József Szájer

Europe fights back: Viktor Orbán may be in real trouble this time

When on April 9 I wrote about the verbal duel between Tibor Navracsics, Hungarian minister in charge of administration and justice, and Viviane Reding, EU vice-president and commissioner responsible for justice, fundamental rights, and citizenship, I should have known that this would not be the end of the story. Members of the current Hungarian government don’t have much sense about when to stop. Just as they doggedly pursued their domestic opponents and used all sorts of unacceptable methods to destroy them, they are employing exactly the same methods on the international scene: personal insults, insinuations, blackmail, lies, half-truths, and the practice of “divide and rule.” The Fidesz government’s strategy worked well at home. Just think of the trade unions and the student associations. So why not try it with the European Commission? Perhaps setting José Manuel Barroso against his vice president, Vivien Reding, both members of the European People’s Party, would bear fruit as well.

First, Navracsics questioned the integrity and impartiality of Reding. Then he said that she was not qualified. A day later Magyar Nemzet came out with a new theory. Next year there will be a new European parliamentary election and perhaps a new president of the European Commission. Reding has a chance to replace Barroso, but in order to be elected she will need the help of the European liberals and socialists. That’s why she is so tough on Hungary. It’s a career move, according to Magyar Nemzet.

On April 10 an op/ed piece by Tibor Navracsics appeared in the European Voice. Up until then these distasteful and totally counterproductive exchanges had appeared only in the Hungarian media. But now they were spread far and wide via an English-language weekly dealing with the politics of the European Union. Navracsics leveled the same accusations against Reding in the European Voice as he had in the Hungarian media. He questioned her neutrality and predicted that any decision about Hungary in Brussels will not be fair. It will be a “purely political decision.” Moreover, Navracsics challenged Reding’s authority “to question the right of a democratically elected government majority to change its own constitution.” If we take this last sentence literally, we must conclude that the Hungarian government categorically refuses to abide by the laws of the European Union. But in this case why do they bother about the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe? After all, it was Foreign Minister János Martonyi who asked the Commission to render a legal opinion on the most recent amendments to the new Hungarian constitution.

Following Navracsics’s lead, Magyar Nemzet inquired “in whose name Reding speaks.” Surely, the implication is that whatever this woman is saying cannot possibly be the opinion of the European Commission. The answer came swiftly after the appearance of Navracsics’s article in the European Voice. Newspapers rushed to Pia-Ahrendkilde Hansen, spokeswoman for the European Commission, to ask her what the real situation was. They were told in no uncertain terms that “President Barroso and Vice President Reding are in complete agreement” over the amendments to the Hungarian Constitution. So that old trick didn’t work.

But the wheels of the Hungarian campaign to discredit Viviane Reding were already in motion. The decision was apparently made that next Tuesday the government will use its very large parliamentary majority to pass a resolution condemning Viviane Reding for her statement about the Tobin case, which involved a car accident that resulted in the death of two children in Hungary a few years back. As I mentioned in my earlier post, Francis Tobin returned to Ireland and refused to go back to Hungary to serve his sentence in a Hungarian jail and the Irish Supreme Court backed him by refusing his extradition. On this occasion, Reding in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said: “I’m personally not surprised [about the decision] because lately Hungary has enacted a number of  laws that cast doubt as to the independence of the Hungarian judiciary.” Although the Tobin case will be discussed in parliament on Tuesday, details on the planned resolution are still not available. Perhaps they never will be. The government may decide that passing such a resolution against Vice President Reding a day before the Hungarian question is discussed in the European Parliament might be counterproductive.

Barroso, in order to make clear that he backs Reding 100%, decided to write another letter to Orbán. In the letter Barroso reiterated that the Commission has serious concerns over the compatibility of the Fourth Amendment to the Hungarian Constitution with Union laws and with the principle of the rule of law in general. Barroso also indicated that once the ongoing legal analysis is carried out by the Commission, it will have “to take the necessary steps in order to start infringement procedures where relevant. I strongly appeal to you and to your government to address these concerns and to tackle them in a determined and unambiguous way.”

