Tag Archives: László Sólyom

Bálint Magyar on the failures of the socialist-liberal governments

After two edited volumes on the post-communist mafia state (Magyar Polip, 2013 and 2014), Bálint Magyar came out with a book of his own, A magyar maffiaállam anatómiája (2015), which offers a brief but penetrating analysis of the failings of the socialist-liberal coalition government that led to the “revolution in the voting booth.” His thoughts on the matter are especially significant since Magyar himself was a member of three of these governments. He was minister of education between January 1996 and June 1998 in the Horn government and again in the Medgyessy-Gyurcsány governments between May 2002 and June 2006.

As Magyar says, although “the Third Republic wasn’t killed by the left and the liberals, they had a share in adding to its vulnerability.” After listing the usual reasons for their failure–corruption, loss of credibility, overspending, and strategic mistakes, Magyar concentrates on the deeper reasons for the current sad state of the liberals and the socialists. He points to a “loss of identity” due to a lack of recognizable symbols associated with the left. “The democratic forces had neither a public ethos nor a modern vision of society.” (p. 39)

One reason that the democratic forces couldn’t come up with an identifying symbolism was that the socialists and the liberals “didn’t speak the same language,” and therefore they couldn’t formulate a common policy. The socialist politicians didn’t understand the importance of creating a spiritual link to their electorate. In times of plenty, perhaps such a link can be dispensed with, but in times of trouble only those politicians can ask for “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” who themselves have a vision over and above the promise of a slightly higher standard of living. By contrast, Fidesz, after 1993, easily revived the old “ideological instruments of the right”: God, country, family. These were simple phrases that could offer a framework in which the Hungarian everyman could find solace and hope.

There were few meeting points between the socialists and the liberals, but there was at least one question on which they could easily agree: the separation of church and state. Both considered religion part of the private sphere. But Gyula Horn’s decision in 1998 to negotiate with the Vatican, resulting in special privileges for the Catholic Church, put an end to that accord. In Magyar’s opinion the leaders of MSZP looked upon the church the same way that politicians did in the Kádár regime–as “an institution that can be influenced and bought.” The socialists didn’t realize that by the 1990s the Catholic Church was no longer fighting for its survival; it strove for a more prominent political and social role. Because the Church’s leaders had been compromised by virtue of their cooperation with the Kádár regime, they had no intention of cooperating with the democratic socialists. Horn hoped that the Church would stand by the socialists in the election campaign as a result of his generous financial settlement. Of course, they didn’t. They helped Fidesz with its “God, country, family” slogan, which fit the Church better anyway.

Already in 1990 the liberals and socialists lost the parliamentary debate over the concept of a modern, democratic nation. The conservative parties made August 20th the national holiday, a day that emphasizes events eleven hundred years ago:  the arrival of Hungarians in the Carpathian basin, the establishment of the state, and the acceptance of Christianity. The liberals and socialists wanted March 15th to be the national holiday, the day when a modern, democratic Hungary was born. They lost. They also lost the debate over the question of the coat-of-arms, which was the heraldic symbol of the Kingdom of Hungary. Eventually the left even lost the battle for the left-inspired 1956 revolution, which in the interpretation of the right has since become “the revolution of right-wing radicals.”

Not only the socialists but also the liberals “were deaf” when it came to the necessity of symbols in political discourse. Members of the democratic opposition, including Bálint Magyar himself, were suspicious of anything that might limit the freedom and autonomy of the individual. This secular intellectual elite’s self-assurance seemed like an “arrogance of rootless individuals.” The socialist-liberal government even missed the opportunity to support women’s issues and work out a concept of a modern family where women can be useful members of the national economy. In brief, they failed at the reinterpretation of spiritual, national and familial communities, and therefore “the road to national populism was wide open.”

imagination

Meanwhile Hungarian society went through some very rough times after the change of regime. Instead of the hoped-for welfare state came high unemployment and inflation. Neither the socialists nor the liberals had any viable answers. The socialists could offer only paternalistic solutions while the liberals clung to their belief in the invisible hand of the markets. They looked insensitive to the hopelessness of those who were victims of the change of regime.

