Gyorgy Magyar on the dismantling of the rule of law in Hungary

September 1, 2014


“What is unlawful cannot be made lawful through the crafting of legislation. . . . What we’re seeing is the complete dismantling of the rule of law in Hungary. It’s undeniable that this process is already under way. The fact that there are no procedural control mechanisms is a clear sign that the process itself goes against standard democratic practices. In this respect, the Constitutional Court has completely lost its functional purpose. It has been neutered, its legal powers have been dulled-down to the point of ineffectiveness, and it is being filled with party soldiers. All of this is a detriment to our independent democratic institutions and the legal profession as a whole because the most significant positions are being filled by unprofessional party hacks, people whose notoriety comes from their political affiliations not their professional experiences.” – Gyorgy Magyar, lawyer and candidate for Budapest mayor

Please tell us a little bit about your personal background.

The really only interesting thing about my life is that I’ve always been attorney and nothing else for 41 years. I’ve been a resident of Budapest since the old days. I was born in the area, this is where I went to school.  My mother was a high school language teacher.  My father was an executive.

My interest in the humanities started in my early childhood. I wrote poetry and short novels when I fourteen years old. Back in elementary school, I had a Hungarian language teacher who had been a college classmate of (Hungarian poet Miklos) Radnoti. This played a significant role in the education we received because our class was filled with Radnoti-esque exposure to literature, and we loved it! Similarly, our Hungarian language teacher in high school was a huge admirer of Ady which, in turn, did much to facilitate our appreciation for Ady’s writings. This ran contrary to the trend back then when a greater significance was placed on the writings of Attila Jozsef. It was through my early education that I became attracted to subjects of history and literature, and this was what laid the groundwork for my decision to enroll in law school.

My decision to enroll in law school was also influenced greatly by a family member who was an attorney and a journalist. His name was Dr. Tamas Szego. There’s actually an award named after him because he taught classes on ethics in journalism. Dr. Szego played a significant role in my decision to become an attorney because he was my role model. I wanted to be a lawyer like him, someone who can use his profession to contribute to the issues of public life.

I’ve always loved it when people asked me to discuss issues concerning the public from the perspective of law. I suppose that’s contributed to why I’ve been asked by Hungarian media to share my thoughts on particular issues. I do my best to explain sometimes complex and complicated issues in ways the public can understand. The people understand what I’m saying and that probably sets me apart from, say, a university professor who has a deep breadth of understanding for the complexities of law but is unable to help the average everyday person understand the intricacies of a given issue.

Many people have told me that I’m easy to talk to and it’s easy to seek and understand my professional opinion. All this essentially summarizes who I am personally and professionally.

You’ve built a successful law office over the years.

Our law office is very well known. We’ve had a number of significant cases that received large publicity, particularly in the field of criminal law. Criminal law, as it were, is more likely to raise the public awareness of a law office because the public is generally more interested in the nature of criminals than, say, divorce law or property law. I do not mean to imply that law offices which practise other types of law are uninteresting or important, I merely point out that the newsworthiness of criminal cases is better able to capture the public’s attention. The public is generally captivated by criminal proceeding in cases involving murder and other serious offenses. Typically, if an attorney is affiliated with such a case, it usually results in the public also becoming interested in the attorney and professional statements made by him.

One such case I had was that of the “Whiskey Robber”. Attila Ambrus had been apprehended by authorities, tried and sentenced for carrying out a series of bank robberies. The case became even more sensational when he escaped from prison. The entire country was looking for him but nobody could find him!  Clearly, if no one can find the escaped prisoner, the closest thing to a statement from the escapee is a statement from his legal representative. Ambrus was eventually caught and thrown back into prison but the case brought me a significant amount of publicity as I was his attorney. My media appearances have not only included my own cases. I’ve also been asked to explain legal cases unrelated to my own clients.

It’s been about two years since Hungary released convicted Azerbaijani axe-murderer Ramil Safarov from Hungarian prison into the custody of the Azerbaijani government, who, in turn, pardoned him for his crimes.

