Meet Bernadett Szél, co-chair and MP of Hungary's Green Party, LMP

May 7, 2015

Translation of an interview with Bernadett Szél “They have lost their sense of reality” (“Elvesztették a realitásérzéküket”) made by Ildikó Orosz. The interview appeared in weekly print Magyar Narancs’s April 30. issue on pp. 8-10.

We sat down with one of the most active parliamentary representatives to talk about machoism in the assembly, gender equality the struggles of the five LMP MPs and the future of the party.

Magyar Narancs: Your fallout with János Lázár last week stirred up tensions. After you asked him in parliament about the nuclear cemetery at Boda, he answered “It’s either that you express a special interest in me or that we have a lot of common topics. I hope that you will extend this special interest of yours to other fellow ministers as well in the future.” You condemned this comment as being sexist. To which the minister quasi jokingly excused himself saying that “No, such a thing could not possibly have occurred to me in connection with your person.” Why did not you simply just let the remark go unnoticed?

Bernadett Szél: This was not the first such comment from János Lázár on that day. Earlier I also asked him on the floor about his hotel bills scandal, to which he already said that “at this stage” he does not want to involve me in his private life. I did not react to that. But when even in connection with the Boda nuclear waste containers – not being a romantic topic of discussion per se – he only managed to react with some kind of sexism, then it became clear that this is a weapon he intends to use against me. The only reason of my “special interest” in him is that he is responsible for almost all aspects of decisions in the present ministerial structure. Once, when I was trying to claw out answers from him in connection with the MET case, he even admitted to being overwhelmed by the numerous and diverse tasks the prime minister commissions him with – this is how he avoided providing a proper answer. But answering your question, with the style of speech conducted in the parliament could easily end up scolding each others’ mother if someone does not step in to say “enough is enough” from time to time. We would then wound up in a downward spiral, and there would be more and more brutal situations. There was such a round, one and a half years ago with Fidesz MP Zoltán Illés, and later with his fellow MP, László Tasó, I think I only do the right thing if I confront these politicians with their own reflections in a mirror, so for me, standing up and reacting in ten seconds to such remarks from the one minute provided for me was not a question.

MN: Is the same kind of machoism characteristic of the corridor talk as well?

BSz: Yes, the male MPs try to create a little cohesion among themselves in this way. There are some who are not even aware of these comments are being sexist. They really do not want to hurt you, simply, this is the way they express themselves. When I call them out on it, they have a habit of staring at me with eyes wide. At times like those, I always tell them what my problem was, and they usually understand and sometimes do not. Jokes and goofing around however are usually dealt with right on the floor without further ado. It is important however to react to these instances not in an offensive but more like in an educative way, because we should not accept it as normal. I am however more annoyed when a member of government an under-secretary or a minister allows the same style of speaking to himself even when his words will be recorded in the minutes. Then I usually feel like the dignity of the House is violated and I would only violate it more if I leave such attempts unanswered.

MN: To what extent this communication is directed towards the public?

B Sz: What is going on in parliamentary committees is oftentimes harsher. Not many people know that on such committee meetings are open to the public and anyone can attend with the prior approval of the committee chair. Only the legislative committee meetings are taped – as this is where the detailed debates on legislation are happening – but I would record all committee meetings, as they are outright case studies of what is generally going on. At the last incident it became obvious that János Lázár is fiddling for his own people. However, what was taped is but a small segment of what actually happened. There was a pack of governing party wolves lead by MP Gyula Budai in the background who told what they think about me shouting. The parliament went berserk. On the recordings it seems like I am the one starting to call the minister out on an elevated voice, yet I was not angry, but the noise around me was so loud that I was not able to hear my own voice. A segment of my fellow MPs lost their sense of reality. It became a sort of a tendency that on B weeks, when the assembly hall is virtually empty they feel like they are “among themselves” in a close circle, as János Lázár articualted it on that specific day. At those times the situation is always worse, there is no control, like on A weeks, when we vote, and there are 199 MPs present.

MN: The national assembly presently has 10,1% of female MPs. With this, we are the last in the EU, and are on the 114th place globally. This ratio never reached 12% in the past 25 years., and there were time even under Socialist-Liberal governments when it was 9%. How the present situation is different then?

B. Sz.: In my opinion, there are many MPs now in the parliament who fail to fulfill the minimum requirements that could be expected from a politician. Our profession is at its lowest point right now, as it is unable to present a new generation that could actually behave like lawmakers. The governing party does nothing to change this. They fully control the parliament, but in the past five years there were no sanctions imposed on MPs, even though there were a range of insults on the floor from sexism to yelling “shut up!” Such ad hominem style is inappropriate, and if we do not address it openly, there will be no change.

MN: In September 2011, Zoltán Illés, then secretary responsible for environmental issues was lengthily scolding you on floor, saying that “the fact that you are pretty does not mean that you are clever as well”, calling your question about the gold mines of Rosia Montana, Romania “nonsense.” Was there any consequence to that?

B. Sz.: We brought the case in front of the House Committee, but the chairman’s office imposed a witty solution of deconstructing Illés’s sentences and found that one by one, the remarks were not so offensive that they should sanction anyone for them.

MN: You and other members of your caucus however have to face serious fines regularly.

