Csaba Horváth

A shameful verdict: The Court finds the new Budapest electoral law consitutional

Now that Viktor Orbán has seen the light and convinced Péter Szentmihályi Szabó to shelve his ambitions to be the next Hungarian ambassador to Rome, I am returning to the domestic scene, which is not pretty either.

Although hardly a day goes by without some horrendous attack on Hungarian democracy, this week’s greatest abomination was the 8 to 7 decision of the Constitutional Court affirming the constitutionality of the new law governing elections in Budapest. Once, back in May, I wrote about Fidesz plans to completely change the electoral system in Budapest. Why? Simple. After the April elections it looked as if Fidesz’s position was not secure in the capital. And naturally, in Fidesz’s view, no election can ever be lost. By hook or by crook they will win. The party and its leader will march resolutely from victory to victory for time immemorial. And so a devilish plan was devised to ensure victory.

Since I went into the details of previous system in May, here let me just summarize it briefly. In the past the lord mayor (főpolgármester) was elected directly by all the eligible voters in Budapest. District mayors were chosen only by the inhabitants of the 23 districts. In addition, there were party lists on the basis of which the 32-member city council was elected. What particularly bothered Fidesz was that the opposition might get a majority on the city council given the fact that numerically more Budapest people voted for the opposition parties than for Fidesz. After some clever mathematics they came up with a solution: simply abolish the city council as it exists today and replace it with a body composed of the 23 district mayors. This body could then be joined by nine people from the so-called compensation lists of the losers. Thus, including the lord mayor, it would have 33 members, just as it has now.

But from day one it was clear that this scheme is glaringly unconstitutional because it violates the one person, one vote principle that is fundamental in a functioning democracy. This disproportionality is due to the varying sizes of the districts. Here are some examples. While District I (the Castle district) has 24,679 inhabitants, District III has 127,602.  District V (Antal Rogán’s domain) has 26,048 while District XIII has 119,275. I guess you will not be terribly surprised to learn that the smaller districts lean heavily toward the right. Thus, the Castle District where no socialist or liberal has ever won will be represented on the city council by one person as will the socialist District XIII.

As soon as this problem was discovered–and it didn’t take long–the Fidesz “election experts” started to tinker with the proposed law and introduced all sorts of amendments that were supposed to remedy the situation. Their attempts eventually made the system extremely complicated without satisfying the constitutional requirements. In a very rare moment of unity, all parliamentary members of the opposition–including Jobbik and LMP–turned to the Constitutional Court for a ruling on the issue. That was in June. On Monday at last the judges handed down their decision. It was a very close vote, especially considering the composition of the court: 8 out of the 15 judges found the law, by and large, constitutional.

One ought to keep in mind that the majority of the judges were appointed by Fidesz after the “court-packing scheme” was introduced. In addition, there are two judges who were put forth by Fidesz earlier. Currently there are only three judges on the court who were nominated by MSZP, one of whom will have to retire in September and two others in March 2016.  After that time there will not be one member of the court who was not a Fidesz appointee. As it is, seven out of the eight judges who were nominated by Fidesz since 2010 found the law constitutional; the one exception refused to concur because he couldn’t agree with the majority on the one side issue it found unconstitutional. So, this is where we stand.

A rather telling picture of the current Hungarian Constitutional Court Source: Népszabadság

A rather telling picture of the current Hungarian Constitutional Court. Source: Népszabadság

Several judges wrote separate opinions. Perhaps the  hardest hitting was that of the chief justice, Peter Paczolay, who is considered by legal experts to be conservative. He was endorsed by both parties and since his term will be up next February I guess he doesn’t particularly care what Viktor Orbán thinks of him. He pointed out that “the present case does not merely touch on constitutional issues but on the right to vote that is the very basis of democracy.” According to him, this Fidesz-created law “is entirely contrary to the fundamental principle of equality.” Moreover, he added that some of his colleagues did not fulfill their professional duties and instead wrote a decision that was dictated by the interests of a political party. Pretty tough words.

