László Székely, the new ombudsman

There are times when governments can go very wrong with an appointment. It can happen anywhere. The famous American case was George H. W. Bush’s appointment of  David Souter to the US Supreme Court in 1990. Souter was supposed to be a conservative but turned out to be a “closet liberal.”

Something similar happened to Fidesz twice lately with appointments to the position of ombudsman. Prior to 2010 there were several ombudsmen, each responsible for a specific field: environmental issues, human rights, data protection, minority rights, etc. Vikor Orbán wanted to have only one ombudsman, and he picked Máté Szabó, the man responsible for human rights before 2010. At the time I was not particularly impressed with Szabó who, in my opinion, didn’t distinguish himself in his earlier position. Most of the issues that interested him sounded petty to me. In fact, it might have been this very aspect of Szabó’s activities that appealed to Orbán. Perhaps he thought that Szabó would get bogged down in picayune issues and would be too busy to spend much time on the constitutionally questionable legislative work of the Fidesz voting machine. To everybody’s surprise Szabó became a very active ombudsman who resolutely fought to salvage the remnants of Hungarian democracy.

Szabó’s tenure ended on September 24, 2013, and János Áder nominated László Székely, who had held government positions in both the first and the second Orbán governments. In fact, way back in 2001 his name came up as the nominee of President Ferenc Mádl to the position of ombudsman responsible for data protection but then, because of MSZP’s opposition, Viktor Orbán couldn’t give the job to his favorite candidate. Once he had a two-thirds majority, however, he didn’t have to worry. Székely’s appointment was assured.

When Székely’s name surfaced as the potential nominee the opposition parties had all sorts of objections. They were worried about his long, close association with the current government. Some people pointed out that his knowledge of constitutional law was scanty. Népszava described the departure of Szabó as the fall of the last bastion in the defense of democracy. I ended my earlier post on this appointment with these words: “For the time being it is hard to say what kind of ombudsman Székely will be. After all, Szabó turned out to be excellent despite earlier indications and predictions to the contrary.” I added: “It may happen again, but Viktor Orbán rarely makes mistakes on personnel choices.” Well, it seems that he did.

Ombudsman László Székely / Source: hirma.hu

Ombudsman László Székely / Source: hirma.hu

After his appointment Székely gave a number of interviews in which he emphasized that in spite of his government jobs and close association with Fidesz he will be an independent and judicious ombudsman. That assurance was to be expected. But, looking back at these interviews, we can already find signs that Székely might be less of a Fidesz clone than some expected. For example, he told the reporter of Népszabadság that “a good ombudsman must show solidarity with the dejected, the defenseless and must be sensitive to problems of destitution and poverty.” Not exactly the philosophy of the Fidesz ideologues. A few days later in a longer interview, also with Népszabadság, he said: “Believe me, I will jealously guard my professional prestige acquired in the last thirty years.”

During his interviews he kept repeating his belief that after the 2014 election the burden on the lone ombudsman will be lighter because he will not be the only person who can turn to the constitutional court for remedy. He seems to have been convinced that the opposition parties would get at least 25% of the seats, which would allow them to turn to the constitutional court themselves. As we know, this is not how things turned out.

Székely carefully avoided criticizing his predecessor and stressed the necessity of continuity. Indeed, he left the structure of the office pretty well intact. He kept emphasizing, however, that he will try to improve the score card in favor of the ombudsman’s office when dealing with the constitutional court. That is, he wanted to have more cases decided in his office’s favor. Given the composition of the constitutional court, I doubt that Székely’s hopes will materialize, but it is certainly a worthy goal.

Székely took over the position at the end of September. I began to notice increased activity in his office already in early February. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission turned to Székely to investigate the “three-strike law” which their lawyers regarded as unconstitutional. Székely concurred and called on the Ministry of Administration and Justice to discuss how to change the law to make it constitutionally acceptable. The ministry’s reply came swiftly: they are not changing the law and they are not ready to negotiate.

Székely seems to be interested in education. He turned to Zoltán Balog’s ministry several times, pointing out the inadequate teaching and equipment in segregated schools. He complained about the curriculum, saying that he finds it worrisome that students encounter the heinous effects of ideas of hatred only in the last year of high school. In his opinion societal change is necessary in this respect and here education has a large role to play. Although the government denied that there were serious problems supplying schools with textbooks, Székely’s office investigated and found that the government didn’t tell the truth. There were schools where some of the textbooks didn’t arrive until late December.

He also pays attention to the homeless. About a week ago he turned to the Kúria for remedy. In his opinion the local administration in Budapest designated far too many places as forbidden territories for the homeless. The ombudsman asked the Kúria to change some of the regulations and invalidate others.

As for the organic farm of Kishantos, Székely’s office began to investigate the situation already in December and turned to Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture, for information. The ombudsman expressed the view that the organic farm, the result of twenty years of careful attention, deserves constitutional protection. At that point Fazekas assured Székely that he would call together a forum of experts and civic groups to work out a strategy for the constitutional protection of environmental values. Of course, there is no forum, no strategy, only a ruined crop.

These are only a few of the many cases Székely has handled since October 2013. His appointment is for six years, and he will be the only person who can do battle with the government and the constitutional court. Not an enviable position to be in.


  1. Eva can you post Ágnes Heller’s Keynote speech: “The European community of values – does it (still) exist?” That she gave over the weekend at the European writers conference or provide a link to the text of the speech. I haven’t been able to locate it, I have heard it was very eloquent.

