Tag Archives: István Stumpf

How not to pick a constitutional judge: LMP’s choices I

Parties of the democratic opposition are up in arms. They are outraged at the assistance LMP extended to Fidesz to score an important parliamentary victory, the approval of four new judges for the Constitutional Court.

MSZP in the last minute tried to delay the inevitable by instructing its representative on the nominating committee to resign ahead of the vote. With his resignation the committee, which according to house rules must have at least nine members, no longer had a quorum. The MSZP tactic might have been clever, but the socialists didn’t count on Fidesz’s total disregard for rules and regulations. The majority party could have opted to get another member to replace MSZP’s representative and, let’s say a week later, finalize the nominations. No, they simply went ahead. This time not even Gergely Gulyás, Fidesz’s legal magician, could give a half-believable explanation for the vote’s alleged legality. Because of the decision to go ahead with the nominations despite the lack of a quorum, the opposition parties consider the entire procedure by which these four people were appointed illegitimate.

The Károly Eötvös Intézet, the liberal legal think tank, hasn’t changed its opinion in the last year. Just as in January, the legal scholars working there consider LMP’s decision the worst possible move. Their position is that the Constitutional Court ever since its enlargement with four Fidesz-appointed judges has not been an independent court but an arm of Fidesz’s political will. It no longer fulfills its function. As it stands, there are seven judges who will always vote in favor of the government while four on occasion will express a contrary opinion. The four new judges, considered to be “conservative,” will make the situation even worse. And no judge will have to retire from the court before 2023.

That leads me to the problem of vetting nominees. It has happened in the past, when all parties participated in the nominating process, that the socialist-liberal nominee turned out to be much more conservative than anticipated. One reason for these “mistakes” is the lack of a body of legal work on the basis of which the candidate’s legal philosophy could be judged. A good example of this was the choice of Mihály Bihari by MSZP and SZDSZ. Although he had a law degree, he had worked as a political scientist. There was no reliable way to assess his legal views. A somewhat similar situation occurred when Fidesz nominated István Stumpf, again a political scientist, to the court in 2010. Judging by his past, he should have been an absolutely safe choice from Viktor Orbán’s point of view. After all, Stumpf served as Orbán’s chief of staff between 1998 and 2002. But he turned out to be much less reliable than expected. The same problem exists with people who have been practicing judges and have no published work on the basis of which one could assess their legal thinking. Among the new appointees Ildikó Marosi falls into this category. She has been working as a judge, dealing with administrative and labor cases.

Although all opposition parties are highly critical of LMP’s role in this affair, the Demokratikus Koalíció is the most outspoken in its condemnation of the party. Csaba Molnár, one of the deputy chairmen of DK, tore into Ákos Hadházy on ATV’s “Szabad szemmel” (Open eyes). It quickly became apparent that Hadházy had not the foggiest idea about the legal views of the nominees his predecessor, András Schiffer, had picked.

molnar-hadhazy2

Csaba Molnár and Ákos Hadházy on ATV’s “Szabad szemmel”

A lot of people, including me, hoped that under the leadership of Hadházy LMP would be more willing to cooperate with the other opposition parties. I remember vividly when he announced that any kind of a deal or coalition with Fidesz is absolutely out of the question as long as he is the co-chairman of LMP. Hadházy normally makes a very good impression on people. He comes across as a modest, earnest, idealistic man who isn’t quite at home in the world of politics. Unfortunately, he is also naïve. He doesn’t seem to understand how differences in legal philosophy shape how judges interpret the constitution. When Molnár tried to explain to him that at least three of the nominees come from the conservative legal camp, which would further strengthen the pro-Fidesz majority, Hadházy naively shot back: “And conservative people cannot be honest?”

In any case, poor Hadházy was demolished under the weight of the facts DK gathered on the legal and political past of the nominees. Hadházy could only mumble: “Well, I didn’t know that, I will have to check on this.” This was Hadházy’s answer to Molnár’s claim that Bálint Schanda’s views on abortion are so extreme that, if it depended on him, he would forbid pharmacists to fill valid prescriptions signed by a physician for the morning-after pill.

The fact is that Schanda writes almost exclusively on legal questions concerning religion. The list of his publications is a mile long, and some of them are available online. If it depended on Schanda, stores would be closed on Sundays because believers (Christians) should have the opportunity to follow the Scripture, which forbids any kind of work on the Sabbath. This is part of the freedom of religion in his opinion.

