Author: Eva S. Balogh

Ferenc Gyurcsány’s latest political road map

As an illustration of how little Viktor Orbán’s minions understand and respect democracy, it is worth recalling Szilárd Németh’s comment about the “outlandish” announcement of Ferenc Gyurcsány after the municipal elections on October 12 that “he will do everything in his power to defeat the Orbán government.” He added that to this end Gyurcsány has solicited “foreign help” in the person of André Goodfriend, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Budapest. Németh, by the way, happens to be one of the most unsavory characters in Orbán’s entourage. He is currently the deputy whip of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation.

Well, if Németh thought that for an opposition party to strive to defeat the Orbán government at the next election is tantamount to treason, he and his fellow Fidesz politicians will have a heyday with Gyurcsány’s announcement at the Demokratikus Koalíció’s congress today. There he declared his hope that the Orbán government will fall by 2016, two years ahead of the scheduled national election.

Politicians of the opposition parties have been reticent to express their views on the civic movements that have cropped up lately, with a new cast of characters.Their restraint is understandable given the organizers’ reluctance to be associated with parties. Any party. At the same time we know that there can be no parliamentary democracy without parties and that sooner or later the civic groups and the politicians will have to come to an understanding.

Gyurcsány decided to break the silence. Whether it was wise or not only time will tell, but at least he came out with the outline of a program, which is more than his fellow politicians on the left have done. Here I will summarize the speech he delivered this morning. I am relying on three independent sources–Népszabadság, Népszavaand Hir24because their reporters were on the spot and filed their reports prior to the appearance of MTI‘s summary.

Let me start with some of the new ideas that appeared in this speech. Earlier, Gyurcsány, while admitting the “mistakes” of the past, wanted to return to 1989 and restore the constitution of that year. Now he is thinking in terms of a new constitution and a new republic. That new constitution should decrease the power of the state and widen the rights of the people, who could express their wishes more directly through referendums. To hold referendums was very difficult in Hungary even before 2010, but since then Viktor Orbán has made sure that the governed have practically no opportunity “to interfere” with the work of his government. With this shift Gyurcsány was obviously responding to the majority view that politics even prior to 2010 was misguided and that it does not provide an appropriate model for future governance.

Source: Népszabadság / photo by Zsolt Reviczky

Source: Népszabadság / photo by Zsolt Reviczky

While he was at it, Gyurcsány introduced his own program without calling it that. One may question the feasibility of some of the items on his wish list, but at least he put them out for public response. He emphasized that although it will be the street demonstrations that will put pressure on the government to resign, these demonstrations must be peaceful.  Meanwhile the opposition forces must prepare themselves for the eventuality that in a couple of years they must be ready to govern and not find themselves in “a democratic chaos.” As far as foreign policy is concerned, a clear commitment must be made to the West. The “double dealing,” the shuttling between Moscow and Brussels must come to an end. As far as domestic changes are concerned,  the courts and the prosecutor’s office must become independent again. The media must be freed from its current stranglehold. People should be able to establish churches of their own choosing. NGOs should be allowed to do their jobs. An independent “anti-corruption office” should be set up. And something must be done about the growing poverty of ab0ut half of the population.

He spent some time on corruption and the world of the oligarchs, pointing out that “the number one oligarch is Viktor Orbán himself,” something that, in my opinion, many people don’t seem to realize when they demand the removal of “corrupt officials” only.

He spent a long time analyzing the current political situation and offering possible answers to it. He pointed out that Fidesz’s achievement of gaining a super majority again did not result in “the stabilization of Viktor Orbán’s power.” On the contrary, it roused people’s ire because of the arbitrary decisions of a government whose support has been decreasing over the years. In a democratic country there is “correction” from within, but in a tyranny one can only revolt. “The Hungarian parliamentary system is practically dead,” and therefore national resistance remains the only option.

Gyurcsány, unlike some other former liberal politicians, said that the disappointment, anger, and passion of the organizers of the demonstrations are perfectly understandable. He was happy to see the flags of the European Union at the demonstrations because that means that they opt for the democracy of the West, not the tyranny of the East. One ought not be surprised, he added, that no programs have been formulated by the organizers of these demonstrations because, after all, first one must reject the current political system. The young organizers have to decide whether they are willing to join an already existing party or whether they want to create one of their own. In either case, they must understand that “there is no parliamentary democracy without parties.” Yes, he knows that the civic leaders who organized the demonstrations are suspicious of politics and politicians. But politics is not dirty by itself; only corrupt politicians make it so.

The Fidesz propaganda machine needed less than an hour after the reports on the DK congress became public to react. The short statement has all the hallmarks of classic Fidesz propaganda: Ferenc Gyurcsány only a few days ago pretended that “he was an elegant stranger who kept himself away from the demonstrations, but by Saturday it became clear that he lied. He admitted that in fact it is the Left that is behind the demonstrations.” According to the government party, “the chairman of the opposition party admitted that the only goal of the demonstrations is the overthrow of the government and he is willing to use all means to obtain this end with force.” That short statement says a lot about the propaganda machine of Fidesz. Unfortunately, misinformation, lying if you wish, is the trademark of the present Hungarian government.

Viktor Orbán’s Russian policy is unchanged, at least for the time being

A couple of days ago I saw a fascinating interview with András Bruck, a writer and an astute observer of the Hungarian political scene. Every time a new Bruck article appears, which is not that often, there is great excitement among people whose political views are similar to mine. For a number of years now, I have been an admirer, but this was the first time that I saw him in an interview situation. He didn’t disappoint me.

During the long interview Bruck talked about an interesting characteristic of Viktor Orbán. The greater the pressure, the greater his boldness. As if he were tempting fate. Almost as if he were testing the threshold at the point of no return. This characteristic has become especially pronounced lately as pressure on him, both internationally and at home, mounts. If Hungary’s allies don’t like his policies toward Russia, he makes sure that in every speech, whether the reference is appropriate to the occasion or not, he talks about the soundness of his foreign policy. If there is serious discontent at home because of his government’s corruption and his own questionable business dealings, he flaunts his close connection with two of his front men by attending the opening of their new ill-gotten businesses. Almost like a serial killer who gets bolder and bolder with each new murder, as if he wants to be caught.