I also represented him at his criminal trial but I should point out that I had absolutely nothing to do with the Hungarian government’s decision to release Safarov into the custody of the Azerbaijani government or any pact the Hungarian government may have worked out in secret with the Azerbaijani government.

I was asked by the Azerbaijani government to represent Safarov when he was charged with murder because the Azerbaijani embassy wasn’t satisfied with his first defense lawyer. My relationship with that case ended when his criminal trial ended. I had nothing to do with any of the political aftermath that took place.

Last week you stated your intention to run for mayor of Budapest despite the adoption by parliament of the controversial municipal election law.  It seems that as a legal scholar you occasionally express serious concerns about Hungary’s legal environment.  

I am a firm believer in the “rule of law”. I also believe in democracy. I believe that legal predictability is undeniably a prerequisite for any democratic society. If there is a situation in which legal uncertainty takes over for whatever reason in any country, that is an utter tragedy. On one hand, it’s a tragedy for those who live here, specifically those who are forced to experience it day in and day out. It’s an incredibly awful experience to have to try to live your life in a way where you must constantly adjust and make concessions to a continuously changing legal environment. This creates uncertainty. On the other hand, foreign interests, including investors, see this uncertainty and the problems it creates and will therefore try to avoid it. When that happens we’re in trouble.

We can try this and that with the National Bank programs, programs for the foreign currency-denominated mortgage loans, playing with the interest rates, and all kinds of “tax incentives”, but when it comes down to what the actual perception of our country is, it is clear that our legal environment in incredibly unstable. That’s why investors and capital are leaving our country. Therefore, we must accept that, regardless of what kind of tune we’re singing to the world, unless investors are reassured of the stability and predictability of the Hungarian legal system, they won’t be coming back.

I don’t like that the current government is crafting and shaping law in a completely idiotic manner. They are not concerned with addressing the delicate intricacies of a changing a legal environment. I accept that laws need to change as society changes and progresses. I don’t think it’s wrong to update the civil code because the previous one was codified in the 1950s. Life has changed since then and it’s okay to reflect those changes in the civil code. However, that’s not what I have a problem with. I have a problem with laws that are crafted in such a way theyare biased in favor of certain political goals. I have a saying that relates to this: “What is unlawful cannot be made lawful through the crafting of legislation.”

I think that the current government has used its legislative monopoly to serve its own interests. The delicate and complex nature of creating legislation has been replaced by a legislation manufacturer, and it is responsible for manufacturing many defective pieces of legislation. I believe that this has caused great harm to the legal security of this country. I am opposed to any such direct legislative changes, and I believe that a codified and professionally acceptable form of drafting and adopting legislation is much more equitable than one rooted in political interests.

The fact that people with no knowledge of law sit in parliament, creating and changing laws with the push of a button, is an abomination and shame to the concept of law, especially when legal scholars and real legal experts should be the ones crafting legislation.

I imagine the current legal environment harms the reputation of the legal profession as whole.

Yes, unfortunately what we’ve experienced is that laws have been enacted without being reviewed by the Ministry of Justice. This happens, for example, when a member of parliament submits his own piece of draft legislation. The unprofessionalism this amounts to is life threatening!

Why do you think this is? Would you say that in Hungary the “rule of law” has strayed away from core values underlying the legal system?

There are many cases in which this government has strayed away from the foundation or pillars of the rule of law. Take what happened when they wrote the new constitution. The constitution is supposed to be a foundation for our legal system. It should be as stable as they said it would be: like a rock. But the “rock solid” constitution has been modified five times since it was adopted in April 2011. The legislators have committed the mistake of introducing passages that have no business being in the constitution. They’ve done this to prevent the European Court and our even our Constitutional Court from questioning the legality of their legislation. This is what is referred to as “coercive legislating” and I am opposed to this kind of legislating.

America, which is a democratic country, does not tolerate this kind of legislating. And neither does the European Union.

The same supermajority used to adopt the new constitution in the first place has been used by the Fidesz-KDNP government to modify the constitution virtually at the will of the prime minister whenever something is ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court as a way of overcoming the court’s objection.

