European People’s Party

Fidesz insiders think Orbán’s days are numbered

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day usually offers little sustenance for news junkies. But today I discovered a front-page article in Népszava with the titillating title “Does Orbán have only months left?” The paper’s “sources close to Fidesz” claimed that “Orbán is already finished” and the only “question is who will take his place.”

The article was met with skepticism, especially in pro-government circles. Válasz described the article as sci-fi and “entertaining.” Gábor Török, the popular political scientist, wanted to know what his Facebook “friends” thought about the appearance of such items in the media. Do government politicians actually say such things to reporters of an opposition paper or are the reporters only giving voice to their wishes? The comments that followed were a mixed bag but a reporter, András Kósa, who also receives information from dissatisfied Fidesz politicians, didn’t think that the article was fantasy, although it might be exaggerated. Here and there commenters thought that Fidesz will collapse as soon as Viktor Orbán is gone, but most “friends” of Török considered the article humbug. I’m less skeptical than most of Török’s friends because I’ve usually found Népszava to be reliable when it reports on information coming from unnamed sources.

So, let’s see what Népszava heard from “sources close to Fidesz.” They claim that Orbán’s “system” has no more than a few months before it collapses. Apparently Fidesz politicians are increasingly avoiding the limelight because “the fall is inevitable. In their opinion Orbán started down a road from which there is no return. Not only will he himself be the victim of his own mistakes but also his party and the country itself.”

The problems that beset the work of the government emanate from the character flaws of the prime minister: inconsistency, impenetrability, and unpredictability. Most government and Fidesz officials have no idea what course they are supposed to pursue. Orbán trusts fewer and fewer people, and the ones he still does give him wrong advice. He apparently is looking for enemies everywhere, and this is one of the reasons that government decisions are not preceded by any discussion. It often happens that Orbán himself changes his mind in the last minute, which makes consistent communication nearly impossible. Underlings parrot a line that has been superseded by a new brainstorm of the prime minister. More and more people would like to save themselves from such embarrassments.

According to these informants, serious problems within Fidesz are not new although they are only now becoming visible. Signs of trouble began to surface when Orbán decided, sometime before the April elections, to change the “structure” under which Fidesz had been functioning very well for over twenty years. Until then, Lajos Simicska was in charge of the party’s finances, but “from the moment that Orbán decided to take over economic decisions” the old dual structure collapsed and with it the well-functioning system. When Orbán again managed to receive a two-thirds majority, he completely lost his sense of judgment. As months went by, anti-Orbán murmurs in the party began to proliferate, and the Christian Democrats, realizing that Orbán was losing his grip on the party, decided to put pressure on the beleaguered prime minister. That’s why Orbán had to give in on the unpopular law that forces stores to be closed on Sundays.

What observers see is no longer a “system” but a political process based on day-by-day ad hoc decisions which, according to the saner Fidesz leaders, cannot be maintained because “it is incapable of self-correction.”

The informers seem to have less information about actual attempts to topple Viktor Orbán. Names were not mentioned, but they indicated that the people they had in mind “would be quite capable of taking over the reins of government without changing political direction.” Népszava‘s sources consider Angela Merkel’s planned visit to Budapest in February a date of great importance. I guess they think that Merkel will tell Orbán that he is persona non grata as far as the European People’s Party and the European Commission are concerned.

CalendarNépszava‘s description of the strife and chaos within Fidesz is most likely accurate. The question is what Orbán is planning to do to forestall the outcome described by Népszava‘s sources. For the time being, as we learned from the interviews of János Lázár, Viktor Orbán, and László Kövér, he will fight to hold onto power by convincing his Peace March troops that the “fatherland is in danger.” I’m almost certain that internal polls are being taken to gauge support. Would it be possible to turn out 100,000 people to defend the prime minister against foreign and domestic intrigues? I assume that the size of the planned anti-government demonstrations on January 2 will also influence Orbán’s decision about the next step to take to combat his opponents inside and outside the party.

In any case, for the time being it was Antal Rogán who was called upon to announce a countermeasure that might take the wind out of anti-government sails.  It is called the “National Defense Action Plan.” The details are secret for the time being, but it most likely includes some kind of answer to the United States’ decision to bar six Hungarian citizens from the United States due to corruption. It is also likely that a huge propaganda effort will be launched to discredit the U.S.-EU free trade agreement that until now the Hungarian government has welcomed. According to government and Fidesz sources, the “National Defense Action Plan” was put together in the prime minister’s office by Viktor Orbán, János Lázár, Antal Rogán, Péter Szijjártó, and Árpád Habony (who neither holds an official government position nor has national security clearance). These are the people who make most of the decisions in the Orbán government.

Meanwhile what are the anti-Orbán political forces doing in this fluid situation? Ferenc Gyurcsány decided to ask those followers who have been at the anti-government demonstrations all along to bring party posters and flags to the January 2 demonstration. József Tóbiás, leader of MSZP, did not respond to Gyurcsány’s request to follow DK’s lead. But István Újhelyi, an MSZP MEP, announced today a socialist “diplomatic offensive” against the Orbán government. Orbán must be stopped because his “Russian roulette” will have tragic consequences.

At the beginning of the new year there will be at least two important events. First, the mass demonstration planned for January 2 in front of the Opera House. Three years ago a gigantic anti-government demonstration also took place there, and for a whole month newspapers kept asking how long Orbán could last. We are again asking the same question. Since Orbán not only survived but thrived in the last three years, some people might come to the conclusion that the Hungarian prime minister will always triumph, even in the most perilous circumstances. But I would caution the pessimists. Three years ago the pressure came only from the inside. This time Orbán has embroiled himself and the country in a high stakes international power play in addition to alienating about 900,000 of his former supporters.

The second event will be Orbán’s new “remedy,” the “National Defense Action Plan.” Will it work? Is Orbán strong enough to rally his troops for another supportive Peace March as he did in 2012? And even if he manages, will anybody care?

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Interview with Kim Scheppele, Part II: From the Tavares Report to the Electoral System

Members of the Orbán government and its defenders never miss an opportunity to remind critics that it was the Hungarian people who democratically elected Viktor Orbán and his party to govern their land. Not once, they add, but three times just this year–and each time with an overwhelming majority. What they neglect to say is that “Fidesz got its two-thirds using every trick in the book, and it needed every trick in the book to do that,” as Kim Scheppele tells Benjamin Novak in the second part of the interview The Budapest Beacon conducted with her at Princeton University. The first part of the interview can be seen on Hungarian Spectrum (November 13). Kim Scheppele is an expert on the Hungarian constitution, but as you can see here she is thoroughly conversant with Fidesz’s electoral law as well.

Thanks to The Budapest Beacon, I can republish the video and the transcript of the interview. I’m sure that you will all find it most enlightening.


Let’s talk about the Tavares Report. George Schöpflin tells me that it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

In what sense? Does he thinks it’s false or does he think it’s meaningless?

He thinks it’s the left-liberal way of complaining about this unacceptable situation in which a center-right conservative party gets a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

So let me start with what I take to be the vote on the report, and then maybe we can get into what the report actually says. The report actually came to the floor of the European Parliament. As I understand it, the European People’s Party, which is the party that Fidesz is affiliated with, had a number of members who wanted to be able to vote for the report but were afraid to do so because their party leadership told them to object to the bill. So there was an agreement that there would be a “voice vote”, which is to say just a count of the actual numbers and not a roll call vote. So that said, when you look at the actual numbers for the Tavares Report, the number of people who voted against it was less than half of the total number of European People’s Party representatives, which means that the EPP was divided. Now, it was true that almost all those who opposed the report were on the conservative side. But it was also the case that conservatives had a majority in the European Parliament at the time that that report was voted on. Actually, two-thirds of the members of the European Parliament either voted for it or abstained and let it go through. So, you can’t any longer make this argument that it was just the left against Hungary, because at least half of the conservatives in the European Parliament had to support the report in one way or another. So it’s just wrong that this was something that the left pushed through and the right opposed.  In fact, what was so striking was that that was the first vote in which you could see that the European People’s Party was already splitting on Hungary.

