Tag Archives: Kim Lane Scheppele

Poland at a crossroads?

After spending three days on domestic affairs, today I will concentrate on the Polish-Hungarian-European Union triangle, with a quick look at Putin’s Russia.

There is no question that Jarosław Kaczyński has been an excellent student of Viktor Orbán. The new Szydło government is copying the Orbán model step by step, just at an accelerated pace. While it took the slower-moving Orbán machinery two or three years to achieve its desired results, the eager Poles thought that a few months would suffice. It didn’t take long for Polish foreign minister Witold Waczczykowski to announce a change in the country’s foreign policy. The Szydło government will not follow its predecessor’s policy of acquiescence toward the European Union, he said. As a result of Polish belligerence, most commentators were certain that Brussels would act quickly and without hesitation. If the European Union opts to avoid a confrontation, the same thing will happen in Poland as happened in Hungary, where Orbán’s political system has solidified to the point that it may last for decades. Poland is too important a country to allow this to occur.

Cass Mudde of the University of Georgia wrote an article in the Huffington Post in which he suggested that “the success of PiS in Poland could turn out to be a poisoned chalice for Orbán” because of the possibility of EU sanctions not just against Poland but against Hungary as well.” As we know, however, Orbán made it clear on January 8 that “it’s not worth it for the European Union to rack its brains over any sanction against Poland because that would require full agreement. Never will Hungary support any sanction against Poland.”

A few days later Kim Lane Scheppele pointed out that a veto by Hungary could easily be neutralized. In an article that appeared on January 11 in politico.eu she sketched out a possible legal action that would take care of Viktor Orbán’s threat of a veto. Here is her scheme:

Sanctions require a unanimous vote of the European Council, minus the offending state, meaning Hungary does have a veto.

But Article 7 includes two separate parts: a warning system outlined in Article 7(1) and the sanctions mechanism of Article 7(2)-(3). The only way to keep the threat of sanctions on the table under Article 7(2) is for European institutions to act against both Poland and Hungary at the same time by invoking Article 7(1) first.

Those who were certain that this time the European Commission would not choose the road of appeasement as it did in the case of Hungary were correct. On January 13 the Commission launched a probe into policy changes in Poland that may clash with EU law. This is an unprecedented move with serious implications. For example, it could lead to the application of Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union.

In the wake of the announcement of the probe, the Poles even copied Orbán, who took up the challenge and faced a very angry European Parliament in 2012. Prime Minister Beata Szydło announced that she would attend the debate on Poland in the European Parliament and defend her government’s right to make changes in the structure of the constitutional court and the media. Her speech was very East European in flavor. In addition to repeating several times that Poland is as much a part of the EU as the other 27 countries, she said that Brussels, instead of “rounding on Poland, ought to be looking to engage with a country with a troubled history and which had fought at great cost for its freedom.” These words could easily have been uttered by Viktor Orbán himself. It is still too early to know what the reaction to Szydło’s speech will be, but people in the know in Brussels are certain that “the stage is set for a ‘carnage’ in the European Parliament.”

Szydlo

Beata Szydło in the European Parliament, January 19, 2016

There have, however, been voices in the western media that have cautioned the European Commission in its handling of Poland. As early as January 13, the day the European Commission decided on a monitoring procedure against Warsaw, The New York Times came out with an editorial which claimed that “punishing Poland through sanctions would be counterproductive and even hypocritical, given the proliferation of like-minded parties across Europe,” the logic of which escapes me, I’m afraid.

What the editors of The New York Times think about Polish-EU relations is neither here nor there, but what Donald Tusk thinks is something else. After all, he is the president of the European Council who is supposed to represent the interests of the Union and not the country of his birth. But although Tusk is a political adversary of Kaczyński, he felt compelled to come to Poland’s rescue. His move was interpreted by The Financial Times as a break “with the rest of the EU’s leadership … by questioning Brussels’ decision to launch a formal review into whether Poland’s new media and judicial legislation violate the rule of law.” He declared that the EU can clarify the situation in Poland “by other methods, not necessarily triggering this procedure.” He didn’t elaborate what these other methods might be.

Meanwhile, in Hungary Viktor Orbán is most likely eagerly watching what’s going on in Brussels. Will the Poles be persuaded to abandon their revolutionary zeal under domestic and foreign pressure? There are signs that President Andrzej Duda (PiS) and other PiS officials began a campaign a few days ago to ease tensions between Poland and the European Commission. If they succeed, Viktor Orbán will not be a happy man because he is counting on the formation of a large eastern bloc of 90 million people as something of an alliance against the core countries in Western Europe. Naturally, such a bloc without Poland is worth nothing.

