Tag Archives: constitution

Mission accomplished: Jobbik’s hard-hitting billboards will be removed

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.”

Gergely Gulyás, Fidesz’s wunderkind, enjoying the fruits of his labor

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.

June 24, 2017

The Orbán government is determined: it alone will decide on the state of terror threat

At the moment the Orbán government has two serious challenges. One is its absolute determination to introduce an amendment to the constitution that would authorize the government to unilaterally declare a “state of terror threat” that would lead to draconian limitations of the basic rights of citizens for sixty days and that could be extended indefinitely. Since the governing party, Fidesz-KDNP, doesn’t have the requisite two-thirds majority in parliament to pass a constitutional amendment, it would need the cooperation of the opposition parties. Most are, however, suspicious of the real intent of this amendment.

The other headache for the government is the unexpected outburst of discontent among the nation’s teachers, who are being supported by students and parents. Demonstrations and strikes may be forthcoming, not just by the teachers but also by the railroad workers and bus drivers.

Today Viktor Orbán devoted the lion’s share of his usual Friday morning interview to these two challenges.

In a way, the constitutional amendment issue is the easier of the two to solve. Only a few members of parliament need to be persuaded or bribed to vote with the Fidesz majority and the problem will go away. Dealing with tens of thousands of teachers and other dissatisfied state employees is a much more difficult proposition. So it’s no wonder that Viktor Orbán began his interview with the teachers’ demand to undo the fundamental changes the government has made in the educational system since 2010.

Yet here I would like to talk about the amendment, because from the point of view of Hungarian democracy it is a potential threat to the very structure of governance as well as to human rights. I detailed its key provisions earlier.

So, let’s see where things stand with the amendment, whose passage seems to be of tremendous importance to the government. Its rigid insistence on the exclusive right of the government to declare a state of terror threat is frightening to those who are suspicious of the government’s intentions, especially since the word “terrorism” has been bandied about by government spokesmen without any justification. Yet Viktor Orbán refuses to yield any say in the matter to parliament. In the last few days various Fidesz politicians have declared that the government will submit the proposal unaltered.

At first it looked as if the opposition was united in opposing the measure, but two days ago Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik’s spokesman, casually remarked at a press conference that his party would agree to allow the government to declare a state of emergency for three days. After three days, he said, Jobbik would insist on parliamentary approval for its extension by a fourth-fifths majority of parliament.

Mirkóczki’s remarks must have sounded encouraging, so the Orbán government decided to pursue the possibility of shortening the duration of a state of emergency as a promising basis for negotiations. In an interview with Die Presse Gergely Gulyás, the Fidesz politician in charge of shepherding the amendment through parliament, stated that as far as the government is concerned even fifteen days may be enough. Or, if necessary, Jobbik and Fidesz could agree on something between these two lengths of time. Gulyás also revealed in the same interview that the government has most likely been having private conversations with András Schiffer, co-chair of LMP. In fact, he expressed his belief that if there is an agreement it will be between the government and LMP.

So I suspect that the government will have the necessary votes to pass the odious bill, not for a sixty-day duration but for a shorter length of time which, I assume, could be extended if necessary. This is very bad news for Hungarian democracy.

This morning the Hungarian media was in turmoil when MTVA’s Híradó and Magyar Idők, two government publications, came out with the following headline, accompanying their articles on Viktor Orbán’s interview this morning: “Orbán: Preparation is underway for an attack against the Hungarian people.” In no time dozens of publications asserted that Hungary is under a terror threat at this very moment. About an hour later the journalists discovered their mistake. What Orbán actually said was that the “state of terror threat” can be declared “if there is credible information about the preparation of a terror attack.” As Népszabadság rightly pointed out, this is the first time that anyone from the government had “attempted to define the state of terror threat.”

Magyar Idők misinforms public about alleged terror threat

Magyar Idők misinforms public about an alleged terror threat

As we know from opposition members of the parliamentary committee on national security, at no time did Terrorelhárítási Központ (TEK), the police, or the intelligence services ever report any terror threat. When asked, they always answered that they have no such information. Now, the MSZP chairman of the committee, Zsolt Molnár, will specifically ask the services whether the terror threat has grown lately or not. If it has, why didn’t they inform the members of the committee?