Another problem was the quality of the personnel in the ministries. By the second half of the Kádár regime the quality of the higher echelon of the ministries was high in comparison to the other socialist countries. Since then, the quality of the leading government officials has deteriorated. In addition, every four years each new prime minister decided to reorganize the whole government structure. Magyar is especially critical of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s decision in 2006 to eliminate the position of “administrative undersecretary,” the person who was in charge of the everyday running of the ministry. Gyurcsány also made the mistake of placing the police under the ministry of justice, which “the doctrinaire liberals” liked because it fulfilled their desire to have control over the police, but in the fall of 2006 the minister of justice, a former professor of law, turned out to be unfit for the job.

Finally, Magyar bemoans the weakness of the Hungarian system of institutions that were supposed to provide those checks and balances that guarantee the democratic functioning of the state. Way before 2010, racist talk and action became commonplace and was tolerated. And, Magyar asks, didn’t László Sólyom’s silence after the formation of the Hungarian Guard in 2007 contribute to the increasing acceptance of racism? Or, when he reacted far too late to the serial killing of Romas in 2008 and 2009? Or what about the courts that waited until the Hungarian Guard had grown into a sizable force and then took years to disband it?

The Constitutional Court also played a role in the demise of the Third Republic. Magyar mentions two milestones in the twenty-year history of the court. The first, when in 1995 the court ruled against a large portion of the austerity program of Finance Minister Lajos Bokros, which wanted to put an end to the populist policies practiced in Hungary. With this act the Court made “equitable and rational political discourse” impossible. And in 2008 the Court gave its blessing to a Fidesz referendum question on the annulment of college tuition fees and co-payments at doctor’s offices. Some members of the “independent” Constitutional Court were politically motivated in this case. Their decision heightened the population’s “unrealistic expectations and paralyzed the government’s capacity to act.” Indeed, this was the last nail in the coffin of the Third Republic.

“Unless blood flows”: Human Rights Watch’s report on Hungary

Lately I have been struck by the high number of incidents, often resulting in death, involving relatives or people living in the same household. A daughter kills her mother, an 85-year-old former high-ranking police officer kills his 79-year-old wife, a professional soccer player kills his partner and her son in a family dispute. These are only three cases I remember from the last two weeks or so.

In addition, it was only yesterday that the public at last learned that it was not the blind komondor that knocked over “Terike,” the domestic partner–since then wife–of József Balogh, mayor and member of parliament (Fidesz). Balogh admitted that he hit her in the face several times, grabbed her by the hair, and hit her head on the porch railing.

domestic violence2I’ve dealt with the subject of domestic violence, a very serious problem in Hungary, several times. The first reference I found on Hungarian Spectrum is from January 2009 when a bill was adopted by parliament which introduced the widely used practice outside of Hungary of a restraining or protective order. At that time President László Sólyom refused to sign it and instead sent it to the Constitutional Court. His objection was based on a section in the Constitution [58. § (1)] that guaranteed the right to choose one’s place of residence. I guess that needs no additional comment. The Constitutional Court naturally found the president’s legal opinion brilliant. After all, he was the chief justice of the court between 1990 and 1998.

In September 2012 the question came up again after Fidesz initially refused even to consider the issue. When public opinion forced the government party to act, they tried to make the law as weak as possible. Zoltán Balog, minister of human resources and in his former life a Protestant minister, was upset about the opposition’s “bluestockings attitude” and objected to talking about “violence within the family” because the family is sacred. Instead of family, the government insisted on “violence within the confines of partnership or relations.”

Eventually, after a long and rather fruitless discussion, the bill became law in July 2013, but it has serious shortcomings. For example, an assault against an intimate partner will be classified as an instance of domestic violence only if there are at least two separate occasions of abuse. Moreover, the new legislation does not cover non-cohabitating partners.

All in all, the Hungarian situation was considered to be so serious that Human Rights Watch (HRW) decided to issue its findings in a lengthy situation report. It was written by Lydia Gall, researcher on the Balkans/Eastern Europe in the Europe and Central Asia Division of the organization. Those who are interested in the details should read the report itself. Here I will concentrate on the official Hungarian reaction to it.

