The Unbearable Weightlessness of Hungarian President Pál Schmitt

Sum up the story of what’s taking place in Hungary in one sentence and you are likely to implicate the power dynamics in the parliament for the worrisome changes. In 2010, Hungary’s governing party was able to obtain 2/3 of the seats of the parliament. Though this reflects less than 53% of the electoral votes, the government had enough votes in the parliament to rewrite, one after another, the most important laws of a democratic society. There is practically no stopping this super-majority (unless perhaps the party disintegrates – not a likely scenario).

But this account does not give proper credit to the wisdom of Hungary’s constitution, which does indeed contain provisions on “counterweights” – offices and institutions that are supposed to prevent such unilateral legislative ways to institute a regime change. They are not exactly useful, however, if one of these, Hungary’s president Pál Schmitt constantly fails to show up to do his job.

Hungary’s constitution sets up what constitutional scholars call a moderate or weak presidency. It’s an institution not too powerful (like presidents are in the US or in France) yet not as weak as a merely symbolic head of state (e.g. the Queen of the UK).

The authors of the Hungarian constitution opted for a strong executive branch and a president who is normally “above” everyday political skirmishes. The role of the Hungarian president is to symbolize Hungary’s national unity. Just as importantly, he certifies the laws made in his country by signing them into law. A part of this task is to ensure that these laws are not contrary to the constitution of the country or objectionable in any other manner.

Just how to balance these two tasks has been a matter of dispute, on the part of Hungarian governments, and a matter of style, on the part of the previous presidents, ever since the creation of the office of 1989. Governments have always clamored for a weak president, but presidents have always intervened in crucial moments to thwart questionable legislation nevertheless. That is how the game of politics is supposed to be played.

The Hungarian president can object to legislation coming out of the parliament in one of two ways. The first of these is called the constitutional veto, the other a political veto. Within 15 days of its receipt from the presiding official of the Hungarian Parliament, the President must promulgate the law: his signature must be attached to the legislation and the text of the law must be officially published. However, if the President is concerned that the law in question is not in agreement with the country’s constitution, before signing it, he may send the text to the members of the Constitutional Court who review its constitutionality. Should it be deemed unconstitutional to adopt such law, the President sends the law back to the Parliament, where they must hold another debate over it and vote on it a second time. In the case of a political veto, the same process takes place without the involvement of the Constitutional Court.

In other words, the President and the Constitutional Court would normally play an important role in Hungarian democracy. One would not want to go as far as to say that they are part of a system of checks and balances because, as mentioned above, neither of these institutions are actively involved in everyday politics (unlike the three branches of government in the US, for example). Perhaps it would be better to call them the “counter-weight” to an overly wieldy government. The president keeps watch. He does not get involved unless absolutely necessary, but when he deems his weight needs to be wielded, he initiates judicial review before signing legislation into law. He does not only ensure consistency in the Hungarian system in this way, he is also tasked with preventing democracy from devouring itself in this head-heavy system of strong governmental powers.

Enter, however, welterweight President Pál Schmitt, who has been presiding over the Republic of Hungary exactly one year today. Referring to him as a light-weight is not entirely inappropriate: Mr. Schmitt was a successful sportsman who went on to win two Olympic gold medals as a fencer in 1968 and 1972. Beyond that, he became first the general secretary, then the president of the Hungarian Olympic Committee, later the Chief of Protocol of the International Olympic Committee. He liked sports diplomacy, so he went on to became Hungary’s ambassador to Spain and later to Switzerland. Next, he joined Fidesz and climbed the party ladder. When in 2010 another election had to be held for a president (Hungary’s president is elected by the parliament, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s super-majority had already been in place by then), he was ready to take the job Mr. Orbán offered to him.

Mr. Schmitt was not the first choice of other politicians, and this almost created a rift within Fidesz. Known for his agreeableness, loyalty, and, for lack of a better world, plebeianism, Mr. Schmitt was selected for the job because he practically promised Fidesz that he would not perform it too eagerly. Viktor Orbán knew that if he wanted to avoid political oversight, he had to select a person of Schmitt’s calibre for the job.