Today I’m going to concentrate on one manifestation of that boldness: Hungarian-Russian relations. It is abundantly clear that neither the United States nor the European Union is happy with Orbán’s Russia policy. This unhappiness has been expressed in all sorts of ways, some subtle, some less so. One would expect that Orbán, even if he didn’t heed Western advice, would at least not call attention to his close ties to Vladimir Putin. But not so. In the last couple of days Orbán made it known that in his opinion Hungary’s national interest is his only concern and that a friendship with Russia is of paramount importance to his government.

On November 19 Orbán addressed the Diaspora Council, one of the many new Fidesz creations that is supposed to strengthen “national unity” across borders. He delivered an hour-long speech in which he felt it necessary to explain his position on Russia.

We have a given geopolitical situation…. We have more powerful and bigger neighbors to the East and to the West. Germanic people to the west, Slavic to the east, and a bit father the Russians. Consequently, we will be loyal to our NATO allies even if we do not share even 50 percent of what they say and think… We do not want a new Cold War. I grew up in the Cold War and I have no wish to end my life in another one…. We will express our discontent to anyone when we see our national interests being harmed. We do not want a new Wall to the East.

Two days later, in a speech to an audience of about 150 people at the Stiftung Familieunternehmen in Baden-Baden, he returned to the topic but this time the message was different. After all, he delivered that speech in Germany. Here he showed himself to be a great friend of Ukraine, the sovereignty of which is of the utmost importance to Hungary because “we think that there must be something between Russia and Hungary…. We once had a common border with the Soviet Union and that was quite an adventure.”

Now let’s look at Hungarian-Russian relations from the vantage point of Moscow. On November 19 Vladimir Putin hailed Hungary as one of Russia’s most important partners. “We share the attitude of the Hungarian leadership aimed at growing constructive dialogue, jointly carrying out planned very large investment projects,” Putin announced at a Kremlin ceremony where Hungary’s new ambassador presented his credentials. He said Russia considered Budapest “one of the most important political, trade and economic partners.”

On the same day Péter Szijjártó was in Moscow to talk with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister. As MTI reported, both men were upbeat after their meeting. Lavrov praised Hungary for not being antagonistic toward Russsia, adding that “there are more and more responsible member states in NATO and the European Union” who urge dialogue based on mutual respect. Hungary is certainly one of these, he added. Lavrov especially appreciated the fact that Hungary had confirmed its resolve to build the Hungarian section of the Southern Stream project.

Sergei Lavrov and Péter Szijjártó, Moscow, November 19, 2010

Sergei Lavrov and Péter Szijjártó, Moscow, November 19, 2014

Szijjártó was also upbeat. He expressed his hope for early negotiations between the European Union and Russia over the construction of the Southern Stream. He emphasized that Hungary looks upon Russia as an important partner that plays a key role in ensuring the energy security of Central Europe. The rebuilding of practical and constructive cooperation between Russia and the European Union is in Hungary’s interest, Szijjártó emphasized.

Finally, a piece of information about Hungarian-Russian relations that the Hungarian government neglected to tell the country’s inhabitants. The most widely read Russian news portal, Gazeta.ru, ran an interview with Liubov Shishelina, a Russian expert on Hungary. From that interview we learned that Szijjártó went to Moscow not only to talk with Lavrov and other Russian politicians but also to prepare a forthcoming meeting, the fifth since 2010, between Putin and Orbán. This is not the first time that we learn details of Hungarian foreign policy from Russian sources.

Budapest Beacon: A conversation with Gábor Halmai on Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

Many thanks to The Budapest Beacon for permitting me to republish this interview.

One of Hungary’s most distinguished scholars of constitutional law, Gábor Halmai is the director of the Institute for Political and International Studies at Eötvös Lóránd University, Budapest, as well as director of the Hungarian Human Rights Information and Documentation Center. He has published extensively in English, German and Hungarian on problems related to human rights, judicial review, freedom of expression and freedom of association. Former chief counselor to the president of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, László Sólyom (later President of the Republic of Hungary), Halmai has served as vice-chair of the Hungarian National Election Commission. He received his PhD from Eötvös Lóránd University and is currently a visiting research scholar at Princeton University. 

(Note: We apologize to Dr. Halmai for technical problems experienced during the filming of this interview.  When transcribing this interview, we took the liberty of rewording a few of Dr. Halmai’s statements for the sake of clarity, taking care not to change their meaning.  We have also highlighted key terms and expressions used by Dr. Halmai for easy reference. -ed.)

As an expert on constitutional matters, what is happening in Hungary?

Ironically, Prime Minister Orbán himself characterized the development very accurately by saying in a speech this last summer that Hungary is not any more a liberal democracy but an illiberal democracy.  He even proudly claimed that the pursuit of the Hungarian government is not having a liberal democracy. He named as leading examples for the Hungarian government Russia, China, Singapore, even Turkey, countries which certainly are not fulfilling those ideals which are principles of the European Union of which Hungary has been a member state since 2004.   So the paradox in that kind of self-definition by the government of Hungary not being any more a liberal state is a kind of proof that Hungary does not fulfil any more the requirement of a member state in the European Union, which is based on the values of rule of law, democracy, protection of fundamental rights, including minority rights, including religious minority rights . . .

Sounds to me like you’re suggesting that if Hungary were to apply for EU membership now it wouldn’t meet the Copenhagen criteria.

Certainly not.  And this is actually one of the troubles of the European Union now:  How can the European Union actually protect fundamental values of the EU within a member state if the member state is not willing to comply?  Seemingly liberal democracy is not the only path for emerging democracies.  It’s very hard to influence, for instance, Egypt to turn into a liberal democracy.  But a member state of the European Union and a member state of NATO is a different issue.

What is a liberal democracy?  What does that mean?

