26. Jan. 2011

Protokoll CoE

Hungary: Misuse of democracy

Current affairs debate: the functioning of democracy in Hungary

THE PRESIDENT - The next item of business this afternoon is a current affairs debate on the functioning of democracy in Hungary. -- Speakers in the debate have three minutes, except for the first speaker, who has 10 minutes. The Bureau has chosen Mr von Sydow to speak first. The debate will end at around 7.30 p.m.

Mr VON SYDOW (Sweden) - Each member state of the Council of Europe is bound by the statute of this Organization to uphold, protect and safeguard the principles of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law. In that respect, I welcome this current affairs debate on the functioning of democracy in Hungary as a sign of both our commitment to these principles and our willingness to ensure that they are upheld by all member states, brothers and sisters.

Hungary was one of the first countries that joined the Council of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It has therefore never been under the monitoring procedure, as that was put in place only after Hungary had joined our Organization. However, until very recently, there were no noises casting doubts on the commitment of the country and its political class to comply fully with the principles of the Council of Europe.

An important point should be made here. While the current government enjoys a constitutional majority in the parliament of 68% of the seats, it does not represent an equal proportion of the population as it won only 53% of the popular vote. One of the hallmarks of a democracy is a comprehensive system of checks and balance s between the different branches of power. When that system of checks and balances is undermined, democracy erodes.

Although the government's risky economic policy has been criticized, and necessary reforms to make Hungary competitive are being postponed, it is not the economy that is the most worrying element of the country at present. To reach its goals and strengthen its position, the government seems to let go of fundamental democratic principles. Worrying examples of this include the process to revise the constitution, a radical media law and severe limitations on the authority of the constitutional court. The principle of checks and balances is at stake.

During the first few months of the Orbán administration, a number of amendments to laws have been passed. An increasing number of critics point to alarming political developments from a democratic point of view. A large number of civil servants have been dismissed without valid grounds. The prevailing consultative procedure in the law-making process is circumvented on a regular basis. An editorial committee is currently revising the national constitution in an unsatisfactory process that is not yet inclusive and is taking place in a very short period. Because of the time pressure in adopting a new constitution, the authorities plan to omit certain elements that would normally be regulated in a constitution, and instead to regulate these elements in separate normal legal acts to be adopted at a non-specified future time. This circumvents constitutional protection.

Moreover, the rules for appointing members to the constitutional court and the national election authority have been changed in such a way that the institutions' autonomy is questioned. Parliament has agreed on a constitutional supplement undermining the court's authority so that it no longer has the right to stop or question some of the government's proposals - for instance, the crisis taxes and retirement measures that are part of the current economic policy. There must be checks and balances in the whole polity of Hungary.

The most burning debate is about the new media law, which, according to its critics, puts a straitjacket on freedom of speech in Hungary. In November, parliament voted in favor of a law that limits freedom of speech severely. Registration is required for anyone who supplies the media with information. At the same time, the law imposes far-reaching demands on the contents of such information. Abiding with this law is being watched by a new established administration, which, according to the critics, is the prime minister's extended arm. The leader of this new "foundation of public service", who is appointed for nine years, has complete authority to appoint and dismiss the management in all state news media. We follow with interest the interaction between Hungary and the European Union in the field of media laws.

From this short outline, it is clear that a number of developments have recently taken place in Hungary that raise serious questions about the state of democracy in that country, our sister member. We are not talking about a single law or an isolated decision: no, we are looking at a series of interlinked developments that, combined, put a big question mark over Hungary's commitment to the core values and principles of this Organization. Again, there must be checks and ba lances. Lord Acton, a famous English statesman in the 19th century, said «Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely».

In the debate that follows, you will undoubtedly hear from some that these facts and views of mine have been taken out of context. I wish that was true, but I am afraid that the facts contradict this. Fortunately, the Assembly has a proper procedure to establish the facts and evaluate to what extent these developments violate the principles of the Council of Europe. The mechanism that we have in that context is a motion to request the opening of a monitoring procedure for Hungary. Such a request will not automatically lead to the opening of a monitoring procedure, but it will lead to the appointment of two rapporteurs by the Monitoring Committee to study and evaluate the facts and to report to the committee, and ultimately to the Bureau of the Assembly, on their findings and their conclusions on whether these issues warrant the opening of a monitoring procedure by the Assembly.