He can be critical of the government, but his criticism comes from his religious convictions and his special interest in the defense of the family. For example, he didn’t like the idea of keeping children in school all day long, which he considers to be a “left-wing notion” popular in Western Europe. That’s why he was surprised to learn that the conservative Fidesz government had decided to introduce such schools. He finds the idea of the state’s taking over the “nurturing” of children from the family unacceptable. Church schools, however, are different because the parents expressly grant the church the task of educating their children.

Schanda also liked the idea of “family electoral law.” That is, that parents, depending on the number of children they had, could have multiple votes. Admittedly, he doesn’t want Hungary to rush into being the first country in the world to introduce such a law, but “this question cannot be a taboo; it would be foolish simply to discard it without seriously considering it.” In the article he practically suggests starting preparatory work for such a piece of legislation to be introduced later. Perhaps if Ákos Hadházy took the time to read a couple of Shanda’s articles he would better understand the impact of legal philosophy on people’s daily lives.

Finally, Csaba Molnár brought up an article by Schanda that he published in Magyar Kurir, which is the official newspaper of the Conference of the Hungarian Catholic Bishops. The short article’s title was “Pope Francis and zero tolerance.” It was about the vexing question of pedophilia. Schanda explains that there is nothing new in Pope Francis’s announcement because the church has had strict laws concerned pedophilia since 2001. Zero tolerance in this case simply means that a priest accused of this particular crime is immediately suspended, which he approves of. He cautions, however, about exaggerating the problem “because according to American studies pedophilia among Catholic priests in comparison to lay teachers is infinitesimal.”

The only study on pedophilia among Catholic priests I found was from 2004. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice published a comprehensive study in which it was claimed that 4% of Catholic priests in the U.S. had sexually victimized minors in the past half century. This seems to be somewhat lower than school teachers during the same time frame. Well, “somewhat lower” is not “infinitesimally” less. Moreover, it is very possible that victims of priests are less willing to confront church authorities than victims of teachers are to go to civil authorities. But this is a small point and not an important one. What, on the other hand, I found disingenuous was his claim that “in the former socialist countries the proportion of such acts in comparison to western countries is much lower.” At this point I had to laugh. What makes Polish, Hungarian or Slovak priests less prone to committing such crimes? Their countries’ socialist past? Or, perhaps something else, like a lower rate of reporting and a higher rate of covering up cases. Schanda even tries to cast doubt on the seriousness of the very few stories that emerged in the last few years in Hungary by saying that the media used these cases to incite anti-church sentiment in the population. Moreover, he claims that these cases were exploited by political parties. Obviously, the socialist-liberal parties.

In the summer of 2011 I devoted four posts to the four Fidesz-picked judges, asking “how qualified will the new judges in the Hungarian Constitutional Court be?” I’m planning to do the same this time.

November 23, 2016

Joining forces? Conservatives raise their voices

I will start this post with a piece of news that at first glance may not seem especially noteworthy.

Viktor Orbán’s grandiose plans for rebuilding large portions of Budapest include the creation of a “museum quarters,” part of which would be built in Városliget, the Hungarian capital’s more modest Central Park. The city, especially the Pest side, is very short on green areas, and from the very beginning many people objected to the project on ecological grounds. Others objected to Viktor Orbán’s burning desire to move his office into the historic castle district, within whose medieval walls Hungarian kings once resided. Today parts of the royal castle, built in the nineteenth century, are used to house the National Library and the National Gallery. Among Viktor Orbán’s extravagant plans is the reconstruction of the monstrously huge royal castle, which requires moving both the National Gallery and the National Library elsewhere. The trouble is that there are no suitable buildings where these two important institutions could be relocated. Hence, the idea of a “museum quarters” and perhaps even a new building for the National Library somewhere near the National Museum in downtown Pest. All this would, of course, cost an enormous amount of money and would, in the process, destroy the “city park.”