I think the question is a legitimate one: why does the Orbán government find this amendment so crucial? Rumors are flying in Budapest about possible reasons that have nothing to do with terrorism. One provision currently in the amendment might be of some importance to the government: “the prohibition of organizing events and demonstrations in public spaces.” Nothing could stop the government from declaring a state of terror threat if it was itself challenged by mass demonstrations or strikes. Imposing a curfew could also come in handy in case of disturbances. Closing the borders might be useful. Or contact with foreign journalists in case of trouble. I know some people might say that such a scenario is unlikely. Maybe, but this government is paranoid. So, I wouldn’t put it past Viktor Orbán and his minions to resort to extreme measures if they felt threatened. After all, we just heard that the chairman of the central bank, in addition to his protection by the ordinary police force, just created a new guard and ordered 112 weapons and 200,000 rounds of ammunition.

February 5, 2016

Jobbik shows the way, the Orbán government follows

There are several new developments on the refugee front, both inside and outside of Hungary. Let’s first discuss Germany’s surprise move  yesterday to allow all bona fide Syrian refugees to remain in Germany regardless of where they entered the European Union. The Germans thus made the first move to suspend the current rules governing refugees laid down in the Dublin agreement. As the spokesman for the interior ministry said, the decision was dictated first and foremost by humanitarian considerations, but there were also practical reasons for suspending the current practice. For instance, it took an incredible amount of paperwork and money to send refugees back to the first EU country where they set foot. I suspect that there was a third, unspoken reason for the change in policy. Out of the would-be immigrants, the Syrians are the most desirable from an economic and social point of view. Their integration seems to be the most promising. Learning from its past mistakes, Germany now offers new immigrants help to make their adjustment as easy as possible. Germany has registered 44,417 asylum applications from Syrians in the first seven months of this year.

In Germany new arrivals who are approved receive generous benefits. Their apartments are rent-free, and each adult receives 391 euros/month and children between 229 and 296 euros/month, depending on their age. The government also provides free intensive language lessons three hours a day, five days a week. Legal immigrants can become German citizens after six to nine years of residence. Even before the recent policy change, Syrians automatically received residency permits good for two years. But now Syrian refugees can really breathe a sigh of relief.

The Hungarian government’s reaction was typical. Government spokesman Zoltán Kovács “hailed the German decision, [which means] that no one will be deported back to Hungary.” He quickly added that Hungary is grateful “even if only one-third of the migrants come from Syria.” Kovács noted, however, that “one should not overestimate the German gesture because one cannot really argue about numbers, and the fact is that migrants arrive in Hungary from 67 different countries, including Bangladesh and Mali.”

Meanwhile, as everybody predicted, the new fence was an absolute waste of money. The Serbian government hires buses to move the refugees close to the Hungarian border where they can easily get across the low, flimsy fence or, even better, they walk along the railroad tracks bothered by no one. As a result, at Röszke, the official border crossing, the lines are getting longer and tempers are flaring. This morning there was a bit of a scuffle that ended in one jittery policeman using teargas on people who had to wait outside in the pouring rain. I assume that this confrontation is going to be used to justify new, more serious measures against the refugees who are, in the Hungarian government’s opinion, illegally crossing the country’s border.

kerites ma

This is what the fence looks like nowadays

The Orbán government’s strict measures seem to be inspired by Jobbik, a neo-Nazi party. The idea of building a fence was first suggested by the Jobbik mayor of a larger village close to the Serbian border. The next Jobbik demand was reestablishing the border guard units that were abolished after Hungary became part of the Schengen zone. Soon enough the government obliged and created a force with the intentionally frightening name of “border hunters” (határvadászok). Today we learned details of this force. It will be made up of 2,000 men who will start patrolling the border on September 1. One-third of the force will consist of second-year students from two-year police academies. There are four or five such police academies in the country, and the ones I checked have only around 200 students in each class. Thus, I gather that the entire incoming second-year class will be ordered to the Serb-Hungarian border instead of to their classrooms.

The Orbán government’s latest brainstorm, that is, sending the military to the border against the refugees, also comes from Jobbik. A couple of days ago János Volner, deputy chairman of the party, expressed Jobbik’s fear that “because of the growing aggressiveness of the illegal immigrants a police presence will not be enough.” He recalled that at the Greek-Macedonian border the police force proved to be inadequate to stop the masses of immigrants. He pointed out that the constitution allows the use of the military in case of emergency. Volner most likely has Article XXXI(3) of the Hungarian Constitution in mind, which reads: “During a state of national crisis, or if the National Assembly so decides in a state of preventive defense, adult male Hungarian citizens with residence in Hungary shall perform military service.”

The very next day the government announced that it is thinking about using the army along the borders. However, as Magyar Nemzet reported yesterday, legal experts can’t quite agree whether such use of the army is permissible without changing the constitution since Article 45(1) specifies that “Core duties of the Hungarian Defense Forces shall be the military defense of the independence, territorial integrity and borders of Hungary.” Clearly, the military would not be defending the country’s independence or its territorial integrity, but I suppose it would be argued that they would be defending its borders. This morning Zoltán Kovács informed the media that next week parliament will vote on the deployment of the army along the Serb-Hungarian border. That to my mind means that the government’s legal experts have decided that there is no need to change the constitution and that a two-thirds majority in parliament will suffice. Such a super majority can easily be achieved with the support of the large Jobbik parliamentary delegation.

