Pál Schmitt set to become next president
PM Viktor Orbán instructed his centre-right party Fidesz last Wednesday to nominate the House Speaker Pál Schmitt for the post of President of the Republic. The five-year term in office of incumbent László Sólyom expires on 4 August. A survey last week by the pollster Medián found that Sólyom was Hungary’s most popular politician.
However, it is parliament that elects the head of state, whose role is largely ceremonial. Fidesz – which commands a huge majority – will be the ultimate arbiter of the next president. Schmitt – a former Olympic fencer and, until recently, deputy president of the European Parliament – looks set to be voted through on Tuesday.
Sólyom resigned to departure
Fidesz caucus leader János Lázár praised the Socialist Party’s (MSZP) nominee for president at a press conference last Tuesday. The 66-year-old András Balogh – currently Hungary’s ambassador in Thailand, and a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (MTA) – described himself as an “independent, left-wing intellectual”. Lázár acknowledged that the Socialists had fielded a “suitable” presidential candidate. However, Balogh himself recognised that if the vote goes along party lines – as it almost certainly will – he stands no chance of election.
If Balogh appeared doomed to finish as an “also ran” in the race for the presidency, the nationalist politician Krisztina Morvai was a “non-starter”. Morvai was the preferred choice of the far-right party Jobbik, of whose three-strong caucus in the European Parliament she is the leader. However, a presidential candidate must be nominated by at least 50 members of parliament, and Jobbik only has 47. Jobbik leader Gábor Vona said the party had secured the support of the formerly-Fidesz independent Oszkár Molnár, who was forced out of the party for making embarrassing racist comments in the run up to the general election. Vona appealed last Wednesday for support, giving members of other parties until 10am Friday to back Morvai. The additional two backers failed to materialise: by the noon deadline, only Schmitt and Balogh had received the necessary backing.
Sólyom not on ballot
It was left to the smallest parliamentary party, the liberal-green Politics Can Be Different (LMP) to stand up for the incumbent Sólyom. The leader of the new party’s 16-strong caucus, András Schiffer called on Fidesz-Christian Democrat politicians to supply the additional 34 nominations. Last Friday, it became clear that there was no chance that Sólyom would remain in office for a second term. Deputy LMP caucus leader Gergely Karácsony said his party would “symbolically” nominate the “revered” Sólyom. Schiffer told reporters last Friday after talks with Balogh, however, that his party found the Socialists’ candidate to be “suitable” for the post of president.
Leaves with ‘clear conscience’
Sólyom was already aware before April’s general election that his approach to the role was president was not wanted a further five years. He told the news magazine Heti Válasz last week that it was not easy to acknowledge this, but he would nevertheless finish his work with a “clear conscience”.
When asked to comment on opposition critics who accuse Fidesz of using its huge majority to railroad its own candidate into the office of president, Sólyom noted that the two-thirds majority “is part of the system”, and has already arisen once (he was referring to the Socialist-Liberal coalition of 1994 to 1998).
The president was scathing about those who now ask him to stand up for democracy in the face of an all-powerful centre-right government. “Nowadays there are those who would defend democracy with me, who for eight years have happily trampled on it,” he said. In 2006, Sólyom was among those who called for fresh elections after a leaked recording of the then Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány revealed that the MSZP had knowingly misled the electorate in order to secure a second term in government.
The presidential candidates will be vetted by a house committee this Monday, 28 June, then parliament will vote the following day. If a candidate is backed by two thirds of lawmakers in the first round of voting, he or she is elected. If the ballot is inconclusive, it must be repeated the following day. If no candidate secures two-thirds backing in the second round, then a final thirds round will be held at most a day later, in which an absolute majority of over 50 per cent will suffice. Fidesz commands 263 of the 386 seats in parliament, meaning it should have no problem securing the necessary majority vote for its candidate in the first round. If all goes according to Prime Minister Orbán’s wishes, Pál Schmitt could take his oath of office this Tuesday.
Who is the next president?
Pál Schmitt is a youthful 68-year-old Olympic fencing champion. He won gold for Hungary in the team epée fencing in Mexico in 1968 and again in Munich in 1972. Since 1983 he has been a member of the International Olympic Committee, and has also served as Hungary’s ambassador to Spain and Switzerland. In 2003 he became vice-chairman of Fidesz, a post he held until 2007. In 2004 he was elected a member of the European Parliament on the Fidesz list. After re-election in 2009, he was voted in as one of the EP’s 14 vice-presidents, a post he relinquished in May when he became Speaker of the Hungarian Parliament.