First, it is evident that the Hungarian government received a copy of the report before November 6, the official release date, because they were prepared to combat HRW’s “allegations” within hours after the appearance of the report. The very first reaction, a legal rebuttal, came from the Hungarian police. In my opinion it is almost certain that the author of the rebuttal is not a policeman. I rather suspect that it is the work of some government lawyer in the Ministry of Administration and Justice. In it the Hungarian government complains about “the several factual errors” and “the lack of sources.” From the document it becomes clear that the representatives of HRW did pay a visit to the Hungarian police headquarters, but it seems they were not convinced by the assurances of the policemen they met. The police’s “Communication Service” spent the rest of its document listing all the government resolutions to battle domestic violence, starting in 2003. Even this glowing report on the excellence of the Hungarian law, however, had to admit that charges against someone who commits domestic violence can be brought only by the victim.

The Hungarian police are especially sensitive about the issue of their officers’ preparedness in cases of domestic violence. The document states that there are “several forums” where a victim can complain in case the policeman refuses to act in the manner expected, but it doesn’t identify any of these forums by name.

A couple of hours after the release of the police communiqué, Zoltán Balog’s ministry also raised its voice against HRW’s claims that the Hungarian government’s system of handling domestic violence “simply doesn’t work.” The HRW report contends that because of police inaction and the lack of legal safeguards, women who are victims of domestic violence don’t get proper protection. Naturally, the Hungarian government doesn’t accept this verdict. Moreover, the ministry spokesman pointed out that too little time has passed since the law took effect and therefore no meaningful evaluation of the system can be undertaken. The ministry also said that the representatives of Human Rights Watch had assured the ministry earlier that the report would not be a comprehensive picture of the Hungarian situation but would only mention the most flagrant cases in order to inspire the Hungarian government to take further steps. I might add that throughout its reply, Balog’s ministry refused to refer to domestic violence by its common name (in Hungarian családon belüli erőszak) but instead used “kapcsolati erőszak,” a word combination cooked up by Balog in order to avoid the word “család” (family).

Then came the official spokeswoman of Fidesz, Gabriella Selmeczi, who charged that the criticism of Human Rights Watch is not really about the shortcomings of Hungary’s handling of domestic violence. In this case, as usual, Selmeczi continued, “we are witnessing an artificially generated international pressure” on Hungary. She can’t help thinking of the relationship between HRW and George Soros, the American financier with Hungarian roots. After all, last year Soros gave 20 million dollars to the organization. Selmeczi also added that the same Soros “has given millions to Gordon Bajnai’s foundation and has business dealings with Ferenc Gyurcsány’s firms.”

It doesn’t seem to matter to the Fidesz propagandists that Gyurcsány’s firms have nothing to do with the finances of the party. Moreover, the so-called millions given to Bajnai’s foundation turned out to be a small grant for a few thousand dollars from one of Soros’s foundations. The same is true about the money Gyurcsány’s firm got. Soros has been since 2010 financing projects aimed at Roma integration throughout Europe. Altus, Gyurcsány’s firm, is involved with such projects in the Balkan region and this received $13,800 toward the financing of the project.

So this was yet another Fidesz attempt to discredit a respectable NGO, this time Human Rights Watch, by claiming that it is an instrument of George Soros aimed at bolstering the political chances of the opposition. Gabriella Selmeczi most likely forgot that in 2010 George Soros and Viktor Orbán actually, after many years, met again to discuss his Roma integration project. At this meeting Soros offered one million dollars to the Hungarian government after the red sludge accident in 2010. Soros apparently also offered financial assistance for the Orbán government’s efforts at Roma integration. I don’t know what happened afterward. It is possible that Soros changed his mind once he realized that Roma integration was transformed into Roma school segregation with the active assistance of Zoltán Balog.

In brief, the Orbán government’s commitment to seriously combating domestic violence is lukewarm at best. I highly doubt that the government will try to improve the existing ineffectual laws as a result of Human Rights Watch’s indictment of their shortcomings. I also doubt that the police’s reluctance to interfere in domestic disputes will change any time soon.

Report of the Venice Commission on the Hungarian Constitution: End of the dance of the peacock?

On March 12 the Hungarian parliament, despite protestations,  passed the fourth amendment to the less than one-year-old Hungarian constitution. The amendment itself was fifteen pages long and incorporated all the objectionable laws that had earlier been part of the temporary provisions. By incorporating them into the constitution proper, the Hungarian government through its super-majority in parliament prevented the Constitutional Court from studying their constitutionality. Earlier the Constitutional Court had found some of these provisions unconstitutional.

