Members of parliament
The Fundamental Law states: "The source of public power shall be the people. The people shall exercise its power through its elected representatives or, in exceptional cases, in a direct manner." Further, "Members of Parliament shall have equal rights and obligations, perform their activities in the public interest, and may not be instructed in that context."
The basis for the legal status of Members in Hungary as elsewhere is the free mandate. After they are elected, MPs become legally independent of the voters. They cannot be directed or held to account and they cannot be recalled for their activities or votes. In carrying out their mandate, they represent the entire people. As such, they establish their positions in Parliament freely, according to their consciences and convictions, and they vote accordingly. The Member is linked to the voters by political ties; the MP's political accountability may come into play during the next election. The autonomy of the MP is guaranteed by the principle of the free mandate, by the institution of incompatibility and by immunity.
The principle of the free mandate also means that the MP is also independent of his party in a legal sense, cannot be forced by legal means to represent the opinion of the party and is under no obligation to declare obedience. According to the Constitutional Court, the fact that the MP was elected is what gives the MP legitimacy; he is not tied to the party.
At the same time, the overwhelming majority of MPs are members of some party faction - by their own choice. They also won their parliamentary seat as a candidate or with the support of some party (or parties). In a political sense, therefore, we can speak of a bound mandate. In carrying out his parliamentary work, the MP is dependent on the faction in many respects, for example, with regard to which parliamentary offices he can take, which committees he sits on and which other duties he is given.
The "party principle" in the Hungarian National Assembly also determines the political structure of Parliament, the activities of the MPs and their perception of their role. If, however, an MP resigns from a faction or the faction expels the Member from its ranks, he need not resign from the seat and cannot be obliged to do so legally. It is another matter if an MP elected on a party list resigns from the faction that the faction, whether it is expressed or not, expects him to give up the seat. MPs, however, generally do not satisfy this moral or political requirement. (It was only in the first term that we saw an example of three MPs who resigned from the Fidesz faction and gave up their seats as well.)
TheFundamental Law and the Act on the Legal Status of Members are fundamentally unified in their regulation of Members' legal status. We have discussed how with the formation of factions the Fundamental Law, other laws and the Standing Orders guarantee certain rights only for faction leaders. The Standing Orders do make a distinction in certain cases in regulating the rights of MPs who belong to factions and those of independent MPs.
One of the aims of the most recent amendment to the Standing Orders was to put an end to the previous disparity in the powers (options) of MPs in factions versus those of independent Members. It settled the matter of committee membership for independent MPs, it made it possible for them to be elected to parity committees and specified that the first independent MP to indicate his intention to voice an opinion may do so in the event of a limited debate (that is, when only one MP per faction may speak).
As a result of the legal equality of MPs, however, every MP must be guaranteed the opportunity to express his opinion at a plenary sitting of the National Assembly, full participation in the committees and finally the opportunity to form a group.
MPs can win their seats in different ways, in an individual constituency or on a (county or national) list, but their rights and obligations are equal. The majority of the rights are due every MP individually (e.g. to submit a bill, to interpellate and to speak in a debate), but there are certain rights which Members can only exercise as a group.
When the 1994 Standing Orders required at least 15 MPs to form a faction, in keeping with this, it tied the exercise of individual parliamentary rights to at least 15 MPs, such as proposing to amend the orders of the day, to close a debate and to specify the minimum timeframe required in the Standing Orders. In keeping with the new rule on forming factions, the most recent amendment to the Standing Orders ties these rights to as few as 10 Members, instead of 15.
A frequent threshold is one-fifth of the MPs. This is the smallest proportion that is required, e.g. to submit a motion of no confidence, to propose a mandatory committee of inquiry, to propose an extraordinary sitting or to convene a sitting, and to propose a policy debate. 50 MPs are required, however, to propose an urgent meeting.
The rights and obligations of MPs basically fall under two groups. The first group covers parliamentary tasks and rights tied to operation and obligations, for example, attendance at the plenary sittings, the right to speak, which is the basis for the Member's freedom of speech, the right to propose a law and put forward a motion, the right to vote, the right to hold a parliamentary office, the right to participate in committees, the right to form a faction, and the right to information.
The other group covers rights and obligations that provide the preconditions for uninterrupted parliamentary work. This would include immunity, incompatibility and the rights to certain remunerations.
It is the fundamental right and, at the same time, obligation of the MP to play an active part in the work of the National Assembly and to promote its operation. Uncertified absence from sittings of the National Assembly beyond a specified level (over one-third of the votes) is punished by deducting a proportionate portion of the Member's remuneration.