Orbán immediately answered Barroso‘s letter and assured Barroso that Hungary is committed to European norms and pledged full cooperation with Brussels. “I will certainly pay full attention to the points you raised and I should like to inform you that I have already initiated the necessary legislative steps to follow them up.” The same meaningless stuff Orbán reiterates every time he is trouble only to renege on it at the earliest opportunity. Navracsics weighed in later, saying that one doesn’t have to take Barroso’s letter very seriously; it’s simply an empty threat.

Meanwhile a six-member delegation arrived in Budapest from the Venice Commission. The members of the Commission are internationally renowned legal scholars. The Venice Commission already tackled the problems of the original constitution. Some of the criticized sections were very reluctantly rewritten by the Hungarians, but now the Venice Commission is confronted with an entirely different document that most experts consider to be unacceptable for a member country of the European Union.

Again, it was Magyar Nemzet that learned from government sources that the Venice Commission will meet József Szájer (Fidesz EP member and allegedly the author of the original new Fidesz constitution), Róbert Répássy, and Bence Rétvári (both undersecretaries in the Ministry of Administration and Justice). The members of the Commission also wanted to talk to the party leaders of the opposition parties represented in the Hungarian parliament. Attila Mesterházy insisted that other opposition parties–DK, LMP, and Együtt 2014-PM–also be present.

The meeting with the government officials took place in the morning and by noon it was all over. Clearly, the talks didn’t go well. Répássy announced that “the members of the delegation showed partiality”; “they arrived with preconceptions.” The government had a 50-page defense of the constitutional changes but “one could hear from members that they will read it but it is unlikely that they will change their minds.” Considering their very careful  prior analysis of the text, I don’t know what the Hungarian government expected.

In the afternoon the members of the Commission met with the opposition forces. According to Attila Mesterházy, the visitors seemed to be extremely well informed but they mostly listened. I’m sure that the members of the Commission didn’t hear anything from the opposition leaders that they didn’t already know.

Maybe it is a good idea that Viktor Orbán will not attend the session of the European Parliament Here he is after his debate in the European  parliament / Reuters Vincent Kessler

Maybe Viktor Orbán is wise not to attend the session of the European Parliament.
Here he is after his last debate in the European Parliament. / Reuters Vincent Kessler

A few days ago Orbán was still not sure whether he should attend the European Parliament’s Wednesday session on Hungary. By now the decision has been made. He will not. Instead he will attend the funeral of Margaret Thatcher on April 17. Looking through the list of  invitees I could find no non-British Commonwealth prime ministers on the list. For the most part countries will be represented by their ambassadors to the Court of St James’s. But I guess he had to come up with some “obligation” to justify his absence from the European Parliament.

He is, however, supposed to attend the meeting of the European People’s Party parliamentary caucus the day before, on April 16th. Even here we may find that Orbán has another urgent meeting somewhere else on the globe because if the information coming from Dubrovnik, Croatia is correct, support of the EPP caucus for Orbán and Fidesz has evaporated.

Here are the details. Currently, the EPP caucus is holding a meeting in Dubrovnik. No Fidesz EP member was in attendance. As it turned out, the caucus made a critical decision about Fidesz during a dinner meeting last night. A reporter from Új Magyar Szó, a Hungarian-language newspaper in Romania, learned from anonymous sources present at the meeting that EPP decided to give the Hungarian government party one week to accept the resolutions of the European Union. If it does not, Fidesz will be removed from the EPP caucus. Apparently the decision was made by an important trio: Joseph Daul, the leader of the caucus, Viviane Reding, and Antonio López-Istúriz White, secretary-general of EPP.

Poor Orbán. First it was all those foreign capitalists and speculators who conspired against Hungary. Then the left-wingers and their international allies went on the attack. And now Orbán’s own conservative EU caucus is threatening him. The noose is tightening.

Hungarian media reaction to the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Hungary

Now that the U.S. Helsinki Commission’s hearing on Hungary is over, let’s take a look at how much Hungarian citizens learned about what transpired in Washington on March 19. MTI’s Washington correspondent was present and sent very brief summaries. Judging from the precise dating of the MTI reports, all four or five reports were written while the hearing was going on. All of them, with the exception of the description of József Szájer’s speech, were extremely short. Benjamin Cardin and Brent Hartley merited only 137 words while Kim Scheppele’s fairly lengthy testimony was summarized in 135 words. Not much can be said about such complex topics as the constitution, the rule of law, antisemitism, and the Holocaust in only a few sentences. The description of Szájer’s speech was extensive (634 words). By way of comparison, most of my posts are between 900 and 1,200 words.