And now they’re splitting again. Just the other day MTI actually reported on the European Parliament’s debate on Hungary and there were a number of people who participated in the debate who afterward gave interviews to MTI.  There was one guy who was described in the Hungarian news service as “Frank Engel, MEP from Luxembourg” because they didn’t want to say “Frank Engel, MEP from the European People’s Party”. He’s in the leadership of the European People’s Party and he came out and said Hungary is really on the edge of being kicked out of the family of democratic states.  I’m seeing this from an outside perspective, but if you look at the comments being made by EPP leaders, you look at the votes on issues having to do with Hungary, I don’t think that the Hungarian government should presume that it’s got the support of the European People’s Party, or that it’s divided the European Parliament left-right.  It just hasn’t done that.

Also every time the European Commission brings sanctions against the Hungarian government, or brings an infringement procedure against the Hungarian government, or makes a criticism of the Hungarian government, it’s very often EPP commissioners who are doing it. The commissioner that the Hungarian government loved to hate most was Viviane Reding, who was an EPP representative from Luxembourg, that was her party. So I think it’s a mistake to think of this as left-right in the European Union. It clearly isn’t. It’s true that the supporters of the Hungarian government in the European Parliament are EPP people. But the EPP is very divided.  And I would be very surprised if the whole party stood up on mass to defend the Orbán government. I just don’t see that happening.

What does the Hungarian government have in store for itself in the upcoming years? Are there going to be sanctions? Obviously, you don’t know if there will be but if there were, what would these look like?

Several of the commissioners during their hearing before the European Parliament, both Juncker who is the President of the European Commission, and now also Timmermans, who is kind of the right-hand man of Mr. Juncker – they’ve all said that when countries violate basic European principles that something must be done. They’ve never mentioned the Hungarian government by name, but they’ve actually made some quite tough statements going into their new terms that something I think is going to happen.

Also, the European Parliament has already started to schedule these hearings on Hungary. So far it has been the left who have initiated these hearings. But the Tavares Report is still there as the statement of the European Parliament.  And the Tavares Report laid out a series of programs for both monitoring what was happening inside Hungary and also checking on whether what the Hungarian government said it was doing actually fixed the problems that the European Parliament identified, and set up a potential road to sanctions. Last Spring the European Commission came out with something it called its Rule of Law Initiative which provided a kind of glide path for how to use Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, which is the harshest punishment available now in the European system. So they’re all inching toward actually using the mechanisms that European law makes available to sanction Hungary.

So then the question is what kind of sanctions?  What people don’t realize is that in the European Union there is no way to throw a state out. There now is a way for a state to quit. If Orbán really believes that the EU is being a really repressive actor . . .

. . . then he can pack up and leave.

That’s what Britain’s talking about doing. But if Orbán thinks that, then he can leave. But I really suspect that Orbán will not do it because Hungary really needs the money. You know, the vast majority of funds coming in for economic development to Hungary are coming from the EU. The EU is holding up the Hungarian economy in ways that Orbán can’t afford to walk away from. But if he wants to complain that much, then he has that exit strategy.

Do you think this “eastward opening” is a bluff?

No, I think the “eastward opening” is really important to Orbán because I think what he realizes is that the Hungarian economy rests on a very shaky foundation. And it rests on a shakier foundation now that he’s disrupted all of the legal certainty that foreign investors came to Hungary in reliance on. So, as you’ve seen, foreign investment has been drying up. That’s why the dominant money coming into the country right now is coming in from EU funds. So Orbán has to find some way to kickstart the economy.

Now he’s clearly indicated that he wants no constraints on his own sphere of action. So, any money coming from the Troika – which is the IMF, the ECB and the Commission – or any EU sources is going to come with strings attached about changing the domestic landscape so that Orbán is no longer an autocratic monopolist as it were. Obviously, he doesn’t want that, so he has to find money elsewhere.

Frankly, I think the “eastward opening” is Orbán’s trick of how to find money elsewhere because what he’s discovered, and all the attention right now on Hungary is because of Russia, that he’s also (seeking) investments from China, he’s been going hat in hand to Azerbaijan, to Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, the Saudis –

To the ideal illiberal democracies.

Well. they’re not even democracies in many cases. Turkmenistan is definitely nowhere close to a democracy.  I was just there this summer.  But these are countries that are rich and Orbán goes to them and says “give us some money”.  And in a number of cases these countries are giving Orbán money. So then the question is, why are those countries giving Orbán money? Now, we’ve had the most focus on Russia and think that Russia is Orbán’s model. Although, these autocracies, these non-constitutional, non-rule of law, non-democracies, will never ask Orbán to become a constitutional democrat.

Of course not.

So what do they want from Orbán? I think what they want from Orbán is Orbán’s position within the EU. They want somebody on the inside of the EU advocating for their interests.

It wouldn’t be unheard of.

In fact, here at Princeton University we had an undergraduate student who did a very fabulous senior thesis a few years ago. He wanted to know how do tiny, tiny little countries, like little islands in the South Pacific that have only 10,000 people but they’re members of the United Nations… they have nothing to sell, no natural resources… how do they support themselves? He went off and he interviewed members of those parliaments, people in the governments, and what he discovered is that these little countries joined every single international organization that they can.  And then they sell their votes in these international organizations to the states that will pay to keep their governments going.

I read this thesis and thought what an interesting model for government finance! I can’t prove that this is what Hungary is doing, but then what does Hungary have that it can sell? I mean, pálinka is great, Tokaji is divine, I mean there are a number of things that Hungary has that it can sell, but not enough to hold up the whole government.

In Hungary’s case, it wouldn’t be unheard of.  There was this case regarding Béla Kovács, this Jobbik MEP, who allegedly was spying for Russia.

The relationship between Jobbik and Fidesz is not nothing, but they don’t have exactly the same interests. It’s clear that Russia has been sneaking around and looking for ways to get its perspective into European countries and EU institutions.  Because I think that Russia sees the EU as a competitor and a threat. You look at all the signals and it would make sense for Russia to try and make allies inside the EU.

So what does Hungary have to sell? It has its position within the EU. Again, I cannot prove this because I don’t yet have all the evidence, but one of the things that Orbán could be doing with the opening to east, is to get investment into Hungary. Then you have to ask what’s he giving back in return? I don’t think we have a good answer yet to that question.

Only time will tell.  What do you see happening with regards to the United States relationship with Hungary at this point?

Well, I think the United States has been saying for some time that “Hungary is an ally,”  “We’re a little concerned,”  “We’re a little more concerned”.  “Hungary is a friend,” “Friends criticize friends”.   The U.S. was making all those kinds of noises.

But then last month things changed. So first, there was that kind of off-hand remark by Bill Clinton, who is so clever that off-hand remarks like that are not anything he does. Then President Obama repeated these words at a speech in which he was critical of Hungary. Nothing the President says is casual, especially not when he mentions a foreign country. Then we have Victoria Nuland’s speech where she almost threatens Hungary’s position in NATO where she said that we fought for democracies in that part of world, now countries have become democracies, if they start to think that they can pull away from that, then they will not be able to “comfortably sleep at night under their Article 5 blanket”. Now, Article 5 is a piece of the NATO treaty that says that if any country is attacked that all the others will come to its defense. It’s the core of the collective self-defense provision. She put that on the table as contingent on being a member of the club of democracies. And then suddenly we have these sanctions against unnamed Hungarians, probably state officials. That’s a very rapid downhill slide of US-Hungary relations. And then we had the comment by Deputy Chief of Mission Goodfriend that says we are essentially wondering whether Hungary can still be an ally. Those are sharp words. In diplomatic language, that’s huge.  And its concerted, it’s coming from multiple players, and it’s not an accident. This is something that really represents, I think, looking from the outside, a breach in US-Hungary diplomatic relations.

Do you think US-Hungary relations will play a role in helping things at the EU level move forward with respect to Hungary?

This is interesting. When we think of what European Union sanctions are, they have this possibility of excluding Hungary from voting in European affairs. If you think about what I said a minute ago about Hungary’s eastward opening, if I’m right (and it’s a hypothesis), if Hungary is selling its influence in the EU to dodgy states, then losing its vote in the EU would matter a lot because then it could no longer vote on matters in the European Council, its position will be marginalized in European institutions, it can no longer have any influence in the European Union. That’s what that Article 7 is all about. That’s why sanctions could be serious if this is what Hungary is really doing.  Again, this is speculation, but it really is something that one has to wonder. Why are dodgy countries supporting Hungary? What is Hungary selling in exchange? That’s one kind of theory about this.