That’s a huge problem because the Constitutional Court has no jurisdiction to change laws that are written into the constitution itself.

So, to put it in simple terms: what we’re seeing is the complete dismantling of the rule of law in Hungary. It’s undeniable that this process is already under way. The fact that there are no procedural control mechanisms is a clear sign that the process itself goes against standard democratic practices. In the respect, the Constitutional Court has completely lost its functional purpose. It has been neutered, its legal powers have been dulled-down to the point of ineffectiveness, and it is being filled with party soldiers. All of this is a detriment to our independent democratic institutions and the legal profession as a whole because the most significant positions are being filled by unprofessional party hacks, people whose notoriety comes from their political affiliations not their professional experiences.

Take, for example, the former Chancellor of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who is now a Constitutional Court Justice!  He has no experience as a legal scholar. He became a Justice of the Constitutional Court because he’s loyal to his party.

The same can be said for those who were attorneys before becoming Justices like Dr. Solomon and Dr. Balsay, who rose through the political ranks, served in parliament, received ministerial appointments and were eventually appointed to the Constitutional Court. I don’t believe they owe their appointments to their legal expertise and professionalism. Their appointments had much more to do with their loyalty to the party. I think that presents a huge danger. Not to mention that soon they will appoint new Justices to the Constitutional Court because the existing ones have “become too old”. What will happen is that the Constitutional Court’s inner influence will become skewed in such a way that creates inconsistency within the court, and it will become irreconcilably divided on core issues.

The current Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, Dr. Peter Paczolay, is a man who by no means can be labelled a “left-liberal”, he’s a respectable conservative thinker. He became the center of controversy when he dared to speak up in the interest of constitutionality.  He’s no longer seen as a loyal conservative and that will cost him the position of the Chief Justice, which is unfortunate because he is not at all old.

Unfortunately, here in Hungary it has become a huge problem that we have an environment in which loyalty to the party dominates all aspects of the democratic system. Something of this nature could never happen in the United States.

We’ve talked about the legal environment of Hungary. Let’s turn to your plans to run for mayor of Budapest.

I was asked to run by civil organizations that know me through my legal work. They think that I’m the person who is capable of representing their interests and the interests of the city, unlike other candidates who are representing the interests of their own parties. Unlike them, I have been asked to represent real civil interests. I am a real independent candidate that does not have the backing of a party. Obviously, without a party behind me, I face harder odds. We can’t campaign like a party, we don’t have a party structure and we don’t qualify for public campaign funds.  We have civil supporters who represent various movements, such as animal rights, urban protection and environmental protection groups. These people believe that this city now needs an attorney to help represent the city’s interests and fight for its rights because this is not happening now.

We have no problem with Budapest’s current mayor. The current mayor takes care of the city and he does what he is capable of doing. However, it is unacceptable for us that he simply agrees with everyone on everything. He has a homogenous position on everything.  He is monotonous on everything.  And he is a simpleton.

It’s important that opposing positions and opposing interests all have a forum where their views can be made public. There is a need for opposing opinions to be included in public dialogue. The public needs transparency in order to help it work together with the city government. An environment needs to be created in which the locals also have a say in city issues.  Because right now it’s as though only the central government has a say in what happens in Budapest. This is what we’d like to change and this is exactly why we think the current mayor needs to be changed.

It’s clear that if one looks at the current mayor’s position the most important issues, such as upgrading our subway system, other public transportation issues, public safety, homelessness, he’s always taken the side of the central government. On not one occasion has he given voice to the concerns of Budapest’s residents.

Recently Tarlos fought for a loan to finance repairs to Metro Line 3.

He hasn’t done that. He’s only promised to. Metro Line 3 didn’t just now fall into a state of disrepair. It’s been in this condition for that past six years. If we look at Tarlos’ campaign program in 2010, we’ll find that it included things that he planned on accomplishing his first term in office. Four years have passed and we can see that absolutely nothing has been accomplished in this area. Now, of course, we are in a campaign period and I’m sure you’re aware now that the gravity of promises made during a campaign period represent about one-tenth of a percent the value of a real promise, and they have zero effect.