B. Sz.: We feel this double standard strongly as well as sort of a janitor’s attitude towards us. They fined us for holding up signs in protest, for example when I and Ágnes Osztolykán stepped into the center with a sign reading “Distribution of land instead of a robbery”, while on the Paks voting we remained seated while holding up signs reading “We do not want to be a nuclear colony.” At occasions like these the house usually reduces our next salary for “violating the principle of the undisturbed operation of the parliament and its dignity”. In our view these cases do not qualify as violations and we consider such fines as the curbing of the freedom of speech of MPs. Therefore we turned to the Strasbourg court, seeking remedy. Indeed we put obstacles to the voting on the shameful Orbán-Putin pact but there this was the exact objective, and we do not dispute that case.

MN: Over a year ago, Hungary ratified the Istanbul Agreement thats goal is to do away with domestic violence. Why the agreement did not take effect to this day?

B. Sz.: The brand new reasoning for that is that in Austria it also took 30 days to get from signing the agreement to it takinf effect, so in this regard “we are still better off.” But the agreement is open to sing ever since 2011, Austria joined it among the first, and we only signed it in March 2014. A lot of civil organizations were fighting for that to happen. Now they are trying to buy time with delaying its ratification. I have received an official answer to my written question saying that for ratifying it one needs money and a couple of legal amendments. Now let’s not then delve into the question of what receives funding in the budget! I filed a recommendation for the budget amendment of 2015 that would have ensure HUF 8 billion for the expenses of ratification. They voted it down. It is possible that this is a question of prestige not to give in to opposition and civil society demands as the government grew accustomed to deciding everything unilaterally.

MN: Even if this is a topic in which a consensus would be widely expected.

B. Sz.: I agree. I think that they do not want to go along with the legislation out of simple power-hungry arrogance and haughtiness. This government regards it as its own achievment that partnership violence became sanctioned under the Criminal Code – even if such a measure was forced on them by civil society and the opposition with an enormous effort. And even if everyone clearly remembers the scandalous educational remarks made by Fidesz MP István Varga, who suggested that if women would give birth to more children so that they can avoid being beaten up.

MN: Since the departure of Katalin Ertsey from caucus, women’s issues are not in focus at LMP. Are you planning to get more involved in this?

B. Sz.: We are constantly working on these issues, but it is difficult to get media attention for it, let alone the attention of the government. This week I delivered a speech defending child nursery workers’ rights, before that we filed written questions in connection with the situation of hospital workers On International Women’s Day I addressed the issue of wage gap which is at present is 18,4% in Hungary while the EU average is 16,4%, in addition this is on the rise. I filed an amendment to provide a program of equal wages, but it was voted down out of hand, The same thing happened to my recommendations of flexible employment. An importan development is that at us, the representation of gender equality issues is not done by a single person. LMP MP Erzsébet Schmuck was attending the grand UN Conference in New York, I was working with her to assemble a bill in connection with that. We also stood up together on stage protesting the idea of binding pension raises to the number of children. Another fellow MP Benedek Róbert Sallai is a dedicated representative of the homebirth movement. I was examining opportunities to erase gender stereotypes from schoolbooks with LMP MP István Ikotity, the case is presently on the ombusdman’s desk. LMP is dedicated for a place in the parliament where gender equality can be addressed as there is no such place there at present. This topic was not included in the new structure of committees. When I articulated this issue on floor, Antal Rogán answered that the question of mothers returning to employment from childcare leaves will be addressed in the committee to the development of businesses. From this, you can see how little importance the government attaches to these issues. We are struggling for a year to establish an ad-hoc committee for equal gender opportunities, to which all of the parties would delegate members, expressing by this that this is an issue stretching through political differences. This committe would hold meeting for a year addressing the topics of employment, healthcare, domestic violence among others and would also prepare an executive report on the most urgent measures to be taken. I was lobbying at the caucus and at the ministries to an extent that now they put this proposal on schedule, albeit seemingly without consequences so far.

MN: So this is all detailed woodpecking without spectacular results?

B. Sz.: Exactly. I filed numerous bills, only to be dismissed by the majority. Last wednesday this happened in the committee of justice, we handed in a bill with Erzsébet Schmuck proposing a 50% quota for women in the legislative assembly by 2030. This would merely be a realization of the Beijing recommendations, and we dared only to propose it as under-secretary Katalin Novák openly expressed her support for it. We did nothing else but codified in a bill what she already said – all in vain.

MN: Even though in the question of quotas everything now depends on the parliament, as according to new regulations a bottom-up referendum initiative similar to that of 2009 is not possible anymore. Meanwhile, according to surveys support for such a gender quota in the electorate significantly increased.

B. Sz.: I have two statements: One, that such a process can be initiated within a party itself, and in this regard, all parties have much to achieve. At us, the proportion of women is 33% in the parliament, many just smile on this as it presently means two MPs out of five. Both Erzsébet Schmuck and me got our seats based on absolute numbers. But one has to understand that if we had a caucus of fifty, the proportion of women would still be the same. LMP applies this inner quota since the beginning, complementing this with courses, mechanisms helping everyday operations that assists women within the party to increase their self confidence in order to be able to stand up for the causes they represent. Naturally, if a quota is all functional, it could be diminished after a while. Two, we should not be hypocritic, this is a question of power structures. The men have to give up their seats as the fact that the gender proportions are not reflected in decision making is a grave social injustice.