Hungarian president likely to pay for independence

Hungarian president likely to pay for independence
Janos Ader has been dancing to the beat of the "wrong" drum
By Blanka Zoldi in Brussels May 19, 2016

Hungary’s governing Fidesz party spent May 18 emphasizing its satisfaction with the “excellent job” done by President Janos Ader. However, that somewhat contradicts events from the previous day, when a party official was caught on camera suggesting Ader has “no chance" of re-election next year: "Viktor won’t let it happen.”

The remark suggests Prime Minister Viktor Orban is turning his back on long-time ally Ader due to the president's recent efforts to increase his autonomy. A swift fall would only illustrate the government’s refusal to allow checks and balances to get in the way of its plans.

A university friend of Orban's, founding member of Fidesz, and president since 2012, Ader has exhibited a rebellious mood recently. His refusal to sign a bill that sought to keep parts of the central bank’s spending behind closed doors resulted in one of the biggest scandals to dog Fidesz in recent years, when it was revealed that huge funds were granted to people close to Orban and the governor of the Magyar Nemzeti Bank.

Little wonder Orban may seek to prevent similar cases in the future, and to opt for a more loyal president when Ader’s five-year term of office ends in 2017.

Gyorgy Rubovszky, a member of Fidesz "coalition partner" KDNP, whispered his doubts about the president's re-election during a committee meeting break. Although he did not mention Ader’s name, and later denied having mentioned him, his comments caught on camera leave little doubt that he was referring to the current president.

Sand in the machine

“What Rubovszky has now let slip was already suspected. Now we know for sure that Orban is not happy with the fact that Ader takes some unpredictable steps,” Robert Laszlo, an analyst at Political Capital in Budapest tells bne IntelliNews. In the seventh year of Fidesz’ governance, “the will to completely undermine” the system of democratic checks and balances is apparent, he claims. “However, sand sometimes sand gets in the machine."

Since Fidesz came to power in 2010, critics have repeatedly raised concerns over its tightening grip on all checks and balances. It is accused of controlling public media, filling the Constitutional Court with friendly judges, and reducing the independence of the State Audit Office.

Until recently, the presidential office also seemed to have been neutralised. The president has the right to return any legislation sent for signature back to the parliament or to the Constitutional Court. However, Pal Schmitt - Ader's predecessor between 2010 and 2012 - was the first Hungarian president to fail to raise even a single concern.

After Schmitt resigned from his post over allegations of plagiarism, Orban's old ally Ader was viewed as a safe pair of hands, albeit, he made the right noises as he arrived in office. "If I receive a hundred impeccable laws from the parliament, I will sign all of them," Ader said in his first interview as president in May 2012. "But if I receive a hundred bad laws with mistakes, I will send them all back.”

Since then, Ader has become the second most active president - in terms of the numbers of returned legistlations - in Hungary's post-communist democracy, but how effective that has made him is a topic of some debate. He has returned 23 laws to the parliament, including bills on media, waste management, trade, labour, and most recently, that on a new scheme to set up state-backed building societies. However, many were simply passed again by the parliament, without substantial modification.  

On the other hand, the president has played a role in preventing some measures important to the ruling party. It was partly due to Ader and the Consitutional Court, for example, that Fidesz dropped the idea of forcing voters to register before elections.

“Ader raised his voice in connection with some some very important issues: in 2012, against the modification of the election system, and most recently, against the bill on the central bank’s transparency," Laszlo points out. "He did not prevent other very important measures apart from these two, but in the current system this is already considered a lot.”

Ader's role is not black and white, however. The president has also signed some extremely controversial pieces of legislations without a note of criticism, sometimes even amid protests in front of the Sandor Palace. Those bills include the law on the Paks nuclear power plant expansion in 2014, which sealed a deal with Russia, and promptly locked the details out of the public's reach for decades.

Lined up

It remains unclear who might replace Ader next year, or how much influence Orban will manage to personally have on the selection process. When responding on May 18 to Rubovszky’s comments, Fidesz appeared confused.

The head of the press office of the prime minister said that "the parliament exlusively plays a role in the process of electing the president.” Fidesz Vice President Gergely Gulyas claimed the same day that the prime minister is the one who proposes the candidate, according to

The vice-president also claimed that no decision has been made concerning the re-election of Ader. He added that he thinks the president is doing an “excellent job,” and that sending back the law on central bank transparency was a “decision of great importance”.

Other local media report, however, that Fidesz is already lining up its candidates. Unnamed sources claim to Heti Valasz that Orban would like to see Laszlo Kover, current speaker of the parliament, as the next head of state. Zoltan Balog, minister of human resources is most likely to become the new president according to