László Sólyom, the tragic hero?
Some people think so. Just today Ákos Tóth, one of the editors of Népszabadság, published an opinion piece entitled “The Tragedy of Sólyom.” Tóth’s thesis is although that Sólyom perhaps doesn’t realize it, soon he will encounter the most tragic fate of any politician of the post 1990 period. Because before his very eyes everything that he created will crumble, and the destruction will be committed by those on whom he wanted to bestow his blessing. The edifice that will be destroyed is the Hungarian constitution.
Tóth is certainly right when it comes to the destruction of the constitution that was mostly written by László Sólyom and Péter Tölgyessy, SZDSZ’s first chairman. But he is far too “understanding” in his brief account of László Sólyom’s tenure as president. Because, let’s face it, Sólyom was a disaster as a president.
Let me give a few reasons why I think so. The problems started with his election. The man who was so proud of his moral rectitude and his devotion to the constitution was elected to the post in an unconstitutional manner. His opponent was the socialist Katalin Szili and the race was too close to call. There was a real possibility that a few people from Fidesz and MDF, the two right-wing parties, might vote for Szili. So Fidesz decided to guarantee the final result. János Áder, then head of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, checked the ballots of all Fidesz members of parliament that were ostensibly cast in secret. In fact, he sent one fellow back who “by mistake” voted for the wrong person. Yet Sólyom said nothing. He very badly wanted to be president.
In my opinion, quite independently from the outrageous circumstances of his election, he should never even have been nominated in the first place because of his former position as chief justice of the constitutional court. If Sólyom sent a piece of legislation to the court for control, one could bet that it would be deemed unconstitutional. After all, the not so bright and subservient judges figured that if Sólyom thinks that it is unconstitutional, it must be. A former member of parliament told me that he considered Sólyom’s position untenable and that his earlier job should have precluded him from consideration.
My other problem with Sólyom is that he refused to consider himself an official representative of Hungary and thus thought that he could behave as a private citizen. He sided with the environmentalists and opposed setting up a radar station mandated by NATO when in his official capacity he was the commander-in-chief of the Hungarian armed forces. He announced that he would never visit the United States because he is against the U.S. policy of fingerprinting. A private person can do that. The president of a country can’t. He refused to shake hands with a man who received a medal from the Hungarian government because he didn’t like his past activities as one of the deputy chairmen of the Hungarian National Bank in the Kádár regime. He vetoed bestowing a decoration on former prime minister Gyula Horn, who had been decorated by every possible country for his role in the unification of Germany and the fall of the Soviet empire. He objected to Horn’s activities in the 1956 revolution on the wrong side. And to Sólyom’s list of sins one can add his frequent trips to neighboring countries to visit the Hungarian communities there. To his mind he was making these trips as a private person, but in fact he performed official duties even though he was not invited by the government of the country.
Throughout his tenure he made no secret of the fact that he prefered Fidesz and hated Ferenc Gyurcsány. The “nonpolitical” president in fact demanded Gyurcsány’s resignation on moral grounds. He did everything in his power to ruin Gyurcsány and even recently expressed his opinion that he would have preferred early elections and thus an earlier Fidesz win.
And he was hopeful until the very end that the grateful Viktor Orbán would support his reelection. In fact, he was sure of it as late as the eve of the first round of elections on April 11. He didn’t make a secret of his feelings. He talked about the “rebuilding of Hungary.” As if it were in ruins. My strong suspicion is that it was on April 28, the day when he asked Viktor Orbán to form a government, that he learned the bad news. No five more years. It’s enough to look at the picture that was taken on the occasion.
It is worth comparing the above picture to another one taken exactly a month later, on May 28. On that day Sólyom received Gordon Bajnai, who paid his last courtesy call to Sándor Palota. I might add that by all accounts Sólyom got along just fine with Bajnai.
It is clear that suddenly Sólyom’s feelings toward Viktor Orbán, with whom once he sat in 1989 at the Round Table discussion that hammered out the new democratic regime, changed and changed fundamentally. Perhaps László Sólyom is not a very perceptive man and it took him almost twenty years to figure out who Viktor Orbán is. Or, even worse. He is so ambitious that he was willing to close his eyes and cover his ears and move not a finger in defense of the constitution until recently when he found out that he had been set aside. Whatever the case, Sólyom’s sudden recognition that democracy is in danger doesn’t sound genuine to me.
As for his constitution, a couple of days ago György Schöpflin, a former professor of political science at the London School of Economics and in the last six years a Fidesz member of the European Parliament, called Sólyom’s handiwork a “communist constitution,” which I guess means that Sólyom himself is a communist stooge. And, by the way, Schöpflin is one of the six men who was asked by Orbán to come up with appropriate guidelines for the new constitution to be ready by 2012.
I don’t have much sympathy for Sólyom in this predicament because he contributed over the course of the last five years to Fidesz’s overwhelming victory. I don’t think that he will ever admit that he had a hand in the outcome that is so disadvantageous to him and to the country. He served the interests of Orbán and hoped that his services would be appreciated. But Orbán wasn’t grateful. As some Hungarian politician said, gratefulness is not a political category.
The former Fidesz appointed president, Ferenc Mádl, was invited to every Fidesz gathering. I’ll bet that Sólyom will not be sitting in the front row with his wife and will not addressed by Viktor Orbán as “The Honorable Mr. President,” as happens when Mádl is present. It is very possible that they will never again meet face to face.