Tag Archives: retirement age

A discriminatory law from 2010 is haunting the Orbán government today

It was on August 2, 2010 that Népszava got wind of the government’s plan to allow women who had worked for forty years to retire with full benefits, regardless of age. That would mean that a woman who quit school after eight grades and who began working immediately afterward would be only 55-56 years old when she became eligible to retire. The president of the supervisory body of the pension system expressed her misgivings. She warned that such a decision would transform the whole structure of the system and would also go against the recommendations of the European Union.

At that time the government figured that relatively few women would be eligible, perhaps 6,000, so surely their decision would not upset the stability of the system. Iván László, a gerontologist and Fidesz MP active on the Parliamentary Committee on Youth, Social and Family Affairs, added that the government was planning to change the status of men as well. It was only a question of time (Népszava, August 3, 2010).

It took a little time for MSZP to respond to this announcement. The party called attention to the worldwide trend of increasing the retirement age considering people’s longer lifespans, but a few months later the party decided to support the proposal. In fact, the socialists would have liked to give the same opportunity to men as well–the typical opportunistic behavior exhibited when it comes to pieces of legislation that will likely be popular with the public. The law was passed on November 11, 2010. As of January 1, 2011, women who were eligible could take advantage of the new system.

Soon enough came the cold shower: Fidesz-KDNP underestimated the number of women who would be eligible and who would take advantage of the offer. The underestimation was substantial. The planners thought that no more than 4,000-6,000 women would be eligible, but shortly after the bill was passed the ministry of national economy calculated that about 24,000 women would be added to the pool of retirees, costing the state 30-35 billion forints.

It was apparent from the very beginning that the new law was discriminatory. According to the Hungarian constitution, men and women have equal rights and yet men with a 40-year employment record couldn’t retire with full benefits. There was a short exchange on this point in parliament where the Fidesz MPs expressed their strong belief that God created men and women to perform different tasks and the gerontology expert also thanked God that the “curse of genderism hasn’t reached Hungary yet.” Yet, MSZP voted for it.

equality

The government estimate of 24,000 women who would retire early turned out to be terribly wrong. By 2013 almost 100,000 women had retired early, which resulted in an 80% growth in pension fund expenses. In 2012 the early retirement madness cost the taxpayers 109 billion forints, and the latest figure is 187 billion.

One reason for the rush to benefit from the provisions of the legislation was the widespread belief that the government would be forced to abolish this very costly campaign promise. Even the women themselves realized that this generous gift might not be sustainable. And yet, during the 2014 election campaign the opposition parties, including DK that swore to refrain from populist promises, talked about the necessity of maintaining women’s special status.

No one stood up in 2010 and insisted on taking the issue to the Constitutional Court for review, although at that time it would still have been possible because the new Fidesz law on the Constitutional Court had not yet been passed.

I call the law that sailed through parliament in November 2010 the “original sin” because now, five years later, Hungarian trade unions, who badly need to bolster their popularity, suddenly discovered that the law that allowed women to retire earlier than men is discriminatory. A private citizen, acting on behalf of the trade unions, asked the National Election Committee to allow a referendum on the issue. Last month, implicitly acknowledging the discriminatory nature of the law, the Kúria, Hungary’s supreme court, approved the referendum question. Activists immediately began collecting signatures, and the signature campaign is going splendidly. There is no question in my mind that the necessary 200,000 signatures will be a cinch to collect. MSZP naturally supports the referendum. After all, already in 2010 they considered it fair to lower the retirement age across the board.

A couple of years ago one of the critics of the original 2010 bill called it a ticking time bomb. Well, the bomb is now close to going off. Suddenly, pro-Fidesz officials are talking about the referendum as “the greatest stupidity” ever. It’s too bad they didn’t think through their campaign promise. They blame the trade unions for seeking cheap popularity. The ministry of national economy, which so misjudged the numbers in the case of the women, is now talking about 150,000 men who might take advantage of early retirement. This would cost 200 billion in addition to the 185 billion currently spent on the women retirees. They figure that the combined effect of the early retirement of both sexes would be like giving them a pension for the nonexistent 14th month of the year. The 13th month of pension had to be abolished in 2009 by the Bajnai government because it almost bankrupted the country.

