Two months ago Hungarian voters expressed their dissatisfaction with Gordon Bajnai’s minority Socialist government by giving the leading opposition party, the conservative Fidesz-KDNP coalition, a two-thirds parliamentary majority despite its refusal to offer any specifics as to what it would do once it formed a government.
In his victory speech Fidesz chairman Viktor Orbán claimed his party’s landslide victory was nothing short of a “revolution” and that the Fidesz and the Christian Democrats had been given a sweeping mandate “to complete the task of building Hungarian democracy.” Instead, Fidesz seems intent on dismantling Hungary’s parliamentary democracy.
One month into the new government it appears Fidesz intends to use its super-majority to consolidate its hold on power and impose its will on the country with complete disregard for anything the three opposition parties might have to say.
The fact that Fidesz only announced its nominee for president the day before the Hungarian parliament was scheduled to debate the subject is characteristic of Viktor Orbán’s high-handed manner vis-a-vis the political opposition. While the Hungarian presidency is weak in comparison to that of other European countries, the president’s signature is required in order for legislation to become law.
Last Wednesday Fidesz announced that rather than nominate Hungary’s sitting president, László Sólyom – a former chief justice of the Constitutional Court – for a second term, it was nominating Pál Schmitt, a Fidesz political lackey currently serving as speaker of parliament, to the highest office in the land. In doing so, Fidesz seems intent on undermining one of the crucial checks and balances of Hungarian democracy.
Unlike his predecessor, Schmitt, a former communist apparatchik, is unlikely to question the wisdom, wording, or constitutionality of legislation adopted by the Fidesz-controlled house.
The first piece of legislation passed by the new parliament granted ethnic Hungarians living abroad the right to vote in Hungarian elections providing they have a legal address in Hungary. This was the first and perhaps last piece of legislation to enjoy the support of all the parties, including liberal and socialist opposition parties, even though ethnic Hungarians living abroad are more likely to support conservative, nationalist parties than liberal, progressive ones.
Since then Fidesz has ridden roughshod over the opposition by passing a series of “political reforms” clearly intended to impede the ability of the political opposition to contest future elections.
In Hungary candidates for public office must collect a certain number of signatures from registered voters residing in the electoral district in question for their name to appear on the ballot. Until recently candidates had 35 days from the time the government posts the signature forms to registered voters to collect the requisite number of signatures.
Last week the Fidesz-controlled parliament voted to decrease from 35 to 15 days the time allotted for collecting signatures, thereby making it virtually impossible for small parties to field enough candidates in national and local elections to win at least five per cent of the popular vote – the minimum required in order for a party to send representatives to parliament.
Widening the pool of eligible conservative voters while narrowing the field of opposition candidates are but two examples of how Fidesz intends to use its two-thirds majority to change the rules of the political game to its own advantage.
According to a draft media bill Fidesz plans to introduce in the near future, all Hungarian newspapers will be required to report on topics deemed “newsworthy” by the government and to refrain from publishing articles or adopting viewpoints “detrimental to the Hungarian nation.” Furthermore, newspapers will be required to publish the responses of the government officials they criticise.
Such limitations on the freedom of press is tantamount to political censorship.
Orbán makes no secret of the fact that he plans to write a new constitution for Hungary – one that would protect Hungary and Hungarians from the “abuses” of the past twenty years. However, if legislation introduced to date is any indication of what Orbán has in mind in the way of constitutional reforms, then Hungarian and European democrats alike have good reason for concern.
One such constitutional reform proposed by Fidesz is that judges be nominated by the government rather than by parliament. While this may not seem all that insidious, denying opposition parties the right to nominate judges represents a further erosion of the balance of power in a country whose justice system has a poor record of prosecuting and convicting white collar criminals with good political connections.
As a foreigner who has lived and worked in Hungary the past twenty years, it is difficult to see how any of the “reforms” to date serve the economic or social interests of Hungary or the Hungarian people. By postponing any meaningful economic or social reform until after the October municipal elections, the Prime Minister is missing a key opportunity to restore the competitiveness of the Hungarian economy, overhaul education and healthcare, reform the tax system, and, most importantly, restore confidence in parliamentary democracy badly shaken by years of political paralysis and a series of corruption scandals.