When the Hungarian parliament was considering passage of the fourth amendment, prominent EU politicians such as Thorbjørn Jagland, secretary general of the Council of Europe, and José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, asked them not to move ahead. Angela Merkel personally warned János Áder, who happened to be on a state visit in Berlin, of the possible serious consequences if he signs this amendment to the constitution into law. Yet Áder went ahead and in a speech to the nation tried to justify his action by claiming that he had no other choice. His hands were tied by law. Some people, including former President László Sólyom, earlier chief justice of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, thought otherwise.

Viktor Orbán himself dismissed the criticism that the changes his government had made to the constitution were anti-democratic. “Who is able to present even one single point of evidence, facts may I say, that would be the basis for any argument that what we are doing is against democracy? Just one concrete step,” he told reporters ahead of a summit of  EU leaders in Brussels.

Well, it seems that the five constitutional scholars who were in charge of examining the provisions of the fourth amendment had plenty of evidence to prove that it is “against democracy.” I doubt that Viktor Orbán is as cocky today, after the Venice Commission’s report was mistakenly uploaded to its website ahead of schedule, as he was a day or two after the storm in mid-March. Apparently he told the Fidesz-KDNP parliamentary delegation at that time that “the more they attack us the better.” This time around it seems that these “attacks” will indeed have very serious consequences. Every European organization that is involved with the Hungarian constitutional crisis–the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the European Commission–had been waiting for word from the Venice Commission.

The handwriting was already on the wall in mid-April when the members of the Venice Commission visited Budapest and were handed a fifty-page reply to their criticisms. Róbert Répássy, undersecretary in the Ministry of Administration and Justice, sensed that “the members of the Venice Commission had already made up their minds.” I’m sure they had. After all, these five legal scholars had been studying the new Hungarian constitution as well as its amendments for over a year.

At this point, János Martonyi, most likely on instruction from above, asked three conservative legal scholars to take a look at the constitution and its amendments. The government was hoping for an endorsement of its position, but even their report, which arrived in early May, was not an unequivocal seal of approval.

Venice CommissionI have only the summary of the report that  Népszava published last night. The original is 34 pages long and is apparently a complete condemnation of the Hungarian constitution as it now stands. (The report was taken off the site once the timing error was discovered.) The members of the Commission (the Austrian Christoph Grabenwarter, the German Wolfgang Hoffmann-Riem, the Polish Hanna Suchocka, the Finnish Kaarlo Tuori, and the Belgian Jan Velaers) consider the fourth amendment no more than a “political declaration” that “aims at the perpetuation of the political power of the current government.” The document itself has seven chapters and the objections are summarized in 155 points. Without trying to go into details on the basis of a summary, I’ll skip straight to the Commission’s final verdict. The Commission, unlike in other cases, doesn’t even bother to make suggestions that would perhaps remedy some of their objections. Rather, they indicate that the whole thing is unacceptable. It has to be abrogated. Thrown out.

The limits imposed on the Constitutional Court “have a negative influence on the Council of Europe’s three fundamental pillars: the separation of powers, the defense of human rights, and the rule of law…. The Hungarian constitution cannot be a political instrument…. The fourth amendment perpetuates the problems of the judiciary independence, severely undermines the possibilities of constitutional scrutiny, and endangers the constitutional system of checks and balances.”

Even Gergely Gulyás, Fidesz’s young star and expert on the constitution, admitted that this was a much worse outcome than he himself had anticipated. Naturally, he pointed out all the alleged inaccuracies and wrong interpretations, but I had the impression listening to his interview this afternoon that even he realizes that the Hungarian government doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The government will answer, but I doubt that they are too sanguine about being able to change the mind of the Venice Commission.

And a lot depends on the opinion of the Venice Commission. In the Council of Europe, the members have been waiting for the opinion of the legal experts before they hold a vote on imposing a monitoring procedure against Hungary. The European Parliament will soon vote on the LIBE recommendations.  The Venice Commission’s opinion might sway some members who hitherto have been undecided on the merits of Rui Tavares’s report. And there is the European Commission, whose decision on a new infringement procedure as a result of the fourth amendment has been in limbo, pending word from the Venice Commission. And finally, the legal opinion on the Hungarian political situation as embodied in the new Orbán constitution might tip the scale against Fidesz in the European People’s Party where until now the majority supported Viktor Orbán. After the release of this document it will be difficult if not impossible to stand by a man who uses his power for the perpetuation of his own rule while trampling on the most sacred tenets of democracy.