András Bragyova (MSZP), who will be leaving the court in September, had nothing to lose either. In his opinion the new “council will not be an elected body although the constitution states that Budapest must have its own self-government.” It is an unconstitutional creation. Moreover, he noted that while the constitution demands self-government for the city as a whole, the election of district mayors is not specifically mentioned in the constitution. As he wittily remarked,  “from here on instead of Budapest having districts, the districts will have a capital city.”

The behavior of István Stumpf, an old Fidesz hand and Viktor Orbán’s former college professor who doesn’t always toe the party line, was the strangest. He voted this time with the slim majority, but he wrote a separate opinion in which he objected to changing the electoral law only months ahead of the election.

NGOs such as the Hungarian Helsinki Commission and TASZ as well as independent electoral law experts are appalled by the poor quality of the opinion that was written by Béla Pokol. Viktor Orbán chose him to serve on the court despite the fact that he is opposed to the very existence of a constitutional court. His judicial views are also extreme.

Csaba Horváth (MSZP), who ran against current lord mayor István Tarlós in 2010, declared that this decision demonstrates that the last bastion of democracy, the Constitutional Court, has been captured by the enemies of democracy. Some people contemplate boycotting the election but most are ready to face the music. Between Fidesz and the totally incompetent opposition a huge Fidesz win seems to be shaping up for October 12.

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The exit of Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the Hungarian socialists

The drama was of short duration. On Tuesday Attila Mesterházy, chairman of the Hungarian Socialist Party, seemed to be certain that he would remain the leader of MSZP and the whip of the party’s parliamentary group despite the disastrous showing at the EP election on May 25. He thought he could rely on the people who were considered to be his steadfast supporters and on whom he had depended throughout the last four or five years.

Mesterházy believed, and he was not alone in the party, that the secret to the revival of MSZP lay in the rejuvenation of the party. Here the word “rejuvenation” is used in its literal sense: getting rid of the older, more experienced leaders who were allegedly responsible for past mistakes and bringing in new faces. Preferably young ones. Closer to 30 than to 40. So, as far as the media was concerned, MSZP had a face lift. But cosmetic surgery was not enough. According to people whose opinion I trust, most of these new faces were only faces. Nothing substantive behind their countenances. These newly recruited people who were elevated to important positions gave the impression of mediocrity at best and total incompetence at worst.

Old hands in the party, especially lately, made it clear what they thought of Mesterházy’s new young crew. At first just quietly, but lately ever more loudly. Perhaps the most outspoken on the quality of the Mesterházy leadership was László Kovács, former chairman, foreign minister, and European Commissioner, who when asked in an interview on what basis these people were chosen, answered: “You ask the chairman of the party.” Or just lately another old-timer, Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman and very effective whip, said, alluding to Mesterjázy’s centralization of power, that “what we need is not a small Fidesz in a worse version.” After all, no one can achieve, even if he wanted to, the one-man rule of Viktor Orbán.

According to people familiar with the internal workings of MSZP, Mesterházy was very good at developing a structure within the party that served his personal ambitions. He was also good at playing political chess, which usually ended with his winning the game. He managed to organize a party list of the United Alliance which greatly favored MSZP at the expense of DK and E14-PM. As a result, the other two parties, each with four MPs, couldn’t form official caucuses, which would have greatly enhanced their own voices and would have strengthened the joint forces of the democratic opposition parties.

Mesterházy was accused by some of his colleagues in the party of playing games with the party’s by-laws. By not resigning himself but only offering the resignation of the whole presidium (elnökség), he was able to postpone an election of all the officials, which is a very long process in MSZP. That would have ensured the continuation of his chairmanship and the existence of the current leadership for months. It was at this junction that the important personages in the party decided to act. At least one well-known socialist politician apparently told the others that if they postpone the election process, card-carrying party members will join DK in hordes because they have had enough of the paralysis that the party leadership has exhibited for some time.

Perhaps it was the Budapest MSZP leadership that was most affected by the results of the EP election. Let’s face it, MSZP lost Budapest. Csaba Horváth’s candidacy for the lord mayoralty is dead; Zsolt Molnár, who headed the Budapest MSZP organization, has resigned; and here was Mesterházy who, in their eyes, was making it impossible for them to recoup in Budapest before the municipal elections. The first group in Budapest to revolt against the chairman was the XIIIth district where MSZP was always very strong. Csepel, once an MSZP stronghold, followed suit. Dissatisfaction spread, and very soon all twenty-three district centers expressed their misgivings and demanded Mesterházy’s resignation.