Until recently the people who were actively opposing these plans came from the ranks of those who were also critical of the political system Viktor Orbán has been creating in the last six years. But dissatisfaction with Viktor Orbán’s regime is spreading, and we find that more and more conservatives no longer think that criticizing Fidesz is tantamount to making a pact with the communist devils. In fact, they have been joining forces. Admittedly, their criticism is limited. They are not ready to admit that Viktor Orbán’s whole edifice is rotten, but they seem to have overcome their passivity and their reluctance to come to grips with the painful truth that they were duped.

The government invited well-known architects, city planners, and museum directors to help come up with a coherent plan but, as usual, members of the government who were in charge of the project went ahead with their own ideas without paying the slightest attention to the experts. Eventually, last December, the invited experts had enough and resigned en bloc. It was this group that began a protest on Facebook against the “takeover of the Castle” and the construction of large buildings in the city park. They approached well-known intellectuals and public personages to join their protest. The list includes such names as József Ángyán, former undersecretary of agriculture in the second Orbán government; Géza Jeszenszky, former foreign minister and ambassador to Washington and Oslo; Levente Szőrényi, a composer with right-leaning views; Tamás Mellár, a conservative economist; and József Zelnik, a Christian Democrat who is the deputy president of the much-criticized Magyar Művészeti Akadémia, a gathering place of ideologically driven artists. Géza Jeszenszky warned in a radio interview today that there are times when a government must listen to the voice of the people, and it can go against their wishes only at its own peril. The enormous amount of money being spent on this ego trip of Viktor Orbán should instead be spent on education and healthcare.

Aerial photograph of Városliget

Aerial photograph of Városliget

A more important sign of change in the attitude of former Fidesz politicians who foresee possible disaster at the end of the road on which Viktor Orbán has embarked can be found in two studies written recently in a volume of essays titled A magyar polgár (The Hungarian citoyen). They were written by Péter Tölgyessy, a jurist and political scientist, and István Stumpf, head of the prime minister’s office in the first Orbán administration and currently a moderate member of the Constitutional Court.

I will have to postpone an analysis of Tölgyessy’s essay titled “From dead-end to dead-end” because of the pressures of time and space. Today I’ll limit myself to Stumpf’s essay about the metamorphosis of a group of college students. Of course, he is talking about one particular group of students under his care. He admits at the beginning that he is biased because his life has been closely intertwined with the fate of these former college students, so he tries to rely on “Weberian sociology in the interpretation of their behavior.”

When it comes to Fidesz’s early political activities, Stumpf is anything but objective. He finds it difficult to face Fidesz’s “first metamorphosis” from a liberal to a conservative party which, in my opinion, was a radical ideological change that signaled its party leader’s lack of principles and insatiable appetite for power at any cost. He glides through the first Orbán government in which he was deputy to Viktor Orbán between 2000 and 2002, viewing it as a positive period in which the only serious problem was “the style of governing.” I don’t expect István Stumpf to critically dissect the Orbán government’s political moves during this period, but if he were capable of doing so he would discover that the first Orbán government did not “respect the constitutional demands of the rule of law.” The truth, which Stumpf is incapable of seeing, is that the only reason that Viktor Orbán and his cohorts “respected” the constitutional court was that they didn’t have enough power to squash it.

So, what brought about the change in Viktor Orbán’s thinking between 2002 and 2010? “It became clear to him” that “the whole structure of the regime change must be destroyed,” including all its accomplishments. The political failures Fidesz had experienced taught its leaders “to look upon politics as a battlefield and use their majority ruthlessly.” At this point Stumpf sets out a long laundry list describing all those moves that “significantly eroded the belief in constitutional democracy.” Here again, we catch him trying to minimize the sins of the Orbán regime. The Orbán government’s policies didn’t “erode the belief in democracy,” as he claims, but it ate away at democracy itself. The huge problems created by incompetence and the neglect of education and healthcare are described by Stumpf merely as “functional woes which created dissatisfaction even among conservative members of the elite.”

After another paragraph listing accomplishments, this time on the international stage, Stumpf arrives at the most important part of his short essay. “These successes cover like thick fog the tensions that have been brewing in wider and wider segments of society. The majority of the country’s citizens are not in a euphoric mood.” Today Hungary is not an attractive country for its young citizens, and “if a country loses its talented youth, if they feel no affinity for politics, and if instead of knowledge and expertise the path of a career depends on loyalty alone, then Hungary will not become a country with a future.”