Viktor Orbán most likely knew a couple of months ago that this is what would happen. He said in one of his speeches that a new attack is under way and that by June Hungary will be the target of an international assault. I guess he has been preparing for the battle. But this battle will be very difficult to win. His opponents are numerous and strong. And the god of democracy is on their side.

Hungarian president will sign the objectionable amendments while Viktor Orbán seems cocksure in Brussels

Hungarian President János Áder returned from Berlin where he presumably got an earful. Both Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle gave their opinions about the Hungarian government’s policies in general and the latest outrage in Budapest: the castration of the constitutional court and the destruction of the most basic principle of constitutional rule, the separation of powers.

While in Berlin Áder told reporters that he tried to enlighten the German politicians about the true nature of the amended constitution and assure them that their criticism was unfounded. Their criticism is based on their lack of knowledge of the details, he claimed. At home demonstrators and public figures tried to convince the president that he should refuse to sign the bill. But some legal scholars argued that Áder, as a result of the amendments, has no choice but to sign the document. Others, including László Sólyom, former head of the Hungarian constitutional court, argued that he does have the power to deny his signature. After all, as long as his signature is not on the bill, the old constitution is still in force and that constitution didn’t take his prerogative away. Áder decided to opt for the first interpretation. He announced that he has no choice but to sign.

Áder made the announcement on MTV, Hungary’s public television station. While a day before he was convinced that all was well with the amended constitution, in “his speech to the nation” he didn’t stress this point. Instead, he told his audience that he had studied the amendments carefully, listened to experts, read all the letters he received. But “a responsible thinking citizen cannot urge anyone to disregard the letter of the law. This is especially true in the case of the president because if he were to step onto the path of unconstitutionality there would be only one consequence. Something none of us wants. Chaos. Anarchy. Illegality.” And then he quoted the words in the newly amended constitution that he hadn’t yet signed: “The President of the Republic shall sign the Fundamental Law or the amendment thereof sent to him within five days of receipt and shall order its publication in the Official Gazette.”  So, he claimed that he has no choice but to sign, adding that this is his duty regardless of whether he personally likes the amendments or not.

Representatives of the new university student movement, HaHa, pointed out that he could have resigned. But no, Áder belongs to the inner sanctum of Fidesz. He has served Viktor Orbán well for years. He wavered only once, after the second lost election in 2006, when he apparently joined the ranks of those who thought that it might not be a bad idea if Viktor Orbán retired.

Tamás Deutsch, his old friend, was elated with his decision to sign. On Twitter Deutsch wrote: “You also know Jánó that THIS is what we once dreamed of.”  Does it mean that these guys have been planning to destroy Hungarian democracy for the last twenty-four years? Let’s hope not.

While Áder was returning to Budapest, Orbán was getting ready to travel to Brussels to take part in one of the periodic summits of the European Council. The European Council is supposed to define “the general political directions and priorities” of the Union. It is the EU’s strategic and crisis solving body, acting as the collective presidency of the EU.

Cheshire cat2Given “the unparalleled uproar” in Brussels and other capitals over Viktor Orbán’s defiance of the European Union, the interest in the Hungarian prime minister was more intense than usual. Normally he doesn’t talk to reporters before these meetings, but this time the Hungarians organized an “international press conference.” Orbán managed to avoid answering questions by insisting that he didn’t want to hear opinions; he demanded ” facts.” Since foreign reporters are not experts in the minutiae of the Hungarian constitution, the “dialogue” became rather strange. He kept repeating: “I beg you, only the facts!”  because so far he hasn’t been presented with any proof that what Hungary is doing is unconstitutional.

All in all, he was very cocky and sure of himself. Luke Baker, Reuters’  reporter in Brussels, tweeted: “Hungary’s Orban smiling like a Cheshire cat as he comes into press conference with international media to defend constitutional changes.” I’d wager to say that Baker had the original Cheshire Cat in mind, not the jolly fellow that appeared in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. The original cat as depicted by John Tenniel, the illustrator of the 1866 publication of  Lewis Carroll’s book, is a much more sinister character.

