Hungary’s first ‘eco-president’

Recently the words 'Another Politics is Possible' took on a new meaning in Hungary when Dr László Sólyom, Hungary's first 'civil candidate', was elected President of the Hungarian Republic in an unexpected success for grassroots politics

July 1, 2005
5 min read

is nomination, formalized in a letter signed by 110 well known activists and intellectuals from across the political spectrum, was originally intended as symbolic. The letter, which was written to the parliamentary parties, read ‘after 15 years of self governance and constitutional democracy, Hungary is home to three million beggars’ – a reference to the number of people living so far below the poverty line that there is believed to be no chance of their circumstances improving – and continues ‘behind the trimmings of representative democracy the political class and its clientele are waging a private war for ownership of the common property, in an unprecedented example of plundering and lawbreaking.’

Politics has become a rather dirty word everywhere, but in Hungary the sharp and unfathomable division of a large part of society between left and right has stifled real social discourse. The campaign initiating Dr. Sólyom’s candidacy grew from recent social struggles where progress on a wide scale of issues was seen to be made impossible by the actualities of real politics and the political parties interest in keeping the population divided along ideological lines that are largely meaningless in a country where, for example, privatisation was initiated by ‘the left’ and opposed by ‘the right’.

However, it was a local campaign against the building of a NATO radar on Mount ZengQ that, gaining widespread support across the country and breaking through entrenched political divisions, sparked the idea for the campaign – ‘Sólyom for President!’. ‘ZengQ’ has come to symbolise solidarity around a ‘common cause’, which in this case was the upholding of local sovereignty against bullying behaviour from the national government. Put plainly, the locals favoured their mountains and their rare flora and fauna over the governments’ ill-defined national security commitments, and were able to mobilise nationwide to defend their interests. The ‘Sólyom for President!’ campaign sought to build on this precedent.

Dr. Sólyom is a committed environmentalist, a board member of ‘Protect the Future’, the ‘eco-political’ NGO-come-movement that initiated his candidacy, as well as being the former President of Hungary’s Constitutional Court. In fact he was deeply involved in defining what will, on 5 August, become his own job description: at the time of regime change he took part in the round table that drew up the constitution which, amongst other things, sets the limits of the president’s power.

It is his track record in defending social and environmental rights, as well as his reputation as being beyond corruption and narrow party interests, that led to so many committed and experienced activists and intellectuals putting their faith in him. In 1995, as the left-wing government tried to introduce the ‘Bokros’ austerity measures – neo-liberal and monetarist restructuring that surpassed the expectations of even the World Bank in its rigorousness- Dr. Sólyom, then president of the Constitutional Court, defended the rights that would have been lost, stating that these are social rights guaranteed in the constitution and hence cannot be curtailed. The Bokros Measures went ahead, but the worst parts were removed.

This example is touched on in the letter, but the signatories go further to say that not only was Dr. Sólyom among the first to raise his voice in protection of personal rights, but has also defended the ‘diversity of the natural world’ against developments such as the controversial diversion of the River Danube, as well as the rights of future generations: Dr. Sólyom, at the request of ‘Protect the Future’, put forward to Parliament the case for an ‘Ombudsman for the Rights of Future Generations’. While this never bore fruit, Dr. Sólyom, who has since the 1980s been an advisor to many environmental movements as they have fought of state and private developments, can most likely be expected to have another try.

Following his inauguration, Dr. Sólyom told the Parliament that ‘Protect the Future sent him here to protect human dignity and to give voice to those that politics don’t usually hear, the down-trodden and the weak, and to ensure the rights of the future generations.’ He stated that since the time of the roundtable negotiations in 1989 he has been determined to protect the right to political freedom and human dignity as now guaranteed by the constitution.

While his presidency won’t stop attacks against Roma, won’t put roofs over the heads over Hungary’s 35,000 homeless, and most likely won’t cause the government to withdraw it’s ‘special military training forces’ from Iraq, he is expected to use his force of personality and his convictions to focus attention on these as real issues, as matters of principle, questions of dignity, of sustainability and of solidarity. Presently the political elite falls far short of the challenge to create ethical political norms such as these.

And while presidential activism might not be part of his job description, having committed himself to ‘another politics being possible’ there is some room for speculation that Lászlo Sólyom might step beyond the traditionally largely protocol tasks of the Hungarian President.Tracey Wheatley is a member of Protect the Future (Vedegylet), Hungary


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