In terms of US sanctions, the US has relatively few ways it can directly sanction Hungary, except in the way that it’s been sanctioning Russia by issuing individually targeted sanctions on individuals. Those are very powerful. If you’ve been in Moscow recently you’ve seen that high-flying society there is basically closed down. Restaurants are empty. The high-value stores are empty. It hasn’t affected the average Russian very much, which is the good thing about those kinds of targeted sanctions. The US is a friend to the Hungarian people, as I hope it’s clear that I’m also a friend of the Hungarian people.  It’s the government we’re having trouble. Ideally, if the diplomatic community wants to have an effect on the government, they need to figure out a way to do that without also having it affect the people of that country.

Article 7 sanctions in the European Union would just affect Hungary’s vote. It will not be noticed by the average Hungarian. These denial of entry sanctions that the U.S. State Department has now issued against a number of Hungarians. Even financial sanctions which the U.S. has done in the case of Russian individuals and businesses, if the U.S. moves that way, are really designed to influence exactly the circle around the government and not the average people. I think that looks to me like that may be where the EU is going.  It may be where the U.S. is going.  But I think it’s very important for Hungarians to understand that, as I see it from the outside, it looks to me like both the EU and the U.S. are teeing up this possibility of having sanctions that will just be confined to the Hungarian government and the officials in the inner circle.

Let’s talk a bit about the Hungarian elections. In 2010 Fidesz wins with an unprecedented landslide two-thirds majority, a supermajority. Why can’t the West just accept that two-thirds of Hungarians want this?

Well, first of all, two-thirds of Hungarians didn’t want this.  If you look at the low turnout, so more than a third of Hungarians didn’t vote at all. Of those who voted, the opposition was divided. Fidesz only got 54 percent of the vote. This time, however, they got 45 percent. That’s pretty significant. If you look at the numbers, they’ve lost a big fraction of their voters and they managed to win this recent election by reducing the overall vote. Something like 500,000 Hungarians have left the country under the Fidesz watch since 2010, at least as far as we can tell. Many of them were voters affiliated with the opposition and Fidesz made it very difficult for them to vote in the election.

So they exiled the opposition. They then made it harder for them to vote. Then they give new citizenship to all these people in neighboring countries. That vote, by the way, went 97-98 percent for Fidesz. That’s like North Korea voting. There’s no election in which you get that percentage of the vote for the governing party. All the polls that were being taken in Romania, in the community of Hungarian citizens there, showed that Jobbik would probably get 20 percent of the vote, and Jobbik got nothing.   Which makes me wonder what happened to the Jobbik vote.  I’m not a fan of Jobbik but it really makes me wonder what happened to the Jobbik vote in this last election.

It was an election that was very carefully staged to make it appear that Fidesz got this two-thirds vote.  And often times what you’ll hear Fidesz leaders saying that, “We won with two-thirds support!” Well, certainly that’s just wrong in terms of just the numbers. It’s definitely wrong when you look at the way the election was micromanaged from the way they redrew the electoral districts.

Some serious gerrymandering happened.

Also, they put in all these new rules like this winner compensation vote. That was six seats in the parliament.

How would you explain the compensation vote to an American. It took me two months to understand what that is all about!

This is a really complex system. In many European parliamentary systems, voters get two votes when they go to the polls. One vote is like the American election where you vote for your representative. The second vote is where you vote for a party and the seats in the parliament are divided between single member seats and then these party list seats where the party makes a list of who will get in. If they get such and such a percentage of the vote then their top ten people get in and so forth.

So what happens is that single member districts are wildly disproportionate. Somebody can win with one vote and then they get the whole seat, even those where  one less than half voted for somebody else. So it means that these systems are always disproportionate, the American system, the British system, all the ones that use this “first past the post” system are highly disproportionate. What parliamentary systems that have this double vote do is they say maybe we can make it somewhat more proportional by taking the losing votes, the votes cast for losing candidates, and let’s give those votes to the parties when you count the party list votes. So either all of those votes, or a fraction of those votes, or some mathematical function of those votes get added to the other column where people voted for the party lists.

So this was for the original compensation list so that the winner doesn’t take all.

The German system works like that, they have a very disproportionate first past the post system for individual districts. Then by adding the lost votes, the votes cast for losing candidates, to the list votes. They then kind of balance the parliament so that overall the seats kind of represent the underlying votes across parties. It’s a very sane system. Now, that was the system that Hungary had before. It wasn’t perfect, it was still quite disproportionate in all kinds of ways, but that was the prior system.

So Fidesz comes in and says, “Let’s define what is a lost vote”, and they say, “A lost vote is any vote that was not absolutely necessary to a candidate winning the seat.” So suppose you’ve got three candidates in a district and the winner wins by 300 votes and the other candidates get 200 and 100. Under the old system, the 200 votes for that candidate would be added to that candidate’s party list votes, the other 100 votes would be added to that candidate’s party list votes, and the winner who got the seat would get nothing because the winner got the seat. They won.

Now, under winner compensation Fidesz says, “Okay, it turns out that we could have won that seat with 201 votes. The other 99 were just gravy, like that was just extra. So, as a result, those other 99 votes were lost because we didn’t need them to win the seat. So we’re going to add those 99 votes to our compensation list on the party list side.”

What that does just mathematically is it completely tips the balance because it makes it completely disproportionate, especially since Fidesz drew the electoral districts and could maximize its own votes in a lot of these places by dividing the opposition. This is why every time the opposition divided, either between Jobbik and the democratic opposition – and I’m not saying they should get together – or between LMP, the Socialists and the Unity ticket, every time you split the vote you not only split the vote and make it less likely that any opposition party will win the seat, you give Fidesz a bigger advantage over the second-place party because the more you divide, the more they conquer.

So it just compounds the problem.

So the new parliament has 199 seats. Those of us who have looked at the numbers and run the numbers have now realized that they got 6 of those seats just because of this trick. Now, look at how many seats they need for their two-thirds. They needed every vote they got for that two-thirds.  If they didn’t have winner compensation, if they did the election like any normal parliamentary system, they would not have their two-thirds and then they would not have bragging rights.

The foreign vote is another problem. There, they clearly were depressing the voter turnout for the emigré Hungarians – people who had lived in the country, still have permanent residence in the country, but were registered to vote elsewhere. Those people had to register to vote outside and their registration had to exact match what was back in the office in Budapest. So, first of all, a bunch people are rejected because they spelled their mother’s maiden name the wrong way, or if the information they provided didn’t exact match the data at home they were automatically rejected. And there were lots of people who were rejected for that reason. Then, people had to physically go to a consulate or to an embassy to vote. In the UK where there are somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 Hungarians, everyone had to go to London. There was no other place to vote except London.  So if someone was relatively far away from London, they’d have to physically travel to London. Then, the National Election Office sent a letter to everyone telling them what address to go to vote. Then it turned out that the address was wrong. They sent out the wrong instructions for the British vote.

Wow!

They also sent out the wrong instructions for what day the Americans had to vote. “Oops a mistake!” But all the mistakes went to suppress the external vote. So then, everyone has to go to the consulate to vote or go to the embassy to vote. Or in London they had to rent a bigger hall because they were expecting so many people. Then suddenly people show up and they are told “you need your foreign passport to be able to vote.” A lot of people showed up to vote with the identification they’d use to vote with in Budapest, their address card. So people show up with their address card and they’re told, “No, you need your foreign passport.” And so people who had travelled all that distance, people who could not go home to pick up their foreign passport and come back, they were then denied the right to vote in the designated polling station. Not surprisingly, there was a relatively small turnout among émigré Hungarians.  Because you really had to be determined and because Fidesz really had to let you vote and there were all these places where they could turn you down, in the registration, in giving you the proper instructions to vote, in going there and checking your ID. There were certainly members of the opposition who voted abroad.  But there were lots of people who were turned down too. In opposition circles the understanding is that it was not random who was turned down. You can’t prove it without better numbers but that was certainly the impression that a lot of people had.