Liberal democracy certainly has many definitions and many requirements.  As a constitutional scholar, let me define liberal democracy as a constitutional democracy, which is certainly a kind of Western approach of democracy.  But we are living in the Western world, at least here in the US and we in the European Union.  So two major elements have to be mentioned.  One is rule of law, which means, on the one hand, that one kind of separation of power or at least checks and balances, if not the US approach of separation of power, some type of checks and balances has to be provided in liberal democracies.  The other major element is guaranteed fundamental rights in a way that they are not only prescribed in the constitution (which was also given in the 1949 constitution. Almost all the rights which we have now in our constitution were provided in the text of the Stalinist constitution, but no one took it seriously that those rights are guaranteed).  In a rule of law state, institutional guarantees have to be in place: an independent judiciary, in the case of the new member states, new democracies, even an independent constitutional court, certainly some independence of the president in a democratic institutional setting.  And probably some more special institution like the ombudspersons in the new democracies.

So these are very important elements which are less and less provided in Hungary.  And the other element I wanted to mention beside these two major components of rule of law, is a kind ofaccountability of the government, meaning a democratic selection procedure, which means mainly a democratic election system.  Unfortunately, in the last years we not only lack those mentioned checks and balances and guaranteed fundamental rights, for example, freedom of the media, freedom of religion, but we also lack a democratic election system.  So even though the governing party, Fidesz, won the parliamentary election in April with a two-thirds majority, this two-thirds majority was due to some substantial changes, and, I would argue, not democratically enacted changes of the election law.  The two-thirds is certainly a result of several anti-constitutional new elements of the parliamentary election system. Everyone knows that giving the right to vote to those living outside the country and not resident was decisive to getting the two-thirds majority for the governing party.  Also, I can mention, without going into details, the very strange and unique system of giving advantage to the winner by an approach that is really unique in the world: the compensation for the winner.

Halmai7

And it’s not only the parliamentary election system but very recently the municipal elections were, I would say, fraud, because the changes they made to the system were made just four months before the election, which is, in itself, a violation of any kind of legal security or legal certainty, which is a part of the rule of law. Not to speak of the fact that they created the system in order to get a secured majority in the Budapest council, abolishing entirely the direct election of the council members.  So, according to the new system those council members were not elected by the citizens of Budapest. They were just delegated according to the new system, and these delegates are mostly Fidesz candidates.

So these are elements in a constitutional system–lack of separation of power, lack of guaranteed rights, lack of democratic elections–which makes a country an illiberal democracy with very strong elements of an autocratic system.

And it’s not only on the constitutional level.  If you see the orientation of this government.  I mentioned already the speech of Prime Minister Orbán, what are the model countries.  Certainly not only non-liberal democracies, but as potential political or economic partners—Russia, China—which are seemingly crucial to the Hungarian government as a kind of balance against the EU and, in economic terms, the IMF, which makes a conditional kind of contribution to the Hungarian economy.  Those countries–Russia, China–won’t make rule of law or other democratic conditions for their contribution to the Hungarian economy. But they will certainly make political conditions, which makes Hungary really different from the original member state of a value community, namely the European Union or NATO.

When the system change happened, that was the beginning of what many believe was a difficult transition.  What does this latest transition do to the rule of law in a country?

This new constitutional system, and not only the constitution itself, which is not even called a constitution, it’s called the Basic Law, and not even the “Republic of Hungary” which was the case in 1989 when Hungary finally dropped the “People’s Republic” and turned into a real republic.  In 2011, with the new Fundamental Law, Hungary dropped from its name “The Republic”.  This is a very symbolic change, dropping the republican ideal as well, not only the name.  Hungary became a kind of illiberal democracy.  But what worries me even more than this change, which is worrisome enough for a constitutional scholar who is really committed to constitutional democracy, is that the people themselves over the last five years did not seem to care about these changes.

Prime Minister Orbán claimed that some revolutionary events happened during the election in 2010, which was a kind of “revolution of the ballot box”.  Certainly something happened.  And it is not only what I as a constitutional scholar characterize as “backsliding” of constitutional democracy, but certainly, and I have to admit, an acceptance by the population, or at least a significant part of the population, even if it’s not even the majority of the population, because you know in April altogether 26 or 27 percent of the entire Hungarian population voted for the governing party.  But still that meant a two-thirds majority of the seats in the Hungarian parliament due to the disproportionate election system, and so on.  But still they were the decisive political actor in that election, and they can claim that they are in charge of that country.  So, they can certainly argue that the Hungarian voters approved that change of the constitutional system.

So what is wrong?  It seems to be a democratically chosen new way in Hungary, not being a liberal democracy any more. This is a very complicated issue and I do not want to give a very simple answer, because I do not know the very reasons.  I’m here partly to find out what may have happened in Hungary.

One of the reasons (although I do not fully share this view) is that the change in 1989-90 was very much a kind of elite change in the system of government.  The new comprehensively amended constitution in 1989 was a result of some revolution by an elite, both an intellectual elite and a legal elite.  Some scholars even characterize this kind of development as a “legalistic constitutionalism” led by those people who were part of the negotiations with the previous Communist Party, the democratic opposition and the conservative-liberal opposition forces and, on the other hand, the Constitutional Court itself, which, from the beginning of its establishment, very much imposed this new liberal democratic constitutional system.  So this might be one of the elements.

I try to understand why the people were so dissatisfied with this kind of liberal democracy.  Because probably they were not involved in that change.  The kind of civil participation in the constitutional making process in 1989 and 1990 and even later on in the 1990s was probably not enough to be a part of a constitutional thinking and building up a constitutional culture for the people.

In 2010 when the Orbán government came and said, “okay, get rid of this liberal democracy” – they did not admit at that time that they were doing that, but as I said just recently the prime minister openly admitted that this was the very aim of the new revolutionary changes — probably for the people it wasn’t that interesting what kind of constitutional system Hungary has.

This is a very interesting point.  I don’t think it’s been talked about enough. This transition into a liberal democracy – I don’t want to use the term “illegitimate” – but the parties involved in crafting that change, that was not a bottom-up approach, it was a top-down approach, and there was a level of detachment that may have influenced the public’s semse of being involved.