Helsinki CommissionNot surprisingly, the right-wing papers that were not too eager to publicize the criticisms of the Orbán government from the three people who testified simply copied out MTI’s reports, playing up Szájer’s speech and giving practically no coverage to what Benjamin Cardin, Brent Hartley, Kim Scheppele, Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska, or Paul Shapiro had to say.

However, thanks to modern technology and the well-prepared newspapermen of Népszabadság, HVG,  and Index, a more balanced account reached the Hungarian public almost simultaneously with MTI’s super-short reports. The first to report was Népszabadság, about 20 minutes after the hearing ended. The headline repeated what Kim Scheppele had said during her testimony: “Hungary is on the verge of tyranny.” In the article itself the journalist offered a short (316 words) description of what transpired during the proceedings.

It was nearly twenty-four hours later that Magyar Nemzet first mentioned the names of Ben Cardin, Brent Hartley, and Kim Scheppele. Paul Shapiro, it seems, was not considered important enough to be mentioned by name. He was described merely as “one of the employees of the U.S. Holocaust Museum.” Neither Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska nor Freedom House was mentioned at all. Kim Scheppele was described as “the loudest [leghangosabb] critic of the Hungarian government.” By the way, one normally talks about the “severest [legkeményebb] critic.” “Loudest” carries the connotation of lacking substance or foundation.

Now let’s see how József Szájer and Gergely Gulyás viewed the hearing itself, the American officials, and their own roles in the proceedings. Up to now I haven’t written much about Gergely Gulyás, who is the rising star of Fidesz. He is in his early 30s, good looking, and way above the run-of-the-mill Fidesz-KDNP party hacks in mental ability. Gulyás’s role seemed to be to hand two books on Hungary to Senator Cardin. Apparently one of them was on the police brutality in September-October 2006. Otherwise he silently sat next to Szájer while the latter delivered his speech. It was clear from his expression that Gulyás was extremely satisfied with Szájer and most likely admired one of the founders of the party for his eloquence.

Szájer immediately gave a telephone interview to a reporter of a new outfit called Hungarian Globe, which is part of Mandiner, an Internet paper run by young conservatives. Besides this one interview and the texts of the testimonies I found nothing else on the Hungarian Globe site. According to Szájer, “the level of interest was rather weak, only one U.S. senator who is the chairman and no congressmen showed up.” Otherwise the hearing was not properly balanced because “the other three witnesses were heavily critical of the Hungarian situation. The verdict was already decided before the trial, but at least Gergely Gulyás and I had the chance to make our contributions.” (Gulyás’s only contribution was the lecture he gave Cardin about the proper pronunciation of his name.) Szájer complained that “the chairman sometimes wasn’t even sure which country the hearing was about. He mentioned Austria a couple of times instead of Hungary.” On the other hand, he felt that the chairman “showed a positive attitude towards my offer [of dialogue] and understood my message.” As for the quality of the other participants, “we heard numerous biased, partly or completely untrue remarks.” He was especially critical of Paul Shapiro who was accused of “a number of false and misleading details during his testimony…. I was expecting a more correct approach.”

Gergely Gulyás also talked to journalists, and to Index he repeated the same belief that no one is really interested in Hungary in the U.S. government because members of the Committee were not present. He even claimed that most of the people present were reporters. I talked to people who attended the hearing, and they reported that this simply was not true. The hearing was held in a small room for forty people and seventy people were present. Several people stood along the walls for two solid hours. Index also stressed that the Helsinki Commission is in fact a very important body with big names from both sides of the aisle.

All in all, the coverage was skimpy, although it became a convenient forum for taking the occasional pot shot at the U.S.. One Internet website from Pécs talked about “American darkness [homály],” implying ignorance. Many right-wing papers made fun of Ben Cardin, portraying him as senile because he didn’t even know what country the hearing was about. One gets so tired of the old joke about Americans who mix up Budapest and Bucharest. Now we will hear about mixing up Hungary with Austria.