“I am not going to be the dam to the momentum of the government and its legislative agenda. In fact, I am going to be its catalyst. The last thing I intend to be is a counter-weight, my goal is to be a balance,” Mr. Schmitt said upon being elected into the presidential office.

Later it was reported that Viktor Orbán would go to such lengths for Schmitt’s candidacy that he threw a temper tantrum when some of his closest allies appeared to be unwilling to support this future “president of the people.” The debate got so heated that Orbán threatened his fellow party members with resigning immediately had he not got his way (or his Schmitt, to be precise). The Hungarian-language reporting on this can be found here.

Sworn in as Hungary’s president, Mr. Schmitt did not disappoint. Never in his whole life does he seem to have disappointed his superiors, only those of whom he was raised above – a character traits that is perhaps Mr. Orbán’s ultimate favorite. Specifically, he never showed up to do the second part of his job. He did represent the national unity of the country, in episodes so comical that, had he been elected the nation’s teddy bear, would have even endeared him to Hungarians. But his job included the judicial review of the country’s new laws, and, in his case, this review was needed for a legislative agenda ambitious and radical beyond anything previously seen in Hungary’s last 20 years.

Mr. Schmitt signed them all. This in spite of the fact that the opposition, legal experts as well as international observers expressed concerns that quite a few of Hungary’s recently enacted laws may be unconstitutional (one of these had retroactive provisions, others may violate the right of the press or free practice of religions).

How often did previous presidents use their veto powers? With restraint, but not infrequently. The first president, Árpád Göncz used his constitutional veto seven times against Hungary’s first right-wing government between 1990 and 1994. He then used two political vetoes against the socialist-liberal government between 1994 and 1998, and 1 constitutional veto against Mr. Orbán’s first cabinet. His successor, Ferenc Mádl used 3 constitutional vetoes against Mr. Orbán’s government between 2000 and 2002. While the socialists were in power, he sent back 9 laws with a constitutional veto and 4 for a political veto. László Sólyom used 3 constitutional and 2 political vetoes during the first year of his presidency altogether. Altogether, he requested a constitutional review 31 times and sent back 17 laws to the parliament over political objections.

A popular belief among Hungarians, especially those who support the government is that, in order to represent the nation’s unity, the president must remain impartial – as if the nation were better off being represented by an irrelevant noone than an actual politician who commands respect by practicing his constitutional duties. The notion itself would not occur to people in the US, for example, where the president is able to simultaneously unite the country to the outside and yet be the subject of vile criticism for his domestic policies. There is no reason therefore to believe that there is an essential tension between symbolizing national unity and objecting to laws coming out of the Parliament. For as long as the government and the president disagree on the reach of their functions, which is something they are bound to do in an ideal situation, they keep each other in check.

Not, however, during Mr. Schmitt’s presidency. He has been an absent president, and the only function he reliably showed up for was as clown of the country. For the last year, he has continually been the butt of jokes because he has very poor spelling and because he tries so hard to be one of the people. The former is especially funny because one of his presidential goals is to teach proper Hungarian to his people. The latter is especially sad, since nothing could symbolize the leveling down of such an important institution as the Hungarian presidency than seeing the president playing table soccer with poorly clad man drinking beer at summer events.

In true Hungarian spirit, therefore, on this first anniversary of Mr. Schmitt’s ceremonial swearing ceremony, it is time for a laugh. I post here my favorite PR debacle of the Hungarian president, a moment known by Hungarians as the new year’s eve address during which the president kept walking, and walking, and walking. For those who want to reminisce, here’s the clip in which the president walks at least a third of a mile while giving a speech – without bumping into anything!

Later his aides said that his intention was to make it feel like he was just about to personally reach into every single Hungarian room filled with new year’s festivities.

But if you want to see something absolutely hilarious, this was a clip I found created from the same speech. You want to watch it, that’s all I’m going to say.

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This entry was posted in Hungary, Pál Schmitt, Viktor Orbán and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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