There were some illegitimate elements in that process in the very beginning.  For instance, the so-called roundtable discussions between the Communist Party and the opposition movements,none of them were elected.  They reached the compromise about the democratic transition, and the very result of that compromise was a comprehensive amendment to the constitution.  The decision was made that this will not even be a new constitution voted by a democratically elected parliament.  This was an amendment to the previous Stalinist 1949 constitution which was voted by the Communist parliament.  So the decision was made in October or November of 1989 with a totally illegitimate parliament.  That is why Viktor Orbán from 2010, but also beforehand in his first governmental term, he always argues “come on, we’ve got a Stalinist constitution!”.   So the title of the constitution is still the 1949 constitution and in 1989 it was only an amendment to it.

He knew, of course, because he is a lawyer and an educated guy, that all the major substantive elements of the Stalinist constitution were changed in 1989.  But formally speaking, it was the same constitution.  So he had a very easy time arguing in 2010 “okay, get rid of this communist constitution”.

Of course, if someone wants to substantively argue “come on, this was the constitution on the basis of which Hungary was admitted to the European Union, according to the Copenhagen criteria”.  So everyone knew in Europe this cannot possibly be a dictatorial or Stalinist constitution.  But for the majority of the population, this could have been a very convincing argument.  “We have to get rid of this old stuff and make a real revolution and a real transition.”  This is his terminology:  “There was no transition in 1989-90. This is the transition”.

Is there anything that is defining of the Fidesz constitution, that work as a whole?

I’ve already tried to list all the elements of this kind of illiberal parts of the constitutional system which is, again, not only the fundamental law itself, but together with those so-called cardinal laws and amendments to the constitution as an entire system.  So this is lacking the major crucial checks and balances and the guarantees of fundamental rights.  Let me mention only two fundamental rights which are actually very much limited since the new constitutional system came into force.

One is the freedom of expression and media freedom, with all the institutional system in place where the government actually occupies all the media and all the review of the media.  They can check all of the public and commercial media through the system they introduced.

The other element is the lack of religious freedom.  If you consider that Fidesz managed to de-register more than 200 churches which were registered originally from the start, from the 1990 religion law with a new system which allows the parliament with a two-thirds majority to decide who is a legitimate church, and who can be the partner of the state as a church, with all of the rights of being a church, and all of the advantages: having state supports, state subsidies, having schools or having other social institutions.

These are really major changes in the system of fundamental rights.  There is a very importantnationalist approach in that new constitutional system.  Let’s start with the basics.  Who is the subject of the new constitution?  If you read the preamble of the new constitution, it says all Hungarians irrespective of their citizenship, or irrespective of their residence, which has two implications:  One, that this is a kind of ethnic concept of the nation.  So Hungarians are those who feel themselves as Hungarians.  The negative implication of that is that all those who do not feel themselves as Hungarians despite being Hungarian citizens are not considered as subject of the constitution.

Of course, there is nothing in the text which indicates that they are treated differently.  But if you interpret what does it mean being a subject of the constitution not being Hungarian, then it means Roma people in Hungary who identify themselves as Roma and not Hungarians, or Jewish people who happen to identify themselves as Jewish and not Hungarian do not belong to this notion of ethnic nation.

There are representatives of nationalities in parliament.  For me as an American I didn’t really understand the reasoning behind that. Can you explain that to me?

From the very beginning of the democratic transition in 1989-90, there was a demand for national minorities can be a real part of the nation.  How they can represent themselves in the democratic decision-making process.  And there were different kinds of suggestions, which all failed, as to how to involve ethnic national minorities within Hungary.  I won’t characterize this kind of attempt to involve ethnic minorities as a ridiculous one.  Certainly, the final solution was not satisfactory for any of those ethnic minorities because they failed to reach the threshold for being represented in the parliament.

What is more worrying for me is the overemphasis of the Hungarian nation in the constitution, in the law of citizenship.  Ethnic Hungarians not even willing to reside in Hungary or move to Hungary were provided Hungarian citizenship, mostly in the neighboring countries, who lost their Hungarian citizenship due to the Trianon treaty, with the very suspicious aim of being involved in the Hungarian parliamentary election.  They were also provided voting rights and, as I mentioned, this was decisive in the general election.

So this is also a kind of very troublesome characteristic of the new constitution.  Another one is certainly the emphasis on Christianity and the Christian heritage in the constitution, which, as a historical argument, is totally legitimate.  The question comes what does it mean Hungary being “historically a Christian country” when it comes to the interpretation of religions rights, for religious minorities, for instance.  As you may know, according to the text of the Fundamental Law, these kinds of provisions in the preamble are also the basis for interpretation by the Constitutional Court.

This was an issue with the church law.  There was a very interesting legislative process behind this.  The church law was passed.  It was changed very quickly right before it was voted on.  Then it was passed quickly by the two-thirds (majority).  And then the Constitutional Court strikes it down.  How does a law that is deemed unconstitutional become constitutional in Hungary?

Unfortunately, it happened not only with the church law but with a lot of other laws.  It became a kind of custom in the last four or five years that those decisions of the Constitutional Court—I’m talking about the Constitutional Court before 2013, a more or less independent Constitutional Court between 2010 and 2013—certainly struck down a lot of laws which were enacted by the new majority of the parliament.  And the new governmental majority just introduced a practice which is really not a characteristic of a rule of law country.  They changed the constitution when any of the laws were struck down by the Constitutional Court, just to overrule Constitutional Court decisions. They put new provisions into the constitution saying this will be the new constitutional rule.  The infamous fourth amendment says the Constitutional Court cannot review any constitutional amendment.

That would suggest that any legislative process, even the highest judicial levels, is completely subject to a very political agenda.

I would even argue that this is the loss of constitutionality.  In that moment when a constitutional rule can be overruled just because the Constitutional Court has struck down an unconstitutional law, and the constitution making majority, which is the government majority due to the very unfortunate and disproportionate election system, can just change the constitution.  This means there is no division between constitutional laws and political laws.  All the laws are political, in that respect.  Whatever the government intends to do to follow their political aims is subject to a constitutional amendment.

There are no checks and balances in this process.

