Skip to comments.Hungary politics: Government at a standstill
Posted on 06/12/2005 3:24:41 PM PDT by Alex Marko
The election by Hungary's parliament of an opposition candidate, Laszlo Solyom, as state president is a blow to the Socialist-led government, mainly because it was caused by and exacerbates a split within the ruling coalition. This makes any significant new action to reverse Hungarys unsteady economic course all but impossible.
Hungarys governing coalition, consisting of the larger Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), suffered another blow on June 7th with the election of Mr Solyom, a former constitutional court judge put forward by the conservative parliamentary opposition, as Hungarys new president. The president is not elected by popular vote, but by the countrys parliament. Thus, a victory by the coalition, which holds a combined 198 seats in the 386-seat legislature, should have been a given.
However, the MSZP and the SZDSZ were never able to reach agreement on a candidate. The MSZP put forward Katalin Szili, parliaments speaker of the house and long-time cadre in the Socialist party and its communist predecessor. The SZDSZ, meanwhile, insisted that no party politician should be elected as president, who according to Hungarys constitution is supposed to express national unity. Neither party proved willing to retreat from their entrenched positions, each apparently believing the other would eventually bow to political reality, and back down.
The MSZP's conduct betrays a failure to adapt to the reality that it cannot govern alone. When it was last in power the party brought the SZDSZ into government as a goodwill gesture, but now it needs the liberal party for a parliamentary majorityand is thus obliged to work with it. The Socialists' approach to the election was clumsy and heavy-handed, marking a reversion in mentality to the days of one-party rule.
This provided just the opening needed for the opposition Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union and the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) to slip Mr Solyom into office by a vote of 185 to 182 for Ms Szili. The final decision came in the third round of voting in Hungarys system, the first two votes for president require a two-thirds majority. In the third round, a simple majority is sufficient. Mr Solyom will take office on August 5th.
Grinding to a halt
The government faces a tough year ahead. The next general election is scheduled for May 2006, and amidst growing popular dissatisfaction, Fidesz has taken a runaway lead in the polls. The May survey by Median puts support for Fidesz among those who identify themselves as certain voters at 55%, compared to just 37% for the MSZP.
The defeat in the presidential race has highlighted not only tensions within the government, which have surfaced before, but it has also shown the coalition parties in a particularly ineffective light. The Socialists have called a special party congress for this weekend, in order to examine the events of recent days and the details of government until 2006, said the partys president, Istvan Hiller, who said the MSZP made mistakes in misjudging the solidarity of the coalition. The SZDSZs Gabor Kuncze has ruled out a liberal pullout from the coalition, and said that both parties should now concentrate on government. The coalition is not about love, he said.
But concentrating on the tasks at hand, especially perennial spending overrunsHungary's most important economic problem by farwill not be easy. The public sector deficit has already reached 82% of the full-year target of 4.7% of GDP in just the first five months of 2005. Officials are well aware, for example, that the countrys bloated bureaucracy needs to be slashed, but they dare not rock the boat of some 800,000 government workers, who account for 8% of the total population, but 20% of the total workforce and some 10% of eligible voters. With a fundamentally weak political position and coalition unity at an all-time low, there is little hope for new policy initiatives that will address Hungarys fiscal problems.
The mild support that has been evident for the so-called 100 steps programme introduced by the prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, may also evaporate. The plan calls for a large number of small steps to make government more efficient and to improve tax collection. More drastic steps will be needed to reverse the dismal performance of the Socialists in popular opinionthis in itself is another policy danger, as any steps that would quickly boost the party's popularity would almost certainly also take Hungary further in the wrong direction by putting more state money in peoples pockets.
All the right moves
The election of Mr Solyom was a coup for Fidesz and the MDF in the short run. However, this is mainly because it was a defeat for the Socialists, rather than a victory for themselves. There is little reason to think that Mr Solyom would particularly favour a Fidesz government over a Socialist one in the 2006-10 government cycle. Mr Solyom is best known as the first chief justice of Hungarys Constitutional Court, a position he held in 1990-1998. An important figure in Hungarys transition to multi-party democracy, he was a founding member of the MDF in 1987, and briefly a member of its executive body in 1989.
Fideszs support for Mr Solyoms candidacy was tactically impeccable. Fidesz needed a candidate who could not only guarantee the MDFs support, but who would also be acceptable to the SZDSZ. Mr Solyom was originally proposed for president by Vedegylet, an environmentalist group, and was thus portrayed as having the support of civil society. Moreover, his status as a founding member of the MDF made it nearly impossible for the Forum to vote against himdespite the fact that they owed Ms Szili a significant political debt. (As the house speaker, Ms Szili allowed the MDF to continue as an independent parliamentary group after it expelled nearly half of its members in 2004, bringing the party below the minimum number of members required for a caucus under house rules.) Finally, Mr Solyoms party neutrality and his credentials as a mover in Hungarys transition meant the SZDSZ was willing to stay on the sidelines when it came down to a vote.
The Solyom effect
If Fidesz leads the next government, however, it may find Mr Solyom is not a soft touch for their policies. While sympathetic to the stated values of Hungarys political right, the former justice is widely expected to be Hungarys most activist president yet. The most important power of the president is his ability to send a law to the Constitutional Court for review and possible annulment, and Mr Solyom is much more likely than his predecessors to exercise this power. Although Fidesz is fairly skilled at drafting laws that pass legal scrutinyits founding members, almost without exception, are former law studentsthe party nevertheless is apt to pass laws that push through sometimes doubtful political agendas. As a result, the party may find life in government rather less comfortable under a Solyom presidency than it did under his predecessor.
Mr Solyom is unlikely, however, to wait until the arrival of a new government before exercising his constitutional prerogatives. The MSZP, like Fidesz, tends to draft politicised legislationbut it is less accomplished at framing laws in a way that pass muster in the courts. This threatens to raise another obstacle for the Socialist-led government in its efforts to govern actively. Yet given its weakness and internal divisions, it may not give Mr Solyom many opportunities to assert himself between now and the next election.
SOURCE: ViewsWire Eastern Europe
I misread the headline--I thought this was an article about Ted Kennedy.
PING for the E. European ping list. I think this got missed.