But was that also the case with votes coming from neighboring countries inside the Carpathian Basin?

No. “Near abroad voters” as Fidesz calls them, had a completely separate set of rules. They would register to vote. The could sign up anywhere. Actually, their information didn’t even have to match. In the statute it actually says if their registration doesn’t match all the information we have on file for them, the election officials should ignore the discrepancy. It says that in the law.

So if you have the wrong birthplace, or if you picked the wrong district in Budapest where your family was last registered, or whatever else they needed, and you didn’t match the registration information in the official records, then you were still permitted to register. There was almost no basis on which the electoral officials could deny the registration. Then, how did they get to vote? They could vote by mail. So, you didn’t have to travel, moreover you could vote by mail and you could hand your ballot to anyone who would turn your ballot in for you. You didn’t even have to vote by mail. So there would be people who were of unclear political affiliation, but shall we say were given the vote were probably not affiliated with the democratic opposition, would go through these Hungarian villages and pick up all the ballots and take them to all these new consulates that were opened for example in Romania. Also, there was never a live human who showed up to check anything.

So there were no controls?

There were no controls, there were no checks. Somebody could register in the name of a voter with partial information because, again, the information didn’t have to match.  There was no check that the person who was registered was the one who cast the ballot.  There was no check that the bundler who handled all these hundreds or thousands of ballots hadn’t changed them.  There were no election officials where those ballots were opened in the consulates abroad. So there were no checks on that system at all. So far as we can tell, there were 2 or 3 seats in the Parliament that were determined with those foreign votes.

Again, you add those votes to the winner compensation scheme, I mean, Fidesz got its two-thirds using every trick in the book and it needed every trick in the book to do that. Any one trick, you didn’t have that way of doing foreign votes, you didn’t have that way of doing winner compensation, you didn’t have that way of redrawing districts, etc, etc., any one of those things meant that they certainly wouldn’t have their two-thirds. They probably would have gotten the majority anyway given the turnout. It’s like in Russia where if Vladimir Putin steals elections he’s going to win anyway. But in this case, that two-thirds was crucial because if you don’t have the two-thirds in Parliament, then Fidesz can’t just change any law at will, even the Constitution.

The state of the churches in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary: An exchange of views

Today I’m republishing an exchange of letters between György Hölvényi, a Christian Democrat who is a member of the Fidesz European Parliamentary delegation, and H. David Baer, associate professor at the Texas Lutheran University. The reason for the exchange was an article that appeared in The Economist entitled “A slippery Magyar slope.” The article was about the “ill-named law on ‘the Right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion, and on the Legal Status of Churches, Religious Denominations and Religious Communities.’” Hölvényi, who before becoming a MEP was deputy undersecretary in charge of the government’s relations with churches, national minorities and civil society, came to the defense of the much criticized law. Since the article in The Economist was republished by Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), Hölvényi sent his reply to that organization, which subsequently included it in its newsletter. Baer, an expert on Hungarian religious affairs, decided to respond. His reply was also published in HRWF’s newsletter. I thought that this exchange of letters, which shines a light on the Orbán regime’s attitude toward religious freedom, was worth republishing.

First a few words about György Hölvényi. He comes from a devout Catholic family. His father was a Cistercian priest who eventually left the order and married. The young Hölvényi became involved with the Christian Democratic movement and in 1989 was one of the founders of the Christian Democratic Union. He spent many years in Brussels serving the parliamentary delegation of the European People’s Party in various capacities. As a result, his name was practically unknown in Hungary. That changed in May 2012 when he was named assistant undersecretary in Zoltán Balog’s Ministry of Human Resources.

Prior to that date the post was occupied by László Szászfalvi, who was a Hungarian Reformed minister just like Balog himself. Apparently the Catholics in the Christian Democratic Party raised a stink: two Protestant ministers were at least one too many. A Catholic must be found. Szászfalvi had to depart and came Hölvényi.

In the most recent elections for the EU parliament Hölvényi was number 12 on the Fidesz list. The party had to do very well for Hölvényi to get to Brussels. One reason for his low rank on the list was that certain positions were reserved for ethnic Hungarians from Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia. But the size of the Fidesz victory was such that he made it, and now he is a member of the new European Parliament.

The article in The Economist pointed out that “getting recognition as an ‘incorporated church’ required a two-thirds majority in Parliament. So what should be a simple administrative decision was turned into a political one, in which legislators have to assess the merits of a religion…. As a result of the law, at least 200 religious communities, including Methodists, Pentecostalists, Seventh Day Adventists, Reform Jews, Buddhists and Hindus faced a downgrading of their status…. In February 2013, Hungary’s Constitutional Court ruled that 67 groups had been deregistered unconstitutionally. However the government seems to have ignored the ruling. A government ministry rejected the written requests of at least four deregistered bodies to be added to the list of incorporated churches.”

Gábor Iványi, one of the victim's of the Orbán regime's church law

Gábor Iványi, one of the victims of the Orbán regime’s church law

With this introduction here is the exchange of letters. First, György Hölvényi’s letter written immediately after the appearance of the article in The Economist. David Baer’s letter was published only a few days ago in the HRWF newsletter.

 * * *

Response to the Erasmus blog post “A slippery Magyar slope,” September 25th 2014

The recent post of The Economist’s blog Erasmus on religious freedom in Central Europe (“A slippery Magyar slope”” by B. C., September 25th 2014) makes several misleading statements and offers a rather personal interpretation of the existing legal regulations on churches in Hungary.

Basic aspects on the registration process of churches have not been detailed in your blog post. Firstly, all associations dealing with religious activities are registered solely by the courts in Hungary. A politically highly neutral system. These communities operate independetly from the state, acoording to their own principles of faith and rituals.

The blog post makes references on “incorporated churches” in Hungary. It is crucial to know that the category of “incorporated churches,” as you call it, does not affect religious freedom at all. It is simply about financial aspects such as state subsidies for churches running social activities for the common good of the society.

It must be pointed out that many European countries apply legal distinctions between different religious organisations for various reasons. Quite often it is the Parliament who is entitled to grant them a special status (e.g. in Lithuania, Belgium). Besides, there are a number of European countries where the constitution itself places an established religion above the rest of the religious communities (e. g. in Denmark, Finland, Greece, Malta). For the record, it needs to be mentioned that the Parliament is involved in special recognition processes of the churches at different later stages also in Austria, Denmark, Portugal or Spain. In general, the European Union leaves the rules on the foundation of churches in the Member States’ competence.

As the post correctly recalls, the original Hungarian regulation on churches of 1990 was probably the most permissive in Europe. Uniquely in the world, more than 300 registered churches operated in Hungary for decades, enjoying the widest range of financial entitlements provided by the state, with no respect to their real social activities. The amended Church Act provides for a complete freedom of conscience and religion in Hungary, at the same time it eliminates errors of the uniquely permissive regulation.

When looking at international commentaries of the issue let us focus on the facts again. The relevant opinion of Venice Commission on the issue of religious freedom in Hungary stated that the Hungarian regulation in place “constitutes a liberal and generous framework for the freedom of religion.” The resolution of the Constitutional Court in Hungary referred to in your blog post did not make any reference to the freedom of religion in Hungary. On the contrary, the government’s intention with the new legislation was widely acknowledged by the Court. The US State Department’s report on religious freedem of 2013 does underline that the Fundamental Law and all legislation in Hungary defends religious freedom. Facts that have been disregarded by the author of your post.

Last but not least, the alliances of the non-incorporated churches in Hungary recognised and declared in a joint statement with the responsible Hungarian minister that they enjoy religious freedom in Hungary.

In contrast to the statements of your article, incorporated churches in Hungary include the Methodists: the United Methodist Church in Hungary is a widely recognised and active community in Hungary, as well as internationally. The fact is that Mr Iványi’s group has not been included in the UMC itself and is not recognised at all by the international Methodist bodies. Describing it as a “highly respected” church is again a serious factual mistake, reflecting a lack of information on the issue.