And there are no divisions between constitutional and statutory law.

What is the difference between them?

Statutory laws, which, in all rule of law countries, are subject to a legislative majority decision, are subject to a constitutional review, the basis of which is the constitution.  If the legislature can change the very foundation of the review, the constitution itself, then there is no distinction between those statutes and the constitution, because the same rule applies for the statutory legislative procedure and the constitution making procedure.  In that respect, unfortunately, Hungary reached that situation where there is no more constitution as a higher law, higher to any other statutes in the country which should be subject of a review by a constitutional court.  Not to speak about the fact that this constitutional court is not an independent body any more.

It seems to me that one of the dangers that a country would face when it reaches this point is that legislation can be enacted arbitrarily. There is no precedent that would prevent any legislation from being enacted.

They also abolished all of the previous case-law of the Constitutional Court enacted before the new constitution came into force, which is the case even when the new constitution has the same wording as the previous one had.  If the Constitutional Court ruled something in the mid-1990s, according to the constitutional rule which is still part of the new constitution, this decision is null and void.

Where do we stand now?  There is no independence in the Constitutional Court.  Previous case law is out the window.

That means the Constitutional Court became a political institution serving entirely the will of the government.  And if you study all the decisions made by the Constitutional Court, let’s say since April 2013 (I will explain why this date is crucial) these are all political decisions, at least those decisions which are politically relevant and crucial for the government to win.  The 2013 date is important because Fidesz started abolishing checks and balances in the very early stages of 2010.  Already in May they changed the system of the nomination and election of the Constitutional Court judges.  Previously the case was that the nomination of a Constitutional Court judge needed a consensus in the parliament.

What does that mean, “consensus”?

The governing parties needed some kind of approval by at least part of the opposition parties.  So there was a nominating committee which consisted of both governing and opposition parties.  And for the nomination to be valid it needed a majority of all the parties, governing and opposition parties.  The new rule Fidesz introduced in May 2010 meant that the government alone, without any consent from opposition parties, can nominate Constitutional Court judges.  And from 2010 until 2013 all eight, which means the majority, of the Constitutional Court judges were nominated and elected exclusively by the governing party, which means without consensus of opposition parties.

Since that time over the last year or so, twelve of the fifteen judges have already been elected without consensus.

But I’m sure all of these Constitutional Court judges are known for their knowledge of the law.

Unfortunately, not.  They started in 2010 with two nominees who did not fulfill even the legal requirement of being a Constitutional Court judge.

So would that mean that their nomination by the governing party was purely politically motivated?

Purely political.  For instance, one of the justices was previously head of the first Orbán’s government’s cabinet.  Judge Stumpf was nominated despite not being a professor or being a doctor of sciences, which was the legal requirement in the law.  And his nomination went through the two-thirds majority of the government because the government party had that majority.  And new appointments and nominations are following that rule that not even legal requirements are important, not to speak about the political affiliation of those justices.

Are the nominees brought before a committee and then grilled by members of the committee about decisions they’ve made or positions they’ve assumed on certain legal issues?

It’s very interesting. The latest hearing before that nomination committee was a secret meeting.  It was not accessible to the public.  They had a secret meeting.  The reason given by the government was that the privacy rights of those candidates had to be protected.  Seemingly for the past twenty-five years these privacy rights in a hearing were not important.  Of course there is no rule about the protection of privacy rights of a public official who is running for a public position.  So these nominations are just pure political selections of those loyal to the government.

If this process had to happen now, what would be necessary in order for Hungary to get back on the path to becoming a liberal democracy?

Certainly that kind of procedure which happened in 1989-1990 would not be advisable.  Probably an involvement of the public in understanding what a constitutional democracy is about.  Explaining to them what the advantages to being a constitutional democracy are, despite the fact that this also meant being a member state of the European Union, or the Council of Europe, or any other communities.  Showing them what is at stake to being a constitutional democracy as opposed to the slippery slope of first being an illiberal democracy, as is probably the case of Hungary, or even later being an autocracy like Putin’s Russia or China, just for the sake of some advantages, mostly for the political elite,  I’m not an expert in economic issues but I’m afraid the crucial issue here is when the people will understand what a constitutional democracy means for their well-being.  If the Hungarian population will understand that, probably we can start again establishing a constitutional democracy.

Who’s behind the political turbulence in Hungary? Naturally, the United States and the “left-liberals”

When Viktor Orbán, however reluctantly, decided to scrap the internet tax, he undoubtedly thought his troubles were over. He would not have to worry about young people going out on the streets again to demonstrate against his government. But he was wrong. The demonstrators found plenty more to criticize, especially the regime’s systemic corruption. Since Viktor Orbán is not the kind of man who admits missteps, he and his supporters had to find a culprit, someone who was “stirring the pot.” And the most obvious candidates for such a role were the United States, described by right-wing commentators in Magyar Hírlap as “the empire,” and the “left-liberal” intellectuals at home and abroad.

Let’s start with the United States, enemy number one. Those commentators who blame the U.S. for the unfolding drama of anti-government sentiment tend to forget that it was not the United States that revealed its decision to ban six allegedly corrupt Hungarian officials from its territory. It was the Napi Gazdaság, a financial daily owned by Századvég, the think tank that has been described by a former associate as a money laundering operation. If the government hadn’t decided to leak the information about the ban, most likely today we would know absolutely nothing about Ildikó Vida and her co-workers at the Hungarian Tax Authority (NAV).

But, according to the Hungarian right, the United States’ role in this latest crisis goes far beyond its travel ban. Under the present circumstances, the argument goes, there is no possibility of carrying out an armed coup in Hungary like the one the U.S. allegedly staged in Chile in 1973. Therefore, the United States is now supporting, I suppose even financially, the opposition. “Many people believe that it was the United States that was behind the initial successes of Gordon Bajnai.” But Bajnai turned out to be the wrong man for the job.

Then came Plan B. The United States, even before the three landslide Fidesz victories, realized that “there is no chance of replacing Viktor Orbán.” But since there are no potential leaders in the opposition, André Goodfriend “became the star of the anti-government movement.” The United States has been working toward the destabilization of the country in the hope of changing the Orbán government’s foreign policy orientation.

