Tag Archives: Hungarian parliament

Viktor Orbán’s regime under fire at home and abroad

It is difficult nowadays to write a post about the Hungarian political scene since it is almost impossible to predict what may happen in the next few minutes on the streets of Budapest, which are again filled with demonstrators.

One thing I have been pondering today in view of the latest U.S.-Hungarian clash over the Central European University (CEU) is the Orbán regime’s total ignorance of the workings of the U.S. government. Throughout the presidential campaign, interest in the Clinton/Trump duel was just as intense in Hungary as anywhere else in Europe. Yet day after day it was apparent that a great many journalists as well as politically engaged citizens were unfamiliar with even the most basic principles of the U.S. electoral law. I found this depressing. But when politicians who are supposed to make decisions affecting U.S.-Hungarian relations are ignorant of how U.S. diplomacy functions, we are in real trouble. And unfortunately, this is increasingly the case.

In the last three years the whole Hungarian diplomatic corps was decimated, and their places were filled with party loyalists who had no diplomatic experience. But even those who in the past 20 years were in important diplomatic positions and who are considered to be Atlantists, i.e. working for better U.S.-Hungarian relations, can come up with mind-boggling idiocies. The latest example comes from Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the foreign ministry between 1998 and 2002 and again between 2010 and 2014. Commenting on Hoyt Brian Yee’s message to the Hungarian government, he said that Yee’s report on the U.S. government’s support for CEU is “only an opinion and in any case we are talking only about a deputy assistant secretary. Moreover, as far as I know, he has held this position for the last few years, so we ought to wait for the answer of the present American administration as to whether we can sign an agreement that would make CEU’s continued work possible.” What dilettantism and what arrogance, said Zsolt Kerner of 24.hu. The Orbán government assumed (and of course hoped) that the American response still reflected the thinking of the Obama administration. But a few hours after Németh’s comment Mark C. Toner, spokesperson of the State Department, confirmed Yee’s message. The most important sentence of Toner’s lengthy answer to a journalistic question was: “We’re urging the Government of Hungary to suspend implementation of the law.” The message cannot be clearer. The simplistic view of the Orbán government that, for Hungary, “Democratic rule is bad, Republican rule is good” was once again proved wrong. How could Viktor Orbán have forgotten his bad luck with George W. Bush after 9/11 when his insensitivity or perhaps planned insult got him into deep trouble with the Republican administration for the rest of his term?

Viktor Orbán has been a great deal more successful in his dealings with the European Union. For years he has been hoodwinking the hapless “bureaucrats.” But the “Stop Brussels” campaign and the farcical questionnaire of the so-called National Consultation helped them see the light. At last the College under the chairmanship of First Vice-President Frans Timmermans decided “to take stock of the issues at hand, in an objective, facts-based and law-based manner” concerning “the compatibility of certain actions of the Hungarian authorities with EU law and with our shared values.” Timmermans outlined the issues the European Commission and Parliament considered troubling. Heading the list was the fate of Central European University, but right after that came the announcement that “the Commission … decided that it will prepare and make public its own response to the Hungarian Government’s ‘Stop Brussels’ consultation.”

The current European Commission

Moreover, Timmermans accused Hungary of not abiding by Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty, which reads: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” The sins of the Orbán government are numerous: its attack on CEU and the NGOs, lack of transparency of funding, asylum questions, disregard of human dignity and freedom, and a lack of respect for human rights, tolerance, and solidarity. Of course, we have heard all this before, but what’s different this time is that Timmermans announced that they will complete the legal assessment of the Hungarian situation as soon as possible and “the College will consider next steps on any legal concerns by the end of the month.” In the European Union, where everything takes months if not years, the Hungarian issue seems to have priority. The EU’s criticisms didn’t go unnoticed in Poland. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski, in an interview with MTI, the Hungarian news agency, labeled Timmermans’ announcement “blackmail.” Péter Szijjártó called it a “pathetic accusation.”