Some of the old-timers offered solutions on how to change the leadership without getting involved in a complicated and lengthy election of new officials. László Kovács suggested an interim governing body that would be made up of politicians who in the past had showed that they had the trust of the electorate. That is, they won elections on their own. He could think of 6-8 people who could take part in that body. In addition, he would ask László Botka, mayor of Szeged, who has been able to be elected and reelected even in the most difficult times. Kovács also suggested three former chairmen of the party: István Haller, Ildikó Lendvai, and he himself. Mesterházy’s defiant answer to Kovács’s suggestion was: “It is not Lendvai and Kovács who are the bearers of the message of the future.”

Yesterday the party leaders of Budapest were ready for compromise. If Mesterházy resigns as chairman he can still be the whip, a position very dear to his heart. At least he made a case for occupying that post regardless of the fate of the chairmanship in a television interview. But after seeing Mesterházy’s stubbornness, the Budapest leaders and others wanted to strip him even of his parliamentary position. Some MSZP politicians were in fact ready to expel him from the party if he doesn’t play ball. Under these circumstances he had no choice but to resign. Today at noon he held a press conference and announced his resignation both as chairman and as whip of MSZP’s parliamentary group. He added that at the next election of officials he will not seek any position in the party leadership.

Photo: MTI

Photo: MTI

There was a sigh of relief, I’m sure, in the inner circles of the party. However, as one party official said, “this is not the end of the road but its beginning.” The party leadership, he added, “has to eliminate the heritage of the Mesterházy era.” And that will not be easy. For example, the MSZP parliamentary delegation is “Mesterházy’s caucus.” Some people within the party leadership think that each MP who gained a mandate from the party list should offer his resignation. This is not a realistic scenario. These people cannot be forced to offer their resignation and they would be unlikely to resign willingly. The pro-Mesterházy MPs, however, might not be a genuine problem because, according to the latest rumors, even his hand-picked MPs have abandoned him.

As for a successor, many names are circulating at the moment: László Botka, József Tóbiás, István Haller, to mention just a few. I have the feeling that what most people have in mind is an interim “collective leadership” until the party can have a full-fledged congress that would officially elect a new chairman and fill the other top positions.

I think that time is of the essence if MSZP hopes to recoup for the municipal election, although I myself doubt that they will be able to substantially increase their support either in Budapest or elsewhere. On the other hand, I see a good possibility that DK and E14-PM will be able to attract new followers. Success breeds success. I heard, for instance, that DK is getting a lot of membership applications. Yet, just as Ferenc Gyurcsány emphasizes, the three parties must cooperate in the municipal elections. Otherwise, they have no chance of capturing Budapest where at the moment Fidesz is leading in spite of the relatively good showing of DK, E14-PM, MSZP, and LMP. Although the media close to Fidesz intimate that DK is out to capture former MSZP voters while E14-PM is trying to lure former LMP voters, both parties claim to stand by MSZP in its present crisis. In fact, DK politicians keep emphasizing that their interest lies in a strong MSZP. I’m sure that at the moment this is the case. Eventually, however, it is inevitable that these parties will be pitted against one another for the future leadership of the left-of-center forces in Hungary.

Budapest municipal election: MSZP-LMP deal?

I think it’s time to pay some attention to LMP which, against all expectations, managed to garner 5.34% of the votes on April 6 and thus will be represented in parliament. LMP is a relatively new party. Its origins go back to a group of environmentalists who were responsible for the nomination of László Sólyom, himself an ardent environmentalist, for the position of president in 2005. Several members of this civic organization, called “Védegylet,” came up with the idea of forming a new political party which, as the party’s name indicates, would be a different kind of political actor. Obviously pure as the driven snow. This message resonated with many voters who were convinced that all politicians are corrupt and all politics outright dirty. The party received 7.48% of the votes in 2010 and was able to send 16 of its members to parliament.