None of these developments is heart-warming, although at the moment the scene at the border is more like what you see on this video. The refugees simply walk through gates in the sturdier fence that was constructed along a few sections of the border.

It is hard to understand what Viktor Orbán is planning to achieve with his harsh policies. No matter what he does, Hungary will be unable to stop the flow of immigrants. The fence has turned out to be a joke. Although government officials often talk about jailing all those who damage their fence, such a response is beyond the capability of the government. Then why all the saber rattling? I assume, like everything Viktor Orbán does, it is intended to consolidate support. He has but one overarching goal–to remain in power, if possible until he drops. And, he undoubtedly believes, Hungarian voters should reward him for protecting the country against the extreme danger these refugees pose. Thus far public opinion polls indicate that Hungarians haven’t bought into the government rhetoric. The vast majority of the population never encounter any refugees, most of whom disappear from Hungary as soon as they can, so they don’t feel threatened by these Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers. Hungary is just a thruway, not a destination–unless, of course, the EU eventually decides to return “undesirables” from Bangladesh and Mali to Hungary.

The Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year: One step forward, two steps backward

It was exactly a week ago that I wrote about the Hungarian Holocaust Memorial Year, which is still very much a topic of debate in Hungary. The core of the problem is the effort on the part of the Orbán government to rewrite the modern history of Hungary.

The problem started with the adoption of a new constitution that has a fairly lengthy preamble in which  the emphasis is on the concept of “nation.” The preamble is actually called “national avowal” and its first sentence reads “we, the members of the Hungarian nation.” For the sake of comparison the United States Constitution refers to the “people of the United States” and the modern constitution of Germany to “the German people.” As we will see a little later, this preoccupation with the idea of “nation” may have far-reaching consequences as far as the current controversy is concerned.

At the time of the release of the text of the preamble to the new Hungarian constitution a lot of legal scholars, historians, and commentators severely criticized it for being a hodgepodge of disconnected, unhistorical nonsense. But what must be an absolutely unique feature of this preamble is that the framers decided to eliminate 46 years, 2 months, and 5 days from Hungary’s history because the decision was made to “date the restoration of our country’s self-determination, lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944, from the second day of May 1990, when the first freely elected organ of popular representation was formed. We shall consider this date to be the beginning of our country’s new democracy and constitutional order.” In plain language, Hungarians are not responsible for anything that happened during this “lost” period. It was immediately noted that the first Hungarian transports headed for Auschwitz and other death camps occurred after March 19, 1944. A lot of people suspected that this government was thinking of shifting the entire responsibility for the Holocaust on the Germans who, with the permission of Miklós Horthy, moved their troops into Hungary. Regardless of how often officials of the current Hungarian government repeat that they accept responsibility for the Holocaust, the new constitution claims otherwise. And that is the basic law of the land at the moment.

Sorry about these repetitive prefatory remarks, but in order to fully understand the thinking of Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, and other high officials of the government we must keep in mind the emphasis both on the “Hungarian nation” and on the alleged lack of sovereignty of Hungary. Giving up the idea of erecting a monument that depicts Hungary as the innocent and long-suffering Archangel Gabriel would go against the very core of this view of history. And when we find more and more references to “Hungarians and Jews” in government parlance, we must also keep in mind the nation-centric views that found their way into the new constitution. I maintain that as long as this constitution is in force there can be no meaningful discussion between Viktor Orbán and those who don’t subscribe to this warped view of history. Viktor Orbán may suggest to the leadership of Mazsihisz that “the dialogue should be continued after the Easter holidays,” but there can be no common ground between the two views.

Still, one ought to appreciate the fact that he made the gesture at all. Viktor Orbán rarely retreats. As his critics say, “he goes all the way to the wall.” It seems that this time he bumped into that wall, a wall of condemnation by a civilized Europe that doesn’t take Holocaust denial lightly. Let me quote here from a speech Ilan Mor, Israeli Ambassador to Hungary, delivered at the gathering to honor the recipients of Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations awards. He said that “any attempts to rewrite or to reinterpret the history of the Shoa, in this country or elsewhere, for any reason, politically and/or ideologically, are part of the deplorable attempt to deny the Holocaust, the Shoa.” This is the kind of criticism the Hungarian government is facing when it tries to falsify history.