This kind of fear is reflected in one of Zsolt Bayer’s articles titled “Lengyelek” (The Poles). After recalling all the humiliation and treachery Poland has suffered through her history at the hands of the western powers, especially the United States, Bayer doesn’t understand “Polish devotion to the United States.” Poland must choose. Either they follow Hungary’s example or they will end up with the same “base, unjust, unbearable and unacceptable harassment that Hungary had to suffer.” Poland must be careful, Bayer warns, because it is clear that the United States has been hard at work trying to persuade Poland to loosen its ties with the alliance system Viktor Orbán managed to create from the formerly ineffectual Visegrád4 group. If a 90-million strong Eastern Bloc materializes, it will be the center of a “normal” Europe as opposed to the “mentally deranged West.” So, a lot depends on Poland, a country that should be grateful to Hungary because of Hungary’s generosity toward her in her times of peril. “There is no war yet but the situation is very serious. We should not let them drive a wedge between us.”

After reading Bayer’s lines about the possibility of a war in Europe, one wonders about the psychological state of some of the Fidesz leaders who lately have been discussing ways of strengthening the military capabilities of the country. László Kövér went so far as to talk about “the catastrophe of abolishing compulsory military service” in 2004. Do they really think that war is going to break out in Europe sometime in the near future? Possibly.

Finally, a friendly warning to Poland. Putin is delighted with the growth of right-wing radicalism and the recent emphasis on the sovereignty of nation states within the European Union, as Vladislav Inozemtsev of The Moscow Times, points out. “The events in Europe are being seen with undisguised joy” in Russia. “The Kremlin supports and will support the ultra-right and ultra-left parties who seek to put Europeans back to their ‘private apartments.’” So, going along with Viktor Orbán will be useful to Poland’s archenemy, Russia. The leaders of PiS should think very seriously whether they want to play into the hands of Vladimir Putin or not. Yes, they do have a choice.

September 19, 2016

The European Parliament condemns Hungary’s Orbán government

At last there seems to be real action on the part of the European Parliament. What happened today may mean a new chapter in the relations between the European Union and the far-right nationalist government of Viktor Orbán. This time, over and above the normal verbal condemnation, the European Parliament called on the Commission to “immediately initiate an in-depth monitoring process on the situation of democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights in Hungary and to report back on this matter to the European Parliament and Council before September 2015.” We may have complained in the past about the snail-like pace of the EU bureaucracy, but today we cannot reproach them for being slow. The deadline is tight, but some of the work has already been done.

Almost two years ago Rui Tavares, a member of the European Parliament from Portugal, compiled an admirable report on Hungary’s violations of human rights and the basic values of the European Union. Anyone who’s interested in the details of this report should read Prof. Kim Lane Scheppele’s article, which appeared on this blog. Although the report was endorsed by the European Union and although it contained several recommendations, there was no follow-up. Now the European Commission has to dredge up the Tavares Report and add to it all the subsequent sins of the Orbán government. I trust that this time, finally, the Hungarian government’s flagrant violation of EU principles will have serious consequences.

Today’s condemnation is the final outcome of a discussion of the Hungarian situation initiated by the socialist (S&D), liberal (ALDE), and green (Greens-EFA) members of the European Parliament that took place on May 19th, with Viktor Orbán present. Today the objections to Hungarian government policies came to a vote. The differences of opinion on the Hungarian situation between the left and the right can be seen in my post of June 4, where I quoted the texts of the prepared points of the two sides.

The results of today’s vote are revealing. The European Parliament has 751 members. The vote for the resolution of the socialists, liberals, and greens was 362, with 247 against it. Eighty-eight members abstained, while 54 were either absent or didn’t vote. So, where did the yes votes come from? The S&D caucus has 191 members, ALDE 69, and the Greens 50. Thus the three parties that proposed the finally accepted resolution had a combined 310 votes if all their members were present and if they all voted for the resolution, not enough to pass it. GUE-NGL, a far-left group (as Fidesz calls them, communists), with 52 members was the most likely candidate to have made up the difference. We don’t know how many Christian Democrats (EPP) with 219 members, conservatives (ECR) with 72, or the euroskeptic EFDD with 47 voted for the resolution, but I suspect that a few did. One ought also to keep in mind that, in addition to the above parties, there are 51 independent members, including the three Jobbik delegates.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

The really telling number is the 88 abstentions, which most likely came from ambivalent EPP MEPs. There is a good possibility that between 35% and 40% of EPP members can no longer wholeheartedly support Fidesz. And that is bad news for the Orbán government, although the high-level Fidesz members who in the last few hours commented on the results tried to convince their supporters and most likely themselves as well that the vote confirmed that “the European People’s Party didn’t abandon the Hungarian government party.” Calling the resolution a “second Tavares report,” as Gergely Gulyás described today’s vote, is like comparing apples and oranges. What he most likely meant was that both are full of “distortions of facts.” The resolution may come as an unpleasant surprise, but Fidesz still feels confident enough to state, as Gulyás did at his press conference, that the position of the Hungarian government is clear: “we are against immigration.”

