international comparative law

The new Hungarian ombudsman: László Székely

The news of the day in Hungary, aside from record temperatures over 40ºC, is President János Áder’s announcement that the next ombudsman will be László Székely, an associate professor of civil law at ELTE’s Law School. Just as today’s record temperature was not a great surprise given the weather forecasts, Székely’s nomination for the post wasn’t exactly unexpected.

As in almost all facets of the administration of the country, Fidesz made fundamental changes in the function and position of the Hungarian ombudsman. Earlier there were several ombudsmen, each with a specific field of expertise: environmental issues, data protection, minority rights, etc. Viktor Orbán obviously decided that he didn’t want to be bothered by too many nosy ombudsmen and therefore completely reorganized the system. Today there is only one ombudsman who has to handle all complaints. Moreover, this new position became a great deal more important than before with the introduction of a new constitutional provision that gives only the ombudsman, in addition to parliament and the president, the right to ask the constitutional court for a review of laws passed by parliament.

The sole ombudsman who kept his job when Orbán came into power was Máté Szabó who earlier, in my opinion, didn’t distinguish himself. Most of the issues that interested him sounded petty to me. I guess at the time of his reappointment it was this  aspect of Szabó’s activities that actually appealed to Viktor Orbán. He most likely thought that Szabó would get bogged down in picayune issues and would be too busy to spend much time on the constitutionally questionable legislative work of the Fidesz voting machine. To everybody’s surprise Szabó became a very active ombudsman who resolutely fought to salvage Hungarian democracy. By now he is the only man in an important position who can be called independent. Since Szabó’s tenure ends on September 24, János Áder was required by law to nominate someone to replace him by August 10.

A couple of days ago Áder, emphasizing that he is not obliged to listen to the heads of the parliamentary caucuses on his choice of ombudsman, declared his willingness to get together with the parliamentary leaders, including András Schiffer whose party just lately regained its right to form an official caucus. In addition to Schiffer, there were leaders of Fidesz, KDNP, MSZP, and Jobbik. Neither PM (Párbeszéd Magyarországért) nor DK Demokratikus Koalícíó was represented because of the parliamentary rules introduced by László Kövér according to which they couldn’t form a separate delegation.

Fidesz-style consultations shouldn’t mislead anyone, especially if they are initiated by János Áder. It’s true that occasionally he makes gestures to demonstrate his “independence,” but by and large he is faithful to Fidesz dogma. There is no question in my mind that the person was already picked after some consultation between Viktor Orbán and his closest associates way before the leaders of the parliamentary delegations were invited to Sándor Palota. During the consultation no name was mentioned. Áder only wanted to know what kind of a man his visitors had in mind. The laundry list included such characteristics as independent, highly qualified, not someone too closely associated with one party, etc.  At the end of the meeting Áder announced that they had agreed on an ideal candidate. He will act accordingly.

Today Áder emphasized that Székely “was never a member of any party either before or after the change of regime.” Every time I hear someone proudly announce on talk shows that “I have never been a member of any party,” I know full well what’s coming next: an emphatically right-wing assessment of the present political situation. As if lack of party membership would ensure political independence. Of course this is not at all the case.

László Székely the nominee for the position of ombudsman

László Székely, the nominee for the position of ombudsman

What we know about László Székely is that he held government positions in both the first and the second Orbán governments. Otherwise, he is a professor of civil law and, according to his students, is a good lecturer, a fair grader, and “if you’re prepared you have nothing to fear at his exams.” He also makes his lectures interesting. Otherwise, at least according to Áder, he is no stranger to international law because in 1984 he received a diploma from the “Seminar of International Comparative Law of the University of Strasbourg” which sounded a bit strange to my ears. How can you receive a diploma from a seminar? I managed to find a Regent University School of Law at the University of Strasbourg which offers a six-week  course for international students as part of the Strasbourg Study Abroad program. Perhaps this is what Áder had in mind, but if this is the case this mini-course can’t really be called a proper grounding in international law.

András Schiffer, who was most likely a student of Székely, admits that he is an excellent teacher and a good theoretician but claims that his knowledge of constitutional law is scanty when under the present circumstances the ombudsman is “the last bastion of constitutionality.” Schiffer also objected to Székely’s constitutional philosophy. Székely’s last government job was to coordinate the work done by several scholars on the new civil code where he had no objections to discrimination against people not officially married. Or, perhaps even worse, Székely’s main field of interest is the media. But he approaches this subject not from the point of view of freedom of expression and freedom of the press; rather, he is much more interested in regulating the media. Not a good omen.

Fidesz and KDNP leaders are naturally delighted with the choice. Gábor Vona was less polite than Schiffer. He announced that “László Székely’s ties to Fidesz are well known” and therefore his party will formulate its opinion on the subject on this basis.

MSZP was very restrained. Pál Steiner, a member of the parliamentary committee on the constitution and justice, announced that “they will take the President’s suggestion seriously and the MSZP caucus will decide on the issue at its first meeting of the fall session of parliament.”

For the time being it is hard to say what kind of ombudsman Székely will be. After all, Szabó turned out to be excellent despite earlier indications and predictions to the contrary. It may happen again, but Viktor Orbán rarely makes mistakes on personnel choices.