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.

Hungary – Prime Minister Orbán re-elected, Fidesz government will hold 2/3 majority in parliament

This post first appeared on presidential-power.com on 8 April 2014

On Sunday Hungary held the first parliamentary elections since its new constitution came into force on 1 January 2012. Contrary to previous elections, the size of parliament has been reduced from 386 to 199 deputies and the elections took place under a new electoral system. As expected, the governing Fidesz-KDNP won the elections by a large margin and will (very likely) once again hold a 2/3 majority in the assembly.

Preliminary results of the Hungarian parliamentary elections, 6 April 2014 (turnout: 60.48%)preliminary results - Hungary elections 2014

From 1990 until 2010, voters elected 386 deputies using a two-tier mixed member system. In this election, the number of deputies was reduced to 199 and the run-off for single-member electoral districts (SMDs) abolished. Furthermore, for the first time Hungarian citizens living abroad were allowed to vote (albeit only for the party lists) and members of ethnic minorities could vote for their own representatives. Especially the latter was heavily criticised as registering as a minority voter prevented people from voting from the other party lists (no minority representative won a seat under the new system). The government was also accused of gerrymandering when it re-drew the boarders of the now larger SMDs – even from the otherwise ideologically largely aligned far-right party Jobbik.

According to the preliminary results – votes in one SMD are still being recounted and might costs Fidesz its 2/3 majority – Prime Minister Orbán’s Fidesz (in an electoral alliance with the Christian-Democratic KDNP) won 96 out of 106 direct mandates and 37 of 93 seats from electoral lists. The centre-left Unity alliance (MSZP-EGYUTT-DK-MLP) had struggled to come together since its inception and were thus unable to effectively campaign against the government parties – they only won 10 direct mandates and 26% of the list vote. The far-right Jobbik party which has repeatedly made headlines for their xenophobic and specifically anti-Roma rethoric could slightly improve on its 2010 electoral result yet still holds only 12% in parliament. Last, the Green Party LMP lost support and now only holds 2.5% of seats (4.15% in 2010).

The clear victory for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán come as no surprise, yet will likely affect Hungary’s position in dealing with other countries in the EU which have previously criticised Orbán’s style of governing and several policies that have limited press freedom (several government-critical journalists were also denied access to the government parties’ election party). The election results have also further strengthened the position of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and have  ensured the re-election of president János Ader (also Fidesz) in 2017. However, a more prominent role of the Prime Minister together with his party colleague as head of state will inevitably lead to a further marginalisation of the role of the president as a check-and-balance – a development that could already be seen during Orbán’s last four years in office.

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For more information on the results of the Hungarian parliamentary elections see:
Saltman, Erin Marie. 2014. ‘Fidesz have won a clear victory in Hungary’s elections, but their supermajority hangs in the balance’. LSE EUROPP Blog 7 April 2014.
http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2014/04/07/fidesz-have-won-a-clear-victory-in-hungarys-elections-but-their-supermajority-hangs-in-the-balance/

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.