I know that many of you will say that this is not much, given the terrible damage that Stumpf’s favorite college boys have inflicted on the country and on the fabric of Hungarian democracy. But, for the time being at least, we will have to be satisfied with it. In the last six years we haven’t heard a peep, at least not publicly, from supporters of Fidesz and admirers of Viktor Orbán. Even a few months ago it would have been very difficult to imagine István Stump’s essay appearing in the same volume as essays by Iván Szelényi, Péter Felcsuti, Péter György, Éva Palócz, Virág Erdős, Zsuzsa Ferge, Krisztián Grecsó, Péter Nádas, and Pál Závada. This is a first step and, as they say, the first step is always the hardest.

March 18, 2016

A shameful verdict: The Court finds the new Budapest electoral law consitutional

Now that Viktor Orbán has seen the light and convinced Péter Szentmihályi Szabó to shelve his ambitions to be the next Hungarian ambassador to Rome, I am returning to the domestic scene, which is not pretty either.

Although hardly a day goes by without some horrendous attack on Hungarian democracy, this week’s greatest abomination was the 8 to 7 decision of the Constitutional Court affirming the constitutionality of the new law governing elections in Budapest. Once, back in May, I wrote about Fidesz plans to completely change the electoral system in Budapest. Why? Simple. After the April elections it looked as if Fidesz’s position was not secure in the capital. And naturally, in Fidesz’s view, no election can ever be lost. By hook or by crook they will win. The party and its leader will march resolutely from victory to victory for time immemorial. And so a devilish plan was devised to ensure victory.

Since I went into the details of previous system in May, here let me just summarize it briefly. In the past the lord mayor (főpolgármester) was elected directly by all the eligible voters in Budapest. District mayors were chosen only by the inhabitants of the 23 districts. In addition, there were party lists on the basis of which the 32-member city council was elected. What particularly bothered Fidesz was that the opposition might get a majority on the city council given the fact that numerically more Budapest people voted for the opposition parties than for Fidesz. After some clever mathematics they came up with a solution: simply abolish the city council as it exists today and replace it with a body composed of the 23 district mayors. This body could then be joined by nine people from the so-called compensation lists of the losers. Thus, including the lord mayor, it would have 33 members, just as it has now.

But from day one it was clear that this scheme is glaringly unconstitutional because it violates the one person, one vote principle that is fundamental in a functioning democracy. This disproportionality is due to the varying sizes of the districts. Here are some examples. While District I (the Castle district) has 24,679 inhabitants, District III has 127,602.  District V (Antal Rogán’s domain) has 26,048 while District XIII has 119,275. I guess you will not be terribly surprised to learn that the smaller districts lean heavily toward the right. Thus, the Castle District where no socialist or liberal has ever won will be represented on the city council by one person as will the socialist District XIII.

As soon as this problem was discovered–and it didn’t take long–the Fidesz “election experts” started to tinker with the proposed law and introduced all sorts of amendments that were supposed to remedy the situation. Their attempts eventually made the system extremely complicated without satisfying the constitutional requirements. In a very rare moment of unity, all parliamentary members of the opposition–including Jobbik and LMP–turned to the Constitutional Court for a ruling on the issue. That was in June. On Monday at last the judges handed down their decision. It was a very close vote, especially considering the composition of the court: 8 out of the 15 judges found the law, by and large, constitutional.

One ought to keep in mind that the majority of the judges were appointed by Fidesz after the “court-packing scheme” was introduced. In addition, there are two judges who were put forth by Fidesz earlier. Currently there are only three judges on the court who were nominated by MSZP, one of whom will have to retire in September and two others in March 2016.  After that time there will not be one member of the court who was not a Fidesz appointee. As it is, seven out of the eight judges who were nominated by Fidesz since 2010 found the law constitutional; the one exception refused to concur because he couldn’t agree with the majority on the one side issue it found unconstitutional. So, this is where we stand.

A rather telling picture of the current Hungarian Constitutional Court Source: Népszabadság

A rather telling picture of the current Hungarian Constitutional Court. Source: Népszabadság

Several judges wrote separate opinions. Perhaps the  hardest hitting was that of the chief justice, Peter Paczolay, who is considered by legal experts to be conservative. He was endorsed by both parties and since his term will be up next February I guess he doesn’t particularly care what Viktor Orbán thinks of him. He pointed out that “the present case does not merely touch on constitutional issues but on the right to vote that is the very basis of democracy.” According to him, this Fidesz-created law “is entirely contrary to the fundamental principle of equality.” Moreover, he added that some of his colleagues did not fulfill their professional duties and instead wrote a decision that was dictated by the interests of a political party. Pretty tough words.