Just when we thought that, at least until April, we could have a little respite and prepare ourselves for the next round, János Lázár decided to upset the apple cart. He happened to be in Gyula, a city near the Romanian border, when he gave an interview to the local television station. During the interview the reporter asked him about Mazsihisz’s opposition to the government’s plans for the Holocaust Memorial Year. Lázár lashed out at the leaders of Mazsihisz, accusing them of wrecking the government’s plans for the 70th anniversary of the Holocaust. He charged them with fomenting discord between Hungarians and Jews who have lived in unity and symbiosis for centuries. According to him, the story of that common past was a real success. He predicted that Mazsihisz’s “ultimatum” will have a negative influence on the cohabitation of Jews and Hungarians. He added that he hopes “the local Jewish communities in conjunction with the officials of the municipalities will find a way to remember together.” Lázár expressed his belief “in the wisdom of the local Jewish leaders and even more so in the wisdom of the municipal leaders,” and he said he hoped that “this ultimatum was only part of a political move that will not be able to fracture that unity and symbiosis in which we have lived together with our Jewish compatriots in Gyula or for that matter in Hódmezővásárhely,” his hometown where he served as mayor until recently.

"Cohabitiation: Minority and majority in the Carpathian Basin Source: Amerikai Nepszava Online

“Cohabitation: Minority and majority in the Carpathian Basin”
Source: Amerikai Népszava Online

It was at this point that all hell broke loose and for good reason. First of all, Mazsihisz didn’t issue an ultimatum. Second, Lázár practically accused Mazsihisz of fomenting anti-Semitism in Hungary by not meekly accepting the falsification of history promulgated by the Orbán government. Third, it was especially tasteless to talk about Jewish/non-Jewish symbiosis and cohabitation in a provincial town. As is well known, there are practically no Jews left in Hungary outside of Budapest. The vast majority perished because Miklós Horthy wanted to start the deportations with those whom he considered to be the great unwashed. And fourth, what caused real furor was that Lázár excluded Hungarians of Jewish origin from the Hungarian nation. Commentators noted that this view comes straight from the Nuremberg laws and the anti-Jewish laws of Hungary. People are truly outraged.

Commentators are trying to figure out what motivated János Lázár to make a frontal attack on Mazsihisz. Some think that he was just careless and didn’t weigh his words. Perhaps in a more formal setting, they claim, he wouldn’t have said what he did. Others think that he is just outright stupid and/or crass.

I see it differently. Lázár is the messenger boy of Viktor Orbán. It is enough to recall the meeting between him and members of different Jewish communities. The participants were hoping for some solution to the impasse. It turned out that Lázár had no authority whatsoever to talk about anything substantive. He could only tell those present that he would relay the points they made to Viktor Orbán, who would answer them in writing. Therefore, I suspect that Lázár, when questioned in Gyula, simply repeated what he knew to be Viktor Orbán’s position. And I don’t think that I’m too far off when I predict that Viktor Orbán will not be any more malleable after Easter. Lázár’s words are only a forewarning of what lies ahead.


P.S. I would like to correct an earlier mistake of mine. I attributed a statement to Ambassador Mor that turned out to be erroneous. In his interview with Heti Válasz he did not speak critically of Mazsihisz as I assumed.

Mária Vásárhelyi: An open letter to Mrs. Annette Lantos

vasarhelyi mariaMária Vásárhelyi is a sociologist whose main interest is the state of the media. She is the daughter of Miklós Vásárhelyi (1917-2001) who served as the press secretary of the second Imre Nagy government. As a result he and his family, including the three-year-old Mária, were deported together with Imre Nagy and his family to Snagov, Romania. Miklós Vásárhelyi received a five-year sentence for his activities during the 1956 Revolution. I should add that Mária Vásárhelyi is one of my favorite publicists in Hungary.

* * *

Dear Mrs. Lantos,

Although we have not met personally, your late husband and my late father, Miklós Vásárhelyi, used to hold each other in high esteem; therefore I take the liberty to write this letter to you.

The tie between your husband and my father was not only based on common historical experience and mutual personal sympathy; they also shared some values that were manifest in moral and political issues that both of them found crucially important. And both of them bravely took a stance whenever they saw those values endangered. Among these principles the idea of freedom was of primary importance, as well as the representation of human rights, or responsibility for the situation of the minorities and the oppressed. Both fought in the Hungarian armed resistance against the fascist occupation; they worked to bring down the state socialist dictatorship; they stood up for the rights of Hungarian communities beyond the borders; and also spoke out after the democratic transformation, when racist and anti-Semitic views came to the fore on the political scene.