I must admit I don’t feel sorry for the government. They brought the trouble on themselves, mind you, with the effective help of the opposition parties that didn’t have the courage to stand up and say: we can’t afford this, we shouldn’t do this because the trend all over the world is not to reduce the age requirement for retirement but just the opposite, to raise it.

Jobbik has joined MSZP in support of the trade unions’ initiative. János Volker, deputy leader of the parliamentary caucus, announced a couple of days ago that the party will enlist 17,000 activists to assist in collecting the necessary number of signatures. Fidesz’s immediate reaction was to accuse MSZP of some kind of alliance with the neo-Nazis.

Of course, the question is whether four million people will go out to vote in the referendum. Just as it was not at all difficult to get almost four million people to vote against the 300 Ft copay and a rather small monthly tuition fee, I feel sure that most people will gladly participate in a referendum that will benefit the majority of workers. I suspect that the great legal minds in Fidesz are hard at work trying to figure out some way to avoid holding the referendum. I wonder what kind of trick they will come up with.

What does the Demokratikus Koalíció stand for?

On September 3, I wrote about an opinion piece by Tamás Bauer, vice-chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció. Its title was “Electoral mathematics: The Demokratikus Koalíció’s position.” Bauer argued for DK’s right, based on its numerical support, to receive at least 8 or 9 electoral districts. He added that DK’s positions on many issues differ from those of both MSZP and Együtt2014-PM and therefore it deserves a parliamentary caucus.

At the end of that post I indicated that I would like to return to DK’s political program because relatively few people are familiar with it. I had to postpone that piece due to DK’s very prompt answer to MSZP. On the next day, September 4, I posted an article entitled “The current state of the Hungarian opposition: Negotiations between MSZP and DK.”

Over the last few days it has become obvious to me that Ferenc Gyurcsány has already begun his election campaign.  Zsolt Gréczy’s appointment as DK spokesman signaled the beginning of the campaign, which was then followed by several personal appearances by Ferenc Gyurcsány where he began to outline his program. Surely, the amusing video on being a tour guide in Felcsút, “the capital of Orbanistan,” was part of this campaign. So, it’s time to talk about the party program of the Demokratikus Koalíció, especially since only yesterday Attila Mesterházy answered Ferenc Gyurcsány’s letter to him. I elaborated on that letter in my September 4 post.

You may remember that one of the sticking points between the two parties was whether DK is ready to have “an electoral alliance” as opposed to “a political alliance.” Gyurcsány in his letter to Mesterházy made light of the difference between the two, but as far as the socialists are concerned this is an important distinction. Yesterday Attila Mesterházy made that crystal clear in his answer to  Gyurcsány which he posted on his own webpage. According to him, a “political alliance” means the complete subordination of individual parties’ political creeds to the agreed upon policies.  In plain language, DK “will have to agree not to represent its own political ideas during the campaign.”

Since DK’s program thus became one of the central issues in the negotiations it is time to see in what way DK’s vision of the future differs from that of MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM. Here I’m relying on Tamás Bauer’s list of the main differences.

(1) An MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM alliance following an electoral victory will only amend the new constitution and the cardinal laws that are based on this new constitution. The Demokratikus Koalíció, on the other hand, holds that the new constitution is illegitimate because it was enacted without the participation of the opposition. Therefore, according to DK, the new constitution must be repealed and the constitution of the Republic must take its place.

(2) MSZP-E14 by and large accepts the policy of Viktor Orbán on national matters and would allow people living outside of the borders to vote in national elections. The Demokratikus Koalíció rejects this new law and would put an end to these new citizens’ voting rights.

(3) MSZP-E14 does not seem to concern itself with the relation of church and state or the Orbán government’s law on churches. DK would restore the religious neutrality of the state and would initiate a re-examination of the agreement that was concluded between Hungary and the Vatican or, if the Church does not agree to such a re-examination, DK would abrogate the agreement altogether.

(4) MSZP-E14 talks in generalities about the re-establishment of predictable economic conditions and policies that would be investment friendly but it doesn’t dare to reject such populist moves as a decrease in utility prices or the nationalization of companies. Only DK is ready to openly reject all these.

(5) MSZP-E14 accepts the tax credits that depend on the number of children and therefore supports an unjust system. DK, on the other hand, wants to put an end to this system and to introduce a system that treats all children alike.