The Fidesz members of the EPP also expressed their views on the resolution. According to their official statement, in fairly poor English, “double standards have never been more apparent” than in this case. They attack the left and the liberals “for generating hysteria over Hungary.” The resolution, in their opinion, “resorts to labeling, bending the truth and factually false statements.” Moreover,

The leftist and liberal political groups discredit themselves once more: while they are ready to abuse their majority in the EP to hold plenary debates and pass resolutions on Hungary – even when there is in fact no Hungarian legislation to scrutinize – they remain silent on recent events in Romania. The double standards applied not only discredit the political groups but unfortunately also the European Parliament itself. This must stop! Hungarian citizens voted resolutely last year for a second term for Fidesz and KDNP. The respect of the democratic choice of the voters is the most basic democratic principle and should never be contested in the European Parliament.

In brief, once a government is elected, it can do anything it wants.

Jobbik has three members in the European Parliament who sit with the independents because no parliamentary delegation wanted to have anything to do with them. Their leader, Zoltán Balczó, naturally defended the government party because, after all, ideologically they are not very far apart. In his opinion, the resolution “will not have any consequences” and “the whole thing is simply a show.”

The two-member MSZP EP delegation published a short statement, unfortunately only in Hungarian, which praised the resolution as “a principled and at the same time unambiguous answer to Viktor Orbán’s provocation.”

The most sanguine statements came from Csaba Molnár and Péter Niedermüller, the two DK EP members. They most likely overstated the case when they claimed that “a significant portion of the European People’s Party supported the resolution.” But I agree that EPP support for Fidesz by EPP has been eroding.

I think it is a wishful thinking on the part of Jobbik’s Balczó that the resolution will have no consequences. The European Commission is no longer the commission of José Manuel Barroso. Jean-Claude Juncker and Frans Timmermans, his right-hand man, are a great deal less accommodating than Barroso was when it comes to the increasingly unacceptable behavior of the Hungarian prime minister.

 

Is Viktor Orbán spying on his closest associates?

One doesn’t need a lot of imagination to picture the behind-the-scenes personal rivalries among government and party officials even in the best of circumstances. But lately, when the whole carefully built edifice is crumbling, these rivalries are accompanied by fear. A commentator recently called the panic that must have gripped the whole corrupt lot of Fidesz politicians “dread.”

Viktor Orbán is still the prime minister of Hungary, but he has been greatly weakened by the events of the last five months. While earlier no high official would ever dare to criticize him, today János Lázár, the chief contender for the job, openly faults the prime minister for certain decisions. The same is true about one of Orbán’s oldest friends, László Kövér, who made some critical remarks about the people with whom the prime minister surrounds himself nowadays. The mess that Orbán created in the wake of the collapse of the Quaestor Group must have strengthened dissatisfaction with his leadership within the party. In turn, it seems, Orbán’s paranoia, which is part of his psychological makeup anyway, has grown to such an extent that apparently members of his “personal army,” the Terrorelhárítási Központ or TEK, are instructed to report to him on his closest associates and friends.

TEK, the Anti-Terrorism Center, was created in 2010, a few months after Viktor Orbán became prime minister. In addition to combating terrorism that is, thankfully, not really a threat in Hungary, the TEK super-policemen were supposed to be responsible for the protection of President János Áder, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and László Kövér, president of the parliament. TEK is very generously endowed, and the members of this elite force get much higher pay than ordinary policemen. The protection they afford the top officials is extensive. The detail that was supposed to protect President János Áder had 80 members. Anyone who’s interested in TEK should take a look at an older post, “A brief history of the Hungarian anti-terrorist center.”

It looks, however, as if neither László Kövér nor János Áder wants members of TEK snooping around them. Kövér handled the situation by creating a separate guard for the protection of the parliament (Országgyűlési Őrség) that would also take care of his and his family’s personal safety. Now, as of April 1, János Áder decided that he had enough of Orbán’s spies following him everywhere, especially after he realized that his old friend Viktor Orbán knew about some of his meetings that were not on his official schedule. Áder has every reason to be worried because, as Kim Lane Scheppele remarked in one of her articles that appeared in Paul Krugman’s blog in The New York Times, “TEK has amassed truly Orwellian powers, including virtually unlimited powers of secret surveillance and secret data collection.” That includes secret wiretapping. So, if Áder suspects Orbán using TEK as a vehicle to spy on him, he can’t even be sure that his telephone calls are not monitored.

According to information received by Vasárnapi Hírek, Áder has for some time been trying to get rid of TEK. A few months ago he suggested setting up a separate unit to look after his safety, but that idea was apparently vetoed by Viktor Orbán. Áder didn’t give up, however, and eventually he managed to get rid of TEK by settling for members of the ordinary police force who were trained for the job. This couldn’t have been easy because the law that established TEK had to be changed in order to accommodate the new situation. The change also affected the status of the men who had been assigned to the president. The question was what to do with the extra men who, if dismissed from TEK, would have to return to the ordinary police force with considerably less pay. The problem was solved. From here on they will be responsible for the security of Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor.

