacular and hard-hitting campaign and Fidesz is running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Gazda also believes that Fidesz is not only cowardly but also fearful. “But fear eats away the soul, takes away strength, and destroys faith.”
I’m not at all sure that Gazda is right. Instead, I would suggest that these posters got under Orbán’s skin in a big way because he found them politically damaging. He had only one goal: the posters must be taken down immediately. Therefore, I believe, he didn’t particularly care in what manner this bill became law. He most likely knows that the law is unconstitutional, but in the short run he simply doesn’t care. Even if the Constitutional Court finds the law unconstitutional, that decision may take months while the billboards will have to be removed immediately. Orbán wanted to stop the political hemorrhaging right now.