(6) Együtt2014-PM opposes the concentration of land that is necessary for the creation of  a modern and effective agriculture. The policy of small landholdings was the brainchild of the Smallholders Party, which was largely responsible for the collapse of Hungarian agriculture after the change of regime. MSZP is against foreign investment in Hungarian agriculture. The Demokratikus Koalíció intends to liberalize the agricultural market. DK thinks that agricultural cooperatives should be able to purchase the land they currently cultivate. It also maintains that foreign capital should be able to come into Hungary in order to make Hungarian agriculture competitive again.

(7) The attitude of MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM toward the conflicts between the European Union and the Orbán government is ambiguous, while the Demokratikus Koalíció unequivocally takes the side of the institutions of the Union against the Orbán government.

These are the points that Tamás Bauer mentions. But as the Gyurcsány campaign unfolds more and more differences will be visible. For example, only yesterday Gyurcsány talked about his ideas to abolish the compulsory retirement age and to financially encourage people to demand higher wages in order to maximize their pensions after retirement. During this talk in Nyíregyháza Gyurcsány made no secret of the fact that his party is working on its election program.

So, it seems to me that the Gyurcsány campaign has already begun. Maybe I’m wrong and Gyurcsány will give up all his ideas and will line up behind MSZP-E14, but somehow I doubt it. Even if he tried, he couldn’t. Temperamentally he is not suited for it.

Meanwhile, an interesting but naturally not representative voting has been taking place in Magyar Narancs. Readers of the publication are asked to vote for party and for leader of the list. DK leads (52%) over Együtt 2014 (29%) and Gyurcsány (54%) over Bajnai (32%). Of course, this vote in no way reflects reality. What it does tell us is that the majority of readers of Magyar Narancs are DK supporters. Something that surprised me. If I had had to guess, I would have picked Együtt2014.

As for Ferenc Gyurcsány’s visit to Felcsút, I wrote about it a couple of days ago. The video is now out. This morning I decided to take a look at it because from Zsolt Gréczy’s description on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd the whole scene of Fidesz cameras following them everywhere sounded hilarious . At that time the video had been viewed by about 5,000 people. Right now the number of visitors is over 53,000.

Clips from The Godfather are juxtaposed with scenes from Felcsút. The video ends with the wedding of Vito Corleone’s daughter. While Gyurcsány is narrating the enrichment of the Orbán family, two people, one of whom is the Fidesz regional secretary and the other perhaps the cameraman of the Puskás Academy, follow him everywhere and record his every move and word. Definitely worth seven minutes of your time.

Since I am no fortune teller I have no idea what will happen. A couple of things, though, I’m pretty sure of. DK will never agree to drop Gyurcsány as their party leader. And Mesterházy indicated that this might be one of the MSZP demands for an agreement. Or at least that Gyurcsány not be DK’s top candidate, or possibly any candidate. Otherwise why would he have asked: “Are those media predictions that the Demokratikus Koalíció plans to nominate the chairman of the party, Ferenc Gyurcsány, for the second slot on the list true?”

At first reading I didn’t notice this linguistic oddity. The letter is addressed to “Dear Mr. Party Chairman, dear Feri” and continues in the second-person singular: “te.” Now that I returned to the sentence in order to translate it, suddenly I noticed that Mesterházy switched from “te,” which in a personal letter would have been normal, to “Ferenc Gyurcsány” in a letter addressed to Ferenc Gyurcsány.

What will the final result be? I have no idea. Let’s put it this way, it’s much easier to predict the outcome of Hungarian soccer matches than the outcome of opposition politics.

The Hungarian judiciary hits back but it is most likely too late

It was only a week ago that I wrote an article about the possible repercussions of the Orbán government’s plans to revamp the Hungarian judiciary system. At that time it was already quite obvious that the government means business: it wants to reshape the judiciary by being able to appoint its own favorites to high posts.

The first warning sign that Viktor Orbán–because let’s not pretend otherwise, he is the one who makes all the decisions in the party and the government–had had enough of judicial independence came months ago. First, there were verbal attacks on Hungarian judges who, according to Fidesz, didn’t rule properly in cases against violent demonstrators on October 23, 2006. Then, the decision was made, which parliament enacted into law, that rendered certain verdicts reached in these cases null and void.

