László Sólyom’s newest assessment of the Hungarian political situation
Only the other day I was complaining about an annoying habit of liberal journalists: they gush over government criticisms coming from earlier supporters of Fidesz. They triumphantly quote these people by way of saying: “You see, even X or Y thinks that there is something very wrong with Viktor Orbán’s revolution at the ballot box. We have been saying the same thing for two years but now maybe Orbán will listen to his pal X or Y.”
First of all, they are wrong. Orbán will not listen to his old pals. He will look upon them as enemies to destroy. Second, the gushing reporters in their enthusiasm completely forget what these “converts” said or did in the past. Or are doing in the present, for that matter.
This happens time and again. Not long ago István G. Pálfy, whose “fame” or perhaps better put “notoriety” derived from his less than illustrious role in the “media war”of 1993-1994, was hailed as a changed man who had discovered the blessings of the free press. All that because he wrote a couple of self-critical articles in ÉS.
I myself mentioned the case of Sándor Demján, one of Orbán’s favorite “oligarchs,” who as a hard-nosed businessman at last discovered that his favorite government’s “unorthodox” economic policies are ruinous even for Hungarian businessmen whom Orbán favors against foreigners. Demján’s one-hour speech was studded with incomprehensible sentences like “there is no such thing as unorthodox economic policy. . . . On the contrary, today’s economic policy is the most orthodox.” Did anyone inquire what this means? No one.
My third example is László Sólyom, the first chief justice of the Constitutional Court and president of the republic between 2005 and 2010. He was a disaster of a president and if you think that I’m too biased here is what American officials said about him in a cable sent to Washington in late 2008 entitled “President Sólyom’s injudicious activism.” The author of the cable reported that his supporters call Sólyom “principled” while his critics refer to him as “pedantic.” The Americans were no fans: “his minimal experience in economics and international affairs [is] combined with his personal animus toward the Prime Minister [Ferenc Gyurcsány].” In addition, he is incapable of political compromise. He was described as “both myopic and politically tone-deaf.”
The politically tone-deaf politician, because after all the president of the republic is a politician, has decided since his forced retirement from the presidency to “raise his voice” about twice a year. The last time was in October 2011 when he announced that “this regime is not constitutional.” At that time I castigated Sólyom for delivering his verdict in front of a group of high school teachers instead of using his considerable international connections and calling the attention of the world to the deteriorating Hungarian situation. In that post which, upon rereading, I consider one of my better ones, I severely criticized the man. Nothing has happened since then that made me change my mind.
This time Sólyom “raised his voice” in the tiny village of Aszófő (population 401). Why Aszófő? Gábor Török, the political scientist known for usually not taking a stance, became a member of the town council half a year after his family moved there. Török’s position on the town council has its benefits. Earlier he managed to get Foreign Minister János Martonyi to deliver a speech on Hungarian foreign policy in the village, and this year László Sólyom accepted his invitation. As is clear, Török has friends in high places. Thanks to the good relationship between the two men, we are able to read Sólyom’s whole speech on Török’s blog.
Sólyom, as his wont, tries to be balanced. He sees wrong on both sides. “On the one hand, there is the underrating of the intelligence of the population that derives from the aggressive governmental steps taken without any explanation, and, on the other, there is the loud noise in the defense of democracy that is coming from the discredited opposition.” Surely, the two are not of the same weight, but Sólyom is trying. However, in the latter part of the speech the comparison between the sins of the government and the sins of the noisy opposition in defense of democracy simply doesn’t hold up, as it shouldn’t. After all, the government has power while the noisy opposition doesn’t. Moreover, can’t a discredited opposition complain about the lack of democracy? Even loudly? Or, are they not entitled to do so, as we often hear from members of the current government?
Sólyom continues in a manner that only seems balanced on the surface. Yes, Hungarians are right in being offended by unfair criticism coming from abroad. The debate in the European Parliament on the Hungarian situation was appalling and disillusioning and therefore the protests at the Peace Walk were understandable. And now comes the “however”: “politics mustn’t stay at the level of sentiments and conspiratorial theories.” There are well founded and objective criticisms that should be listened to instead of considering the critics enemies or even “counterrevolutionaries, a word we haven’t heard in this country for a good twenty years.” The reference here is to Viktor Orbán’s calling Máté Szabó, the ombudsman, a counterrevolutionary because Szabó found the law on public education unconstitutional.
Another balancing act follows. “Stealth fascism and dictatorship? Nothing of the sort. The greater part of the criticism of the Basic Laws–like marriage between a man and a woman, the defense of the embryo, the mention of God–is specious. On the other hand, there are still serious problems,” and here Sólyom mentions the criticism of the Venice Commission and the European Court of Human Rights which he considers well founded and very serious. Surely, no one is worried about stealth fascism and dictatorship because of the mention of marriage between a man and a woman in the constitution. But then why bring it up?
While a few lines earlier Sólyom assured his audience that there is no danger of inching toward dictatorship, half way through his speech he talks about “the loss of constitutional culture in the legislature and in the government. The two-thirds majority knows no limits. It feels entitled to do anything. The constitution no longer sets limits to politics but has become the instrument of politics…. They incorporate obviously unconstitutional paragraphs into the constitution in order to avoid a constitutional challenge to them.” But if this is the case, how can we believe Sólyom’s claim that there is no danger of stealth dictatorship?
And now we come to perhaps the most objectionable part of Sólyom’s speech which shows his hopeless misunderstanding of the goals of the Orbán government. Sólyom assumes that the large majority of Hungarians agree with Viktor Orbán’s stated goals: more jobs, a growing economy, high international reputation of the country, the unity of the whole Hungarian nation. The majority must agree on these issues because otherwise they wouldn’t have punished the former government as badly as they did at the 2010 elections. So, the problem is not with the stated goals but with “the style of their execution.” He quotes Comte de Buffon’s famous saying, “the style is the man himself” (“Le style c’est l’homme même“) and adds, in my opinion mistakenly, that “the style is the regime itself.” No, Mr. Sólyom, the problem with this regime is not its style. The problem is the regime itself.
The speech is also full of internal contradictions. Although he just told us that the style is the regime itself and that its goals are admirable, a paragraph later he states that “beyond cementing its political and economic power and introducing centralization the most we can notice is momentary tactical goals.” So, where are those long-terms goals that have the support of the majority of the population? Sólyom just said that the only goal seems to be power grabbing, preferably for decades.
I can only suggest to László Sólyom to give up this phony balancing act. Let’s not beat around the bush. Orbán’s regime is leading the country into something that no longer can be called democracy. Spelling out all the signs of stealth dictatorship while defending Viktor Orbán’s regime can only further discredit “the politically tone deaf” former president of Hungary.