LB Travels: Budapest | Politics x Law

9 mins

This week, we travel to Budapest, a glittering Hungarian city on the Danube River. Beneath its architectural splendor belies a dark past. Today, it is at the forefront of a shift in European politics to the right. Through this turbulent lens, we explore the interaction between politics and the law.

In 1873, the separate towns of Buda, Óbuda, and Pest unified to form Budapest. When pronounced by native tongues, “Budapest” sounds like “Boo-da-pesht” with a “sht” sound at the end—like “shtick”. A rather unique sound for our ears, far more used to “pest”.

Over hearty bowls of Hungarian goulash and cold cuts of salami, Budapest is a city for the gastronomically-inclined. One might drop by the Great Market Hall (Hungarian “Nagyvásárcsarnok”) over the weekend or the bustling restaurants and bars in the Jewish Quarter.

Mazel Tov, a fantastic restaurant in Budapest.
Great Market Hall.

For those with an eye for beauty, Budapest has much to offer in its stunning architecture. A local attraction is the brightly-coloured hexagonal roof tiles that appear on the Matthias Church (amongst other buildings), manufactured by the Zsolnay Porcelain Factory since 1853. The company still exists today.

Matthias Church.
Cloudy, with a chance of fishballs… @ Fisherman’s Bastion.
Zooming in…
Buda Castle, across the river. It offers a panoramic view of the city and Danube River below.

One could mistake Budapest’s grandiose architecture as the end of the story, but little clues of history remain if you look hard enough.

Budapest reveals faint traces of Ottoman rule—between 1541 to 1699—in the form of baths, such as the Ottoman-styled Rudas Baths. For those who like a soak, Budapest is also known as the “City of Baths” with its natural mineral springs and plenty of bathing choices all round.

Another clue of history is the Shoes on the Danube memorial, an important reminder of Budapest’s dark past. In October 1944, Hitler overthrew and replaced the leader of the Hungarian government, which led to the expulsion and killing of Hungarian Jews. The memorial consists of 60 iron shoes to remember victims shot by the banks of the Danube River during the winter of 1944–1945.

Shoes on the Danube (photo by Mika on Unsplash).

Finally, transport yourself to the horrors of Budapest’s WWII history, preserved in the Hospital in the Rock Nuclear Bunker Museum. Built within natural caverns under Buda Castle, it operated as a makeshift hospital during WWII under atrocious conditions. This included shortages which forced medical staff to reuse bandages of deceased patients. It was repurposed several times, including as a secret nuclear bunker during the Cold War era by the ruling Hungarian Communist Government. Well-worth visiting if you find yourself in Budapest.

Politics x Law

An iconic building, the Hungarian Parliament Building stands tall in turbulent times. CNN Travel describes it as “one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival and Renaissance Revival architecture in the world today”.

A masterpiece of architect Imre Steindl, work on the building started in 1885 and took nearly 20 years to finish. Visitors have an opportunity to tour the ornate interior of the Parliament Building with red carpets that appear to run infinitely through the corridors and stairs.

A true red carpet experience at the Hungarian Parliament Building.

The building is at the centre of Hungarian politics, which is anything but smooth-sailing. In 2010, the current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his conservative Fidesz Party came to power. In its time, the Party has ridden a wave of nationalism and Euro-skepticism:

“[Orbán’s] modus operandi is an uncompromising defense of national sovereignty and a transparent distrust of Europe’s ruling establishments. He echoes the resentments of what were once called the working and peasant classes, embittered by economic stagnation and resentful of a distant and incestuous political class. He is an economic populist who carves out a strong role for the state, and also a social conservative. He invokes “Christian values,” and makes clear his contempt for the “corruption, sex and violence” of Western societies. His contempt is for “liberal elites,” the media and greedy bankers.”
Luke Waller on Politico, Viktor Orbán: The Conservative Subversive

It is no surprise that critics have likened him to “Trump before Trump”—in a different geographical location, of course.

Why are so many politicians… ex-lawyers?

It might be putting it lightly to say that politics is a strange kettle of fish these days. Yet, the ties between politics and law continue to run strongly together. While he never practiced as a lawyer, Orbán completed law at a Hungarian university before pursuing political science at Pembroke College in Oxford, ironically on a scholarship from the Soros Foundation.

As someone once asked (not the first or last to do so), “why do so many lawyers become politicians?” It’s a question that might entertain usual lawyer tropes like, “well, because they both bend the truth.” As a very partial, self-interested observer, I can’t say that I have much to add to this trope, other than to note that I do enjoy a self-deprecating joke every now and then.

Politics is the wellspring of future laws. In a traditional democratic model, a body of elected politicians (legislature) proposes laws that they think are great ideas for society—and then vote on them. If passed, these laws have a real hold on society—whether or not you voted for these *******s in the first place, or agree with those laws. Pardon my French.

While we’re not here to pass judgment on which part of the political spectrum produces the best laws, the reality is that the vein of politics bears particular kinds of fruit.