Members can generally exercise their rights personally (e.g. voting). The exception to this is the committee sitting, where an MP who will be absent can authorise another committee member to substitute for him.
MPs must obey the provisions of the Standing Orders on meetings and discipline. They are under obligation to make a declaration of property, to report their gainful employment, and to obey the rules on incompatibility. They must also report it if their immunity has been violated.
An important requirement placed on them is that they must maintain regular contact with the voters and take their opinions into consideration. Toward that end, they attend local forums, hold surgeries, and respond to voters' requests in correspondence or by e-mail.New and returning Members
An MP's mandate derives from the voters and is established through the expression of the voters' will. This mandate is brought about at the time of the election and thus immunity, remuneration etc. are due the MP as of election day. However, the parliamentary mandate is only confirmed once the letter of mandate is submitted, the mandate is verified, the oath is taken before the National Assembly and the oath document is signed. It is only after this that an MP can exercise his rights as an MP (for example he can vote). Another condition is that he should fulfil the obligation to make a declaration of property. Verifying the mandate is a formal procedure in which the authorised committee examines the MPs' letter of mandate to ensure that it is in order and then the National Assembly certifies the mandate based on the report. The review is not directed to the legality or outcome of the election as this is the task of the election agencies and the courts. The National Assembly is under obligation to form a mandate review committee. These tasks are carried out by the Committee on Immunity, Incompatibility and Mandates, to which just as many opposition MPs are elected by the National Assembly as governing party MPs. However, this committee only reviews parliamentary mandates that have been established during the term. It verified 31 mandates in the first term, 16 in the second, 11 in the third and 26 in the fourth. In contrast, at the constituent sitting, a committee composed of the senior chair and junior notaries reviews the mandates of all the elected MPs (nearly 380) in addition to their own.
An MP's mandate ends with
An MP's mandate naturally ends most often when the National Assembly has completed its four-year operation. The second most common reason is the MP's resignation (this has taken place 63 times in the past 16 years), and the third is the unfortunate death of the MP (in four terms 28 MPs have passed away). No MP's mandate has ended due to a declaration of incompatibility or the loss of the right to vote. Neither a faction, nor a party can terminate an MP's mandate. A previously signed declaration of resignation, if contested by an MP upon submission, cannot be finalized under public law.
If the MP's mandate has ended mid-term, the MP must be replaced. In the case of an individual constituency, the National Election Commission sets a bye-election; in the event of a list mandate, the party president appoints a new MP within 30 days. Since a bye-election can only be announced within a set time an empty parliamentary seat may not be filled by the end of the term; for example, in the 1990-94 term, there was one such seat; in the 1994-98 term, there were five; in 1998-2002, there were two; and in 2002-06, there was one.
MPs can only carry out their duties well if they stay abreast of all the facts and background information required for their work. The Act on the Legal Status of Members and the Standing Orders aid this in two ways. First, they place state institutions under obligation to support MPs in fulfilling their mandate and to provide them with the required information. Second, they expressly state that it is their right to enter the various public institutions and gain access to their documents, publications and related services.
As with other parliaments, MPs in Hungary are due special protection, that is immunity, in order to carry out their activities as usual. Immunity takes two forms: exemption from liability and inviolability. It is a guarantee of freedom of speech that an MP and a former MP cannot be held accountable for any statements, speeches or votes during his mandate (exemption from liability). According to the law, an MP can only be detained if he has been caught in flagrante delicto and a proceeding can only be launched or conducted against him for a criminal or minor offence with the prior approval of the National Assembly (that is with the suspension of immunity), nor can emergency provisions of penal procedural law be applied without such prior approval (inviolability). Except in a proceeding for a minor offence, an MP cannot waive his immunity. The National Assembly can only suspend a Member's immunity with a two-thirds vote of the Members present at a plenary sitting.
Most frequently, it is individual plaintiffs who launch proceedings against MPs for libel or defamation of character. Such cases often go back to the election campaign when the MP was still a candidate. Taking into account the Constitutional Court's decrees on freedom of expression, the National Assembly generally does not suspend the immunity of the MP involved in such cases. In cases involving the public prosecutor at the request of the Prosecutor General, however, the National Assembly mostly agrees, i.e. it suspends an MP's immunity. In the four terms between 1990 and 2006, the National Assembly took decisions in a total of 241 immunity cases, of which 20% involved a public prosecution and 79% were private suits. In 73% of the public prosecution cases, the MP's immunity was suspended; that figure was 12% for the private suits. If the National Assembly upholds immunity anyway, the case does not lapse. After all, immunity is not some sort of absolute prerogative; it is simply meant to guarantee that an MP is able to carry out his work as usual. When an MP's mandate ends, he is no longer protected by immunity, a proceeding can be launched against him and he can be called to account. (A former Member cannot be called to account, however, for statements he has made or votes he has cast; the institution of exemption from liability protects him from retaliation a posteriori as well.)