András Bragyova (MSZP), who will be leaving the court in September, had nothing to lose either. In his opinion the new “council will not be an elected body although the constitution states that Budapest must have its own self-government.” It is an unconstitutional creation. Moreover, he noted that while the constitution demands self-government for the city as a whole, the election of district mayors is not specifically mentioned in the constitution. As he wittily remarked,  “from here on instead of Budapest having districts, the districts will have a capital city.”

The behavior of István Stumpf, an old Fidesz hand and Viktor Orbán’s former college professor who doesn’t always toe the party line, was the strangest. He voted this time with the slim majority, but he wrote a separate opinion in which he objected to changing the electoral law only months ahead of the election.

NGOs such as the Hungarian Helsinki Commission and TASZ as well as independent electoral law experts are appalled by the poor quality of the opinion that was written by Béla Pokol. Viktor Orbán chose him to serve on the court despite the fact that he is opposed to the very existence of a constitutional court. His judicial views are also extreme.

Csaba Horváth (MSZP), who ran against current lord mayor István Tarlós in 2010, declared that this decision demonstrates that the last bastion of democracy, the Constitutional Court, has been captured by the enemies of democracy. Some people contemplate boycotting the election but most are ready to face the music. Between Fidesz and the totally incompetent opposition a huge Fidesz win seems to be shaping up for October 12.

Viktor Orbán is up to something and that something is nothing good

Index came out with it first. It seems that feelers are being put out, most likely indirectly by the prime minister’s office, about people’s opinion of changing the Hungarian governmental structure from a parliamentary to a semi-presidential system. The client who ordered the survey seems to be specifically interested in whom people would like to see in the post of president.

A few months ago Péter Hack, a former member of parliament and a constitutional lawyer, called the topic of Viktor Orbán as the next president “an evergreen subject” which has been around for at least twenty-five years. Indeed, the topic was hotly debated during the discussions of the opposition in 1989. If it had depended on MDF, a right of center party, the president would have been directly elected by the voters, and they even had their favorite candidate, former member of the Politburo Imre Pozsgay. Fidesz and SZDSZ managed to thwart that plan and Hungary remained a purely parliamentary system in which the president has little power and is elected by the parliament.

After the 1989-1990 debate no one brought up the desirability of changing the constitutional order until 2004 when István Stumpf talked about the advantages of such a system. Four years later in a television interview he specifically spoke of the possibility that Viktor Orbán could become president one day, but naturally only if “the presidency would be reinforced.” Surely, a mostly ceremonial role would not suit Viktor Orbán’s temperament and political ambitions.

As usual, Viktor Orbán changed his mind on the subject frequently. In the fall of 2009 he declared that he is a devotee of the parliamentary system, which has a long tradition in Hungary. Yet when in 2010, after the election, a preliminary committee was assembled to write a new constitution, a change to a semi-presidential system was envisaged. As you may recall, that preliminary constitutional draft was thrown out the window so to speak, and instead the final text was written by József Szájer on his iPad on the train between Budapest and Brussels.

So, in the new constitution that was adopted in 2011 there was no mention of enlarged presidential powers. Yet we know that Orbán preferred the semi-presidential system, as he made clear in a speech delivered in the same year. There was a simple reason he did not agree to the change in the constitution: the timing was not right. No wonder that he vetoed the text of the preliminary committee working on the constitution. Viktor Orbán is no fool. He certainly did not want the immediate introduction of a strong presidency over and above himself.

But the future was something else. In 2012 he gave an interview to the German Handelsblatt in which he praised the advantages of the semi-presidential system which “is more suited for the introduction of difficult reforms.” He added that he is a devotee  of democracy, but the question should be asked whether the management structures of democracy are best for periods of crisis.