If elected mayor my main activity will be to represent and fight for the interests of Budapest’s residents, and to work to make sure that tourists treasure our city as much as we do.

Tourists shouldn’t leave Hungary with a sour taste in their mouth because they’ve been swindled by an unscrupulous hospitality provider, or because they’ve been robbed in the streets, or because they’ve been pilfered by a cab driver. What we’d like to see is that tourists come to Budapest and are so impressed by the positive experience of being in this city that they decide to stay longer, come more often and even tell their friends to come! Why do we want this? Because this city is extraordinarily beautiful and is a wonderful place to have superb outings in the hills of Buda or in the restaurants of the city. All of this benefits the citizens of Budapest because it creates income for the city.

We should stop beating local businesses over the head for the purpose of creating income for the city. We have to stop burdening local businesses with senseless regulatory fees and taxes. We have to stop taking away the money of the residents with tricks like ridiculous fines that run into the tens of thousands of forints when one tire goes over the allotted space by a few centimeters. They are unnecessary and unduly penalize residents for problems not of their making.

My supporters are the ones who who have said, “Enough is enough. We have had enough of this. Now, we’d like it if someone would start representing our interests, too, and not just the interests of the political parties and the public administration.”

These are the tasks we must accomplish.

This sounds a lot like Lajos Bokros’ campaign platform.

Lajos Bokros is an individual with good organizational skills. I like him very much and have a huge amount of respect for his ability to prepare. If I become mayor of Budapest, I wouldn’t take upon the responsibility of leading the city without Bokros’ help. I have every intention of carrying out the responsibilities assigned to the mayor of Budapest in tandem with the support provided by Bokros, especially given his remarkable reputation as an economist. I believe his talents and professionalism will play an instrumental role in helping me get the job done. I know that I can say the very same thing for him. We’ve talked about our goals and we share the same position on many issues. He’s emphasized that if he becomes mayor he would entrust me with representing the city’s interests and resolving the city’s legal conflicts.

You guys have a sort of partnership in the works?

We have agreed to fly in formation.

Like geese.

Exactly! Side by side, always aware of what the other is doing and moving together towards the goal!

So how do you plan on doing this in the run-up to the election? Will one of you step back and let the other take the lead?

We haven’t yet made a decision on how we’d like to approach the race at this moment. We have made a gentleman’s agreement

Gentleman’s agreements still exist in Hungary?

Between Mr. Bokros and myself they certainly do. Two professionals can certainly still have a gentleman’s agreement. It’s rare nowadays but we have one. Two well-known and respected professionals can. One respected and experienced attorney and one respected and experienced economist can still seal a gentleman’s agreement with a handshake. Believe it or not, here in Hungary this can still happen! It’s rare but it’s still around.

That’s good to know.

Like I said, we still haven’t finalized any details regarding who will step back and who will move forward because we’re still in the phase of gathering the required five thousand signatures needed to get our names on the ballot. But the requirement to gather signatures in itself is absolutely idiotic because it means absolutely nothing. If everyone can sign everyone else’s endorsement sheet, then how on Earth does the entire process gauge the level of a candidate’s initial support?  What is the point of this entire thing? So five thousand people endorse me and eight other candidates? So what?

Did you endorse Mr. Bokros’ candidacy?

Not yet. But I know he’s around the corner gathering signatures. We have two weeks to gather these signatures. Obviously, I’m going to sign his and I’m confident he’ll sign mine. He’s a very correct and very collected individual. I’m a bit different than him, my habits and skillsets are different from his. I think I probably have better communication skills, and because of my experience in criminal law I’m better at putting myself in someone else’s shoes. Bokros is too respectable for the political world!

What’s your opinion of Ferenc Falus? What’s it going to be like to campaign against him?

