Hungary – Janos Ader’s re-election, ‘Lex CEU’, and the future of the Hungarian presidency

Over the last years, I have regularly written about the changing role of the Hungarian presidency under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Although more hopeful at first, the conclusion that its existence appears to be largely irrelevant for the functioning of the country’s  political system has been confirmed once and again. Last month, the Hungarian parliament re-elected janos Ader for a second term as president. Although it is not clear what his thoughts about the role of the presidency are, even if he wanted to, his potential to become a proper check-and-balance is severely limited.

Plenary of the Hungarian Parliament | photo via wikimedia commons

Hungarian presidents have been elected by parliament since 1990 and any attempts to introduce a semi-presidential system (mainly in the 1990s) have been unsuccessful. The reelection of Janos Ader on 13 March 2017 was the second presidential election held under the modified rules of the new 2011 constitution. After the old constitution allowed for three rounds of voting (the first two requiring a two-thirds majority for a candidate to win before lowering the requirement to a relative majority in the third round), the new rules reduced this to just two: A candidate needs a two-thirds majority to win in the first round and in the second round (which is a runoff between the two frontrunners if there are more than two candidates) a relative majority is sufficient. Since 2011 it is also more difficult to nominate a candidate. The old requirement was the support of 50 of 386 deputies (i.e. 13%) for a nomination, while the new requirement is 1/5 of membership. The latter is aggravated by the fact that the size of the Hungarian parliament has been reduced to 199 deputies since the 2014 elections.

As expected, the government parties nominated incumbent Janos Ader for a second term. However, as the Fidesz-KDNP government had lost its 2/3 majority gained in the 2014 elections due to defections, it was not going to be a first-round victory as in 2012. An alliance of all opposition parties except the far-right Jobbik, nominated László Majtényi, a law professor and former data protection ombudsman. Ader received 131 votes in both the first and second round, which equates to the seat share of the government, while abstentions in the first round were equal to the seat share of Jobbik.

The election result first and foremost means continuity in the way in which Hungarian politics works until the 2018 election or possibly beyond. Although the Hungarian president belongs to the formally most powerful presidents in the region, political practice has long kept presidential intervention in day-to-day politics to a minimum. However, the rebuilding of the Hungarian state by Prime Minister Orban and his Fidesz party have also severely restricted the the effectiveness of presidential powers. The presidential veto of legislation can be overridden by parliament with a relative majority. This has never been a problem for Hungarian governments in the past, yet the restructuring of the electoral system – which greatly advantaged Fidesz and was crucial to its 2/3 majority victory in the 2014 elections – means that the parliament can even override vetoes of organic laws and constitutional amendments (requiring a 2/3 override majority) without problems. Furthermore, the disempowerment of the Constitutional Court (once one of the most powerful in the world) and nomination of judges loyal to Orban means that requests for judicial review are more likely to be decided in favour of the governing majority.

Interestingly, Janos Ader still uses his veto with relative frequency. In the first years in office, parliament still considered these seriously and often included changes proposed by the president into bills as part of the reconsideration process. Since the 2014 parliamentary elections however, all of ten his vetoes have been overridden. At the same time, Ader has not used his veto or the high public profile bestowed unto him ‘ex officio’ to address any major issues or points of contentions in the political debate. Rather, he failed to comment or sided with the government. In this regard the recent controversy surrounding the education bill dubbed ‘Lex CEU’, a new law on foreign universities operating in Hungary which specifically threatens the operation of the Central European University, is very telling. Despite large-scale international criticism and demonstrations, Ader signed the bill into law on Monday and ignored calls to veto it or send it to the Constitutional Court for review.

The above pattern is unlikely to change in the near future. During his second term in office (2010-2014) Prime Minister Orban repeatedly hinted at the possibility of introducing a semi-presidential or presidential system in the country in the past, but he has since changed his mind. While there is thus nothing new in Sandor Palace, the 2017 presidential election and other political developments pose the question why a government committed to an ‘illiberal state’ is still committed to keeping the presidency in its current form, given that it serves no obvious purpose anymore.

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 13 April 2017.

Voice of dissent or singing in tune? Visegrad presidents and the refugee crisis

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 1 October 2015

The refugee crisis facing Europe continues to make headlines as more and more refugees arrive at the South-Eastern borders of the EU and European leaders still battle to find a common position, let alone a solution to this problem. This is not my first post about presidents and the refugee crisis, having written about Austrian president Fischer’s intervention in a coalition conflict over managing influx of refugees into the country from Hungary two months ago. In recent months, the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán has been particularly vocal in rejecting further acceptance of refugees and recently even closed its borders with neighbouring Serbia (having already built a fence along the border). Orban was joined by heads of governments in other Central and East European states, particularly other members of the Visegrad Group (consisting of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland) in a refusal to agree on an EU-wide quota system. While the countries’ Prime Ministers have naturally been the dominant actors with regard to the crisis so far, it is worth looking at presidents’ reactions as well given their that their position – irrespective of constitutional powers – also entails the role of moral authority. In this post I contrast and compare the public statements and positions of presidents with regards to the refugee crisis.

visegrad presidents prespow

Presidents of the Visegrad group countries (from left to right): Janos Áder (Hungary), Andrej Kiska (Slovakia), Milos Zeman (Czech Republic) and Andrzej Duda (Poland).