It looks as if Orbán now finds the time ripe for making a move toward a presidential system. On May 21 Népszabadság reported that Orbán discussed the possibility of occupying the post of presidency after János Áder leaves in 2017. But he emphasized that he would do so only if the president had real power. As we know, under the present circumstances, changing the constitution and declaring the president head of the government as well as head of the state is a question of only a couple of hours of phony debate in parliament and the deed is done. For that matter, if Viktor Orbán decided to transform Hungary into a constitutional monarchy he would have no difficulty with his super majority of mindless followers.

Viktor Orbán's mask in the Institute for the Blind

Viktor Orbán’s mask in the Institute for the Blind

So, what is a semi-presidential system? There are several countries where such a governmental structure exists, but perhaps the best known is post-1958 France. In this system the government is not only responsible to parliament but also to the president. It is the president who appoints the prime minister, so he is the most important political player in the land. The president’s choice of prime minister, however, depends on the composition of the parliament. It can easily happen that the prime minister belongs to one party and the president to another. In this case they split responsibilities. Normally, the president is responsible for foreign policy and the prime minister for domestic policy. This “division of labor” is not spelled out in the constitution; it simply evolved this way. But often the system does not work. There can be bitter and tense stonewalling, depending on the attitudes of the two leaders and the ideologies of their parties. Just think what would happen if Viktor Orbán were president and Ferenc Gyurcsány prime minister.

How do we know that Viktor Orbán is seriously contemplating changing the constitution in order to move over to the Sándor palota, the office of the president? A few weeks ago ATV, the only television station that represents the views of the opposition, learned that Forsense Institute, a polling company that receives many government orders, conducted a survey on the Hungarian people’s attitudes on the subject. It was a telephone survey lasting about 10-15 minutes. On June 26 the station inquired whether such a survey had taken place. At that time Forsense denied the existence of such a poll. Yesterday, however, Forsense fessed up and admitted the existence of the survey to a journalist from Index. They refused to divulge the name of the client who ordered it, but they insisted that it was not the prime minister’s office. I tend to agree. Hungary’s prime minister is far too clever to get involved directly with such an enterprise. Most likely the job was “outsourced” to someone else.

What did the pollsters want to know? Index learned that the subjects were asked very specific questions. For example, what kind of a president they would prefer if they had a choice: Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, or Silvio Berlusconi? Whom would they prefer? Viktor Orbán, János Áder, László Sólyom, or Gordon Bajnai? They wanted their opinion on whether the president’s tenure should be seven or nine years. The pollsters were especially interested in people’s political and religious views: the subjects had to divulge for which party they voted at the national and the EP elections.

It is alarming that decisions might be made on the basis of such a survey. The Hungarian voters’ knowledge of politics is frighteningly limited. How many people know the differences between the German, the Russian, the American, or the Italian system of government? How can they decide?

But the most frightening part of this latest news is that Viktor Orbán seems to be contemplating a radical change in Hungary’s constitutional order and placing himself, most likely for nine years, at the head of the government hierarchy. More than scary.

The Fidesz robber barons. Part II

Today I’m continuing the story of Fidesz’s mafia methods as perfected by Lajos Simicska, the financial wizard of the party. I will pick up the story at the time of the campaign that preceded the election of 1998, which Viktor Orbán with the help of József Torgyán, chairman of the Smallholders Party, won.

For the campaign Fidesz needed money. Lots of money. Enter Gábor Princz, chairman of Postabank, which was a state-run bank. The name of the bank accurately reflected its structure. Its branches operated at post offices and thus could reach a wide clientele. Princz ran the bank in a totally irresponsible manner and handsomely paid politicians on both sides for expected favors. He was also very generous when it came to support of the media and organizations connected to culture. Eventually, Postabank went bankrupt, but before that happened Princz used his bank’s assets to support Fidesz’s election campaign. Gábor Kuncze, chairman of the liberal SZDSZ, calculated that Postabank lent and/or gave 800 million forints to Fidesz. Since a few months later there was no Postabank, it is unlikely that Fidesz ever had to pay this money back.