President János Áder, an avid fisherman, under TEK's watchful eyes

President János Áder, an avid fisherman, under TEK’s watchful eye

Naturally, the head of TEK denies that it was at the request of Áder that the change was made. He insists that the decision was based solely on professional considerations. But the president must have serious issues with the work of TEK. The deputy director of TEK was supposed to be promoted to brigadier-general on March 15, but Áder vetoed the government’s decision.

Áder is loyal to the government, but here and there he shows dissatisfaction with some of the legislation sent to him for his signature. In such cases, he sends the legislation back to parliament for reconsideration. And most of the time the Fidesz parliamentary majority blithely ignores his objections. As Népszava says, “They consider him a puppet. A temporary solution. His humiliation must be intensified when stories circulate from time to time that Viktor Orbán will soon move to the place he now occupies.”

According to rumor, by now Viktor Orbán is so paranoid that about a third of TEK’s job is to spy on the prime minister’s associates whom he considers to be “dangerous.” TEK has, it seems, become Viktor Orbán’s personal spy network used against his alleged enemies. This development, according to Népszava‘s information, created dissatisfaction within TEK. They are so overworked that they often purposely “lose” the subjects they are supposed to track because they find the job demeaning.

No one is willing to speak on record about TEK’s real job, but if the rumors are true, this is “a greater scandal than [Lajos] Simicska’s outburst on ‘black Friday’ because the rupture within Fidesz is much deeper and more widespread than we have suspected.” Viktor Orbán, it should be noted, would be acting within the law in setting up a personal spy network. TEK has such wide powers that it is perfectly legal for the prime minister to use TEK to observe his closest associates, members of parliament, even his neighbors anytime he thinks they are plotting against him.

Although rumors about the real reason for Áder’s change of his secret service unit have been circulating for at least two weeks, the president has not contradicted them, which lends credence to the story. I don’t know whether to be outraged, hopeful, or both.

Kim Lane Scheppele: Hungary without two thirds

I’m glad to be able to share Professor Kim Scheppele’s latest article, which appeared on Paul Krugman’s blog in The New York Times on March 17, 2015.

* * *

On 22 February, in a small by-election in a medium-sized Hungarian town, the governing party Fidesz lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority.

The loss of the Fidesz supermajority is a big deal because two thirds is a magic fraction in Hungarian law. With two thirds of the parliamentary seats, a party can change the constitution at will and therefore govern without constitutional constraint. But it’s not just constitutional change that requires a two-thirds vote. Over the last five years, Fidesz built so many required two-thirds supermajorities into so many different laws that it is nearly impossible to govern Hungary on a daily basis without two thirds. And each time it now confronts a two-thirds problem, Fidesz must get the support of someone – or some party – outside its own circle. This is the first political constraint that Fidesz has faced since it came to power in 2010.

When Fidesz still had the the magic two-thirds majority

When Fidesz still had the magic two-thirds majority

What will Fidesz do without two thirds? It only took a little more than a week after the by-election for a tentative answer to emerge. A two-thirds vote appeared on the parliamentary agenda – and passed. Who put Fidesz over the top to get its two thirds? An MP from the far-right party Jobbik. The vote signaled that Fidesz may now be working in effective partnership with a party that Human Rights First has called “the bloody tip of the far-right spear in Europe.”

If this is true, then why hasn’t the European Union immediately launched crippling sanctions as EU member states did when the Austrian government included Jörg Haider’s far-right party in 1999? Because Fidesz learned a lesson from that example. In Austria, the coalition was public. In Hungary, a coalition can be secret.

The constitutional rules in Hungary permit Fidesz to keep its two thirds through strategic absences rather than affirmative votes. For most two-thirds votes, no member of parliament (MP) need visibly cross the aisle to vote affirmatively with the governing party. If an opposition MP is merely missing when a two-thirds vote is taken, Fidesz can still win.

In Hungarian constitutional law, not all two-thirds majorities are created equal. An absolute two-thirds majority requires the affirmative vote of two-thirds of all of the members of parliament. An absolute two-thirds majority is required to amend or rewrite the constitution or to ratify treaty change in the European Union. An absolute two-thirds majority is also required for electing constitutional judges, the president of the Supreme Court, the head of the State Audit Office, the head of the National Judicial Office, the public prosecutor and the ombudsman – or to declare a state of emergency. For Fidesz to gain an absolute two-thirds majority now, someone must to visibly cross the aisle and vote with the governing party.

But it takes only a relative two-thirds majority to do everything else – like amend the especially important “cardinal laws” or fill seats on the electoral commission or the media council. A relative two-thirds majority requires the affirmative vote of two thirds of the members of parliament who are present on that day in the chamber, given a quorum. Fidesz can therefore still win a relative two thirds with the votes of only its own party if all of its MPs are present while any non-Fidesz MP is missing. For the vast majority of two-thirds votes, then, Fidesz does not have to win an affirmative vote from an opposition MP. It only has to procure his absence.

