On 10 December, the Hungarian opposition MPs got a lovely present from the governing majority for Christmas wrapped in a big legislative package amending both the Act on Parliament and the Rules of Procedure. In the rush before the end of the fall-term session, there was no time for wrapping paper, ribbons and bows. However, I am sure that the Fidesz-KDNP coalition’s argument that the modifications will reinforce the authority and the prestige of the House and ensure decorum in the conduct of business will cheer them up.
If my sarcasm was not obvious enough, let me put it
more clearly: the amendments to the parliamentary regulation serve the purpose
of silencing the opposition parties which have been constantly gaining strength
in the last few months (see e.g. the results of the recent local elections). It was explicitly admitted by Máté Kocsis (leader of the Fidesz PPG) that this
step was a response to the actions of opposition MPs who had adopted unconventional behavior to protest against
controversial legislative reforms and to exercise control over public institutions.
These measures are parts of the governing majority’s long-standing strategy to use
the parliamentary regulation to deprive the opposition of any real power and
The winner takes it all
When the government has a two-thirds majority in the
unicameral Hungarian National Assembly, its power is practically unlimited and experience
shows that the parliamentary opposition has no realistic chance to have a say
in the legislative process and to exercise effective control over the cabinet. Therefore,
shortly after the 2010 elections, opposition MPs started to use their rights in
a way to counterbalance their disadvantaged position. Hence the adoption of
rather unorthodox means of parliamentary communication, such as displaying
billboards, using megaphone and sirens, installing paper-maché sculptures,
throwing leaflets from the gallery of the chamber and so on.
The majority quickly amended the internal
parliamentary rules to equip itself with the necessary tools to suppress this emerging trend of parliamentary performance. The abusive practices with respect to the
disciplinary proceedings initiated against opposition MPs were found contrary
to Article 10 (freedom of expression) by the Grand Chamber of the European
Court of Human Rights in the Karácsony and Szél cases. Even before the delivery of the judgment, the rules had
been amended, but the situation has not ameliorated ever since.
Based on a recent article, we know that the Speaker of the House has imposed a
financial penalty in 153 cases since 2013 and the total amount of penalties
paid so far is 72 million forints (appr. 217 000 euros). The severity of the
sanctions has been increasing as well. In the present parliamentary term, the
average amount is 854 000 forints (appr. 2 600
euros; NB the average salary/month in Hungary is about 720 euros net), but this year two deputies had to pay 1 780 000
forints (appr. 5 400 euros) each. It is also clear that the vast majority
of MPs sanctioned in a disciplinary procedure belong to the opposition parties.
Even in the face of the governing majority’s oppressive
techniques, sometimes the opposition parties have successfully exercised their
rights in a way to put the governing majority in an uncomfortable situation. It
is pretty easy to connect the dots and figure out that the new parliamentary
measures react to actions of the opposition MPs. Let me give you some examples
while discussing the most important changes.
Almost exactly a year ago, the opposition parties tried
to prevent the plenary from voting on two very controversial bills (an
amendment to the Labor Act, also called Slavery Act, and the administrative
judicial reform). On the day of the final vote they physically blocked the
Speaker’s podium and blew whistles for more than two hours. Even though both
legislative proposals were ultimately enacted in a chaotic legislative process, this action successfully brought the international media’s attention to these issues.
A more recent example is MP Hadházy’s prank on PM
Orbán. During the PM’s first parliamentary speech after the local elections, Hadházy
held billboards in front of Orbán with the text: “He needs to lie, because he stole
too much” and “Stop propaganda, stop corruption”. Although the rogue MP was escorted
back to his seat quite quickly, the images of Orbán trying to take away the
sheets from Hadházy went viral and made him an object of public ridicule.
Events like these prompted Fidesz to amend the
disciplinary regulation of the House again. Firstly, two new forms of
infringement were introduced with a conveniently vague definition: i) interruption
gravely disturbing another MP’s speech or the presiding of the session and ii)
disruption of parliamentary proceedings and hindering of other MPs,
parliamentary or public officials from exercising their rights and carrying out
Secondly, the disciplinary sanctions have become more
severe as well. On the one hand, the upper limit of the financial penalties has
been increased dramatically. According to the new rules, the remuneration of MPs
may be lowered to the minimum wage for a maximum of 6 months (depending on the
seriousness of the violation). If the MP excluded from the session is not
willing to leave the chamber contrary to the order of the Speaker, the penalty
automatically doubles and can go up to 12 months. On the other hand, in the
future, deputies may not only be excluded from the session, but also banned from
entering the premises of the National Assembly. While the exclusion is a
sanction relatively limited in scope, the ban can last for a maximum of 60 working
days (depending on the seriousness of the violation). During this time, the
deputy is not allowed to enter the premises of the National Assembly (including
the chambers and the offices) and may only exercise her right to vote by proxy.
In addition, the MPs will lose their position as Speaker, vice-president of the
National Assembly and parliamentary notary if they are excluded from the
session twice or banned from entering the parliamentary premises even once.
Since the opposition’s efforts to exercise meaningful control
over the government in the House proved fruitless in most cases, several MPs
decided to use their rights to carry out extra-parliamentary inquiries in
public institutions. Some of these actions were spectacles, such as the “occupation” of the Hungarian National Television’s building after
the opposition MPs’ failed attempt to get air time on public media amid anti-government
demonstrations. But many of them very extremely useful. For example, MP Szél’s intervention
significantly contributed to the revelation of the shocking conditions at a state care facility for the mentally disabled
when the Ministry of Human Resources failed to act. We could also mention those
cases when opposition deputies helped journalists to receive information from
refugee camps when their requests to enter these facilities were rejected by
the Hungarian authorities (see the recent judgment of the ECtHR in the case Szurovecz v. Hungary).
To stop these inquiries, the freshly enacted amendments require
parliamentarians to inform the public institutions they intend to visit in
advance and make their right to receive information conditional upon
preliminary consultation. MPs
will also have to respect stricter rules on confidentiality of information.
Under the new regulation, public institutions will have enough time to hide all
the problems they do not want to see daylight.
And there is more
Even though the opposition parties had to fight an uphill battle, they achieved significant success at the local elections held in October not only in Budapest, but also in other big cities. The results destabilized the government for a couple of weeks, but it has finally made the first step to get prepared for any eventuality at the 2022 general elections. By modifying the regulation on parliamentary party groups (PPGs) it made it much more difficult for the opposition parties to gain a working majority in the hemicycle with strategic electoral cooperation and create separate PPGs.