If Princz thought that his generosity toward Fidesz would save him, he was wrong. One of the very first moves of the Orbán government was to remove him from his post as head of the bank. Princz moved to Austria for a while where he felt a great deal safer. Meanwhile, the government began to take care of the immense debts that Postbank had managed to accumulate. Eventually, they calculated the amount of money which according to their experts was needed to put things in order: 152 billion forints. Naturally, Princz himself doubted this figure, which was not surprising. But even people like Imre Tarafás, at the time head of the Állami Pénz- és Tőkepiaci Felügyelet, the organization that supervised bank and monetary transactions, in his report for the year 1999 claimed that the government spent far too much money trying to straighten out Postabank’s accounts. Tarafás was asked by Orbán to resign. When he declined, the government created a new office with a similar mandate and abolished Tarafás’s organization. Tarafás was not the only one who had doubts about the financial needs of Postabank. In 2006 it came to light that at the time KEHI, the government financial supervisory body, also noticed several very shady real estate deals in connection with the consolidation of Postabank. However, István Stumpf, head of the prime minister’s office, suspended any further probe into the matter. But it looks as if about 50 billion forints disappeared in the process of cleaning up the books of Postabank.

Once Fidesz won the election Viktor Orbán began building his political and financial power base. Corruption now became systemic and centralized. The Fidesz government established a number of entities that siphoned large sums of money from the public coffers. First, they set up something called Országimázs Központ (Country Image Center) whose duty it was to conduct a propaganda campaign lauding the outstanding performance of the country under Fidesz leadership. The man in charge was István Stumpf. This body handed out large contracts to two business ventures, Happy End Kft. and Ezüsthajó Kft. (Silver Ship), to stage large state events. One must keep in mind that the new millennium and the Hungarian Kingdom’s 1,000-year anniversary gave plenty of opportunity for lavish celebrations. Just the New Year’s Eve extravaganza, which by the way was a flop, cost, at least on paper, 3.75 billion forints.  Several more billions were spent on celebrations all across the country, including the smallest villages, during the Hungarian millennium year. It seems that altogether the Országimázs Központ spent almost 13 billion forints on such events, and more than 90% of that amount was received by Happy End and Ezüsthajó.

Hyde and Hyde

Hyde and Hyde / varanus.blog.hu

It would be too long to list all the phony overpaid providers who were naturally members of the Fidesz inner circle or at least people with close connections to Fidesz. It is almost certain that some of the money paid out to these firms ended up in Fidesz coffers handled by Lajos Simicska.

The really big corruption cases, however, were connected to government investments, especially highway construction. Here the key organization was a state investment bank called Magyar Fejlesztési Bank (MFB, Hungarian Development Bank). The bank was supposed to give out loans for promising business ventures.

When Lajos Simicska left APEH, he got a job at this state investment bank and came up with a fiendishly clever scheme. Road construction was not handled directly by the government but by a company called Nemzeti Autópálya Rt., which was created by MFB specifically for this purpose. The beauty of the arrangement was that the rules and regulations that applied to projects financed by public money were not applicable here. For example, no competitive bidding was necessary. The next step was to designate a company to be the beneficiary of government orders. The chosen company was a leftover from the Kádár years called Vegyépszer. The name is typical of the many state companies that existed in the socialist period. But the name of this company indicates that it didn’t have anything to do with construction. Judging from its name, once upon a time it had something to do with chemicals. But that really didn’t matter because it wasn’t Vegyépszer that was going to do the work but hired subcontractors. Suddenly Vegyépszer received orders to the tune of 600 billion forints. From nothing it became as important a company between 1998 and 2002 as Lajos Simicska’s Közgép is today. I might add that Vegyépszer went bankrupt last year.

The question is how much of that money was returned to Fidesz. After the defeat of Fidesz in 2002, an old high school friend of Orbán, Simicska, and Varga told Debreczeni that the reason for Orbán’s electoral defeat was that “the boys were not satisfied with the customary 10%, they wanted 20% of everything.”

Of course, this is a very brief summary of exceedingly complicated financial transactions. I suggest that those who know Hungarian read the book. It is full of details about the functioning of MFB, which acted as a never ending source of government funds and also was involved in selling state properties to friends of Fidesz politicians under highly questionable circumstances. Some of the beneficiaries of these unsavory deals involving large state farms are still members of Viktor Orbán’s inner circle: Sándor Csányi, István Töröcskei, Zsolt Nyerges, and, yes, Lajos Simicska.

As for Fidesz’s current favorite company, Közgép, which gets almost 100% of government investments financed by the European Union, it belongs to Lajos Simicska himself. Or whoever stands behind him in the shadows.

To be continued

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