  2. OT: What is going on with wordpress. I have difficulties posting, and on top the quotes (to quote a comment) are gone?

  3. Thanks, Lon, for that link – a very interesting piece!
    And now look at what I found there:
    “What was unusual about Viktor Yanukovych, elected in 2010, is that he tried to end all pluralism. In domestic policy, he generated a fake democracy, in which his favored opponent was thefar-right party Svoboda. In so doing, he created a situation in which he could win elections and in which he could tell foreign observers that he was at least better than the nationalist alternative. In foreign policy, he found himself pushed toward the Russia of Putin,”

    Doesn’t that sound rather like Orbàn’s strategy re Jobbik too?

  4. In a way yes, but to be hones Orban’s idea – though under another election system – was the one camp, one flag policy (ie. to unite all right wingers under one roof, that of Fidesz of course).

    I think, however, that Fidesz really prefers MSZP as its real adversary as MSZPniks – even if they get what the game is really about – are extremely easy to coopt and purchase, as we saw clearly from Zsolt Molnar’s (MSZP’s campaign manager during the elections and interestingly a former Fidesz activist and an extreme-right wing supporter even before that) actions during the campaign when he was actively defending Rogán and Tarlós (and this is only something which was published).

    Jobbik has grown too big and although Jobbik and Fidesz do work together all over Hungary, there is more and more competition too. It’s a very ambivalent relationship I think.

    Jobbik is now a major factor to be reckoned with, even for Orban, who believes he can control Jobbik if need be given his smart covert ways. That remains to be seen.

  5. LwwIH: Eva, do you know more about what is going on in Miskolc?

    Yes, I read about it but since I was unable to follow Hungarian news in the last four days I need a little time to catch up.

  6. Problems with WordPress. They promised to fix the “quote” function, but up to now they only managed to remove the link.We inquired about the progress but we were told to be patient. The problem with posting is a new phenomenon which is, I think, is separate from the “quote” trouble.

  7. Lon the New Republic article on the Ukraine was well worth reading thanks for linking it. There were some real insights in it. Overall I thought it over idealized the democratic nature of the EU and Western Europe. It also may have strategically underestimated the political power of the Right sector in the Ukraine, but the article I think was on the money in relation to how the Russians overblow the power of Facism in Kiev for its own strategic purposes.

    The article does not want to come to grips with the economic battle being waged by Western European corporations for markets in the Ukraine, it does however correctly characterize the economic interests of Russia in the Ukraine in my opinion. But overall the article was very insightful.

  8. Orban’ Waterloo can occur any days.
    Like a Szalasi coup on Horthy, many thugs may lay low now, before picking up arms.
    They are dreaming of a Yugoslavian or Ukrainian style free for all looting game.

  9. The article in the New Republic was very interesting, thanks for bringing it up. to the post:

    ” In fact, way back in 2001 his name came up as the nominee of President Ferenc Mádl to the position of ombudsman responsible for data protection but then, because of MSZP’s opposition, Viktor Orbán couldn’t give the job to his favorite candidate.”

    I think there is some confusion here, if it was Mádl who nominated an ombudsman how does it follow that he was Orban’s favourite? During those times the government was made up of a three party coalition MDF-Smallholder-Fidesz and Madl was close to MDF if I recall, not Fidesz. Remember that MDF was cooperating with Fidesz at the time but it is not the same party as Ibolya David or Lajos Bokros would tell you.

    “He seems to have been convinced that the opposition parties would get at least 25% of the seats, which would allow them to turn to the constitutional court themselves. As we know, this is not how things turned out.”

    Opposition parties have about 33% of the seats so Something is missing from the sentence, maybe you wanted to write non-Jobbik opposition or something similar.

    I think Szekely will be a good Ombudsman in the long run, but it is too early to tell.

  10. Level of anti-Semitism in Europe, ADL survey

    Poland 45%
    Hungary 41%
    Romania 35%
    Croatia 33%
    Slovakia ??
    Austria 28%

    Italy 20%
    Czechia 13%
    Denmark 9%
    Netherlands 5%


    Unexpected numbers:

    Greece 69%
    Bulgaria 44%
    Serbia 42% (is his the result of the traditional Greek Orthodox approach?)

    France 37%

    Spain 29%
    UK 8%

    (we have to see the details of the survey to judge how reliable it is)

  11. I appreciate the importance of trying to find answers to questions about anti-semitism but to couch in pseudo-scientific terms is maddening – how can you rank it meaningfully to one part in a hundred which is what is implied here …

    And why is the UK’s 8% “unexpected”?

  12. Hotel costs of Orban’s Chief of Staff, Janos Lazar on his official, but secretive trips in 2012 & 2013:

    England (2 nights): 1,500 euros a night
    Italy (2 nights): 1,000 euros a night
    Switzerland (2 nights): 800 euros a night.

    The government told the internet portal “Origo.hu” that J Lazar worked for the Hungarian Spy Agency “Információs Hivatal (IH) ” (Information Bureau) during his trips.

    Conflict of interest, anyone?


  13. What is today’s Hungary about?

    People should sit down and compare the Orban’s government treatment of Biszku and Csatary…

  14. @HiBom:

    If you look at Tappanch’s link you’ll find very simple questions like:
    “Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars ”

    If x% of the populace answer questions like this with a sounding “yes” – then surely you can call these x% antisemites!

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