Coming finally to the issue of the European Court on Human Rights’ decision: some of the member judges formed special opinions to the appeal of the affected churches. Although the Hungarian government is challenging the decision, at the same time it started negotiations with the appealing communities on the remedy process.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend that your blogger B.C. pay wider attention to the facts to better understand regulations on church affairs that have been in place in Europe for decades and centuries.

HÖLVÉNYI György
Member of the European Parliament for Hungary / EPP Group

 * * *

H. David Baer’s reply:

Mr. Hölvényi writes to defend a church law that the ECtHR has found to breach the European Convention and which the Hungarian government refuses to amend.  He would thus have us believe that religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom even as they are not protected by the rule of law.

Mr. Hölvényi urges that we stick to the facts. The fact is that in 2011 the government of Hungary retroactively “deregistered” religious communities already recognized as churches under Hungarian law.  The fact is that in 2013 Hungary’s Constitutional Court found this deregistration procedure unconstitutional.  The fact is that after 2013 the government of Hungary blatantly ignored the Court’s decision, refusing to treat unconstitutionally deregistered religious communities as legal churches.  The fact is that in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights found that Hungary’s unconstitutional church law also violated the right of religious freedom and the European Convention.  The fact is that the Hungarian government has still not, as of this day, acted to abide by the European Court’s decision.

Mr. Hölvényi knows these facts, because prior to being an MP in the European Parliament he was the state undersecretary responsible for dealing with the churches in Viktor Orbán’s government.  As undersecretary, Hölvényi worked closely with Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Capacities, to obstruct implementation of the Constitutional Court’s decision so as to deny deregistered religious communities their constitutional rights. Just this past month, Péter Paczolay, the president of Hungary’s Constitutional Court, lamented openly in a public address that the Court’s decision on Hungary’s church law had never been respected or implemented.  Mr. Hölvényi bears direct responsibility for this.  Thus, to listen to him aver that Hungary’s deregistered churches enjoy religious freedom is a little like listening to a man caught stealing his neighbor’s shirt and pants aver that his neighbor has the freedom to wear underwear.

Religious communities in Hungary enjoy religious freedom the way NGO’s in Hungary enjoy freedom of association. Denied equality under the law and subject to opaque regulations, deregistered religious communities, like unpopular NGO’s, are subjected to arbitrary and expensive audits, hindered or prevented from raising money, attacked in the government controlled media, and harassed by local officials.  Mr. Hölvényi, a member of the European Parliament, should know that when citizens aren’t equal under the law they aren’t equally free.

Instead of defending Hungary’s indefensible church law, perhaps Mr. Hölvényi should encourage the government of his country to respect the rule of law, uphold its international commitments, and abide by the European Convention.

David Baer
Texas Lutheran University
USA

Viktor Orbán is getting ready for a fight

If anyone thought that a second victory, especially with two-thirds parliamentary majority, would slow Viktor Orbán down, he was sadly mistaken. In fact, if it is possible, since his reelection he has been surpassing his own past performance as far as attacks on the European Union are concerned.

In the last few weeks numerous articles have appeared, especially in Népszabadság, on the possible shape of the third Orbán government. Most of the reporting is based on hearsay, but a couple of personnel changes seem to be certain. First, Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary for public education, has finished her controversial activities in the Ministry of Human Resources. Second, the mysterious minister of national development about whom nobody knew anything turned out to be a flop. If you recall, no one knew her first name for weeks because she was introduced to the public only as Mrs. László Németh. By the way, she was the one who signed the agreement on Paks with Gazprom. And then there is János Martonyi, the one cabinet member in whom European and American politicians still had some trust. Mind you, his words didn’t mean much because he was stripped of practically all power to conduct Hungary’s foreign policy. According to the latest, it looks as if his replacement will be Tibor Navracsics.

I consider Navracsics’s move to the foreign ministry a demotion for the former close associate of Viktor Orbán. By now the foreign ministry is largely impotent, and I hear rumors to the effect that it might be further stripped of its competence. Earlier Navracsics had a position of real power. He was entrusted with the position of whip of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation. The ministry of administration and justice, which Navracsics headed during Orbán’s second term, had a dual mandate. On the one hand, it was supposed to oversee the restructuring of the entire public administration and, on the other, it was responsible for preparing bills for parliament. At least in theory. Most of the hundreds of bills presented to parliament in the last four years were in fact proposed by individual members. Their authors were most likely outside law firms. It seems that the ministry’s chief job in the legal field was not so much drafting bills as battling with Brussels over legislation the Hungarian parliament enacted.

In the third Orbán government the ministry of administration and justice will be dismantled. In its place there will be a separate ministry of justice, and the section of the ministry that dealt with the country’s territorial administration will be transferred to the prime minister’s office. This ministry’s chief job will be, according to Viktor Orbán, to concentrate on future legal battles with the European Union. He already warned his people that the European Union will try to force the Hungarian government to undo the lowering of utility prices which assured Viktor Orbán his resounding victory at the last election.

Hungary seems to lose one legal battle after the other in the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights, which functions under the jurisdiction of the Council of Europe. The latest is the question of  life sentences without the possibility of parole. The European Court of Human Rights, in a unanimous ruling, found the law inhumane and degrading. The court is not against life sentences as such, but they held that courts should be allowed to review life sentences in order to assess whether prisoners had made such significant progress toward rehabilitation that their continued detention might no longer be justified. There are perhaps 40 such cases in Hungary at the moment, and if all the “lifers” turned to Strasbourg it could be a very costly affair for the Hungarian state.

Viktor Orbán remains adamant in the face of the court ruling since he knows that, if depended on the Hungarian public, the majority would be only too glad to reintroduce the death penalty. Therefore, Orbán fiercely attacked the ruling and blamed the European Union for preventing Hungary from having its own laws. He repeated his favorite claim that in the European Union “the rights of those who commit crimes are placed above the rights of innocent people and victims.” Friday morning during his customary interview on Magyar Rádió he elaborated on the theme and went even further. He said that the European Union forbids capital punishment, although he personally is convinced that it is a serious deterrent.

In cases like this, one is not quite sure whether Orbán is ignorant of the facts or for political reasons is simply lying. It is not the European Union that forbids the death penalty. Article 1 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms specifies that “The death penalty shall be abolished. No-one shall be condemned to such penalty or executed.” The Council of Europe is a signatory to this convention. Moreover, the European Court of Human Rights functions not under the European Union but under the Council of Europe of which Hungary is a member. And quite aside from all this, the Hungarian Constitutional Court on its own volition abolished the death penalty in 1990. So, either Orbán doesn’t know any of this or he for political reasons is trying to turn his people against the European Union while he is campaigning for the European parliamentary election. He must know that the reintroduction of the death penalty in Hungary is out of the question.

But before his fight against Brussels and Strasbourg on utility prices, pálinka distillation, acacia trees, and life sentences without parole, Orbán has another fight ahead of him which he may easily lose. It is his opposition to the election of Jean-Claude Juncker for the presidency of the European Commission. Juncker is the candidate of the European People’s Party, which currently has the largest caucus in the European Parliament. It has been clear for some time that Juncker is not the favorite politician of Viktor Orbán. Already on Friday in his interview he mentioned that just because Juncker is the head of the 212-member EPP caucus it doesn’t mean that the Christian Democrats have to nominate him. Juncker is far too liberal for Orbán, who would prefer the far-right Joseph Daul, the Alsatian farmer who is an admirer and defender of the Hungarian prime minister. Orbán thus made up his mind that he and the Fidesz MEPs will try to prevent the election of Juncker in the likely event that EPP is again the largest bloc in the European Parliament.

Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz

Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz

Today he announced his decision to try block Juncker’s nomination and/or election. I myself doubt that he will succeed at the nomination level. As for the election, currently EPP has 212 seats and Fidesz’s estimated 10-12 MEPs will vote against him. Juncker will have to get at least 376 votes to be elected, so he will need supporters outside of EPP. The socialist Martin Schulz will also look for supporters outside of the socialist caucus. It looks as if the Fidesz group will lobby against both Juncker and Schulz in favor of some other EPP politician. I’m sure that Orbán’s favorite would be Daul, but I think he is too far to the right to have a chance at either the nomination or the election.