M. André Goodfriend, the star of the "left-liberals at a press conference

M. André Goodfriend, the star of the “left-liberals,” at a press conference

It is this American destabilization effort that explains the outrage of thousands of Hungarians against the Orbán government in front of the parliament building. The various groups that have appeared recently don’t offer an alternative, but this is not their real goal and purpose. They want to “weaken” the regime, make the “consolidation” efforts of the government impossible.

Magyar Hírlap zeroed in on the “domestic enemies.” Left-liberal intellectuals, hand in hand with the Americans, are behind the disturbances. Proof in support of this accusation is rather flimsy, but such weaknesses have never bothered Magyar Hírlap‘s Tamás Pindroch. The link between the “left-liberal intellectuals” and the United States was demonstrated by André Goodfriend’s appearance at one of the Saturday evening open houses of László Bitó, professor emeritus of ocular physiology at Columbia University who developed Xalatan, a medicine for glaucoma. And if anyone needs more proof here it is. Back in April Ágnes Heller, the philosopher, was asked during a political discussion whether something like what happened in Kiev could happen in Hungary. Heller responded that yes it could but not in the same shape and form. For example, a revolt of the hungry masses could break out.

But Pindroch’s accusations are mild in comparison to what László Földi, a former intelligence officer during the Kádár regime and even for a few years after the change of regime, had to say. He is convinced that a large demonstration like the one we saw on Monday cannot be organized on the internet and without any money. According to him, “it was a carefully prepared, well-organized and financed event.” Földi suggested that those behind the action serve foreign interests for financial gain and thus commit treason. In brief, his claim is that the United States is financing those left-liberals who are behind the anti-government protests. Földi is convinced that by now the United States will be satisfied only with the departure of Viktor Orbán. Abandoning participation in the Southern Stream will no longer suffice.

Another intriguing piece by András Dezső appeared in Index, an online site that cannot be called right-wing. Dezső is a talented young journalist who made quite a name for himself with his investigation of Jobbik’s Béla Kovács, who is accused of being a Russian spy. In this piece he proposed that there is a direct connection between a report of Human Rights First, “a little known but influential human rights organization,” and the current U.S. policy toward Hungary. The report, entitled “We’re not Nazis, but…,” made a number of recommendations to the U.S. government in general and the State Department in particular which, according to Dezső, the United States is actually following today. I wrote about this report at length and quoted some of the recommendations Dezső is talking about.

Yes, there are similarities between the recommendations of the authors of the study and the actual steps taken by the U.S. government, but I would find it strange if the staff of the Hungarian desk at State was so oblivious to what is happening in Hungary that only after reading this, by the way, excellent report did they finally decide to act. Moreover, here is something that undermines Dezső’s hypothesis. One of the recommendations of the report is to “seek commitments from Hungary and Greece to set in place policies and practices to impede high-level corruption and improve transparency and equal enforcement of the law.” But we know from the aide-memoire–what Viktor Orbán called a scrap of paper (fecni)–that Goodfriend intervened with the foreign ministry as well as the tax authorities on the subject of corruption as early as October 2013, almost a year before the appearance of Human Rights First’s study.

My hunch is that the officials of the State Department have been following the Hungarian domestic scene and Viktor Orbán’s relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia for some time. Their concerns most likely intensified in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis. And then came the fateful June 27 “illiberal” speech of Viktor Orbán when, it seems, they decided that it was time to act. The sharp-eyed authors of the study on the Hungarian far right noticed the same problems the U.S. diplomats perceived and recommended similar remedies. But we would underestimate the diplomats in the State Department if we assumed that only an outside study woke them up and made them move.

Trying to crack down on corruption is one thing, funding and organizing demonstrations is something else. There is no evidence that the U.S. helped the demonstrators–or even that the demonstrators needed outside help. They just needed the miracle of modern communications technology.

The day of outrage: Yesterday’s demonstrations in Hungary

Nowadays anti-government demonstration follows anti-government demonstration in Hungary. And not just in Budapest but in all larger cities and towns. Tens of thousands of people gather each time to express their outrage.

A couple of months ago no one would have predicted such a swift change in the political climate. In fact, critics of the government simply couldn’t understand the population’s passivity. In the last few years Viktor Orbán’s government has done so much harm to the great majority of Hungarians that it was difficult to understand the complacency of the people, the apathy that seemed to have paralyzed the country’s inhabitants. Explanations for this phenomenon varied. Some felt that fear played a large role. The current political players are known to be merciless when it comes to their opponents. Even in private companies people were afraid to voice their opposition to the government for fear that their pro-government boss would fire “the enemies of the nation” right on the spot. Others argued that, given the weakness of the opposition parties, the population was destined to remain passive. After all, they see no alternative to the present regime. People fear chaos if Fidesz’s rule collapses. Another explanation was the nationalistic fervor that was artificially fueled by the government. If it is true, as the government claims, that Hungary is surrounded by enemies, the people have to stand by a government that seems to be defending their national honor.

But all that changed about a month ago. The pent-up resentment and dissatisfaction surfaced with elemental force. The planned introduction of an internet tax was the catalyst. Those young people who had created a virtual community on Facebook and Twitter and who were not paying much attention to the way the government was stripping them of their personal freedom suddenly woke up. Now it was their own space that Viktor Orbán was trampling on. And once they woke up they also realized that this government is planning to organize every facet of their lives, from cradle to grave. They looked around and decided that what’s going on today in Hungary is anything but democracy.

demonstracio, nov. 17

Then there is the matter of corruption, which has been systemic and organized from above. Ildikó Vida, president of the Hungarian Tax Authority, is just one link in the chain that goes all the way to the top. In Hungary everybody is aware of widespread corruption, but once it became known that even the top officials of the tax office are complicit in tax fraud the floodgates opened wide.