I would not, however, take the criticism of Brent Hartley of the State Department lightly. His words carried a serious warning, and he made it clear at the end of his speech that his message reflects the views of the U.S. State Department. Although I think Szájer comported himself well, the evidence against the Hungarian government is too solid to be shaken by a list of cleverly constructed half-truths. It is possible that his forcefully delivered speech might mislead someone not thoroughly familiar with the facts, but those responsible for Hungary and the region in the State Department will not be swayed by Szájer’s twisting of the truth.

Fidesz reaction to political setback: Continued falsehoods

The standard reference book of Hungarian sayings and proverbs contains dozens of examples related to lies and lying. I would like to single out two that apply to daily politics in today’s Hungary.

The first is an assessment of the fate of a liar. According to the Hungarian proverb, “it is easier to catch a liar than a lame dog.” The second claims that “a man who comes from afar can easily be believed.” As far as the first saying goes, if folk wisdom centuries ago thought that liars cannot fool people for very long this is especially true today after the communication revolution we have witnessed in the last twenty years or so. As for the second, it is less and less true that a person from faraway places can tell tall tales without being found out.

Fidesz politicians, however, are behind the times and keep repeating lies. Lies about the world, about the Hungarian economic situation, about their own earlier statements, and about Hungary’s future prospects. Despite the repeated unveiling of their lies, the lying goes on. I guess they believe that repeated lies stick. Hungarian society is so polarized that the majority of Fidesz voters would never think of reading newspapers or visiting Internet sites that are critical of the government. Repeated lies, as another Hungarian saying asserts, eventually become truth (at least for the party faithful).

In the old days it was fairly cumbersome to fact-check statements about events that happened, let’s say, ten years ago. Today this task is a great deal easier, although in my opinion Internet papers could further assist researchers by expanding their archival search functions. But let’s not complain, because what we have is already splendid in comparison to what we used to have at our disposal.

And now on to the real topic of  today’s post: Antal Rogán’s latest performance. On January 4 Rogán was a guest on Olga Kálmán’s Egyenes beszéd. Kálmán began with a question: how is it that within a few days he changed his mind on the government’s response to the question of voter registration? After all, on December 28, right after the Constitutional Court’s decision that found the so-called “temporary provisions” unconstitutional, he and József Szájer, the “author” of the new constitution, confidently announced their plans to put the “temporary provisions” into the main body of the constitution. That would certainly solve the problem. And now, Kálmán continued, there is a 180° turnabout. Fidesz decided not to circumvent the decision of the court. What is the explanation, she wanted to know.

Rogán didn’t flinch. He outright denied that any such words left his or Szájer’s mouth. No gentle prodding by Kálmán could move him from this position. “This is not what I said. What I said was that we respect the decision of the court and since the objections were only formal objections we  will move the ‘temporary provisions’ into the main body of the constitution.” As for the law on the election procedure, Rogán claimed that he refused to comment on a law that was still under consideration by the court.  Here is an excerpt from the Rogán interview. The complete version can be viewed on ATV’s website.

Well, checking the accuracy of Antal Rogán’s contention was easy enough. YouTube already had the video of the ten-minute Rogán-Szájer press conference online. Szájer used most of the press conference to explain the “historic reasons” for not including the “temporary provisions” in the constitution proper and to outline how the parliament will vote on a bill that will move these provisions into the constitution. That should satisfy the court. And naturally, the law on electoral procedures was one of these “temporary provisions.” At the end of the press conference a reporter asked Rogán about the electoral law. Rogán repeated Szájer’s opinion that they have to address only the court’s formal objections, which can be remedied by incorporating the law into the main body of the constitution. He added that parliament doesn’t have to revisit this law because the objections were formal. Not a word about not wanting to comment on the law that is still under consideration by the court. You can see on the video of the press conference of December 28, 2012.

This particular lie was easy to detect. Another one, I must admit, I didn’t catch, most likely because I have been following Hungarian politics only since 1994-95 and Rogán’s second lie touched on something before that date. It was Zsuzsa Kerekes, a lawyer, who called attention to that lie in Galamus. Rogán called Olga Kálmán’s attention to a grave unconstitutional act by the MSZP-SZDSZ government in 1994 when the government, using its two-thirds majority, put into the constitution a provision that deprived Hungarian citizens of their voting right if they happened to be abroad on the day of the election although the Constitutional Court found this part of the election law to be unconstitutional in March of 1990.