So, what will happen if Juncker wins? Orbán, even if Fidesz MEPs were to support Juncker, would have a harder time with him than he had with Barroso. The same is true if Schulz becomes president. Actually the two men’s views are rather close. Both are miles away from Viktor Orbán’s worldview. In either case, Orbán will be even more unhappy with Brussels than he has been until now.

Kim Lane Scheppele: In praise of the Tavares Report

Today Europe acted to hold the Hungarian government to the constitutional values that it eagerly endorsed when it joined the European Union nearly a decade ago.

The action came in the form of the Tavares Report which sailed through the European Parliament with many votes to spare.  The report provides a bill of particulars against the Fidesz government and lays out a strong program to guide European Union institutions in bringing Hungary back into the European fold.   With the passage of this report, Europe has finally said no to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his constitutional revolution.

The Tavares Report is by far the strongest and most consequential official condemnation of the Fidesz consolidation of power over the last three years.  And it creates a strong set of tools for European institutions to use in defending the long-term prospects for Hungarian democracy.

The report passed with a surprisingly strong vote:   370 in favor, 248 against and 82 abstentions.   In a Parliament split almost evenly between left and right, this tally gave the lie to the Hungarian government’s claim that the report was merely a conspiracy of the left.  With about 50 of the 754 MEPs absent, the total number of yes votes was still larger than the total number of MEPs of all of the left parties combined.   In short, even if all MEPs had been present, the left alone still couldn’t account for all of those votes.   And since the 82 abstentions had the effect of allowing the report to go forward, they should be read as soft “yeses” rather than undecided or negative votes.

Most of the abstentions no doubt came from Fidesz’s own party in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP).  Many EPP members signaled ahead of time that they could not back Orbán but also would not vote overtly against the position of their party, which officially supported him without whipping the votes.    FIdesz had been counting on party discipline to save it.  But now it is clear that Fidesz is terribly isolated within the EPP.

The tally on the final report was not a roll-call vote, so we do not know for sure just who voted for it in the end.  But the roll-call votes on the proposed amendments to the bill (see pp. 106-119 of this complicated document)  revealed that many members of the European People’s Party (EPP) and the even-more-conservative group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ERC) voted to keep the report from being diluted at crucial junctures.   Each attempt to weaken the report was rejected openly by 18-22 EPP votes and by 8-12 ERC votes.   We can guess that the MEPs who rejected the hostile changes must have voted in favor of the report in the end, along with even more of their colleagues who could at that point vote anonymously.

For a government that believes that majorities are everything and supermajorities are divine, it must have been hard for Fidesz to see only one-third of those in the European Parliament voting in its defense, when conservatives occupy about half of the seats.   Since many of the votes in the Fidesz column were from cranky Euro-skeptics who simply did not want the EU to gain more powers rather than from those who were solidly backing the broader Fidesz view of the world, the defeat is even more humiliating.    Where was the United European Right when Orbán needed them?   Apparently not in his camp.

When he dramatically appeared in the European Parliament for the debate yesterday, Orbán claimed that the report represented the persecution of a well-meaning right-wing government by the unified and hostile European left.

Today, with this extraordinary vote, we saw a coalition of left and right MEPs standing up together for the values of Europe.

The Tavares report is named after Rui Tavares, the Portuguese MEP who was the rapporteur on this patient and careful study of the Hungarian constitutional revolution.  He deserves much of the credit for the factually impeccable report and as well as for skillfully guiding it through a complicated and perilous process.   Despite repeated attempts to amend the report, gut its strong conclusions and weaken its remedies by Fidesz MEPs and their allies, all efforts to change the report in any substantial way failed at every stage.

Rui Tavares

Rui Tavares

With its acceptance today of the Tavares Report, the European Parliament has created a new framework for enforcing the principles of Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union, which proclaims that the Union is “founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.”

So what, concretely, does the report do?  It puts a very clever system of monitoring and assessment in place.    While there are many elements in the report, the most important four elements are these, identified by paragraph number in the report as voted by the Parliament today:

  1.   An “Article 2 Alarm Agenda” which requires the European Commission in all of its dealings with Hungary to raise only Article 2 issues until such time as Hungary comes into compliance with the report (para. 69).  This Alarm Agenda effectively blocks all other dealings between the Commission and Hungary until Hungary addresses the issues raised in the report.
  2. A “Trilogue” (a three-way dialogue) in which the Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament will each delegate members to a new committee that will engage in a close review of all activities of the Hungarian government relevant to the report (Para. 85).   This committee is charged with assessing the progress that Hungary is making in complying with the list of specific objections that the report identifies.  The Trilogue sets up a system of intrusive monitoring, much more intrusive than the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) from which Hungary just escaped.   Under the EDP, European bodies only looked at the budget’s bottom line to determine whether Hungary’s deficit was within acceptable bounds.  Under the Trilogue, the committee can examine anything that is on the long list of particulars that the report identifies as within its scope.
  3. A “Copenhagen Commission” or high-level expert body through which a panel of distinguished and independent experts will be assigned the power to review continued compliance with the Copenhagen criteria used for admission to the EU on the part of any member state (para. 78-80).   The idea behind this body, elaborated in a report by my Princeton colleague Jan-Werner Müller, is that non-political experts should be given the task of judging whether member states are still acting on the values of Article 2.   Since Orbán kept claiming double standards and dirty politics all of the way through this process in the European Parliament, a Copenhagen Commission consisting of impeccable experts and modeled on the Council of Europe’s Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) would move the process of fact-finding and assessment from political officials to non-partisan experts.
  4. And in the background, there is still Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union.  Article 7, which identifies a procedure through which an EU member state can be deprived of its vote in the European Council and therefore would lose representation in the decision-making processes of the EU, is considered the “nuclear option” – unusable because extreme.   But the Tavares Report holds out the possibility of invoking Article 7 if the Hungarian government does not comply with the monitoring program and reform its ways  (para. 86).    Because the Tavares Report lays out detailed expectations of the Hungarian government, the Parliament and the Council who would have to vote on Article 7 in the end would have a strong factual record to work with if they decided to go nuclear.

These are important tools in the toolkit that European institutions can now use to ensure that a member state of the European Union maintains its European constitutional commitments.

Yesterday at the plenary debate, both Commission President José Manual Barroso and Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship Viviane Reding indicated their willingness to follow the Parliament’s direction.    We can therefore expect an eager uptake from the Commission on the elements of the report that require the Commission’s active participation.

But perhaps the most breathtaking part of the report is the list of what these various monitoring bodies can examine.    Here it is worth quoting at length from the report itself, because the scope and breadth of the complaints against the Hungarian government indicate that these monitoring processes will be authorized to look at the most fundamental elements of what it means to be a robust democracy committed to the rule of law and the protection of human rights.  Here is the list of items that the Hungarian government must address, taken from para. 71 of the report, where the Parliament . . .

Urges the Hungarian authorities to implement as swiftly as possible all the measures the European Commission as the guardian of the treaties deems necessary in order to fully comply with EU law, fully comply with the decisions of the Hungarian Constitutional Court and implement as swiftly as possible the following recommendations, in line with the recommendations of the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe and other international bodies for the protection of the rule of law and fundamental rights, with a view to fully complying with the rule of law and its key requirements on the constitutional setting, the system of checks and balances and the independence of the judiciary, as well as on strong safeguards for fundamental rights, including freedom of expression, the media and religion or belief, protection of minorities, action to combat discrimination, and the right to property:

On the Fundamental Law:

–             to fully restore the supremacy of the Fundamental Law by removing from it those provisions previously declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court;

–             to reduce the recurrent use of cardinal laws in order to leave policy areas such as family, social, fiscal and budget matters to ordinary legislation and majorities;

–             to implement the recommendations of the Venice Commission and, in particular, to revise the list of policy areas requiring a qualified majority with a view to ensuring meaningful future elections;

–             to secure a lively parliamentary system which also respects opposition forces by allowing a reasonable time for a genuine debate between the majority and the opposition and for participation by the wider public in the legislative procedure;

–             to ensure the widest possible participation by all parliamentary parties in the constitutional process, even though the relevant special majority is held by the governing coalition alone;

On checks and balances:

