NGOs as threats to the building of Orbán Viktor’s “illiberal democracy”

Yesterday while analyzing Viktor Orbán’s latest speech I concentrated on the topic that aroused the greatest outrage in opposition circles, the Hungarian prime minister’s plans to introduce a so-called “illiberal democracy.”

Here I would like to talk about a topic that at first glance might seem tangential to these plans: the NGOs and civic groups in general. While Orbán dispassionately lectured his audience on the state of the world and Hungary’s place in it, he became visibly agitated when he turned to this topic. We may think that the question of who distributes the relatively small amount of money provided to Hungary by the EEA and Norwegian Grants is not worth a major international fight, but Viktor Orbán does not see it that way. For him the issue is of critical political importance.

I wrote earlier about the controversy surrounding these funds. Currently, a private organization distributes the funds, an arrangement that Hungary and the Norway Fund agreed to earlier. Sometime in the spring the Hungarian government unilaterally changed the rules of the game by insisting that the Budapest government should be responsible for the dispersion of the funds among the various civic organizations. The Norway Fund resisted the idea. After all, these civic groups are supposed to be, at least in part, the watchdogs of the government in power. Giving the government the right to decide which NGOs can and which cannot receive money would defeat the whole purpose.

Right now there is a standoff between Budapest and Oslo. Even the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, wrote a letter to János Lázár in which he expressed his displeasure at the government’s allegations that the Norwegian NGO Fund was used to support political activities in Hungary. He tried to explain that NGOs “should be able to pursue their public watchdog function … without undue interference in their internal functioning.” Lázár wasn’t moved. He argued that the Norwegian NGO funds “constitute public money, [and] it is the moral obligation of the Hungarian Government to order every measure in its discretion which is necessary for the thorough investigation of the questions to be examined, or the contents of the supported activities.” The sentence might be convoluted, but the message clear: Lázár insists on government oversight.

Why is this relatively small amount of money of such great political concern for the Orbán government? We can find the answer in Viktor Orbán’s speech delivered yesterday at Tusnádfürdő/Băile Tușnad. These independent NGOs threaten the illiberal state he is building. He looks upon the NGOs, especially the ones that receive funds from abroad, as impediments to his plans. And as far as he is concerned, this is a very serious matter. As he put it, “here we are confronted with paid political activists. Moreover, these paid political activists are foreign paid political activists. Political activists paid by definable foreign interest groups about whom it is hard to imagine that they consider the sums given by them as social projects. Instead, our suspicion is justified that through this instrument [the NGOs] they try–in a given moment and in a given question–to influence Hungarian political life.” Therefore, the decision was made to create a parliamentary committee whose job will be “the continuous observation, recording, and release of foreign attempts at influence peddling. ”

NGOs2And this was just the beginning of his tirade. He complained about the fact that some of the people who administer these projects are getting paid from abroad, from the money allocated to Hungary, and that their salaries are greater than the salaries of Hungarian civil servants in similar positions and rank. He complained that  35% of the funds are wasted on overhead costs, which is intolerable. Once the Hungarian government gets hold of the funds, these costs will be reduced to a maximum of 15%.

Administrators in Brussels and in Oslo will have to be prepared for a protracted and ugly fight because Orbán is adamant: foreign money is not going to be used to undermine his government. If the Norwegian Fund decides to stick it out, the case most likely will end up in the European Court of Human Rights. Commissioner Nils Muižnieks in his letter to Lázár alluded to that possibility when he stated that “the case law of the European Court of Human Rights on the role of NGOs in democratic society is clear: when an NGO draws attention to matters of public interest, it is exercising a public watchdog role of similar importance to that of the press.” And he mentions the 2007 ruling in Zhechev v. Bulgaria as a case in point. In brief, Muižniek recommends that Hungary back down because, if the case gets all the way up to the European Court of Human Rights, defeat is certain. Not that Viktor Orbán cares about court decisions. He will do, if and when it comes, what he has done in the past. Blithely ignore the decision.


Viktor Orbán is up to something and that something is nothing good

Index came out with it first. It seems that feelers are being put out, most likely indirectly by the prime minister’s office, about people’s opinion of changing the Hungarian governmental structure from a parliamentary to a semi-presidential system. The client who ordered the survey seems to be specifically interested in whom people would like to see in the post of president.

A few months ago Péter Hack, a former member of parliament and a constitutional lawyer, called the topic of Viktor Orbán as the next president “an evergreen subject” which has been around for at least twenty-five years. Indeed, the topic was hotly debated during the discussions of the opposition in 1989. If it had depended on MDF, a right of center party, the president would have been directly elected by the voters, and they even had their favorite candidate, former member of the Politburo Imre Pozsgay. Fidesz and SZDSZ managed to thwart that plan and Hungary remained a purely parliamentary system in which the president has little power and is elected by the parliament.