In stark contrast to Prime Minister Orbán, Hungarian president Janos Áder has by far been the least active with regards to the refugee crisis. Apart from stressing that Hungary would only accept refugees fleeing from war and persecution but not those migrating in search of work as well as a joint statement with Slovenian counterpart Borut Pahor calling for a – rather undefined – European solution, Áder has been relatively silent on the issue in public appearances. While addressing the issue once again during his speech at the UN general assembly in September where he called for global refugee quotas that would involve the US, Canada, Australia and China, his visit was dominated by the news that UN general secretary Ban Ki Moon expressed concern about the Hungarian response to the crisis in a meeting with him. Overall, Áder has aligned himself with the government and has given no indication that he disagrees with its policies. Given that Áder belongs to the governing Fidesz party and is a long-time ally of Viktor Orbán, this should not be surprising – Áder has generally not publicly shown himself to be an active check-and-balance on the government (see also my post ‘Hungary – Presidency lost?!‘ from last year). While a significant portion of public opinion disagrees with the government’s policies, they are not part of Fidesz’ electorate. Furthermore, being indirectly elected Áder relies on the parliamentary majority for re-election in 2017 – becoming too active not supporting the government in the current situation would mar his chances to remain president.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico and his government, similarly to his Hungarian counterpart, has been very vocal in opposing a European quota system. Although Slovakia temporarily accepted 500 refugees to ease the pressure for neighbouring Austria and refusing to accept a significant number of refugees. One government spokesperson even declared that the countrywould only accept Christian refugees as Muslims ‘would not feel at home’ given the lack of mosques or local Muslim population. In contrast to other Visegrad presidents, Slovak president Andrej Kiska’s position comes much closer to that of Germany and some other Western European countries. Kiska expressed support for temporary quotas to distribute the burden among EU member states and stressed the EU’s moral duty to help the refugees. Although his call for doing more about the causes of the crisis in the countries of origin chimed with the argumentation of other Visegrad leaders, he notably refrained from making any reference to cultural issues/religion and stressed that more needed to be done to gain the trust of the Slovak population and make them understand why it is necessary to help. Given that Kiska is popularly elected and not affiliated with any political party (although he can generally be classified as belonging to the centre-right), he has more leeway in contradicting the government than Janos Áder. Nevertheless, national elections are due to be held next spring and taking a position that is ‘too Western’ might put him at odds with some of the centre-right parties on whose support he is planning to build in the next legislature.

The position of the Czech government on the refugee crisis deviates only minimally from that of its Visegrad partners. In early September, Prague hosted the meeting of Visegrad Prime Ministers which resulted in a joint statement for “preserving the voluntary nature of EU solidarity measures” and stating that “any proposal leading to introduction of mandatory and permanent quota for solidarity measures would be unacceptable”. Yet here it is the president whose statements have dominated the headlines. Milos Zeman, who once said Islam was the “enemy of euro-Atlantic civilisation” and likened it to Nazi ideology, recently described the refugee crisis as a “tsunami that was going to kill him“. In his speech at the UN general assembly, he avoided mentioning the topic of refugees directly, yet focussed on the need to military strikes against ISIS. Although Zeman’s comment do not put the Czech Republic in the best light internationally (an issue the government has faced since taking office), the government currently has little motivation to oppose them. Apart from the fact that public opinion in the Czech Republic is on their (and Zeman’s) side, individual members of the government have – at least indirectly – provided similarly controversial commentary on the crisis.

Poland is in a special situation among the Visegrad states as is features not only the most recently elected president but also a government facing re-election in just a month’s time. Although the government has so far shown the same position as other Visegrad members, the governing Civic Platform generally pro-European stance during its time in office and close cooperation with Germany might now – in addition to poor approval ratings which will see it losing the upcoming election regardless – be another factor contributing to its demise. President Andrzej Duda who is affiliated with the right-wing and EU-sceptic ‘Law and Justice’ party which is currently set for electoral victory has so far not produced the best track record in foreign policy. However, by speaking out against the quota system and blasting the “EU dictate of the strong” he has hit a nerve among the Polish electorate and found another way to play a strong role in the election campaign. Furthermore, Duda’s argument against accepting more refugees coming to the EU from its south-Eastern borders has been that Poland was already accepting refugees fleeing the conflict in eastern Ukraine. This points the traditionally Russo-sceptic Polish electorate (even more so the core electorate of Law and Justice where many still blame Russia for the tragic death of president Lech Kaczynski in the Smolensk air crash) to another point where he and his party can score points.