The Monitoring Committee might also call for the Venice Commission to interact with the process in asking the committee to evaluate the facts. The same is true of Hungary, which might itself ask the Venice Commission for advice. Some time ago, Finland asked for advice on its newly designed constitution.

The Assembly has used this procedure very recently with regard to the United Kingdom and Italy, and I can see no reason, on the basis of the facts that I have presented to you, why it should not be used for Hungary. We cannot allow ourselves to risk having double standards when it comes to demanding that our member states honour their commitment to the Council of Europe - our Organization.

THE PRESIDENT - Thank you, Mr von Sydow. I call Mr Gross, on behalf of the Socialist Group.

Mr GROSS (Switzerland) - This Assembly is appealing to the Hungarian Government not to continue with what they have been doing in the past eight months. It got 53% of the people's vote and therefore more than two thirds of the seats in parliament. That means that it has a power to change the constitution. As Mr von Sydow said, it has misused this power too much and we would like to ask it not to continue to do so. It is changing the Hungarian system in such a way that some Hungarians even say that it has totalitarian tendencies or an authoritarian style. György Dalos, a Hungarian writer, said that it is like putting dioxin in a meal. We would like to ask it not to continue like that.

The media law is only the tip of the iceberg. As Mr von Sydow said, in the past eight years the government has changed the constitution in a hasty way almost 10 times without at any time consulting the Venice Commission, for instance. It made laws in a reactive way. It made laws that punish former civil servants, people who have a private pension system and community and public workers, who can now be dismissed without any explanation. Today, 2000 university staff are making an appeal for the government not to continue like this because many of them are being dismissed from their posts, especially those who do not obey the new rules. All the public buildings must now have a poster saying «We are the product of the revolution that has happened in the past year.» That is very much like something in a totalitarian system.

The prime minister announced that he would do this in a speech on 29 February last year, when he said that he wanted to change a bipolar system to a unipolar system where one party does everything and is the only place where you have discussions about the priorities of the society. He wants to establish one-party rule. He says that it is no use having divisive discussions and that you must have a Unitarian system. This is a misuse and a misunderstanding of democracy. As Mr Tadic said this morning, in a democracy you have to integrate everyone, not only the mainstream and the biggest power.

THE PRESIDENT - Thank you. I call Lord Boswell, on behalf of the European Democrat Group.

Lord BOSWELL (United Kingdom) - I am delighted to speak on behalf of the EDG in this debate on Hungary and its current affairs. All in this Chamber will admire that country's progress from the ashes of 1956 to the presidency of the European Union. We should celebrate that. For many years I have been a member, and for some years an officer, of the United Kingdom's parliamentary Hungarian friendship group, and I have visited Hungary several times.

I begin with two general comments. First, it is quite proper that we each, as member states, have our own laws and practices to meet our local circumstances; that issue was raised in the debate immediately prior to this one. But that must be on the understanding that they are within European standards. Secondly, as a democrat and a fellow member of the centre right, I respect the fact that the strong election victory of the new Hungarian Government gives it a mandate for significant political changes in a difficult economic and political climate.

Let me, however, make three points about which I have considerable reservations. First, a victorious party, particularly within a majoritarian system of election, should not seek to deny opposition parties all voice or influence. In parliament and in public administration generally, things work better in an atmosphere of open dialogue, mutual trust and self-restraint. In any case, unless the electoral pendulum is stabilized and stopped by some intervention, who knows when it will swing back to the other side?

Secondly, although parties in a democracy exist to represent different shades of opinion, they should sometimes reflect on the acceptable limits to the process. We know that Hungary suffered a serious and long-lasting blow with the Treaty of Trianon, but nationalist feeling cannot be used after an interval of almost a century as justification for actions disturbing good relations with neighboring member states.

Third is the issue of media freedom. I believe that substantive issues have arisen over the new Hungarian media law. I note that - and this a quote from the letter - «The Commission services have serious doubts as to the compatibility of the Hungarian legislation with EU law». The Hungarian Government has a duty to respond positively and promptly to those immediate concerns.

In the longer term, as the Council of Europe, we must work with the EU and others to assess whether the standards to which we all subscribe, in relation to the body of law and the Convention, are sufficiently clear and unambiguous. The freedom of the press and the media is at the heart of a free society and it is appropriate, given current developments, that this Assembly should sound something of a warning bell for the Hungarian Government to respond to.

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