Orbán might get off his high horse soon because there are new developments afoot. One is that, according to “reliable information,”  the “Hungarian question” will be on the table at the summit. Second, the German parliament (Bundestag) spent more than an hour today on the amendments to the Hungarian constitution. The initiative came from the social democrats, but all parties joined the socialists in demanding strong action on the part of Germany and Angela Merkel. At the same time Viviane Reding, European commissioner of justice, fundamental rights, and citizenship, warned Hungary of severe consequences as a result of Budapest’s latest moves. Reding talked about the possibility of invoking Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty and added that Hungary’s subsidies might be cut. “The Constitution is not a toy that can be changed every six months.”  (The students said exactly the same thing.)

Orbán may appear to be unruffled, but all observers agree that the situation is serious. There are signs of impatience and annoyance in Brussels at Orbán’s provocations and games with the European Union. This time he might have gone too far.

Conservative critics of the Orbán regime and its “new” constitution

First and foremost I would like give a link to Professor Kim Scheppele’s latest article, “The Fog of Amendment,”  about the latest changes to the Hungarian constitution adopted less than a year ago. She who worked at the Hungarian Constitutional Court during its most heroic period, right after the change of regime in the early 1990s, is most worried about the castration of the court.

László Sólyom, former president and chief justice who was one of the authors of the constitution the Fidesz government replaced with its own, decries the death of a democratic constitution and its replacement with one in which the separation of powers is destroyed with the introduction of the so-called “fourth amendment.” Sólyom argues, correctly I believe, that the amendments, fifteen pages in length, fundamentally change the spirit of the constitution.

I would like to spend a little time on Sólyom’s arguments. I think I should mention that I considered Sólyom a disaster as a president. He didn’t even try to hide his political sympathies; he openly favored the man, Viktor Orbán, and the party that was responsible for his election. Sólyom would gladly have continued as head of state, but the new prime minister had other ideas. Sólyom was a pain in the neck as far as the socialist-liberal governments were concerned, and there was every likelihood that he would continue in the same vein and find almost every new piece of legislation unconstitutional. The members of the court naturally obliged. After all, the former chief justice knew the constitution he himself helped write. And, naturally, this was the last thing Viktor Orbán wanted. So instead came Pál Schmitt. He had no objection to anything. He most likely didn’t even read the documents. Too bad for Orbán that his faithful servant in the Sándor palota (the office of the president in the Castle District) was found to have plagiarized and had to step down.

Sólyom points out that both the constitution of 1990 and even the one that replaced it were based on the principle of a separation of powers. In that system, the constitutional court ensures the sanctity of the basic laws while the parliament represents the public will. Each is the highest organ within its own domain. By contrast, in the communist system the parliament was the single “power” over the affairs of state. “Unrestricted parliamentary powers in Hungary as well as in Central Europe have never been democratic and bring back very unpleasant memories,” writes Sólyom.

www.globalpost.com

www.globalpost.com

The move to place parliament and through it the government over and above the constitutional court did not start with the adoption of these latest amendments. From the moment Viktor Orbán and Fidesz won the elections it was evident that the power of parliament was going to be enhanced at the expense of the judiciary and the constitutional court. They began to use the constitution as an instrument of political power. Between June 2010 and January 1, 2012 they changed the old constitution thirteen times, affecting twenty-six paragraphs. Between January 1 and March 11, 2013 they changed their own new constitution four times. This time they practically created a new constitution. According to Sólyom, the “Basic Laws” enacted by parliament in April 2011 could still be considered to be a democratic constitution. With these new amendments, however, Hungary has ceased to be a democracy because from now on the parliament has the last word as far as constitutionality is concerned.

We arrived at this sorry state of affairs as a result of the government’s decision to ignore the rulings of the constitutional court that found several of the so-called “temporary measures” unconstitutional. Yesterday the Fidesz faithful in parliament voted to incorporate all those unconstitutional measures into the main body of the constitution. And at the same time it forbade the constitutional court from examining the constitutionality of these provisions.

Gábor Török, not exactly a liberal commentator, pointed out that perhaps the most worrisome passage in this newly amended constitution is Article 2(3), which reads as follows:

“(3) The Speaker of the House shall sign the adopted Fundamental Law or the adopted
amendment thereof within five days and shall send it to the President of the Republic. The
President of the Republic shall sign the Fundamental Law or the amendment thereof sent to
him within five days of receipt and shall order its publication in the Official Gazette. If the
President of the Republic finds a departure from any procedural requirement laid down in the
Fundamental Law with respect to adoption of the Fundamental Law or any amendment thereof, the President of the Republic refers such departure to the Constitutional Court for a revision. Should the revision by the Constitutional Court not verify the departure from the requirements, the President of the Republic shall immediately sign the Fundamental Law or the
amendment thereof, and shall order its publication in the Official Gazette.”