In conclusion, while the governments of the Visegrad states stand relatively united with regards to the refugee crisis, presidents exhibit some more variation. Nevertheless, apart from Slovak president Andrej Kiska they are all basically still singing to the same tune to play to public opinion and appeasing their electorate (be it the public or parliament) or that of their parties.

Hungary – Presidency lost?!

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 17 February 2014

About one and a half years ago I explained in a post on my old blog why there could still be hope for the Hungarian presidency to develop as an independent and effective check-and-balance on government and parliament. Yet with the next parliamentary elections approaching, it appears that under the rule of Fidesz and Prime Minister Orbán the Hungarian presidency has lost this role, and (potentially) its raison d’être, too.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban (left) and president Janos Ader (right) | © Tibor Végh via wikimedia commons

Towards the end Ferenc Mádl’s term in office (the country’s second democratically elected president – 2000-2005), a number of publications declared the emergence of a German/ Austrian-style ‘Chancellor democracy’ in Hungary. [1] After the role of the presidency had been defined as the outcome of several clashes between president and government, Hungarian Prime Ministers had become the dominant political players, yet the presidents’ role was still significant. This became clear when former Constitutional Court president László Sólyom was elected in 2005. Faced with increasingly unpopular governments  (which eventually lost their parliamentary majority) led by the Hungarian Socialist Party, Sólyom was not shy to use his powers and sent badly crafted bills back to parliament or the Constitutional Court.

After the election of Pál Schmitt as Solyom’s successor, the activity (or rather inactivity) of the president was largely determined by the government (with Schmitt’s consent as he promised ‘not to obstruct the work of the government’ in any way). After Pál Schmitt’s plagiarism-induced resignation, János Áder promised to be a more active president than his party colleague and that he would check government bills more thoroughly. Áder’s potential for activism is of course naturally restricted by virtue of his indirect election (and the fact that Fidesz is likely to once again dominate parliament after the elections in April). Nevertheless, together with Prime Minister Orbán and parliament speaker László Kövér Áder belongs to the three men that have led Fidesz for the past twenty years and thus has more authority than his predecessor. Since his election in May 2012, Áder also referred 17 bills to parliament (in all but one case his amendatory observations were accepted).

Yet, recent developments have shown that the president is less independent (or committed to independence) than political observers and practitioners initially thought. Áder failed to criticise, veto or send to the constitutional court any of the controversial constitutional amendments introduced over the last two years. He also signed off the new electoral law which – despite including several amendments that made the system more effective – gave way to the exclusion of ethnic minorities. His signature under a highly controversial nuclear power deal with Russia that was negotiated without a proper tendering process is the latest case in which the opposition has accused Áder of not fulfilling his constitutional duties.

Áder also created great controversy when he announced the date for the 2014 parliamentary elections. Not only did he wait until very late to announce them, but then also set the date for the earliest possible day. This not only reduces the time for an electoral campaign but also the time for parties to gather the required number of signatures. Contrary to political practice Áder did not consult the date of elections with the opposition parties and agreed on it with the government parties months before its declaration. The latter was only revealed when a government MP mentioned the date by mistake during a parliamentary debate.

The new Hungarian constitution of 2011 did not change any stipulations on the presidential office, and this despite the fact that many of them were ambiguous and led to fierce political conflict or contained powers (such as the right to legislative initiative) on which both politicians and legal scholars agree that the president must not use them. Yet as shown above the role of the president in practice differs very much from stipulations and previous practice. While one could attribute Áder’s failure to criticise controversial government policies to his party affiliation and wish for re-election, there are hardly any other examples in the region where an indirectly elected president remained so inactive. Even if in friendly relations with the government, presidents in Central and Eastern Europe have never subordinated themselves to the government to the same extent as Áder. Even German presidents have – while being significantly less powerful and legally subordinate to the federal government in political matters – not shown such inactivity.

Further amendments to the Hungarian constitution are likely, but will probably not include a removal of the presidency. Nevertheless, for the current functioning of the Hungarian political system, its existence appears to be largely irrelevant.


[1] For instance:
Dieringer, Jürgen. 2005. ‘Staatspräsident Árpád Göncz: Wegbereiter der ungarischen ‘Kanzlerdemokratie’ wider Willen.’ [President Árpád Göncz: Inadvertent enabler of the Hungarian ‘Chancellor Democracy’] Südosteuropa. Zeitschrift für Politik und Gesellschaft 2/2005, 272-288.
Schiemann, John W. 2004. Hungary: the emergence of chancellor democracy. Journal of Legislative Studies 10 (2) 128-141.

Back at work: Why there could still be hope for the Hungarian presidency

When the Fidesz-led Hungarian government installed Pál Schmitt in the presidential office, many mourned the end of the presidency as an active check-and-balance in the political system. There is no doubt that Schmitt’s successor, János Áder, is as much convinced of the government’s policies as Viktor Órban himself. Nevertheless, he has recently discovered the possibilities of his office giving hope that the Hungarian presidency might once again become independent of parliament and government.

Presidential activism in Hungary, 1990-2012

Presidential activism in Hungary, 1990-2012

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