And while we’re on topic….

A common fallacy is that the legal profession, epitomised by the judicial office, wields great power. Yes, that is true, but only within the bounds of the legal framework. Politics steps outside of this framework—then attempts to remake it.

In Australia, legislatures–rather than judges–pass most of the laws that govern society. Judge-made law is mostly a thing of the past. The former Australian High Court Judge, Chief Justice Gleeson, summarises it:

“One of the changes making the work of modern judges different from that of their predecessors is that most of the law to be applied is now to be found in Acts of Parliament rather than judge-made principles of common law (in which include equity). A federal judge devotes almost the whole of his or her judicial time to the application of an Act of the federal Parliament, whether it be about corporations law, or bankruptcy, or family law, or migration.”
— Chief Justice Murray Gleeson, “The Meaning of Legislation: Context, Purpose and Respect for Fundamental Rights”, Victoria Law Foundation Oration, Melbourne, 31 July 2008, 1.

Poisonous fungi, anyone?

The politics vs. law dichotomy is something that some lawyers quickly realise after spending time at the tail-end of legal practice. Dealing with the consequences of ridiculous laws is like being at the south side of the digestive system. Some start thinking that they might be able to have more of a say at the beginning (in politics) rather than at the end (in courts).

This may be why some lawyers start thinking that a career in politics might be for them… as well as why there are so many of them hanging around legislatures.

Back to Hungary…

The brand of Orbán’s politics, also known as “illiberal democracy”, can be difficult to digest. It also has consequences on the types of laws passed and potentially broken.

“Orbánism resembles the other -isms taking root on Europe’s edges — in Russia (Putinism) and Turkey (Erdoğanism). His variety is, to be sure, diluted: not bluntly authoritarian, broadly in line with EU norms. Still, his government has kneecapped NGOs, independent media and the judiciary in ways that Putin and Erdoğan would admire. Like them, his confrontational style with his opponents, domestic and foreign, has strengthened his popular position at home.”
— Luke Waller on Politico, Viktor Orbán: The Conservative Subversive

Let’s look at two examples of how politics can impact the law.

#1. The “Slave Law”

In December 2018, the Hungarian Parliament introduced voted in amendments to the Hungarian labour code. Opponents describe it as the “Slave Law”. The changes increased the yearly cap on a worker’s overtime from 250 to 400 hours—and gave companies three years instead of one to pay for the work.

One explanation? A combination of brain drain—an estimated 600,000 Hungarians (around 9% of the working-age population) work outside of Hungary—and Orbán’s anti-immigration stance has meant that this gap in the workforce remains unfilled. In effect, a political view had consequences for the Hungarian workforce, which ultimately found its expression in law.

The Fidesz Party stated that the change in laws was to allow “those who want to work more to work more, and those who want to earn more to earn more.” However, experts have noted that the changes mean that companies can avoid paying extra for overtime in some cases.

#2. Eroding the rule of law

In more recent political news this year, a top Hungarian defence lawyer accused Orbán of undermining the rule of law, stating that:

“(The government has) affected confidence in justice and especially court decisions, and I must say the rule of law. … If the State can disobey rulings, people can later decide to skip paying taxes they deem unfair, or ignore a court ruling on child custody… That’s the most dangerous aspect of this. … A democratic state (means) everyone accepts court decisions.”
— Janos Banati, Hungarian Bar Association Chairman

The fisticuffs started when Orbán’s government initially stated that it would “disobey court orders to compensate former prisoners for inhumane treatment and would also not pay a court-mandated fine to a Roma community in eastern Hungary in a case of alleged school segregation.”

Rule of law has many dimensions. As a law student, the rule of law appears to be a vague concept, steeped in theory. But in reality, the rule of law matters a great deal because it acts as a bulwark against those who hold power, including governments. A former Australian High Court judge (and a favourite of many law students), Justice Kirby, stated that:

“As a principle, the rule of law is essential. However, it is only so as it safeguards and promotes the higher principle of justice. Justice for all. Harmony in society and its laws through justice. Not simply justice for the majority, as expressed in democratic elections. Justice also for minorities. Justice, especially, for vulnerable and unpopular minorities. It is when minorities demand the protection of the law that our discipline, the law, is tested.”
— The Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG, “The Rule of Law Beyond the Law of Rules”, Australian Bar Review (based on part of address to the 15th Malaysian Bar Association Conference, Kuala Lumpur, 29 July 2010)

And there you have it. The rule of law is a precondition of any civilised society. It doesn’t depend on public opinion, but it can be quickly eroded if politicians don’t respect it. It is something that we take for granted in Australia. Only through vigilance and by asking the right questions, that we can protect this fundamental right.

On this note, I’ll leave you with a story closer to home to chew on. In late 2019, the media reported on the existence of a secret prisoner subject to a secret trial. This is something that we all should take time to reflect on and realise that it doesn’t take much for the rule of law to crumble.

Flippermúzeum in Budapest, pinball museum with antiques from the 1920s to the present day.

Further resources:

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