presidential system

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.