As far as I remember, among Hungarians living abroad, your husband was the first to protest when István Csurka’s anti-Semitic pamphlet “Some Thoughts” was published. He also raised his voice in 2007 when the Slovak Parliament reaffirmed the infamous Beneš Decrees. Your husband was most determined in his condemnation of the establishment of the Hungarian Guard, an anti-Roma and anti-Semitic organization, whose purpose was to intimidate and publicly humiliate the minorities in Hungary. To my knowledge, when he last met Viktor Orbán he made a point of expressing his dismay about how several politicians from Fidesz gave support to the foundation and activities of the Hungarian Guard, with Fidesz as a party not distancing itself unambiguously from that paramilitary organization.

The deep, principled understanding and mutual appreciation between your husband and my father was testified to by the speech Tom Lantos made in the House of Representatives on October 6, 2005, in which he emphasized my father’s “significant contribution to the cause of freedom and democracy,” as someone “who played a critically important role before and during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and again in the 1970s and 1980s, in the struggle to transform Hungary from a one-party communist state into a multi-party democracy.”

In the light of these facts I am certain you will understand why I find it so important to write to you about the House of Fates, on whose International Consultative Board you were invited to be a member. I am convinced that this institution, rather than serving its officially proclaimed aim of keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive and drawing the public’s attention to the tragedy of child victims, would serve the falsification of history, the politically motivated expropriation of historical memory, and purposes of party propaganda. The policies of the Orbán administration during the past few years, and its ambivalent (to put it mildly) relations with the extreme right; its policy of ignoring the growth of anti-Semitism in Hungary; as well as all that we know about the project so far – its contents, the circumstances of its establishment, the name itself, the location selected and the deadline chosen for its construction, the person in charge, the choice of the trustees – tend to suggest that the real purpose of the new European Educational Center is to downplay whatever responsibility Hungary had for the Holocaust and to mend the damaged international reputation of the current right-wing government.

During the past few years there have been more and more acts of desecration of Jewish symbols, prayer houses, cemeteries, and attacks on individuals whom the attackers took to be Jewish. A series of international and Hungarian sociological surveys give evidence of an extraordinary growth of anti-Semitism within Hungarian society; at least one fourth of the population openly declares it has anti-Semitic views, and many more people are simply prejudiced against the Jews. Everyday anti-Semitic discourse (zsidózás) is quite common in the streets and other public spaces. The same surveys make it clear that while the economic crisis played a role in the increased number of these occurrences, its effect has been boosted in the right-wing and extreme-right political context. Meanwhile, according to comparative research conducted in nine EU member states, it is Hungary where people of Jewish descent feel the most threatened. In 2012, 91% of the members of the Hungarian Jewish community said anti-Semitism had recently worsened to a smaller or larger degree; it is the largest portion among the countries surveyed. During five years, the number of those who consider anti-Semitism a serious social problem has nearly doubled. I am, of course, aware of the fact that anti-Semitism has become more widespread in most European countries, but it is still revealing that while only 11% of the Jewish community in the United Kingdom thinks of anti-Semitism as “a very big problem,” in Hungary 49% hold this view. In the UK 18% of those identifying themselves as Jews have contemplated emigration because of “not feeling safe as Jews”, while in Hungary this ratio is 48%.

I also believe that Viktor Orbán and his party are heavily responsible for the growth of anti-Semitism in Hungary. The Hungarian government’s reputation is rapidly worsening in the eyes of the democratic world, and this is largely due to their particular responses to ever-growing racism and anti-Semitism as well as some of their decisions concerning personal appointments and cultural policy, which gave fuel to such vicious emotions. Falsification of Hungary’s history, whitewashing the crimes of the Horthy era, elevating well-known anti-Semites (public figures, politicians, writers) to the national pantheon, while throwing mud at brave and honest left-wing and liberal patriots, are all features of the current government’s cultural and heritage policies. Parts of the media, which this government supports morally or financially (in direct and indirect ways), are full of overt and covert racist or anti-Semitic statements. Several of the figureheads of the pro-government press openly incite hatred against homosexuals, Jews, and the Roma. In the first rows of the so-called “Peace Marches,” demonstrations organized to prove that there is mass support behind Fidesz’s policies, there are well-known anti-Semites. One of the leaders of the quasi-NGO responsible for these marches used to be a founder and intellectual leader of the Hungarian Guard; another one, an emblematic figure in Fidesz, is a journalist whose work can be legally criticized as anti-Semitic, according to a court ruling. Still another leading figure of the Fidesz-related media can justly be called the father of Holocaust relativization in Hungary.