I left to the end a development that I find extremely important. Viktor Orbán’s whole political system relies on a three-pronged parliamentary structure. Fidesz is the “center power” with two opposition groups on its flanks: Jobbik on the right and assorted smaller parties on the left, where the right and left have diametrically opposed ideologies. This was the situation in Hungary between the two world wars, which ensured the government party’s supremacy from 1920 to 1944. The genius of this arrangement is that these two poles, due to their ideological incompatibility, are unlikely to unite against the middle.

But in the CEU case Jobbik opted to join ranks with the left. In Hungary 25% of parliamentary members can demand a review of a law by the Constitutional Court, even if it has already been signed by the president. LMP decided to invoke this procedure to trigger a Court review of the new anti-CEU law. To reach the 25% threshold LMP needed to muster 50 votes. If only LMP (5), MSZP (28), and all the independents (11) were to vote for the initiative, they would come up short. But Jobbik decided to add its 24 votes. Demokratikus Koalíció (4), whose members sit with the independents, opted not to join the others because DK doesn’t consider the Fidesz-majority Constitutional Court a legitimate body. Thus, 64 members of parliament joined together in an action against Fidesz. Of course, the Jobbik spokesman emphasized that the decision was made only to save the rule of law in Hungary, and he kept repeating that this doesn’t mean an endorsement of George Soros or his university. But the fact remains that Jobbik decided to join the rest of the opposition. (At the time of the vote on the law on higher education they simply didn’t vote.) This Jobbik decision may have significant consequences.

As I write this, tens of thousands are demonstrating in Budapest, all over the city. The cause is no longer just CEU and the NGOs but democracy and a free Hungary.

April 12, 2017

Hungarian mission in the fight against ISIS: Fidesz needed the help of the opposition

This morning the Hungarian parliament approved the country’s participation in the international effort against ISIS forces in northern Iraq and Syria. But before I break down today’s vote, I must go back a bit to set the stage.

In 2014 Viktor Orbán made some fleeting remarks about Hungary’s joining forces with other nations in fighting terrorism, a decision that requires a two-thirds majority vote in parliament. At that point, I’m sure, the Fidesz leadership never imagined that its candidate might be defeated in the Veszprém by-election. But the government had something else to worry about. Apparently at this juncture not all members of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation were ready to back the proposal, which the government deemed necessary for bettering U.S.-Hungarian relations.

With the Veszprém election in February Fidesz’s two-thirds majority evaporated. Even if the leaders of the two government parties managed to convince all of their parliamentary members to vote for the proposal, without support from the opposition it would have gone down in defeat. The numbers were simply not there. It was at this point that Viktor Orbán called together the opposition parties to convince them to support the government on this issue.

A few days later, in early March, the press department of the Demokratikus Koalicíó (DK) announced that their members in parliament (four in all) would most likely support the government and thus secure the necessary two-thirds majority. The party spokesman explained that although DK is deeply opposed to the present government, they consider “ISIS a threat to Europe and our western democratic world. To stand against such a threat is our basic human and moral obligation. We cannot watch idly the destruction and mass murders” committed by the ISIS rebels. DK also announced, however, that the party would not send a representative to discuss the details of the mission with Viktor Orbán and Péter Szijjártó because “of their strenuous opposition to the political system of Orbán.” The only thing they insisted on was being well informed on the preparedness of the Hungarian military for the task.

The other opposition parties did meet with the prime minister and the minister of foreign affairs and trade, but unlike DK they were less than sanguine about the mission, a force of 150 Hungarian men to defend army bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. LMP said that its five-member parliamentary delegation would vote against such a proposal. András Schiffer, the party’s co-chairman, explained that ever since 2010 LMP had never supported the military participation of Hungarian troops in foreign missions unless the country was compelled to do so by international treaties. Since Hungary’s NATO membership does not demand that the country take part in this particular mission, LMP would vote against the bill. In fact, Schiffer said that he, as the leader of the group, would insist on party discipline and hence a compulsory “nay” vote.