Later it became apparent that the government was dissatisfied with the current practice of having an independent judiciary council nominate judges. Hungary at least until now had a unique system. Personnel decisions lay with a judiciary council that was comprised of top-level judges plus the minister of justice and the chief justice. This body was solely responsible for nominating new judges and promoting others. In the new constitution there is no mention of the judiciary council. From here on the minister of justice will nominate judges and parliament will approve them with a two-thirds majority. There is no question who will be nominated and approved.

Then came the startling news that judges will have to retire at the age of 62 instead of 70 and that this change will be included in the new Hungarian constitution. One doesn’t have to be a constitutional expert to know that such details have no place in a constitution. So why put it there? The answer is actually quite simple.

If this new provision were not included in the constitution it would surely be found unconstitutional on many grounds. Here I’ll mention only two. Someone who began his career as a clerk to a judge and who decided to remain within the system in the last twenty to twenty-five years has been doing his financial planning based on the fact that he can work until the age of seventy. Let’s say that someone is sixty years old and just married for the second time. He bought a house for his new family and is still paying the mortgage. He thought he had ten more years with the judiciary with a pretty good salary. Now, out the blue, he’s just learned that in two years he will be out on his ears. The constitutional court has handed down rulings in the past that would serve as clear precedents for declaring this change in the retirement age unconstitutional–that is, if the constitutional court had anything to do with it.

But there is at least one other reason why the constitutional court would throw out this provision if the government didn’t smuggle it into the constitution. One cannot just arbitrarily lower the retirement age of judges when the retirement age of prosecutors and diplomats remains untouched at seventy. In the last minute it seems that this problem became evident to János Lázár, leader of the Fidesz delegation in parliament, whose unpleasant task it was to turn in this amendment in the last minute. He announced that eventually they will also lower the retirement age for prosecutors, diplomats, and politicians. You may recall that last summer the government changed the law concerning the retirement age for diplomats so that György Szapáry, who was seventy-two years old, could serve as Hungarian ambassador to the United States. In brief, this government tinkers with the retirement age in any old way it suits them.

The first reactions from the judges were muted, but this morning we learned that the pussy-footing around had come to an end. The top leadership of the Hungarian judiciary system almost unanimously rose up against lowering the retirement age. All the members of the Supreme Court, the chairman of the judiciary council, and the chief justices of the county courts published a communiqué that was addressed “to the public of the country and the European Union.” From the communiqué we learn that the retirement age was fixed in 1869 (1869:IV) and hasn’t been changed since! At that time the average life expectancy in Hungary was under forty. The judges rightly point out that this decision goes against the trend that in fact raises the retirement age almost everywhere in the developed world.

But that is the least of the judges’ problem. They find the new provision discriminatory and contrary to the theory of judicial independence. At last the judges dared to say that the decision to include this change in the constitution is based on the full knowledge of the government that this new law is unconstitutional. The judges also decided that they will announce what until now they didn’t want to bring up: the change serves only political ends.

The best was left for last. The judges find it incredible that twenty-one years after the change of regime from a one-party system to a pluralistic democracy they have to fight for the minimal values of democracy in a country that is currently holding the rotating presidency of the European Union. They “would have never thought that in our country we will have to stand together in the defense of constitutionality and democracy against those politicians, some of whom in those days actively worked to end the dictatorship and establish a democratic state.”

Twenty-one judges, including almost all the chief justices of the county courts and the heads of the appellate courts, signed the communiqué. There were only three county chief justices who didn’t. One refused to say why not while the other two claimed that in their own district very few judges are close to retirement. Naturally that cannot be their real reason for not signing. One suspects that these people think that soon enough they will occupy some of the higher places in the hierarchy that the signers of the communiqué will involuntarily vacate.

The liberal opposition greeted the communiqué enthusiastically but some think that it came far too late. Next Monday the constitution will most likely be approved by the Fidesz-KDNP two-thirds majority. MSZP, LMP, and Jobbik will not vote for it, and the two independent MPs also announced that they cannot sign the document.

As mentioned earlier, the communiqué is addressed to the public of the country and the European Union. But what can the European Union do? Perhaps the Hungarian judges know more than we do. Let’s hope so.

April 15, 2011