On 3 March, Fidesz faced its first two-thirds challenge since it lost its supermajority. Two key items were on the agenda that day, both bundles of amendments to existing laws. Parts of each bundle were “cardinal” and thus required two-thirds votes while other parts were not and therefore required only a simple majority to pass. The governing party’s tendency to mix different sorts of amendments in the same parliamentary procedure is confusing for everyone, including MPs who have to vote by different majorities on each.

In the first package of amendments, child protection agencies, social security offices, employment centers, land administration agencies, environmental protection offices and more would lose their independent and separate spheres of action and become integrated parts of the regional offices of the central government as of 1 April 2015. The second package of amendments proposed to “enhance public trust in state officials” by requiring public sector workers to disclose to their employers if they are under criminal investigation.

At the time of the vote on both packages, all Fidesz MPs were present, but there was one opposition MP missing: István Apáti from Jobbik. The cardinal bits in first package of changes passed, with 131 votes in favor (all Fidesz), and 65 against, with 196 MPs present – gaining the support of 66.8% of those present. This gave Fidesz just barely two thirds (above 66.6%). The cardinal bits in the second package of changes failed because only 130 voted in favor, 44 voted against and 22 (Jobbik MPs) abstained. Because only 66.3% of the MPs present voted for the law, Fidesz failed to clear the two-thirds hurdle by a bare one third of one percent.

What happened in the second vote? Lajos Kósa, a Fidesz stalwart, pressed the wrong button and accidentally voted against the package. His party promptly fined him 100,000 forints (about $343 USD) for having disobeyed a party order to vote along party lines. (Yes, in the Hungarian parliament, some political parties fine their MPs for failing to take direction on parliamentary votes!)

Fidesz castigated Kósa for making a mistake on the second vote. But, they said nothing about how the first package could pass. It gained the required two-thirds vote only because an opposition MP was missing. Had Kósa not erred, the second package would have passed as well.

Jobbik’s party leader, Gábor Vona, claimed to be furious with the missing MP Apáti and fined him 100,000 forints for violating party discipline. Vona gave an interview shortly thereafter in which he threatened anyone who might claim that Jobbik was acting in concert with Fidesz on this vote.

But the whole story got curiouser and curiouser when Apáti started explaining why he had been absent on that crucial day. He claimed he had to protect his family because he had gotten death threats from a member of a Roma gang. (Jobbik rode to popularity on an anti-Roma platform blaming “Gypsy crime” for many of Hungary’s ills.) While the threat occurred on a Saturday, he reported it to the police only on Monday, which was the day before the parliamentary vote. Journalists who interviewed many people in his town could find no one else who knew about a local “Roma mafia.” So the story just seems strange and conveniently timed.

Does this mean that Fidesz is working under the table with Jobbik? From this one incident, it is hard to say for sure. Jobbik’s leader has been at pains to claim that there is no secret coalition, and yet Vona was himself missing for another parliamentary vote on 15 December 2014 that had the same effect. At that time, Vona’s absence shored up the Fidesz relative two-thirds when a Fidesz MP, Jenő Lasztovicza, was absent due to illness. (He later died – so there will be another by-election in April.) The December vote sailed over the two-thirds hurdle with even more support than necessary because another MP, former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, was missing as well. Fidesz was therefore already able to pass an amendment to a cardinal law (in this case, one that nationalized and regulated tobacco shops) when one of its MPs was dying – before the party definitively lost its two thirds in February’s by-election. In December, the Fidesz victory was made possible by missing one MP to the right and another MP to the left of the governing party.

When Vona’s December absence was noted in the brouhaha over the 3 March vote, he promptly fined himself 100,000 forints to show that he was even-handed about disciplining his party’s members. He then said he would donate the proceeds of this fine to charity, raising questions about whether, under Jobbik party rules, fines issued against MPs who don’t follow party orders go straight into the pocket of the party leader.

The theory that Fidesz is collaborating with Jobbik is not far-fetched, given the record. Since 2010, when Fidesz took office with its two-thirds supermajority, Jobbik has been the only parliamentary party whose MPs have voted with Fidesz on a non-trivial number of occasions. Jobbik supported many of Fidesz’s most controversial laws – for example, the extra taxes on banks, retroactive taxation of public sector severance pay, the elimination of time limits on pretrial detention and the approval of the recent deal with Russia on nuclear plants. Jobbik even backed two of Fidesz’s appointments to the Constitutional Court (Béla Pokol and Imre Juhász).

