ombudsman

The new Fidesz target: László Székely, Hungary’s ombudsman

In May I wrote a post about László Székely, the ombudsman newly appointed by the Orbán administration. In it I suggested that Székely’s appointment might have been a mistake on the part of Viktor Orbán. I noted that the prime minister had erred earlier in naming Máté Szabó as the new sole ombudsman. Szabó turned out to be a steadfast defender of human rights and the rule of law. I added that “it may happen again, but Viktor Orbán rarely makes mistakes on personnel choices.” Well, it did happen. Székely has been an independent ombudsman whose recommendations have rarely met with government approval. Now it seems that he may lose his job. Moreover, the case is an opportunity for a fresh attack against the Hungarian NGOs which receive Norwegian funds because the case involves TASZ, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, one of the recipients.

TASZ represents the Kék Pont Alapítvány (Blue Dot Foundation), which is involved in the prevention of drug abuse. It provides an ambulance service for drug addicts and serves as a drug consultation center. The Foundation also runs a number of centers where addicts can exchange their used needles for sterile ones. One of these centers is in District VIII, a rather seedy part of Pest. Máté Kocsis, the Fidesz mayor of the district, is a brash young man without much compassion for the downtrodden. His efforts “to clean up” the place usually employ inhumane methods. Recently he turned against Kék Pont’s needle exchange center. The staff was told that they have to stop their activities. TASZ, representing the foundation, appealed to the ombudsman’s office for a judgment last November. Their argument rested on the right to health. Used needles spread disease not only among drug users but also in the population at large. Moreover, TASZ stressed that needle exchange programs are recommended by the European Union. All in all, they had a strong case, and the ombudsman’s office agreed with them. The mayor, however, contended that the ombudsman’s office simply parroted TASZ’s arguments. He was also convinced that the ombudsman himself never read the verdict; he just signed his name to it.

How did we get to this stage? Well, it would be nice to know how Fidesz and its on-again-off-again mouthpiece, Magyar Nemzet, collude. Does Magyar Nemzet receive orders and documentation from Fidesz politicians or is it the other way around? I suspect that the former is the more likely scenario. My hunch is that Kocsis was infuriated by the recommendation of the ombudsman that he received on September 8. He managed to get hold of some e-mails from the ombudsman’s office that could be interpreted in a way that would serve the young mayor’s purpose. Magyar Nemzet is also not shy at presenting material it receives in a false light. Once the staff considers a story juicy and politically damaging it is ready to churn out one article or opinion piece after the other. That was definitely the case here. Since yesterday morning Magyar Nemzet published nine articles about the horrid collusion between László Székely’s office and TASZ. They seized the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: Székely did not turn out to be a willing tool and TASZ–well, it is one of those anti-government, anti-Hungarian NGOs.

The Fidesz steam roller / Source: ataszjelenti.blog.hu

The Fidesz steamroller / Source: ataszjelenti.blog.hu

It all started with a falsification of facts. The paper published a facsimile of an e-mail which was not an exchange between TASZ and one of the associates of the ombudsman’s office, as Magyar Nemzet intimated, but an internal memo between two officials in the ombudsman’s office. This e-mail, dated May 28, was an answer to a question from another official concerning the time of the decision’s release. The answer indicated that the text was more or less ready but that they would make an inquiry at the ministry and at the city hall of District VIII before its release. The appropriate officials will have 15 days to answer. Moreover, since both people will be on summer holidays, the decision can be released only after their return.

Immediately after the publication of this e-mail, Székely ordered an in-house investigation and found out within a couple of hours that it had nothing to do with TASZ.

Then came Magyar Nemzet’s second article, published after János Lázár had already announced that if the story about the e-mail was true, Székely must resign. From this second article it became clear that whoever lifted the documents from the ombudsman’s office had a number of e-mails concerning the Kék Pont case. This time the paper published an exchange between Péter Sárosi, the man who handled the case at TASZ, and Beáta Borza, one of the department heads in the ombudsman’s office. In his letter Sárosi inquired about the date of the release of the verdict because Kék Point already had a shortage of needles and in September they must close their doors. Moreover, he said, he himself will be going on vacation and he would like to be around when the decision is released. TASZ would like to make sure that the story gets into the media. The department head promised to talk to the lawyer who was handling the case and expressed her hope that they can help as far as the date is concerned. From that letter both Magyar Nemzet and Kocsis came to the conclusion that there was collusion between the two over when the document will become public. In his usual parlance Kocsis announced that “the drug lobby has already entrenched itself in the ombudsman’s office.”

This case is being taken extremely seriously in government circles. György Rubovszky (KDNP), chairman of the judicial committee, announced that on Monday László Székely must appear before them. It seems that Rubovszky has pretty much made up his mind. He released the following statement: “According to recent news, the office of the ombudsman, disregarding the expectation of its objective and independent inquiry, prejudicially cooperated with the organization that initiated the inquiry in the preparation of its content and the timing of its publication.” I don’t think Székely will be Hungary’s ombudsman for long.