From here on the government through its two-thirds majority in parliament can do anything its heart desires. There is no control over the laws they put into the constitution. Because, let’s not fool ourselves, unless Orbán is stopped ever new amendments will enable him to do whatever he wants.

This latest rape of Hungarian democracy is too much even for some so-called conservative writers. Like Bálint Ablonczy of Heti Válasz who complains that the Orbán government has lost its sense of reality. He calls the constitution a “legal lasagna” and says that “it is not the least bit consoling that there is no horse meat in it.” Ablonczy argues that “those Fidesz politicians who came up with this scandalous procedure not only cause damage to themselves but  further tear into the already unstitched fabric of our common affairs.” Ablonczy finds it incomprehensible that the Orbán government is ready ignore the danger signs coming from the Council of Europe, the European Commission, the American administration, and the German foreign ministry. “It is time to think a little bit.” Surely, the editorial board of Heti Válasz had to approve this article. Maybe they want to send a message to Viktor Orbán.

Even more outspoken criticism came from Dávid Lakner, a member of Mandiner, an online site for young conservatives. They also seem to be waking up to the fact that the ideology of the Orbán government has nothing to do with conservatism in the classical sense. This is an undemocratic, authoritarian system heading toward full fledged dictatorship.

The German conservative paper Die Welt described Orbán, after the enactment of the “new” constitution, as a man “who no longer trusts the free play of democratic forces and instead relies on unfettered power…. Orbán isn’t protecting his country. He is leading it into a dangerous rigidity. But things that are too brittle break all too easily.”

Finally, Barbara Stamm, president of the Bavarian parliament, cancelled her scheduled meeting with László Kövér. This must be a real blow because if Viktor Orbán’s regime had one steadfast supporter, it was Bavaria’s governing party, the Christian Social Union (CSU). Viktor Orbán loved visiting Munich where he was always welcome. And Bavarian politicians came to Budapest to sing the praises of the Orbán government. No longer, it seems.

László Kövér and democracy in Hungary

László Kövér has been extraordinarily talkative of late and one has the feeling that not even his own camp is always happy with his harsh, provocative words. A lot of liberal commentators don’t seem to take him seriously. “You know what Kövér is like,” they react. Only a few are coming to the conclusion that the sole “opposition” within Fidesz to Viktor Orbán’s policies comes from Kövér and his circle. And that internal opposition is from the right.

From an interview that Kövér gave to MTI I think we can safely say that he doesn’t have a clue what democracy is all about. Let’s start with what he thinks of parliamentary debates. According to the Constitution, while the Parliament is in session plenary sessions must be held every week. The 1989 Constitution stated the same thing, but that didn’t prevent the first Orbán government from changing it to “every third week.” An awful lot of criticism followed the decision because fewer sessions of parliament further limited the opportunity for the opposition to be heard. Kövér, however, seems determined to bring back the old practice,  and he doesn’t hide his hope that by doing so he would take away “some of the play things of the opposition.” Such a change naturally would entail another modification of the barely one-year-old Constitution. But as we know well enough, that would not be a problem.

According to Kövér, one reason that might warrant such a change is that as of 2014 there will be only 199 members of parliament instead of 386 and therefore their work load will be a great deal heavier. But that is not the only reason. In Kövér’s words, the so-called “discussions on the details of the bills [részletes viták]  are nothing but empty, boring, at times ad hominem cavils which interest no one [ in Hungarian “a kutyát sem érdekli”] besides the poor stenographers. Even the presiding chairman falls asleep on the dais.” On the same day Kövér expanded on the theme in an interview on Inforádió. He complained about “the time spent by the opposition voting down amendments when they ought to know full well which are the ones the government parties support.” So, why bother? In that case, indeed, one doesn’t need an opposition. Back to dictatorship!