After the 1989-1990 debate no one brought up the desirability of changing the constitutional order until 2004 when István Stumpf talked about the advantages of such a system. Four years later in a television interview he specifically spoke of the possibility that Viktor Orbán could become president one day, but naturally only if “the presidency would be reinforced.” Surely, a mostly ceremonial role would not suit Viktor Orbán’s temperament and political ambitions.

As usual, Viktor Orbán changed his mind on the subject frequently. In the fall of 2009 he declared that he is a devotee of the parliamentary system, which has a long tradition in Hungary. Yet when in 2010, after the election, a preliminary committee was assembled to write a new constitution, a change to a semi-presidential system was envisaged. As you may recall, that preliminary constitutional draft was thrown out the window so to speak, and instead the final text was written by József Szájer on his iPad on the train between Budapest and Brussels.

So, in the new constitution that was adopted in 2011 there was no mention of enlarged presidential powers. Yet we know that Orbán preferred the semi-presidential system, as he made clear in a speech delivered in the same year. There was a simple reason he did not agree to the change in the constitution: the timing was not right. No wonder that he vetoed the text of the preliminary committee working on the constitution. Viktor Orbán is no fool. He certainly did not want the immediate introduction of a strong presidency over and above himself.

But the future was something else. In 2012 he gave an interview to the German Handelsblatt in which he praised the advantages of the semi-presidential system which “is more suited for the introduction of difficult reforms.” He added that he is a devotee  of democracy, but the question should be asked whether the management structures of democracy are best for periods of crisis.

It looks as if Orbán now finds the time ripe for making a move toward a presidential system. On May 21 Népszabadság reported that Orbán discussed the possibility of occupying the post of presidency after János Áder leaves in 2017. But he emphasized that he would do so only if the president had real power. As we know, under the present circumstances, changing the constitution and declaring the president head of the government as well as head of the state is a question of only a couple of hours of phony debate in parliament and the deed is done. For that matter, if Viktor Orbán decided to transform Hungary into a constitutional monarchy he would have no difficulty with his super majority of mindless followers.

Viktor Orbán's mask in the Institute for the Blind

Viktor Orbán’s mask in the Institute for the Blind

So, what is a semi-presidential system? There are several countries where such a governmental structure exists, but perhaps the best known is post-1958 France. In this system the government is not only responsible to parliament but also to the president. It is the president who appoints the prime minister, so he is the most important political player in the land. The president’s choice of prime minister, however, depends on the composition of the parliament. It can easily happen that the prime minister belongs to one party and the president to another. In this case they split responsibilities. Normally, the president is responsible for foreign policy and the prime minister for domestic policy. This “division of labor” is not spelled out in the constitution; it simply evolved this way. But often the system does not work. There can be bitter and tense stonewalling, depending on the attitudes of the two leaders and the ideologies of their parties. Just think what would happen if Viktor Orbán were president and Ferenc Gyurcsány prime minister.

How do we know that Viktor Orbán is seriously contemplating changing the constitution in order to move over to the Sándor palota, the office of the president? A few weeks ago ATV, the only television station that represents the views of the opposition, learned that Forsense Institute, a polling company that receives many government orders, conducted a survey on the Hungarian people’s attitudes on the subject. It was a telephone survey lasting about 10-15 minutes. On June 26 the station inquired whether such a survey had taken place. At that time Forsense denied the existence of such a poll. Yesterday, however, Forsense fessed up and admitted the existence of the survey to a journalist from Index. They refused to divulge the name of the client who ordered it, but they insisted that it was not the prime minister’s office. I tend to agree. Hungary’s prime minister is far too clever to get involved directly with such an enterprise. Most likely the job was “outsourced” to someone else.

What did the pollsters want to know? Index learned that the subjects were asked very specific questions. For example, what kind of a president they would prefer if they had a choice: Vladimir Putin, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, or Silvio Berlusconi? Whom would they prefer? Viktor Orbán, János Áder, László Sólyom, or Gordon Bajnai? They wanted their opinion on whether the president’s tenure should be seven or nine years. The pollsters were especially interested in people’s political and religious views: the subjects had to divulge for which party they voted at the national and the EP elections.

It is alarming that decisions might be made on the basis of such a survey. The Hungarian voters’ knowledge of politics is frighteningly limited. How many people know the differences between the German, the Russian, the American, or the Italian system of government? How can they decide?

But the most frightening part of this latest news is that Viktor Orbán seems to be contemplating a radical change in Hungary’s constitutional order and placing himself, most likely for nine years, at the head of the government hierarchy. More than scary.