The LMP delegation which represented the party was very active. Women comprised half of the delegation, a welcome addition to the otherwise monotonously male makeup of Hungarian politics. Their ambitious leader, András Schiffer, had great plans. Eventually, he wanted to have LMP be the premier party. A party that could win elections by itself. Therefore, he always refused to tie LMP to any other opposition party. It was this stance that eventually led to a split within the party. More than half of the party’s parliamentary delegation left LMP. They considered Schiffer’s position injurious to the democratic opposition which should have united to concentrate their efforts against Viktor Orbán, whom they considered to be the greatest danger to Hungarian democracy. When Schiffer and six other people in the caucus rejected their argument for unity, they left and joined Gordon Bajnai’s Együtt 2014. At the time Schiffer accused these people of selling their honor for parliamentary seats. As it turned out, none of the former LMP politicians who joined Bajnai managed to get into parliament, whereas the rump LMP will be represented by six MPs in the new parliament.

In comparison to 2010 LMP lost a considerable number of votes. In 2010, 383,876  people voted for Schiffer’s party while in 2014 that number was only 269,414, a loss of about 30%. In Budapest, however, they did a little better than four years ago. They were especially strong in the center districts. In districts I and V, which are known to be conservative areas, they received over 10% of the votes, one percentage point higher than in 2010. Schiffer is certain that this slightly improved performance means that he is making headway with conservative voters. I somehow doubt that this interpretation holds water. LMP’s fiercely anti-capitalist rhetoric shouldn’t appeal to conservatives.

Whatever the case, according to reliable sources many members of the MSZP leadership are thinking of enticing Schiffer to cooperate with MSZP in the forthcoming municipal election in Budapest. MSZP’s original candidate for the post was Csaba Horváth, who lost to István Tarlós (Fidesz) in 2010. At that time LMP had its own candidate, Benedek Jávor (who got 9.98% of the votes), who today is the co-chairman of Együtt 2014-PM. (The Jobbik candidate, it should be noted, received 7.27% of the votes.) At that time, right after the large Fidesz victory in the spring, it was clear that the Fidesz candidate was practically unbeatable. Since then, polls indicate that Tarlós can be beaten, but MSZP believes that LMP votes are necessary for a victory. Thus, apparently, some people came up with the idea of dumping Csaba Horváth and instead making a deal with LMP: Schiffer’s party can name its candidate for lord mayor (főpolgármester) and MSZP will support him/her.

Apparently, MSZP is ready to abandon Horváth because Együtt 2014-PM refuses to support the MSZP candidate. Moreover, I am almost certain that important MSZP politicians consider Horváth a weak candidate and hence are quite ready to look for someone else. The cooperation would work the following way: MSZP and LMP would start the campaign with their own candidates but eventually the MSZP candidate would throw his weight behind the LMP person. A generous offer, but it looks as if LMP politicians are not crazy about the idea. They feel that in the long run any kind of electoral cooperation with other parties will harm LMP’s prospects.

Critics of the idea of MSZP-LMP cooperation in the Budapest municipal election, especially those who don’t think much of LMP and András Schiffer, have already announced that the MSZP leaders lost their minds. LMP wouldn’t be able to come up with a viable candidate. Well, I could come up with a name: Péter Róna, the American banker and economist. Róna left Hungary with his mother in 1956 when he was 14 years old. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and received a law degree from Oxford University. Lately, he threw in his lot with LMP and seems to be in LMP’s inner circle. I’m not surprised at Róna’s attraction to LMP: he considers himself a socialist and, despite the fact that he headed an investment bank before returning to Hungary, is a fierce critic of banks and capitalism in general. Róna also seems to be popular among those who are regular listeners of Klubrádió and ATV. It is another matter whether Róna, who is over 70 and has no political or administrative experience, would accept the nomination.

Péter Róna

Péter Róna

Today a caller to György Bolgár’s program, “Let’s talk it over,” announced that the opposition should simply give up the city and let Tarlós continue in office. If the candidate of a united opposition wins, Viktor Orbán will make sure that Budapest is “bulldozered.” Whoever the new mayor is, his life will be hell as will that of the city. Let Fidesz have Budapest for four more years. Sooner or later the Orbán regime will collapse because such a system cannot be maintained for too long. Maybe there is something in that argument.