The government uses doublespeak. On the one hand, the deputy prime minister at the conference of the Tom Lantos Institute, Hungary’s ambassador at the United Nations, or, most recently, the President of the Republic, have used words of humanism and solidarity commemorating the victims of the Holocaust and admitting in unambiguous language that the Hungarian state and public administration bore responsibility for the murder of 600,000 of our Jewish compatriots. On the other hand, the government itself and government institutions have made countless gestures to the far right, relativizing the Holocaust, and denying that the Hungarian state apparatus was responsible to any degree.

This intention of downplaying Hungarian responsibility for the Holocaust is most apparent in the preamble of the Fundamental Law (Constitution), promulgated in 2011 under the Fidesz government, which states, “our country’s self-determination [was] lost on the nineteenth day of March 1944”. Which means that Germany as the occupying power must bear full responsibility for the deportation and wholesale murder of Hungarian Jewry. Apart from the fact that it was not an occupation in the international legal sense (the German armed forces did not occupy any Hungarian territories against the will of the Hungarian government), plenty of historical evidence and the testimonies of the survivors prove that the Hungarian authorities’ zeal and effectiveness in organizing the deportations shocked even the Germans, including high-level SS officers, while a significant part of the population watched the deportation of their fellow citizens with utmost indifference. The narrative that the government suggests through the text of the Fundamental Law is, therefore, an utter lie. Similarly, the planned 70th anniversary commemorations of the Holocaust are marked by an intention of falsification and lies – including the establishment of The House of Fates European Educational Center.

The name House of Fates is evidently an allusion to Nobel laureate Imre Kertész’s novel Fatelessness, but its message is quite the opposite. It suggests that being murdered in a concentration camp was the fate of those children, but, although they lived through it, the fate was not theirs. As Kertész writes, “if there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible (…) if there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate (…) That is to say, then we ourselves are fate.” (English translation by Tim Wilkinson) This is how the main protagonist of the novel, Gyurka Köves, formulates the key to his own story, when he realizes that whatever happened to him was not his own fate, although he himself lived through it. The name House of Fates is not just a play on words but a complete misinterpretation of the essence of the Holocaust. And not just the name but also the site is a telling sign of the intellectual emptiness behind the lofty and bombastic use of the Holocaust as a political instrument. Holocaust researchers and survivors all agree that the Józsefváros Railway Station is not a symbolic site of deportation, and no children were taken from there to Auschwitz. The historian in charge of the project’s concept – who once happened to call the Horthy régime, which presided over the Hungarian Jews’ total deprivation of rights and exclusion, “a democracy until 1938” – is not a Holocaust expert. During the past 25 years, she has not produced any publications of scholarly merit on this subject but was at the center of quite a few scandals.

The plans that have been leaked out indicate that the central message of the Educational Center would not be the tragedy of innocent children but the rescuers, those brave and honorable citizens who put their lives at risk in their efforts to help and save their persecuted compatriots. Naturally, there should be monuments commemorating their bravery and sacrifice, but why must the plight of many thousands of murdered children be used for that purpose? This is the dishonest betrayal and political utilization of the child victims’ memory.

Dear Annette Lantos, living thousands of kilometers away from Hungary you may not be aware of all this. That is why I felt it was my duty to inform you of these issues and draw your attention to some aspects of the cause in support of which your late husband’s memory and your own name are being used. I ask you to reconsider whether you want to participate in the Consultative Board’s proceedings.

Respectfully yours,

Mária Vásárhely

More serious problems with the new Hungarian constitution

I promise this is the last post on the constitution. Yes, I know, I spent too much time on the “national creed” but I don’t think that it was a total waste of time. After all, beside the historical inaccuracies there are a number of provisions that might have far-reaching implications.

I read quite a few analyses of the draft that minimized the significance of certain changes introduced in the main text of this new constitution. The first word usually is “thank God at least it doesn’t completely undo the power structure of the Third Republic.” Thanks for small favors. After all, even Fidesz cannot come up with a constitution that openly admits that Hungary is no longer a democratic country but an autocracy. That much honesty we can’t expect from these guys.

However, a careful reading of the text reveals that a substantial narrowing of the democratic structure is being attempted here. The subtle and not so subtle changes in wording aim at ensuring Fidesz’s political influence in the future, perhaps for decades. Even if Fidesz loses the next elections the rewritten constitution will help Viktor Orbán and his cohorts make the work of the next government well nigh impossible. In addition, Fidesz seems to want to reduce social services to a minimum and to cut the remaining checks and balances even further.