Not only has Jobbik already voted more often than any other party with Fidesz, but Fidesz has already borrowed many ideas from Jobbik. Before the by-election, Jobbik votes were not needed to get to two thirds and Fidesz did not have to take pages from Jobbik’s platform to get Jobbik’s votes. Jobbik regularly piled votes onto Fidesz initiatives and Fidesz regularly took ideas from Jobbik anyway. A secret collaboration at this point would only take underground what has already occurred in public. Perhaps what we saw on 3 March is a sign that Fidesz and Jobbik are already working together.

But the deniability of a working coalition is crucial to its success. Would the EU sanction the Fidesz government for collaboration with a far-right party when Jobbik MPs are simply missing in action at the time a parliamentary vote is called? Since there are so many reasons to be away from parliament on any particular day – “Roma attacks,” or perhaps a strategic illness, or a well-timed flat tire – missing MPs have plausible deniability that their absence was part of a plan. One can imagine that EU sanctions would dissolve without smoking-gun proof of coordination. In addition, Fidesz and Jobbik have every reason to deny working together in order to maintain their credibility with their own voters.

Jobbik is not the only source of a crucial missing MP. Any MP willing to put personal benefit ahead of party loyalty – or any MP who could be successfully blackmailed – could agree to be absent and allow a relative two-thirds majority to form without him. All Fidesz needs is one opposition MP to disappear on a particular day and the relative two-thirds votes will still sail through. Fidesz may find that it is even simpler to get an individual MP to break from a party than to convince a whole party to collaborate.

Of course, the fact that Fidesz could seek its procured absences elsewhere reduces Jobbik’s bargaining position. So, Vona could be right that there is no permanent coalition. But there may be an opportunistic collaboration on particular issues nonetheless. If Fidesz were really clever, however, it could hide such an opportunistic collaboration by procuring a strategic absence from both left and right on the same day, just to demonstrate its independence. We already saw that voting pattern in December. It would be fascinating to know what has been promised – or threatened – in exchange for absences. Or whether the absences were generated by one of the many perfectly innocent reasons why MPs go missing for crucial votes.

Figuring out what is happening in Hungarian politics from now on will require careful attention to missing persons. We probably will not have to wait long to see the new ways that Fidesz gets its two thirds because amendments to cardinal laws come up surprisingly often in the Hungarian parliament. Cardinal laws were originally only supposed to regulate matters of fundamental constitutional importance, but they now cover so many different subjects that two-thirds votes have become the “new normal” of political life.

The parliamentary records show that Fidesz has needed its supermajority almost every week – and sometimes even every day – that it has governed. In fact, one Hungarian law blog did the count: between September 2014 and January 2015, fully 50 matters before the parliament required two-thirds votes. In the year before that, two-thirds votes were required on 214 occasions. The law on economic stability alone was amended 20 times since its passage in 2011 and, since it is a cardinal law, each vote has required two thirds. (So much for economic stability!)

While Fidesz now claims that the loss of its two-thirds supermajority is not important because revolutionary changes are over and the need for the daily two thirds has passed, the statistics don’t lie. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s new constitutional order can’t operate smoothly without its two thirds.

Perhaps the best testament to the continuing importance of two thirds is the legal framework invented for last April’s parliamentary election. Orbán clearly thought that his two-thirds majority was so important that he stopped at almost nothing to keep it. In fact, Orbán actually needed every trick in the book to win his second two-thirds parliament. He also needed a trick that was not in the book. Fidesz won its two-thirds majority in April 2014 only by counting the speaker of the house in that total, and then the party discovered that the rules of parliamentary procedure prevented the speaker from casting a vote. So the Fidesz MPs quickly voted to change the “house rules” of the parliament to allow the speaker’s vote to count. And voilà! Fidesz retained its two thirds!

After February’s by-election, however, Fidesz no longer has its magic fraction. Given the party’s plunging popularity, it may well lose the next by-election in Tapolca on 12 April** as well. The loss of two thirds is important, both practically and symbolically. But we will only be able to assess whether Fidesz’s wings are really clipped and whether Orbán has had to depend on strategic partners by closely monitoring every two-thirds vote from now on. If Orbán keeps achieving relative two-thirds majorities with only the votes of his own party, then we should wonder what price was paid for every empty seat in the room. In Hungarian politics now, out of sight should not mean out of mind.

** In the original blog post, I not only got the by-election date wrong but also misspelled Tapolca! It’s corrected here.

The Hungarian constitution: Interview with Kim Lane Scheppele

Budapest Beacon, a bilingual online newspaper that reports on current events in Hungary, conducted a number of interviews with leading Hungarian analysts living or temporarily working in the United States. Readers of Hungarian Spectrum were already able to see three of these interviews. The first featured Charles Gati, a political scientist and senior research professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The second was conducted with Miklós Haraszti, a writer, human rights advocate, and fomer OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media. The third video was with me.

Now I’m happy to present the fourth interview, this time with Kim Lane Scheppele, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values as well as Director of the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. I don’t have to introduce Kim Scheppele to most readers of Hungarian Spectrum.  She has been a regular contributor to, reader of, and commenter on this site. She is an expert on Hungarian constitutional law who has performed invaluable service to democratic Hungary. Many of her studies were republished on Hungarian Spectrum and can be found in the website’s archives.