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László Székely, the new ombudsman

There are times when governments can go very wrong with an appointment. It can happen anywhere. The famous American case was George H. W. Bush’s appointment of  David Souter to the US Supreme Court in 1990. Souter was supposed to be a conservative but turned out to be a “closet liberal.”

Something similar happened to Fidesz twice lately with appointments to the position of ombudsman. Prior to 2010 there were several ombudsmen, each responsible for a specific field: environmental issues, human rights, data protection, minority rights, etc. Vikor Orbán wanted to have only one ombudsman, and he picked Máté Szabó, the man responsible for human rights before 2010. At the time I was not particularly impressed with Szabó who, in my opinion, didn’t distinguish himself in his earlier position. Most of the issues that interested him sounded petty to me. In fact, it might have been this very aspect of Szabó’s activities that appealed to Orbán. Perhaps he 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 the remnants of Hungarian democracy.

Szabó’s tenure ended on September 24, 2013, and János Áder nominated László Székely, who had held government positions in both the first and the second Orbán governments. In fact, way back in 2001 his name came up as the nominee of President Ferenc Mádl to the position of ombudsman responsible for data protection but then, because of MSZP’s opposition, Viktor Orbán couldn’t give the job to his favorite candidate. Once he had a two-thirds majority, however, he didn’t have to worry. Székely’s appointment was assured.

When Székely’s name surfaced as the potential nominee the opposition parties had all sorts of objections. They were worried about his long, close association with the current government. Some people pointed out that his knowledge of constitutional law was scanty. Népszava described the departure of Szabó as the fall of the last bastion in the defense of democracy. I ended my earlier post on this appointment with these words: “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.” I added: “It may happen again, but Viktor Orbán rarely makes mistakes on personnel choices.” Well, it seems that he did.

Ombudsman László Székely / Source: hirma.hu

Ombudsman László Székely / Source: hirma.hu

After his appointment Székely gave a number of interviews in which he emphasized that in spite of his government jobs and close association with Fidesz he will be an independent and judicious ombudsman. That assurance was to be expected. But, looking back at these interviews, we can already find signs that Székely might be less of a Fidesz clone than some expected. For example, he told the reporter of Népszabadság that “a good ombudsman must show solidarity with the dejected, the defenseless and must be sensitive to problems of destitution and poverty.” Not exactly the philosophy of the Fidesz ideologues. A few days later in a longer interview, also with Népszabadság, he said: “Believe me, I will jealously guard my professional prestige acquired in the last thirty years.”

During his interviews he kept repeating his belief that after the 2014 election the burden on the lone ombudsman will be lighter because he will not be the only person who can turn to the constitutional court for remedy. He seems to have been convinced that the opposition parties would get at least 25% of the seats, which would allow them to turn to the constitutional court themselves. As we know, this is not how things turned out.

Székely carefully avoided criticizing his predecessor and stressed the necessity of continuity. Indeed, he left the structure of the office pretty well intact. He kept emphasizing, however, that he will try to improve the score card in favor of the ombudsman’s office when dealing with the constitutional court. That is, he wanted to have more cases decided in his office’s favor. Given the composition of the constitutional court, I doubt that Székely’s hopes will materialize, but it is certainly a worthy goal.

Székely took over the position at the end of September. I began to notice increased activity in his office already in early February. The Hungarian Helsinki Commission turned to Székely to investigate the “three-strike law” which their lawyers regarded as unconstitutional. Székely concurred and called on the Ministry of Administration and Justice to discuss how to change the law to make it constitutionally acceptable. The ministry’s reply came swiftly: they are not changing the law and they are not ready to negotiate.

Székely seems to be interested in education. He turned to Zoltán Balog’s ministry several times, pointing out the inadequate teaching and equipment in segregated schools. He complained about the curriculum, saying that he finds it worrisome that students encounter the heinous effects of ideas of hatred only in the last year of high school. In his opinion societal change is necessary in this respect and here education has a large role to play. Although the government denied that there were serious problems supplying schools with textbooks, Székely’s office investigated and found that the government didn’t tell the truth. There were schools where some of the textbooks didn’t arrive until late December.

He also pays attention to the homeless. About a week ago he turned to the Kúria for remedy. In his opinion the local administration in Budapest designated far too many places as forbidden territories for the homeless. The ombudsman asked the Kúria to change some of the regulations and invalidate others.

As for the organic farm of Kishantos, Székely’s office began to investigate the situation already in December and turned to Sándor Fazekas, minister of agriculture, for information. The ombudsman expressed the view that the organic farm, the result of twenty years of careful attention, deserves constitutional protection. At that point Fazekas assured Székely that he would call together a forum of experts and civic groups to work out a strategy for the constitutional protection of environmental values. Of course, there is no forum, no strategy, only a ruined crop.

These are only a few of the many cases Székely has handled since October 2013. His appointment is for six years, and he will be the only person who can do battle with the government and the constitutional court. Not an enviable position to be in.

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.