The Hungarian Constitution, or, pardon me, Basic Law, just like the old constitution written in 1989, states that “the person of the President of the Republic shall be inviolable” (Article 12/1). Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is hiding behind these words when he claims that he is unable to put any pressure and can’t use any persuasion to convince President Pál Schmitt that it would be in his best interest to step down.
Endre Aczél in a Népszabadság op/ed piece today zeroed in on the weakness of Orbán’s argument. He brought up the example of the abdication of Edward VIII. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told the king on November 16, 1936 that his marrying a divorcee was unacceptable to the British people. Baldwin made it clear to Edward that if he marries Mrs. Simpson the government will resign. Edward abdicated. And, says Aczél, as king Edward was certainly “inviolable.”
So, let’s see what “inviolable” (sérthetetlen) means in legal terms. According to the Magyar Értelmező Szótár it refers to a person “under special protection.” The Netlexicon explains that inviolability (sérthetetlenség) has two components: (1) exemption from law suits in connection with activities connected to the president’s job and (2) special protection in the sense that any attack against his person is treated by the courts as more serious than a similar attack on an ordinary citizen.
That’s all simple enough, but then why are most people, even educated ones, somewhat confused about the meaning of this particular sentence in the constitution? I suspect that there are at least two reasons for the confusion. First, the root word of “sérthetetlen/sérthetetlenség” is the verb “sért” and that word has many, many meanings. Here are a few: to injure, to damage, to hurt, to offend, to insult, to infringe, to violate, to encroach on. Among these many meanings one can certainly find a few that might be associated with “pressuring” the inviolable person. For example, “to encroach” on the prerogative of the person under such protection. The other reason might be the old legal status of the king whose omnipotence was often expressed by the well known statement that “the person of the king is holy and inviolable” (a kiráy személye szent és sérthetetlen).
It is true that, according to the Constitution, parliament cannot remove Schmitt from his current position unless he “willfully violates the Fundamental Law or any Act while in office, or if he … commits a willful offense.” Thus, the decision must be his own. But his inviolability doesn’t preclude putting pressure on him if the prime minister feels that his resignation would be appropriate.
By now Orbán has made such a fetish out of this “inviolability” issue that yesterday when he received a question about whether in his opinion Schmitt cheated or not, Orbán answered that “because of the inviolability rule even asking such a question is unjustified.”
I can understand that Orbán didn’t want to answer the question, but hiding behind the inviolability rule is ridiculous. If we took Orbán’s explanation seriously, then the members of the fact finding committee, the doctoral council, and the university senate all committed some terrible unconstitutional act when they stated that Pál Schmitt cheated. Perhaps even their inquiry was unconstitutional! Of course, this is nonsense.
Since last night when Schmitt decided to have a friendly chat with Péter Obsersovszky, his amiable assistant in misleading the Hungarian public, political commentators cannot decide whose decision it was for Schmitt to tough it out for a while. A growing number of people think that Schmitt is so vain and so power hungry that, realizing that the decision to stay or resign was entirely his own, he decided to go against the wishes of Viktor Orbán. Then there are those who believe that nothing happens in Fidesz circles against Viktor Orbán’s wishes. The two schools of thought are artfully summarized by Zsófia Miháncsik in her “Kis magyar kremnológia” in Galamus.
Ildikó Csuhaj of Népszabadság, who has been focusing on the affairs of Fidesz for a long time, gained the impression from unnamed Fidesz politicians that Orbán is actually powerless because Schmitt decided to stay. Apparently his plan is to make the rounds of television and radio stations and try to convince people of his innocence. If his performance last night is any indication I doubt that his plan will succeed. It was miserable.
Let me here translate the notes Klára Sándor, former SZDSZ politician, took during the interview Schmitt gave to Péter Obsersovszky on MTV. The title is “A statesman’s one-minute story.” The word statesman in Hungarian, “államférfi,” is misspelled (álamférfi) because this was one of the words Schmitt couldn’t spell in his infamous entry in the guest book of a restaurant. The “one-minute story” is a take-off on the famous “Egy perces novellák” of István Örkény (1912-1975), one of the greats of Hungarian prose in the twentieth century.
It goes like this:
human being, sportsman, double standards, I wrote it twenty years ago, because my mother asked me, most honestly, with the best of my knowledge, it was a man’s job, Georgiev was my personal acquaintance, the bibliography was enough, I indicated it, his knowledge is public knowledge, I don’t say that I created new value, my readers didn’t say anything, they encouraged me, it bothered me that they took it away, they didn’t even ask me, I expected that the senate would wait for me, I will not argue with them, I would have given it back myself, if necessary I will prove at the age of 70 that I am able even in difficult circumstances to write a Ph.D., now I am trying to think with green eyes, there is a lot about this in my head, I lead conferences, I published a lot, [the reporter you’re a beloved man by many who was now hurt, one cannot sue the president,] I will not sue, it is fair this way, my honesty wasn’t damaged, I have to defend the TF [the university of physical education] also, I have to defend my dissertation adviser, I defended my summa cum laude according to the rules of the day, this is a question of honor, I accept the challenge for myself and for the truth, my conscience is clear.
His speech was received with disbelief by some and with hilarity by others. The picture most often found on the Internet is this one, referencing the fact that László Kövér who opposed his appointment called him Paprika Jancsi, harlequin, clown.
András Hont, a sharp political commentator, also described “the historical interview” as a parody worthy of Dürrenmatt or Örkény. In the speech Schmitt repeated all those lies he had already dropped elsewhere since HVG broke the story in January. Prior to his appointment as president he had achieved a lot, especially considering his abilities. He had practically everything, except prestige and authority. And now, thanks to Viktor Orbán, he also received prestige and authority. And he doesn’t want to let go of it.
I have the feeling that his fight for his prestigious position will be a short one. Even within the party Viktor Orbán, who is not inviolable, is being pressured to tell his puppet that it is time to go.