And if Kövér doesn’t like a multi-party parliament why should he like the Constitutional Court? He doesn’t. In his opinion the Hungarian Constitutional Court simply doesn’t understand its own role. It acts as a “quasi appellate forum over parliament in such a way that the judges, unlike members of parliament and members of the government, are not responsible to anyone. The judges created the theocratic power of a divinity called ‘the invisible constitution’* over and above the sovereignty of the people.”

I don’t think that László Kövér reads this blog, although someone in his office does, but herewith a thing or two about the role of constitutional courts in Europe and the United States. I will first quote from an aid to civics teachers in American schools from grades 3 to 12. It is an easy text for youngsters and therefore should be super easy for László Kövér.

The Supreme Court has a special role to play in the United States system of government. The Constitution gives it the power to check, if necessary, the actions of the President and Congress. It can tell a President that his actions are not allowed by the Constitution. It can tell Congress that a law it passed violated the U.S. Constitution and is, therefore, no longer a law. It can also tell the government of a state that one of its laws breaks a rule in the Constitution. The Supreme Court is the final judge in all cases involving laws of Congress, and the highest law of all the Constitution.

In brief, this nasty U.S. Supreme Court is the final arbiter of the laws of the land. It’s not just those terrible Hungarian judges who try to foil the present government and parliament elected by the “people.” But if Kövér thinks that the United States goes too far and that the presidential system is radically different from the parliamentary system still in place in Hungary here is another description of the institution from Europe:

A constitutional court is a high court that deals primarily with constitutional law. Its main authority is to rule on whether or not laws that are challenged are in fact unconstitutional, i.e. whether or not they conflict with the constitutionally established rights and freedoms.

Nothing here about judges of the Constitutional Court being responsible to a higher authority, except the Constitution of the country. The Court is indeed part of those checks and balances Hillary Clinton often talked about with concern when it came to the dangerous path the Orbán government has taken in the last two and a half years. And here is the third most important dignitary of Hungary who seems to know less about how democracy works than a third grader in the United States.

As for the ad hominem attacks that Kövér is so upset about when he is the one who presides over the session like a nasty old nineteenth-century schoolmaster. Well, he himself is a frequent attack dog. He makes László Sólyom responsible for the present “constitutional bankruptcy of the country.” I assume it’s bankrupt because even the already packed Constitutional Court throws back bill after bill as being unconstitutional. And after László Sólyom, the first chief justice of the Constitutional Court and later president of the country, criticized the Orbán government, Kövér decided to accuse Sólyom of having a hurt ego. Viktor Orbán picked Pál Schmitt, who eventually had to resign in disgrace, instead of him. Not very elegant.

Yes, Sólyom is “at fault” because after all he was one of the framers of the Constitution as well as the man who had the greatest influence in shaping how the Hungarian Constitutional Court would function in the future. He is responsible for the Constitutional Court becoming “an appellate forum” of parliament and the government. What a tragic misunderstanding of the role of a constitutional court.

But that wasn’t enough. Kövér accused Sólyom of being the underling of the communists who were negotiating in the name of the MSZMP at the Ellenzéki Kerekasztal (Opposition Round Table) during the summer of 1989. According to Kövér, Sólyom and all those who supported him in his quest to set up a Constitutional Court were in fact helping the communists preserve their power. I assume Kövér thinks that it’s still a key element in the alleged communist conspiracy against the Orbán government. Soon enough something must be done about it. I’m sure that if it depended on Kövér the Court would simply disappear. There is already one Orbán appointee on the Court who thinks that it should be abolished.

A reminder that there were times when Viktor Orbán considered the rulings of the Constitutional Court the iron-clad rule of democracy. No more such performances in Parliament

A reminder that there were times when Viktor Orbán considered the decisions of the Constitutional Court the iron-clad rules of democracy. No more such performances in Parliament next year.

Otherwise, Kövér is planning to put an end to any kind of unseemly behavior in parliament. Order will be established in the next session, with 349 guards making sure of it. These guards will receive a high salary, about three times that of an ordinary policeman, and will have similar rights. If there is a serious incident they can hit, kick, and even fire weapons. 199 MPs and 349 guards! Incredible.  But if Orbán and Áder are shielded by the members of TEK (Anti-Terror Unit), it seems that Kövér must have his own guards. All 349 of them.

*It was László Sólyom who introduced the term “invisible constitution.” It basically means that the constitution must be interpreted in a flexible manner. It is the opposite of strict constructionism.