MemoryAs it turned out, the whole story is a typical Fidesz fabrication. In October 1989  the last parliament of the Kádár regime did vote on the electoral law, including this particular provision. The Constitutional Court that was established in October 1989 indeed found in March 1990 that this particular article in the law was unconstitutional. But it wasn’t the MSZP-SZDSZ dominated parliament that put this provision into the constitution but the parliament of the Németh government on March 9, 1990.

Zsuzsa Kerekes found it unfortunate that Olga Kálmán didn’t remember this particular detail. As a result, “as with so many other Fidesz lies it remained unquestioned and uncorrected.” I have to come to Olga Kálmán’s defense. I also occasionally feel that I could have brought up events or points that contradict the “recollections” of Fidesz politicians that were missed by the reporter. But it is one thing to watch a conversation from the outside and something else to be able to react very quickly under pressure. Moreover, unfortunately, we can’t remember everything even under normal circumstances. And since I started with proverbs here is another Hungarian saying: “A fejem nem káptalan” (My head is not a chapter). What can this possibly mean? Help me out!

Most of the “temporary provisions” of the Hungarian Constitution are scrapped by the Constitutional Court

Yesterday just before noon came the news that the Constitutional Court had annulled a number of so-called “temporary provisions [átmeneti rendelkezések] related to this Fundamental Law” that were specified in the closing sections of the new constitution.

Almost all the newspapers hailed this as the death of Fidesz’s plans to introduce registration as a prerequisite to citizens exercising their right to vote. But although the final outcome might indeed be the repeal of the law, the Constitutional Court’s ruling was not on the registration issue per se.

The ruling addressed not President János Áder’s request to the Court to investigate the constitutionality of the registration requirement but a request of the ombudsman, Máté Szabó, to take a look at the “temporary provisions.” Upon closer scrutiny, about two-thirds of these provisions were not temporary at all. Including in the new constitution the right to enact “temporary provisions” was only a Fidesz trick. They were smuggling all sorts of  unconstitutional laws into the constitution itself.

The majority of the Court decided to annul the questionable provisions retroactively. Five Fidesz appointees–István Balsai, Egon Dienes-Oehm, Barnabás Lenkovics, Péter Szalay and Mária Szívós–dissented.

From reading the law on “temporary provisions” in the collection of Hungarian laws it becomes clear that a huge part of the law has been scrapped, starting with the preamble entitled “On the transition from communist dictatorship to democracy.”  In it there is a long list of sins of the communist dictatorship for which the two-thirds Fidesz-KDNP majority made today’s Hungarian Socialist Party responsible. In addition, the law makes it clear that these crimes have no statute of limitations. In plain language, the current government has the legal right to prosecute politicians of the main opposition party for crimes committed, let’s say, by the Rákosi regime.

Article 11 (3) and (4), which allows the president of the National Judicial Office to transfer cases to courts of her choosing, was also scrapped. So were Articles 12 and 13 that deal with the early retirement of judges and prosecutors and Article 18 that states that the president of the Budgetary Council is appointed by the President. Article 21 is also gone; it allows parliament to decide the status of churches. Article 22, which prescribes that only those can ask for remedy from the Constitutional Court who have already exhausted all other legal possibilities, was also found questionable. Article 23 (1) and (3)-(5) is about electoral registration and it was annulled.

Article 27 is a tricky one; it concerns the functioning of the Constitutional Court. It is a kind of amendment to Article 37 (4) of the Constitution that reads: “As long as state debt exceeds half of the Gross Domestic Product, the Constitutional Court may, within its competence set out in Article 24 (2)(b-e), only review the Acts on the State Budget and its implementation, the central tax type, duties, pension and healthcare contributions, customs and the central conditions for local taxes for conformity with the Fundamental Law or annul the preceding Acts due to violation of the right to life and human dignity, the right to the protection of personal data, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and with the rights related to Hungarian citizenship. The Constitutional Court shall have the unrestricted right to annul the related Acts for non-compliance with the Fundamental Law’s procedural requirements for the drafting and publication of such legislation.” Article 27 of the “temporary provisions” actually negates this right.