Erbil. This is where the Hungarians troops going

Erbil. This is where the Hungarians troops are going

Jobbik also strenuously objected. The only support the party could imagine giving to anti-ISIS forces was humanitarian aid. Márton Gyöngyösi, Jobbik’s foreign policy expert, wouldn’t even agree to supply weapons and ammunition to those fighting this terrorist group. I might add here that, already in August 2014, Hungary sent weapons to the Peshmerga forces. According to Gyöngyösi, “although Jobbik condemns the violence against Christians and non-extremist Muslims, the size and preparedness of the country are not sufficient for undertaking such a mission which, in addition, would increase the threat of terrorism against our homeland.” Moreover, the United States shouldn’t try to rely on its allies when “it is the United States that is responsible for the destabilization of Iraq and Syria.”

MSZP as usual sat on the fence. First they wanted to know whether the other parliamentary delegations would support the mission. They also wanted to ascertain before deciding whether the Fidesz and KDNP delegations’ vote would be unanimous. Their final word was that they would discuss the matter informally.

If I recall, DK’s offer was initially received with ridicule in the pro-government media. What can the government do with four extra votes? The group is too small to make a difference. But today, when the Fidesz-KDNP delegation is short two votes, four votes from opposition politicians make a big difference. And, in the end, DK members were not the only ones who supported the government.

This morning in parliament the bill passed by a vote of 137 to 57. So, 194 members of parliament were present out of 199. Viktor Orbán was absent because he had some urgent business in Zalaegerszeg. The Jobbik parliamentary delegation voted against the mission to a man. The MSZP vote was mixed. Two members, István Hiller and Ágnes Kunhalmi, most likely flouting party discipline, simply didn’t vote, thus expressing their disagreement with the final MSZP decision. Apparently a huge debate preceded the actual voting, where many argued that voting with Jobbik on this issue might not do much for MSZP’s image, but at the end the leadership decided “not to assist Viktor Orbán in his peacock dance.” They believe that Orbán’s sudden interest in the ISIS mission is only a cheap tool for improving U.S.-Hungarian relations, while the government continues to paper over other outstanding issues like the still pending corruption cases under U.S. scrutiny.

As expected, all five members of the LMP caucus voted against the bill. In addition, the sole parliamentary member of PM, Tímea Szabó, joined Jobbik, MSZP, and LMP and cast her vote against sending the mission to Iraq. That vote was also somewhat anticipated. After all, PM came into existence after their members deserted Schiffer’s LMP. Finally, Péter Kónya, an independent member but previously chairman of Solidarity, also was among the nays.

So, who were the people from the Hungarian democratic opposition who voted for the bill? All four members of DK–Ferenc Gyurcsány, Lajos Oláh, Ágnes Vadai, and László Varju; Zsuzsanna Szelényi and Szabolcs Szabó from Együtt; Gábor Fodor, founder of the Magyar Liberális Párt; and Zoltán Kész, the newly elected independent member of parliament representing Veszprém County’s #1 electoral district.

I’m fairly certain that the majority of Hungarians are against sending soldiers to Iraq, so it took a certain amount of courage on the part of the smaller democratic parties to vote with Fidesz. Yet they took the risk. Ágnes Vadai, in the name of DK, stressed the party’s commitment to “the trans-atlantic alliance, European values, and universal human rights.” Zsuzsanna Szelényi, on behalf of Együtt, said that “Hungary must be present in the world.” Fodor also emphasized the necessity of good relations between Hungary and the United States.

As for István Hiller and Ágnes Kunhalmi, I wasn’t surprised that they were the ones who just couldn’t vote against the mission. They are members of the so-called social-democratic platform of the party, which I consider the most progressive wing of MSZP. It will be worth keeping an eye on them to see whether they can help shape the future of MSZP and its relations with the other smaller democratic parties.