–             to fully restore the prerogatives of the Constitutional Court as the supreme body of constitutional protection, and thus the primacy of the Fundamental Law, by removing from its text the limitations on the Constitutional Court’s power to review the constitutionality of any changes to the Fundamental Law, as well as the abolition of two decades of constitutional case law; to restore the right of the Constitutional Court to review all legislation without exception, with a view to counterbalancing parliamentary and executive actions and ensuring full judicial review; such a judicial and constitutional review may be exerted in different ways in different Member States, depending on the specificities of each national constitutional history, but once established, a Constitutional Court – like the Hungarian one, which after the fall of the communist regime has rapidly built a reputation among Supreme Courts in Europe – should not be subject to measures aimed at reducing its competences and thus undermining the rule of law;

–             to restore the possibility for the judicial system to refer to the case law issued before the entry into force of the Fundamental Law, in particular in the field of fundamental rights;

             to strive for consensus when electing the members of the Constitutional Court, with meaningful involvement of the opposition, and to ensure that the members of the court are free from political influence;

–             to restore the prerogatives of the parliament in the budgetary field and thus secure the full democratic legitimacy of budgetary decisions by removing the restriction of parliamentary powers by the non‑parliamentary Budget Council;

–             to provide clarifications on how the Hungarian authorities intend to remedy the premature termination of the term of office of senior officials with a view to securing the institutional independence of the data protection authority;

On the independence of the judiciary:

–             to fully guarantee the independence of the judiciary by ensuring that the principles of irremovability and guaranteed term of office of judges, the rules governing the structure and composition of the governing bodies of the judiciary and the safeguards on the independence of the Constitutional Court are enshrined in the Fundamental Law;

–             to promptly and correctly implement the abovementioned decisions of the Court of Justice of the European Union of 6 November 2012 and of the Hungarian Constitutional Court, by enabling the dismissed judges who so wish to be reinstated in their previous positions, including those presiding judges whose original executive posts are no longer vacant;

–             to establish objective selection criteria, or to mandate the National Judicial Council to establish such criteria, with a view to ensuring that the rules on the transfer of cases respect the right to a fair trial and the principle of a lawful judge;

–             to implement the remaining recommendations laid down in the Venice Commission’s Opinion No CDL-AD(2012)020 on the cardinal acts on the judiciary that were amended following the adoption of Opinion CDL-AD(2012)001;  [NOTE:  Venice Commission reports on Hungary can be found here.]

On the electoral reform:

–              to invite the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ ODIHR to carry out a joint analysis of the comprehensively changed legal and institutional framework of the elections and to invite the ODIHR for a Needs Assessment Mission and a long and short term election observation.

–             to ensure balanced representation within the National Election Committee;

On the media and pluralism:

–             to fulfil the commitment to further discuss cooperation activities at expert level on the more long‑term perspective of the freedom of the media, building on the most important remaining recommendations of the 2012 legal expertise of the Council of Europe;

–             to ensure timely and close involvement of all relevant stakeholders, including media professionals, opposition parties and civil society, in any further review of this legislation, which regulates such a fundamental aspect of the functioning of a democratic society, and in the process of implementation;

–             to observe the positive obligation arising from European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence under Article 10 ECHR to protect freedom of expression as one of the preconditions for a functioning democracy;

–             to respect, guarantee, protect and promote the fundamental right to freedom of expression and information, as well as media freedom and pluralism, and to refrain from developing or supporting mechanisms that threaten media freedom and journalistic and editorial independence;

–             to make sure that objective, legally binding procedures and mechanisms are in place for the selection and appointment of heads of public media, management boards, media councils and regulatory bodies, in line with the principles of independence, integrity, experience and professionalism, representation of the entire political and social spectrum, legal certainty and continuity;

–             to provide legal guarantees regarding full protection of the confidentiality-of-sources principle and to strictly apply related European Court of Human Rights case law;

–             to ensure that rules relating to political information throughout the audiovisual media sector guarantee fair access to different political competitors, opinions and viewpoints, in particular on the occasion of elections and referendums, allowing citizens to form their own opinions without undue influence from one dominant opinion‑forming power;

On respect for fundamental rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities:

–             to take, and continue with, positive actions and effective measures to ensure that the fundamental rights of all persons, including persons belonging to minorities and homeless persons, are respected and to ensure their implementation by all competent public authorities; when reviewing the definition of ‘family’, to take into account the legislative trend in Europe to broaden the scope of the definition of family and the negative impact of a restricted definition of family on the fundamental rights of those who will be excluded by the new and more restrictive definition;

–             to take a new approach, finally assuming its responsibilities towards homeless – and therefore vulnerable – people, as set out in the international treaties on human rights to which Hungary is a signatory, such as the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, and thus to promote fundamental rights rather than violating them by including in its Fundamental Law provisions that criminalise homeless people;

–             calls on the Hungarian Government to do all in its power to strengthen the mechanism for social dialogue and comprehensive consultation and to guarantee the rights associated with this;

–             calls on the Hungarian Government to increase its efforts to integrate the Roma and to lay down targeted measures to ensure their protection. Racist threats directed at the Roma must be unequivocally and resolutely repelled;

On freedom of religion or belief and recognition of churches:

–             to establish clear, neutral and impartial requirements and institutional procedures for the recognition of religious organisations as churches, which respect the duty of the State to remain neutral and impartial in its relations with the various religions and beliefs and to provide effective means of redress in cases of non‑recognition or lack of a decision, in line with the constitutional requirements set out in the abovementioned Decision 6/2013 of the Constitutional Court;

One more item was added to this list by amendment from Rui Tavares in the Parliament this morning:

– to cooperate with the European institutions in order to ensure that the provisions of the new National Security Law comply with the fundamental principles of the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, respect for private and family life and the right to an effective remedy.

In short, this is a huge list of items, which together constitute the core of the Fidesz power grab.  This section of the report identifies the list of things that the Hungarian government must now change, and the mechanisms I identified above are the key ones through which compliance will be monitored and assessed.

It is hard to imagine a more sweeping indictment of the Fidesz constitutional revolution in Hungary over these last three years.

But back to where we started:  with today’s vote in the European Parliament.   This long list of offending actions of the Hungarian government was agreed to by left and right in the European Parliament, by a large majority and with serious tools to ensure that the Hungarian government changes its ways and returns to the path of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights.

The European Parliament is the most diverse and democratic institution in Europe.  One day when the history of the European constitution is written, the Tavares Report and its enthusiastic acceptance in the European Parliament will stand for Europe at its best.

Monitoring versus “close scrutiny” of Hungary in PACE

There is a recent event I didn’t comment on: the decision of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) not to place Hungary under official monitoring. Instead it promised “to follow closely the Hungarian developments.” The provisional version of the resolution can be read on the official website of the Council of Europe (CoE).

Magnifying glass - www.clkrt.com

Magnifying glass – http://www.clkrt.com

A couple of days ago Mátyás Eörsi, a former member of PACE, wrote an analysis for Galamus entitled “The Anatomy of a Vote.” Eörsi became a member of PACE in 1994 and eventually came to be the leader of The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group. In March 2009 the Hungarian government nominated him for the position of Secretary General of the Council of Europe. He knows the workings of the Council of Europe inside out.

According to Eörsi, who still has many friends in PACE, the attitude of the European People Party’s members of PACE is more forgiving toward Fidesz than is that of the members of the EPP caucus in the European Parliament. One reason is that PACE holds full assemblies only four times a year, a week at a time. Thus, these members didn’t have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the behavior of Viktor Orbán’s government as thoroughly as the Christian Democratic members of the European Parliament did. The Conservatives (British, Russian, and Turkish) also stood by Fidesz. That the members of Putin’s party supported the Hungarian government’s case is perfectly understandable. After all, Viktor Orbán’s governing style is often compared to Putin’s. As for Tayyip Erdoğan, perhaps Zsolt Németh’s praise of Erdoğan and Turkish democracy makes more sense after the PACE vote. It may have been a gesture that was intended to be repaid by Turkish votes in the Council of Europe.

In the end, the whole Russian delegation, Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and practically all other countries in East-Central Europe voted against monitoring. Since most of the countries are already under monitoring themselves, they had no desire to add Hungary to the list. In fact, what they would like to do is to abolish the whole system of  monitoring.