The interviewer is Benjamin Novak, an American Hungarian who currently lives in Hungary and is senior correspondent of Budapest Beacon. 

 

Viktor Szigetvári’s mistaken notions about current Hungarian politics

Heti Válasz discovered me. As it is clear from the article, the journalists of the magazine know who I am, but only as someone who formerly contributed to Galamus and who appeared a few times on Klubrádió. Both were years ago. For example, the last regular article I wrote for Galamus was in May 2011.

This is the first time my name appeared in Heti Válasz. Once before Tamás Fricz, someone who calls himself a political scientist, mentioned me in Magyar Hírlap in connection with his attack on Professor Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton. The Heti Válasz piece is a variation on this theme.

I rarely look at Twitter. I simply don’t have time to follow thousands of tweets. When there is a crisis somewhere I may follow the comments of journalists on the spot, but otherwise I ignore the little bird. Therefore it was unlikely that I would have discovered Viktor Szigetvári’s pearls of wisdom that he finds time to dispense on Twitter. But Twitter decided that I had been neglecting them and sent me an e-mail listing some of the topics I might be interested in. The very first item on the list was a comment by Szigetvári from March 12. It read: “jogilag és tartalmilag kim lane scheppele-nél pontosabb és mégis visszafogott értékelés plankó és herczeg uraktól” (in legal terms as well as in content a more precise and more moderate analysis than that of Kim Lane Scheppele from Messrs Pankó and Herczeg). And he gave the link to an article in 444.

I could hardly believe my eyes. Not because Viktor Szigetvári the private person thinks that Messrs Pankó and Herczeg are better legal scholars than one of the most prominent experts on Hungarian constitutional law but because I found it astonishing that a politician could be so unskilled that he would make his criticism public. A politician should never turn against supporters of his cause. And Scheppele’s views more or less coincide with the opinions of the Hungarian opposition. They, like Scheppele, find many of the changes introduced by the Orbán government unconstitutional, undemocratic, and therefore unacceptable.

I’m trying to imagine a situation in which one of Viktor Orbán’s politicians would openly criticize a leading conservative theoretician who just wrote a glowing report on the Orbán government. I wonder how long this man or woman would remain part of the team. Not a minute, I’m sure. And I wouldn’t blame Viktor Orbán for getting rid of the person. In politics, party loyalty is important. If someone cannot adhere to this basic rule of the game he or she should get out of politics. This is a price you pay when you decide to become a politician. And this loyalty extends to supporters as well. A politician doesn’t weaken his party’s case by calling an argument supportive of that case imprecise and inferior.

confusion3

It was for this reason that I decided to engage in a dialogue with Viktor Szigetvári. If he had decided to admit his mistake I would have left it at that. But he insisted that his open criticism of Scheppele was a most normal and acceptable way of talking about one’s supporters. After all, he has the right to express his opinion. He is mistaken. He as a politician doesn’t have this privilege. He might tell his friends what he thinks, though even that might not be a smart move. In no time it can become common knowledge that X has a low opinion of Y or that X doesn’t agree with the party’s strategy. Soon we may hear from friends and acquaintances that there are huge political differences among the top leaders of the party or coalition. In fact, this kind of talk reached me from many quarters over the last few months.

One could retort that I’m advocating a  monolithic and therefore undemocratic party structure like that of Fidesz. But that would be a misunderstanding. I encourage broad debate, but only inside the party. Every time the opposition parties are accused of not having a unified voice, as is often the case, a pious explanation comes about the virtues of diversity. But that is no more than self-delusion. Especially when the stakes are so high and one’s opponent is a truly monolithic party. Under such circumstances one cannot afford the luxury of speaking in many tongues or criticizing one another in public. That’s why I said that Viktor Szigetvári shouldn’t entertain political ambitions. Unfortunately, as co-chair of Együtt 2014, he does.

From our exchange I came to the conclusion that Szigetvári’s main problem with Kim Scheppele is that she is too harsh on the Orbán government. It seems that Szigetvári still clings to the notion that one can come to some kind of understanding with Orbán’s Fidesz. It is time to wake up. One cannot make a deal with the Fidesz of today. I suspect that Szigetvári is one of the proponents of this mistaken notion just as he most likely had a hand in Együtt 2014’s mad search for the nonexistent “moderate conservative middle.”

Why should we be more moderate in our criticism of the Orbán regime? Why is the more moderate analysis of the electoral law preferable to the harsher criticism of Kim Scheppele? Whom is Szigetvári defending? Viktor Orbán? What is he defending? Orbán’s dictatorship? It looks like it. Szigetvári’s analysis is fundamentally wrong and can lead only to defeat. That’s why I decided to take him on in public.