The Fundamental Law, the Act on the Legal Status of Members and other laws set down the rules on incompatibility for MPs. Their purpose is to guarantee the independence of legislators' work and to forestall unwanted influence and the intertwining of various offices and positions.
Laws, and the Act on the Legal Status of Members in particular, list all the positions MPs cannot hold: public posts, offices, leading positions at either state-owned, public service or municipality-owned companies or at business organisations in which the state or a municipality holds a stake etc. It also sets down those cases in which the MP has become unworthy to be an MP, e.g. if he loses his right to vote due to being banned from public affairs or non-appealable imprisonment.
The law sets down those activities that are incompatible with the MP's mandate. For example, he cannot provide legal representation for a state agency or institution or for a state-owned business organisation, make reference to his capacity as an MP in professional or business matters, obtain or utilise confidential information in an unauthorised manner or engage in lobbying activities.
During the first term, the media criticised the practice of numerous - primarily governing party - Members obtaining paid posts on the boards of directors or supervisory boards of fully or partially state-owned companies through the good offices of the Government, and of MPs from various parties likewise acquiring posts in municipality-owned businesses. It was due to such practices that the National Assembly amended the Act on the Legal Status of Members in 1997. The amendment to the Legal Status Act set down causes for incompatibility more broadly than before; it introduced tighter rules for the private sector as well.
An MP is under obligation to end the cause of the incompatibility within a set period and, if he fails to do so, the National Assembly can deprive him of his seat, having declared the incompatibility, with a two-thirds vote of the MPs present. The MP's mandate is terminated if the MP does not end the cause of the incompatibility within five days after it has been ascertained. Since 1990, MPs have ended the cause of the incompatibility beforehand in every case and thus the National Assembly has not had to make the declaration even once. Anyone may make a report of a case of incompatibility and any MP may launch an incompatibility proceeding.
In Hungary, the Act on the Legal Status of Members makes it possible, if the cause of the incompatibility is not maintained, for the MP to remain in his job and to retain gainful employment. It is another question whether the significant activity with which an MP is occupied enables him to engage in several jobs during set working hours. The MP basically must decide what he can undertake in addition to his parliamentary activities. However, any employment, undertakings, foundations, membership, posts, and stakes in various companies, cooperatives, public bodies etc. and any income derived from them must be reported to the Speaker. In this term, 275 MPs indicated to the Speaker that they are engaged in some gainful employment; of these, however, 83 terminated it during the period of their parliamentary mandate. In 2007, Members participated in 227 businesses, but only 73 of these provided taxable income. 185 Members held some office in local or regional governments. According to the MPs' declarations of property in 2007, 40% of the MPs had a higher income from some other work or a business stake than income received as a Member.
A parliamentary mandate is a legal relationship under public law, not an employment relationship. An MP has no employer (the National Assembly is not one), as this would fundamentally contradict his independence. However, the term of the MP's mandate counts as time spent in an employment relationship and time served toward one's pension. Holding the office of Speaker, Deputy Speaker, Notary, standing committee chair or deputy chair, or faction leader or deputy leader counts as executive experience in cases where it is required by law.
An MP is under further obligation to report and declare; this is meant to guarantee the transparency of his ties to assets, income, and financial interests. This obligation includes his spouse as well as children living in the same household. An MP must make his declaration of property public. The most recently amended law also places him under obligation as follows: he must declare what Hungarian state or EU subsidies were granted to any undertaking owned by him or any member of his family. As of 2005, anyone can view these declarations of property on the National Assembly home page.Remuneration and cost reimbursements Members' rights to information
The National Assembly can only fulfil its duties if it is in continuous operation and MPs are for the most part full-time politicians who have competed successfully in an election and who are prepared to engage in these activities.
The operation of the multiparty National Assembly that had formed as a result of the free elections of 1990 as well as its order of the sitting and the financial resources required to carry out parliamentary work demanded at its very core a new organisation. Remuneration due MPs had to be set down in detail, as did cost reimbursements and a range of other services and allowances.
Since 1990, similarly to other parliaments, it is due to remuneration and other benefits that the law ensures the financial independence of MPs in Hungary.
It is Act LV of 1990 that provides for the legal status of Members and Act LVI of 1990 that regulates their remuneration, cost reimbursements and benefits. Both laws have been amended by the National Assembly several times.