Article 28 (3) allows the government to pass regulations for local governments if they neglect to regulate something prescribed by law. Article 29 also made waves when it was adopted because it states that new taxes can be assessed in case the European Court fines Hungary because of the government’s actions that were not in line with European Union law. Article 31 (2) simply states that these temporary provisions were accepted on the basis of the old and new constitutions. And the Court also scrapped the last article (32) that declares April 25 as a memorial day of the new constitution. This last point might seem trivial, but it is in line with the reasoning of the Court. Declaring a special day for the celebration of the new constitution is certainly not a temporary measure.

The judges’ decision was not based on the constitutionality of the temporary provisions. They simply declared that these provisions were not temporary. Fidesz’s answer was immediate. József Szájer, who boasted that he wrote the constitution on an iPad on the train between Budapest and Brussels, announced shortly after noon today that since the Court didn’t examine the constitutionality of these provisions the government is planning to incorporate them straight into the new Constitution. The Constitution that was supposed to be the basic law of the land for centuries to come has already been amended three times and certainly will be many more times in the future. Every time because the political interests of Fidesz-KDNP so dictate.

Szájer is apparently a talented man and very familiar with constitutional law. In his interpretation the Constitutional Court didn’t interpret the law properly. According to him, the reference to the “temporary provisions” was put into the final article of the constitution because the framers always considered these provisions part of the Constitution itself. Well, Szájer might be a legal brain, but then why did they call these provisions “temporary”?

Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus, seconded Szájer and also announced that in February when Parliament reconvenes they will fix the problem. Fixing means that he will gather the members of the caucus and tell them that here is the list of new amendments that they will have to vote on. The voting machine works flawlessly.

On Monday we can expect the Court’s decision on the registration issue. If the Court again finds only formal problems with the law, then the Fidesz-KDNP government can simply incorporate Article 23 (1) and (3)-(5) dealing with registration into the Constitution. But if the objections are more substantive and the judges find the law itself unconstitutional, then the Fidesz brains will have to work a little harder.

Máté Szabó as the sole ombudsman appointed by the current government has been a pleasant surprise. I think a lot of people expected him to be only a tool for Viktor Orbán’s designs. He must be a disappointment and Orbán must have cursed his bad judgment in allowing Szabó to be appointed ombudsman. I’m glad that Szabó turned to the Constitutional Court concerning this issue because without his intervention the world would not be as informed about the Orbán government’s undemocratic rule and its transgressions of the laws of the land. These “temporary provisions” were adopted one by one over time; only when one reads the whole list does one become painfully aware of the undemocratic nature of this regime.

Meanwhile, I was surprised to hear that the tables displaying the Basic Law have disappeared from public buildings. Central and local government offices were instructed by the government to set up a table in a prominent place so admirers of the new constitution could sign a “guest book” and could also purchase either an ordinary or a deluxe edition of the Basic Law. A person had to be hired to mind the table. Someone the other day noticed that the tables had disappeared.

The Table of the Basic Law in the Fifth District in Budapest. The mayor is Antal Rogán

The Table of the Basic Law in the Fifth District in Budapest. The mayor is Antal Rogán.

Indeed, sometime in September the government officials running these offices were ordered to remove them. The mayor of  Hajdúdorog told one of the reporters of ATV: “We had a room where people could take care of their business concerning trash removal. There was a table there already, so we put a tablecloth and the Basic Law on it. If anyone wanted he could look at it. I may add that only 1% of people over 18 wanted to buy the simple edition and no one was interested in buying the deluxe edition.” Now the table is gone. Imre Kerényi, who was the brain behind the Table of the Basic Law and to whose career I devoted a whole post, explained that the idea is not dead. It was planned this way.

It seems that this new and wonderful Basic Law has very serious problems, among them that the people don’t have a particular affinity to it. The lack of interest was too embarrassing. It was better to remove table and all. And I predict that the Basic Law’s aura will only decrease thanks to the games the Orbán government is playing with something as important as the constitution of the country.