I’m not inclined to comment on him personally. I’ve got a lot of respect for him and I know he’s an accomplished man. I think the left’s completely stomped-out, beaten-to-pieces, and the left-liberal parties made a good decision when they decided to collectively nominate him to be the candidate in the mayoral race. On the other hand, I have doubts regarding whether he’ll be able to defeat Tarlos. I doubt whether the level of the public’s awareness of Falus would reach Tarlos’ name recognition before the race ends. Tarlos has an enormous advantage over Falus in this respect, especially as the incumbent mayor.

Mr. Falus is an experienced medical professional, you are the experienced attorney, and Bokros is the experienced economist.  Why can’t the three of you join forces and run as a coalition?

That’s what would make sense and it’s also how it was done long ago in Rome. Even in the United States, the Vice-President runs together with the President.

It hasn’t always been like that but the practice has developed over the years.

But you see what I’m saying, democracy evolved to the point where this made sense because it was clear that the cooperation would be there. In Hungary we aren’t moving forward in our democratic practices.  We’re moving backwards. It should be candidates themselves who decide who they can work with. No one is capable of understanding everything, but people should be able to decide who they trust most to work with.

Has anyone on the left approached yourself and Bokros about teaming up?

Technically speaking, it would be possible for us to create such a platform because if any of the three candidates is chosen, he could always rely on the other two in a professional capacity as either an outside deputy mayor or, as I have recommended, through the creation of a sort of magistratus. This board of professionals would advise the city council and mayor on professional matters regarding the city’s plans, projects, etc. Long ago, this is how the city council worked. The city’s leadership should have open and unfettered access to the opinions and advice of actual professionals who help the leader navigate through the various complex issues which present themselves to the city’s leadership.

The city council should make the decisions, but it would be good if a magistratus comprised of 7 or 8 professionals helped provide information regarding the decisions. There is a need for this. It’s no coincidence that the President has a group of professional advisors and there’s no reason why the city of Budapest shouldn’t have one.

If any of us is elected, the others could either serve as deputy mayors with portfolios or as members of this magistratus.

We’ve talked about this with Lajos and have agreed that such an arrangement would be good in this situation. If Bokros is elected, he’ll ask me to serve as an ombudsman for Budapest. If I’m elected, I will ask Bokros to manage the city’s finances.

If Lajos Bokros is accepted by the leaders of European nations for his reputation and accomplishments as a world-class economist, then I don’t see why he couldn’t be entrusted with such responsibilities for our great city and for me Gyorgy Magyar.

How do you think this mayoral race is going to pan out?

We need to see a tight and competitive race. I can’t predict the results but what I can say is that I think a large number of voters are afraid.

Afraid of what?

On one hand, I think they’re afraid of the changes that would take place after the election. On the other hand, I think they’re afraid right now of challenging the current powers.

The central government has all but stripped local governments of their powers.

That’s right, and we don’t like that. We liberal-minded democrats don’t like this one bit. This is another reason why people say that the rule of law has disappeared. We’d like to see the practice of justice returned to our country and to our city. The reality is that the new municipal election law was upheld by the Constitutional Court by a vote of eight to seven.

Chief Justice Paczolay accused the Constitutional Court of allow politics to interfere in its deliberations .

It was awful. It’s a perfect example of how party loyalty can negatively influence the rule of law. But to return to your question about what kind of results can be expected from the mayoral race, I think it is more likely than not that the results will produce unrealistic results because people are unwilling to openly share their opinions.

Hopefully, the voters will be confident enough to express their opinions in the privacy of the voting booth when it counts. I’d like to emphasize the importance of expressing one’s opinion in the privacy of the voting booth. I strongly disagree with this idea that’s spread around that the voting booth is where revolutions happen.  That’s wrong. The voting booth is a place of privacy where you should be able to make your opinion known. People weren’t born into this world to be revolutionaries, people are calm and would like to live in peace.

Where can people sign your endorsement sheets?

The civil organizations supporting me are around the city visiting residents and gathering endorsements. They’re doing this face-to-face because we neither have no media support, no money for signature stands and certainly no money for billboards.

I will personally be at Moscow Square on Sunday and I’ll visit one of our signature-gathering spots at the Trombitas Restaurant around the corner.