The MPs' remuneration consists of a base pay and additional pay for each office held. The law establishes that the base pay shall be six times the current base pay for a civil servant. Until 1999, the law had set Members' base pay as half of the current pay for ministers. It is the National Assembly that decides on the base pay for civil servants as part of the central budget. If the state of the central budget does not make that possible, the National Assembly does not raise the remuneration for civil servants, nor therefore for MPs. Thus MPs' remuneration was not raised in 1991, 1993, 1994, 1998, 2004 or 2007. Meanwhile, between 1990 and 2006, the average earnings of full-time workers increased by a factor of 12½, whereas MPs' remuneration rose by a factor of only 6½. (In that period, the central budget grew by a factor of 16½, though in 2006, far from growing, it was cut.)
The base pay for an MP has been Ft231,900 (approx. €885) per month since January 2008. At its sitting on 31 May 2006, the new National Assembly significantly restructured the system of various types of additional pay and cost reimbursements by amending the Act on Members' Remuneration. At this same sitting, 18 committees were set up instead of the earlier 25, and the number of committee members was cut from 496 to 386. With the amended law and the development of a simpler committee system, MPs also agreed to achieve the goal of a more economical state. As a cardinal rule, one MP will work on one committee in future and for this will be due additional pay corresponding to 70% of the base pay (i.e. Ft162,330 (approx. €620)). If, nevertheless, an MP is a member of two committees, and not just one, he will only receive 25% additional pay (i.e. Ft57,975 (approx. €220)) for his work. Members of the Constitutional, Budget and European Affairs Committees receive 90% additional pay (Ft208,710 (approx. €800)).
Similarly, the Deputy Speakers are due additional pay (180%, which when added to the base pay totals Ft649,320 (approx. €2,480)), as are Notaries (70%, for a total of Ft394,230 (approx. €1,505)), chairs of standing committees (120%, for a total of Ft510,180 (approx. €1,950)), deputy chairs of standing committees (100%, for a total of Ft463,800 (approx. €1,770)), faction leaders (120%, for a total of Ft510 180 (approx. €1,950)) and deputy faction leaders (100%, for a total of Ft463,800 (approx. €1,770)). MPs pay tax and social security on their remuneration.
The monthly remuneration for the Speaker is set down in Act XXXIX of 2000. Accordingly, the remuneration is as much as that of the President of the Republic, the Prime Minister, the President of the Constitutional Court and the President of the Supreme Court - Ft1,507,350 (approx. €5,750).
However, while MPs may take on other gainful employment and may accept payment for other activities, the Speaker and Deputy Speakers cannot do so due to rules on incompatibility - with the exception of intellectual activities that fall under the protection of the law.
The amended law that was passed on 30 May 2006 introduced a more differentiated and economical cost reimbursements system and cut by half the pay of those that can receive cost reimbursements due to their other offices. The allowance depending on the distance from Budapest can be from Ft162,330 to Ft371,040 (approx. €620 to €1,420).
MPs who do not have a Budapest residence can spend Ft115,950 (approx. €440) per month for accommodation and can take on staff at a monthly wage of Ft139,140 (approx. €530).
In keeping with a decision of the National Assembly, MPs are no longer due the right to use mass transit for free. Their travel expenses must be covered out of their reimbursement allowance. In comparison with other European MPs, Hungarian Members are among the worst paid. The majority of the public still considers their wages too high and they are particularly critical of the fact that MPs need not account for their cost reimbursements (with invoices), or pay tax on them.
The Office of the National Assembly provides MPs with internet access for telework. The conditions for the work of MPs and the operation of the factions have seen continuous improvement over the past 18 years; they increasingly meet the requirements of a modern parliament.
If an MP's mandate ends when the National Assembly ceases operation and he is not re-elected, he is entitled to an amount corresponding to six months' worth of the MP's average monthly base pay and additional pay ("severance pay").
Act LVII of 2004 regulates the legal status of Hungarian Members of the European Parliament according to a system similar to that of Members of the Hungarian National Assembly. Their remuneration is significantly higher, however, than those of MPs: including an allowance for foreign language proficiency, it ranges from Ft1,256,125 to Ft2,060,045 (approx. €4,795 to €7,860) per month. (An English translation of the following laws may be found on the National Assembly home page: Act LV of 1990 on the Legal Status of Members of Parliament, Act LVI of 1990 on Remuneration, Cost Reimbursements and Benefits of Members of Parliament and Act LVII of 2004 on the Legal Status of Hungarian Members of the European Parliament.)