Here are some of the more worrisome new provisions. Let’s start with the constitutional court. Although Gergely Gulyás and János Lázár often claimed that the competence of the court will be restored in the new constitution, that is not the case. The court will not be able to rule on financial matters. Also, there will be a change in the election process and the tenure of the chief justice. Today the chief justice is elected by his fellow justices for a period of three years. According to the new constitution he will be elected by parliament for a twelve-year term. One must keep in mind that the frequent reference to the Hungarian parliament as the best guarantee of the present regime’s democratic practices is a laugh. After all, the Fidesz-KDNP members of parliament were hand-picked by Viktor Orbán himself, and not one of them would dare go against the chief’s will. So, basically, it depends on Viktor Orbán alone who will be elected to what position.

At the moment Péter Paczolay is the chief justice; he was elected in 2008. Thus his term as chief justice expires this year. So, let’s assume that “parliament” elects István Stumpf, a member of the first Orbán government. He will be the chief justice until 2023.

I wrote earlier that the Supreme Court (Legfelsőbb Bíróság) will be replaced by the traditional court known as the Kúria. That may and most likely will mean the replacement of András Baka as head of the Supreme Court. András Baka was nominated by László Sólyom and Baka is not exactly the favorite of the current government. Especially since he had grave reservations about the nullification of crimes committed during the 2006 September-October events.

The new constitution also extends the tenure of the chairman of the national bank. Currently it is six years but if the constitution is accepted, and why wouldn’t it be, the new bank chairman will be able to serve for nine years. András Simor’s tenure will expire in 2013–that is, if he has enough perseverance–and therefore a Fidesz man can fill the position until 2022.

The positions of chief prosecutor and head of the accounting office were taken care of earlier. Péter Polt, a key member of what Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) called in a 2001 article the “szervezett felvilág” (organized upperworld instead of underworld), may remain in his position until he reaches the age of seventy (2025) because his possible successor must also be elected by a two-thirds majority. The head of the accounting office, László Domokos, received a twelve-year term. He will be there until 2022. In brief, if we start counting with the beginning of the current Fidesz government these key posts will remain in Fidesz hands through three election cycles.

The role of the “annoying” ombudsmen will be seriously curtailed. Currently there are four ombudsmen (human rights, privacy issues, minority issues, and environmental issues). From here on there will be only one ombudsman who may name a certain number of deputies. Máté Szabó (human rights) most likely will be removed because he is an especially bothersome fellow. Considering that the Hungarian government in its role as rotating president of the European Union made solving the Roma issue an important goal, its elimination of the position of ombudsman for minorities, currently held by a man of Gypsy origins, is interesting to say the least. I might also note that while the constitution is defending sign language, minority languages are not mentioned in the document.

There are serious attempts in the constitution to eliminate elements of the welfare state. For example, here are a couple of important changes. The current constitution declares that “the citizens of the Hungarian Republic have the right to social security.” The new draft states that “Hungary is endeavoring to provide social security to all its citizens.” As for pensions for citizens, the current constitution talks about “the right to provisions in old age” while the new one states that “Hungary contributes to the provision of livelihood in old age.” That explains an item in the new constitution: “adult children are obliged to provide for parents in need.”

Although most people thought that the hair-raising idea of extra votes on behalf of children under the age of eighteen will not be included in the draft, this crazy notion made its appearance after all. Originally, it was the idea of József Szájer (MEP) who allegedly drafted the new constitution on his iPad, but by now this notion has gained a certain respectability within Fidesz circles. For example, yesterday Lajos Kósa, one of the vice chairmen of the party, gave an interview to the far-right Magyar Hírlap in which in his usual blunt way he announced that the old folks who are the most conscientious voters shouldn’t be the ones who decide the future. I guess, after all, they will be dead in ten years or so and their children and grandchildren will be stranded with their choices. That’s why young and middle-aged people should have extra votes. I would like to remind Mr. Kósa what happened to Fidesz in 1993-94 when Viktor Orbán said something similar about those old folks. Within a few months, Fidesz moved from a leading position to having the smallest parliamentary delegation in the House.

I’m sure that a more careful comparison of the two constitutions will reveal additional substantive provisions that might change the course of Hungary’s future. But for the time being there is enough here to ponder on.

March 13, 2011

Whose constitution?

At the moment it looks as if the new constitution that was considered to be key to Viktor Orbán’s plans for the country’s “renewal” might be a document drafted only by Fidesz and Jobbik. At least Jobbik’s András Baczó announced today that the party has decided to return and participate in the process. Earlier MSZP announced that it would not take part in “the circus,” as they called the hurried writing of this important document. If tomorrow LMP decides on non-participation, as is likely, the new Hungarian constitution will be written by a party that is, according to its leader’s description, right wing, Christian and nationalist, and Jobbik, a party of the extreme right reflecting an ideology that can be described as neo-Nazi. What a prospect.