Senator Ben Cardin: Human Rights in Hungary

The following remarks by Ben Cardin, senator from Maryland, were delivered on the floor of the U.S. Senate on Friday, December 13, 2013. Senator Cardin is deeply interested in foreign affairs and sits on the Committee on Foreign Relations. He is also the co-chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, otherwise known as the Helsinki Commission. Senator Cardin addressed the Senate in this capacity on Friday.

* * *

US Senate

Mr. CARDIN. Madam President, earlier this year I chaired a Helsinki Commission hearing on the situation in Hungary. Today, I would like to revisit some of the issues addressed by our witnesses.

Since the April 2010 elections, Hungary has undertaken the most dramatic legal transformation that Europe has seen in decades. A new Constitution was passed with votes of the ruling party alone, and even that has already been amended five times. More than 700 new laws have been passed, including laws on the media, religion, and civic associations. There is a new civil code and a new criminal code. There is an entirely new electoral framework. The magnitude and scope of these changes have understandably put Hungary under a microscope.

At the Helsinki Commission’s hearing in March, I examined concerns that these changes have undermined Hungary’s system of democratic checks and balances, independence of the judiciary, and freedoms of the media and religion. I also received testimony about rising revisionism and extremism. I heard from Jozsef Szajer, a Member of the European Parliament who represented the Hungarian Government at the hearing. Princeton constitutional law expert Kim Lane Scheppelle, Dr. Paul Shapiro from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska from Freedom House presented compelling testimony.

Unfortunately, developments in Hungary remain troubling.

Even though Hungary’s religion law was tweaked after the Constitutional Court struck down parts of it, it retains a discriminatory two-tier system. Moreover, the Parliament is empowered with the extraordinary and, for all practical purposes, unreviewable power to decide what is and what is not a religion.

This month, the government announced it is launching an investigation into the Methodist Evangelical Church, a church persecuted during communist times. Today, the Methodist Evangelical Church is known for its outreach to Roma, work with the homeless and is one of the largest charitable organizations in Hungary. As I noted at the Helsinki Commission hearing in March, it is also one of the hundreds of religious groups stripped of official recognition after the passage of Hungary’s new religion law.

The church has now complied with submitting the necessary number of supporters required by the law and, as a reply, the government has announced an unidentified “expert” will conduct an investigation into the church’s beliefs and tenets. This step only reinforces fears that parliamentary denial of recognition as a so-called “Accepted Church” opens the door for further repressive measures.

Veneration of Hungary’s wartime regent, Miklos Horthy, along with other anti-Semitic figures such as writer Jozsef Nyiro, continues. In November, a statue of Hungarian Jewish poet Miklos Radnoti, who was killed by Hungarian Nazis at the end of 1944, was rammed with a car and broken in half. At roughly the same time, extremists staged a book burning of his works along with other materials they called “Zionist publications.” At the beginning of December, two menorahs were vandalized in Budapest.

Reflecting the climate of extremism, more than 160 Hungarian nationals have been found by Canada this year to have a well-founded fear of persecution. Almost all are Romani, but the refugees include an 80-year-old award winning Hungarian Jewish writer who received death threats after writing about anti-Semitism in Hungary, and was stripped of his honorary citizenship of Budapest on an initiative from the far-right Jobbik party, supported by the votes of the ruling Fidesz party.

While there are many who suggest the real problem comes from the extremist opposition party Jobbik, and not the ruling government, it seems that some members of Fidesz have contributed to a rise in intolerance.

I am particularly troubled that the government-created Media Council, consisting entirely of Fidesz delegated members, has threatened ATV–an independent television station–with punitive fines if it again characterizes Jobbik as extremist. If you can’t even talk about what is extremist or anti-Semitic in Hungary without facing legal sanctions, how can you combat extremism and anti-Semitism? Moreover, this decision serves to protect Jobbik from critical debate in the advance of next year’s elections. Why?

Other new measures further stifle free speech.

Unfortunately, and somewhat shockingly, last month Hungary amended its defamation law to allow for the imposition of prison terms up to 3 years.

The imposition of jail time for speech offenses was a hallmark of the communist era. During the post-communist transition, the Helsinki Commission consistently urged OSCE countries to repeal criminal defamation and insult laws entirely. In 2004, for example, the Helsinki Commission wrote to Minister of Justice Peter Barandy regarding the criminal convictions of Andras Bencsik and Laszlo Attila Bertok.

This new law, raced through under an expedited procedure in the wake of a by-election controversy in which allegations of voter manipulation were traded, was quickly criticized by the OSCE representative on Freedom of the Media. I share her concerns that these changes to the criminal code may lead to the silencing of critical or differing views in society and are inconsistent with OSCE commitments.

Hungary was once held up as a model of peaceful democratic transition and is situated in a region of Europe where the beacon of freedom is still sought by many today. I hope Hungary will return to a leadership role in the protection of human rights and the promotion of democracy.