Now, let’s talk a little about last night’s event. The organizers of yesterday’s demonstration are different from the ones we came to know in the last few weeks as leaders of the movement. Yet they managed to gather a crowd of about 20,000. There was, however, a strange dissonance between speakers and audience. The youthful orators hate all politicians. They don’t seem to distinguish between politics after 2010 and before. For them the last two and a half decades are all the same. It is time for a “regime change.”

It was enlightening to watch the demonstrators’ response. They were not inclined to bury the last twenty-five years. They did not yell “Down with Bajnai!” or “Down with Gyurcsány!” when the youthful speakers mentioned their names. The crowd got fired up only when Fidesz, Orbán, or Vida were mentioned. None of the signs held up by the demonstrators demanded the removal of all parties, but there were plenty that wanted Viktor Orbán to disappear from Hungarian political life. The speakers and their audience were not in sync. One had the feeling that the audience was not really interested in the speeches. They only wanted to express their “outrage” at what this government has done to them in the last few years.

One of the organizer-speakers had a talk with Olga Kálmán of ATV yesterday right after the demonstration. During the conversation he announced that they want a “new regime,” a “new political system.” When asked about the nature of that system, it became evident that these young people not only don’t have a program, they don’t have an inkling about what a new regime might look like. They only know what they don’t want: corruption, graft, a lack of dialogue between government and the governed, and arrogant politicians. This is good as a beginning but certainly not enough to change Hungarian politics in the long run.

Some of the organizers also displayed a certain naïveté. One of them expressed their desire to “work with all political parties,” including Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. Surely, this young man doesn’t understand the nature of the mafia state and the role of the godfather in that system. The majority of his audience, on the other hand, seemed to understand that one cannot work with this regime. It must go and democracy must be restored. This is what they demanded during their long demonstration in front of the parliament building.

The parties have wisely kept away from these demonstrations, but surely sooner or later the “outraged” public and the politicians of the democratic opposition must find each other because only by cooperating can this regime be toppled.

As for the government’s reaction, Viktor Orbán and his minions act as if nothing happened yesterday. In parliament the two-thirds majority voted on next year’s budget that is full of new taxes and punishing levies on foreign companies the government wants to destroy. Viktor Orbán opened two new establishments, one in Alcsút and the other in Felcsút, the villages of his youth. He visited János Flier’s cattle breeding farm and Lőrincz Máeszáros’s farm where he will raise mangalica pigs. Both “farmers” are considered to be front men (Strohmänner/strómanok) of Orbán. For the time being it looks as if the prime minister hasn’t sensed political danger. If I were in his shoes I would be less cocky. Some people are very angry.

The Seehofer-Orbán interview redux: Four questions to Seehofer from Hungary

When three days ago I summarized a double interview with Bavarian premier Horst Seehofer and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán which appeared in the internet edition of the conservative Die Welt, I did not anticipate what followed. I simply pointed out that although Seehofer is a conservative politician, he disagrees with Orbán on some key issues: the European Union, the eurozone, and Russia. I spent time on this particular interview because I wanted to call attention to what I perceive as the generally deteriorating German-Hungarian relations.

What happened afterward was indeed unexpected. A regional Bavarian paper, Oberbayerisches Volksblatt, published an article saying that the interview was originally supposed to appear in the Sunday edition of the paper, Die Welt am Sonntag, but because the interviewer neglected to ask really important questions from Orbán, the editors decided not to publish the interview in the print edition of the paper. According to the Bavarian paper, the representatives of the Hungarian government were outraged and accused Die Welt of censorship. At this point, the complaint got as far as Edmund Stoiber, the honorary chairman of the CSU, who contacted the CEO of Axel Springer, the owner of Die Welt. However, says the journalist responsible for the article, Stoiber’s intervention was in vain. The interview did not appear in Die Welt am Sonntag.

Well, this was the version that came from Bavaria. The following description of what happened comes from the press department of the Hungarian Prime Minister’s Office. The interview was approved by both Seehofer and Orbán, but the next day the editor, through the Hungarian embassy in Berlin, asked Orbán to answer three more questions. The head of the press department claimed that the editor admitted that “the Hungarian prime minister performed too well,” so they would like him to answer three additional questions: (1) about Orbán’s anti-European Union rhetoric; (2) about his creation of an authoritarian democracy; and (3) about the firing of hundreds of journalists not to the government’s liking. Viktor Orbán called these queries “false accusations masked as questions” and refused to answer them. The Hungarian government considered Die Welt‘s behavior unacceptable and unethical.

And finally, here is Die Welt‘s version of the incident. The editors of the paper saw things differently. Their journalist did not do a good job, did not put the right questions to the two politicians, and therefore the interview turned out to be dull. The editors wanted to ask a few additional relevant questions but, since they received no answers, they decided not to publish the interview in the print edition of the paper. They added that this particular issue was published during the weekend when the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall was being celebrated and that this “incomplete interview was not up to snuff.” Asking questions later if necessary is a common practice in German journalism, claimed Christian Gottschalk, editor of the Stuttgarter Zeitung.

I might add here that recently there was another “journalistic scandal”–this time in connection with Imre Kertész, whose interview was not published in The New York Times. Kertész complained that the paper censored the interview because he refused to call the present Hungarian regime a “dictatorship.” According to David Streitfeld, the New York Times‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Kertész simply told him that he is in bad physical shape and therefore does not participate in public life and is not really interested in politics. In brief, the interview was not “interesting” enough to publish.

Question

In connection with the Bavarian-Hungarian encounter and interview I would like to summarize an article that appeared in today’s Galamus by Gábor Endrődi. Since Horst Seehofer defended Viktor Orbán when he encountered criticism from opponents on the left, Endrődi wrote that he would like to pose four questions to Seehofer.

Question 1: Bild Zeitung is the most popular daily in Germany. According to statistics, it sells more than 2.5 million copies daily while the next largest paper has fewer than a million readers. It is a well-known fact that articles in Bild Zeitung had a role to play in the eventual resignation of the German president at the beginning of 2012. Could you find it conceivable that, instead of the president’s resigning two months after the appearance of these critical articles, the Bundestag would pass a law stipulating that every newspaper that sells more than a million copies a day must pay in the form of a tax half of its revenues, a tax that is one hundred times greater than the taxes paid by newspapers with smaller circulations?