It must be embarrassing and perhaps also politically uncomfortable for Fidesz to be in this situation, especially after the U.S. State Department made it clear that “a constitution is not just another law–it needs to reflect not only universal values but also a broad non-partisan consensus on how to structure a country’s governance,” as Pamela Quanrud, assistant undersecretary for Europe, said in her speech at the panel discussion organized by the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies the other day. Surely, a constitution that is drafted by two right-wing parties will not “reflect the general will of a substantial portion of the population” and therefore it will be suspect in the eyes of foreign governments of democratic persuasion.

In the last few days, there have been attempts to persuade the other parties to participate in the process, but it seems that the only result is Jobbik’s return, which certainly isn’t helping Fidesz’s situation. Orbán made a mistake at the very beginning when he pretty well allowed the Christian Democratic Party (or rather non-party) to run the show in the parliamentary subcommittee created to lay down the principles on which the text of the constitution will be based. The chairman of the subcommittee is the Christian Democrat László Salamon who has a mission: to make sure that the new constitution contains three important “Christian values.” First, life begins at conception and thus the rather liberal abortion laws must be changed; second, marriage is a bond between a man and a woman; and finally, legal families must have special privileges as opposed to the ever increasing number of “families” where the couple never married.

On Salamon’s insistence, these “Christian values” were included in a seventeen-page summary of the basic concepts of the new constitution. Salamon duly passed this document on to Fidesz. The two government parties just held a three-day meeting in Siófok where among other things the recommendations of Salamon’s subcommittee were discussed. Great was Salamon’s surprise when he, like all the other participants, received a shortened version of his document from which his three “Christian values” were missing. He was outraged. According to Salamon, as far as he and his party are concerned these were to be the cornerstones of the new constitution and if these items are missing one ought not even bother to create a new document. He threatened that the Christian Democrats would refuse to vote for the denuded constitution. Orbán wasn’t moved because in his opinion any tightening of the present law on abortion would mean his party’s fall at the next elections if not earlier.

But there were other points of contention between Viktor Orbán and the Christian Democrats. Orbán, realizing that this Fidesz-Christian Democratic-Jobbik constitution will not float abroad, pretty well sidestepped Salamon and his subcommittee and appointed a new body headed by József Szájer, a European parliamentary member. Szájer’s committee by now is the second non-parliamentary body that is supposed “to think about the concepts of a new constitution.” This new committee is an odd one just as the earlier one was. The members are János Csáki, a businessman and currently Hungarian ambassador in London; József Pálinkás, a physicist and president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; Zsigmond Járai, economist and former president of the Hungarian National Bank; and Katalin Szili, former MSZP speaker of the house who belonged to MSZP’s left wing. Szili’s role in this whole sordid business is outright shameful. Moreover, what these people know about constitutional law is a mystery to everybody.

One can easily imagine Salamon’s reaction to the creation of this new committee. Moreover, Szájer came up with an entirely new plan; he announced at the meeting yesterday that they will “put aside” the seventeen-page recommendations of Salamon’s committee and instead will ask every party to submit their own ideas about the new constitution. Fidesz is trying to coax the other parties back to the drafting table.

Today Ferenc Gyurcsány in his blog expressed his own opinion about the conditions under which MSZP might be willing to cooperate on the drafting of a new constitution. He outlined three conditions for joining the talks: (1) For the acceptance of a new constitution 80% of parliament must vote for it. Here I should mention that during the Horn government (1994-1998) there was an attempt to adopt a new constitution and the government in anticipation changed the law for this sole purpose. In fact, the government didn’t manage to get the necessary votes. Fidesz a few months ago got rid of this provision. (2) All the “bogus” committees that were set up by Viktor Orbán should be disbanded and again with 80% of the votes a parliamentary body drawing on all parties should be established. (3) Before the constitution is adopted there should be a referendum.

It is highly unlikely that Fidesz will agree to these demands. It is also highly unlikely that MSZP and LMP will be enticed by Szájer’s offer because by now they most likely don’t trust anything Fidesz says or does. Perhaps the best thing would be simply to announce a temporary retreat. Perhaps a later date might be more conducive to the creation of a new constitution. After all, the present one is democratic and functional. Yes, perhaps it could be written more elegantly and more precisely, but it will do for a few more years since it worked reasonably well in the last twenty years. But such a retreat would be difficult, especially after Orbán made such a big deal out of the constitution in his latest speech.

According to the media, the three-day meeting in Siófok was supposed to discuss the austerity program the world has been anxiously waiting for. Yet it seems that the topic wasn’t even mentioned. Let’s hope that the pieces are in place and no discussion was necessary because everybody is expecting Orbán to announce the details of the austerity program in parliament on Monday.

February 11, 2011