There were 22 amendments to the original resolution, most of which were designed to weaken it. The majority were submitted by Fidesz members. As soon as voting in the assembly began, pro-Fidesz votes poured in. According to Eörsi, the running tally was something like 170:80. But then something happened. Half way through the voting  the pattern changed radically. How could that have been possible, Eörsi asks.

We are all familiar with the parliamentary practice of voting strictly along party lines. The whip calls the shots and the members of the caucus listen to the instructions. This is also how the European Parliament functions, but in PACE the situation is somewhat different. PACE members usually vote according to the suggestions of the particular committee that prepared the proposal. In this case, the Monitoring Committee. Eörsi found out what happened in committee. At the beginning of the committee meeting the whole EPP contingent was present while a couple of socialist members were late. The first amendments were therefore voted in by the EPP majority. But then the missing socialist members arrived and suddenly there was a socialist majority. The second half of the amendments was voted down. Then came the final vote and a socialist member, the British John Prescott, earlier deputy of Tony Blair, forgot to raise his hand. The EPP members voted the proposal down.

If Eörsi’s information is correct, one can see how decisions can be reached due to happenstance. One person being late and another  forgetting to raise his hand. This particular vote is a relatively small setback for those who would have liked to see Hungary placed under monitoring, but it still counts as a victory for Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. One can take only slight comfort in looking through the list of supporters and saying that Viktor Orbán cannot be very proud of the company he found himself in. Then again….

I understand that the Hungarian government as well as the Fidesz members of PACE did extensive lobbying to avoid monitoring by the Council of Europe. It is hard to tell how effective this lobbying was, especially if Eörsi is right and voting by the members of PACE tends to follow specific committee recommendations. Of course, this wouldn’t be applicable to those countries whose members unanimously rejected the resolution, like Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Ukraine, etc. They supported the Orbán government because of their own political interests.

More important than the PACE vote will be the fate of the Tavares report in the European Parliament. The vote will take place in Strasbourg on July 2. Viktor Orbán will be there to argue his case. We will see how persuasive he is.

Viviane Reding is the target in the Hungarian “war of independence”

It is truly amazing how fast “scandals” can break out in Hungary especially if, as I suspect, there is a concerted effort on the part of the government to create them. Here I was without a computer for two days and almost missed “the greatest scandal of the European Union.” Or at least this is what Fidesz MEP László Surján claims. He was talking about accusations originating in Hungarian circles about Viviane Reding, European Commissioner  for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship. She is accused of trying to cast a shadow on the outcome of next year’s national election. Of course, the assumption is that Fidesz will again win the election, but the “enemies of Hungary” led by Viviane Reding herself will question the validity of this outcome.

What happened? On the morning of June 18 Magyar Nemzet came out with a news item that began an avalanche of articles, to be precise fifteen in number, within two and a half days. According to the article, the paper received information from Brussels that Reding along with José Manuel Barroso had attended the Bilderberg Conference held in England between June 6 and 9. The Bilderberg Group which organizes these conferences was created with a view to building bridges between the United States and the European Union. It is often the target of far-right groups in the U.S. as well as in Europe.

At the conference allegedly fifteen minutes were devoted to the case of Hungary during which Reding informed her audience of her efforts on behalf of the Hungarian opposition to cast a shadow on the purity of the forthcoming Hungarian elections. These opposition forces are allegedly being financed by the United States. In no time it also became clear that Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány are involved in this plot as well. At this point Magyar Nemzet didn’t reveal the origin of its story but later we found out that the source was an unnamed Italian “official.”

By the afternoon the Fidesz script was already written. It was most likely also decided that it will be the Christian Democrats who will lead the charge against Reding. I guess the Fidesz strategists remain convinced that those “ignorant bureaucrats” in Brussels don’t realize that Fidesz and KDNP are one and the same. Occasionally there is a division of labor depending on the issue. In any case, a few hours after the first article appeared on June 18 the Christian Democrats already had a communiqué ready. They will sue Reding and everybody else involved. By the next day they demanded her resignation. A Christian Democrat MEP, László Surján, officially approached the appropriate committee to investigate her case. He also called for her resignation.

Meanwhile back home Zsolt Semjén, chairman of the party and deputy prime minister; Péter Harrach, whip of the Christian Democratic caucus; and the spokesman of the party, István Pálffy, did the talking. They were everywhere, but HírTV, the pro-government television station owned by the same group that is in charge of Magyar Nemzet, was especially full of interviews. By the time the Christian Democrats began talking in the electronic media there was no doubt in their minds that Reding is guilty of the charge. She really did reveal that she was conspiring with the Hungarian opposition against the rightful government of the country.  Harrach was especially adamant. Perhaps they will not be able to prove it, but they are convinced that the report coming from Brussels is “true.” Reding should not only be removed but should disappear altogether from the political life of her country and the Union. Pálffy even went so far as to talk about possible withdrawal from the Union if the present structure of the EU is changed in 2020.

Goddess Diana hunting / Wikipedia

Goddess Diana hunting / Wikipedia

On what basis does the Hungarian government hiding behind the nonexistent Christian Democratic party accuse Viviane Reding of criminal behavior? The man who first reported that Reding would attend the Bilderberg Conference was István Lovas, Magyar Nemzet‘s correspondent in Brussels. The readers of Hungarian Spectrum are most likely unfamiliar with his name because lately he hasn’t been in the limelight unlike during the 1998-2002 period when he had a rather unsavory reputation. At that time he was in charge of creating a right-wing pro-Fidesz corps of journalists. His students were told to keep lists of “unreliable” foreign journalists who were critical of the first Orbán government. Altogether he has a murky past. As a young man in Hungary he was accused of rape. Later he illegally left Hungary and worked for Radio Free Europe in Munich for a while, but apparently he couldn’t get along with anyone. He also spent some time in California where he left behind a wife and child whom he refused to support.

In any case, Lovas claims that sometime in April a mysterious Italian official approached him with the news that Reding would be attending the Bilderberg Conference. Lovas approached Reding’s spokeswoman who told him that this was the first time she had heard about such a trip. So he dropped the story, but the journalists at Magyar Nemzet didn’t. They madly tried to learn something about the Bilderberg Group and were happy to discover that an economist known for her far-right views was the first in Hungary to call attention to this evil secret organization. Then they approached the liberal Paul Lendvai who attended three of these conferences between 1968 and 1993. Lendvai assured them that there was nothing sinister about these meetings between politicians and influential European and American businessmen. I’m certain that the Magyar Nemzet journalists opted to believe the right-leaning economist and not Paul Lendvai, whom they consider “an enemy of the country.” Obviously the Bilderberg Group and Reding interested them greatly, and they published a number of articles about the Bilderberg conferences.

Then came June 5 when Lovas’s mysterious informer, the Italian official,  told him that the conference would have a 15-minute discussion on Hungary. The conference ended on June 10, and I assume that further details about this 15-minute discussion must have reached Lovas soon thereafter. So why the long wait to break the story? My guess is that Magyar Nemzet withheld it until Fidesz-KDNP could create its own version.

What most likely helped their work was that during the weekend both Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about the growing fear that is gripping the country and about stories circulating of hidden cameras above the voting booths. With that the connection between Reding and the opposition could easily be established.

Reding categorically denied the story and the European Commission announced that it has no intention of investigating Reding’s alleged criminal activity.

By the way, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Hungary actually came up in the discussion. After all, the Hungarian government’s behavior in the European Union has been causing considerable headache for the EU leadership and parliament lately. Reding may even have described the general atmosphere in Hungary and the fear of political retribution spreading in the country. However, the rest of the story is simply unbelievable. Reding is a seasoned politician who has been in political life since 1979; she wouldn’t share such a bizarre story even if it were true. As I said, she may have talked about the fear of possible electoral fraud and/or fear of the almighty and very aggressive Fidesz. But the rest of the story was concocted somewhere in the witches’ kitchen of Fidesz-KDNP’s strategists.

But this is a dangerous game. Both Barroso and Reding are members of the European People’s party. What do the Hungarian Christians want to achieve with this frontal attack on a fellow Christian Democrat? I can’t imagine that this attack could possibly help the Hungarian cause. But perhaps their minds work differently from mine.