Question 2: Is it conceivable that a legislative proposal about tobacco concessions was actually written by one of the tobacco companies that subsequently received ten percent of the concessions and then as manufacturer pays only one-twentieth of what its competitors must pay?

Question 3: Would you submit and vote for a piece of legislation in the Bundestag that would impose sixty times more “extra” levy on the leading firm in a certain area of business activity, let’s say on Neckermann, than on its smaller competitors?

Question 4: If the answers, even in part, are in the affirmative, then we have no more questions. If, on the other hand, they are in the negative, we have a final question: can a country with such a system of taxation remain a part of the euroatlantic alliance? Would you vote for this country’s membership in the European Union?

Endrődi at the beginning of the article expressed his hope that one day a German journalist will pose these questions to Horst Seehofer, the defender of Viktor Orbán. Well, I decided not to wait for that moment. These questions, to my mind, deserve a wider audience than a Hungarian-language internet site can provide. Perhaps their message will resonate with the politicians who have a say in European affairs.

Restoring the splendor of the Royal Castle in Budapest

It is only on the surface that today’s topic is not about politics. Actually, I believe that in Hungary these days everything has something to do with politics.

A few days ago the Hungarian public learned that billions of forints, part of which will of course come from Brussels, will be spent on the reconstruction of the Castle District (Várnegyed) and the Royal Castle. The whole project might take twenty years. László L. Simon, the undersecretary in charge of culture, is responsible for the project, named the National (what else?) Hauszmann Plan. The plan is grandiose and, in my opinion, unnecessary. Fueling it, I suspect, is Viktor Orbán’s megalomania.

First of all, let’s clear up a few common misconceptions. The Vár is the area that in the thirteenth century King Béla IV enclosed with a city wall. Within that area he built a royal castle, which was enlarged and “modernized” by several of his successors. During the Turkish occupation the royal palace was used for barracks, storage, and stables but otherwise stood empty, decaying. And during the great siege of 1686 when Buda was captured by allied Christian forces, this medieval/renaissance castle was destroyed. In 1715 the whole structure had to be demolished.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, during the reign of Maria Theresa, a Baroque palace was built, but it was a white elephant. Maria Theresa didn’t quite know what to do with it. First she offered it to the Sisters of Loreto, but they left after a year, finding it too extravagant for a convent. For a while it housed a university (today ELTE). Later the palace became the residence of the palatines. In 1849, during the Hungarian troops’ attempt to retake the city from the Austrians, the palace was again badly damaged.

After the revolution of 1848-49 the palace was rebuilt (1850-56) but for the most part stood empty. Franz Joseph visited the Buda Castle only twice, once in 1856 and again in 1857. After the Compromise, when there was an economic boom in Hungary, the decision was made to build a truly magnificent royal castle. The architect was Alajos Hauszmann, the man after whom Orbán’s ambitious plan is named. The construction went on for almost forty years, between 1875 and 1912. To give some idea of the vastness of the place: it had 860 rooms, among them two throne rooms–the Grand Throne Room and the Small Throne Room–and a riding-hall. The rooms were huge and lavish. But it was yet another white elephant. It stood there empty. The emperor-king visited the place only a few times during his long reign.

Between the two world wars at last the royal castle had permanent residents: Miklós Horthy and his family. Their quarters were in the guest wing. But during World War II the castle was again badly damaged and once again reconstructed during the 1950s and 1960s. According to its critics, the changes that were made were not the most fortunate. Currently the palace houses the National Széchényi Library, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the Budapest History Museum. Plans call for the library and the gallery to be relocated.

After the planned restoration what will the building be used for? It will be a palace museum, we are told. Try to imagine reconstructing and furnishing those 860 rooms. The undersecretary in charge has very ambitious plans: even the throne rooms can be recreated. He also likes the idea of rebuilding the riding-hall. I wonder what they plan to do with the horses. It seems that the most important consideration in the project is to remake the royal palace as it was before 1945. Whatever changes were made since then will be obliterated. With 1945 time stopped. It is the same basic principle that was put into practice when Kossuth tér in front of the Hungarian parliament was restored to the way it looked before 1945.

Photo Sándor H. Szabó / MTI

Photo: Sándor H. Szabó / MTI

Viktor Orbán has been eyeing the Castle District for a very long time as the most appropriate place for the seat of his government. Between 1998 and 2002 he practically rebuilt the Sándor Palace, which before 1945 served as the office and home of Hungarian prime ministers. He was planning to move there, but his ambitions were thwarted when he lost the election. His successor did not want to occupy the building, and eventually it was designated as the office of the president.

Orbán still desperately wants to be in the Castle District. His latest plan is to move to another large historic building located not far from the Sándor Palace. All in all, great suspicion surrounds Orbán’s restoration project. There is talk of his plans to become a powerful president Russian style and perhaps move into part of the royal castle. So, on Friday, when he launched the National Hauszmann Plan, he tried to emphasize that the project is not for himself but for the Hungarian nation.

In his speech he called the Hauszmann Committee, which is preparing the details of the plan,”the war council” and his decision to undertake the project “the reconquest of the castle” for the Hungarian people. The castle is an organic part and symbol of the Hungarian nation, the Acropolis of Hungarian culture, he said. The nation needs a “living castle where life is robust.”

Let’s face it, this castle in all its iterations has nothing to do with the Hungarian nation or Hungarian culture. It was a creation of the Habsburgs, who resided in Vienna and spent no more than a few nights in it. Yes, it looked magnificent from the other side of the Danube, but it served no purpose other than housing the Horthy family and being the site of a few balls between the two world wars. How one can possibly create a “living castle” out of this, I have no idea. At least now Hungarian culture is represented within its walls with the National Art Gallery and the National Széchényi Library. They are visited by more people daily than at any time between the two world wars. But making it a palace museum? Where tourists, after paying for their tickets, can wander around the 860 rooms? This is an enormous and on the surface senseless undertaking. One must ask: what are Viktor Orbán’s real plans? To build himself a Hungarian Kremlin?