On April 22, 2015, a 21-year-old clerk was stabbed to death during the robbery of a National Tobacco Shop in the city of Kaposvár (southwestern Hungary, pop. 65,000).
Although we believed that we had settled questions connected to the Hungarian criminal code and criminal prosection when we introduced the three strikes and life imprisonment without parole, the issue of the death penalty must be kept on the agenda in Hungary and we must let it be known that we do not shy away from anything.
The death penalty has not been applied in Hungary since the country’s Constitutional Court declared capital punishment to be unconstitutional in October 1990. Article 2 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union furthermore prohibits capital punishment in EU member states, including Hungary.
The Radical nationalist Movement for a Better Hungary, or Jobbik, is the only National Assembly party in Hungary that officially advocates reinstatement of the death penalty. Jobbik has steadily gained support in opinion polls conducted over recent months to become Hungary’s second-most popular party behind the Fidesz–Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) alliance (source A and B in Hungarian). Jobbik moreover won its first head-to-head National Assembly election in April in voting for a vacated National Assembly mandate in Veszprém County (source in Hungarian and see Two-Thirds Minus Two: the Jobbik Breakthrough).
Orbán’s suggestion that his government might consider restoring the death penalty provoked criticism from both the democratic opposition as well as his own governing alliance: KDNP Vice-President Bence Rétvári announced that the party rejects the death penalty for religious reasons, while many Fidesz officials also voiced fundamental opposition to capital punishment (source A, B and C in Hungarian).
European Union leaders also challenged Prime Minister Orbán’s apparent espousal of the death penalty: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said “Mr Orbán must immediately make clear that this is not his intention. If it would be his intention, it would be a fight” (source in English); and European Parliament (EP) deputy Jörg Leichtfried referred to the death penalty as “barbaric and an infringement of European law” (source in English).
On April 30, European Parliament President Martin Schulz and EP political-group leaders asked the body’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs to convene “to address the situation in Hungary as a matter of urgency [regarding] the statement by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about a possible restoration of the death penalty” (source in English)
Later on this same date, Prime Minister Orbán “assured President Schulz that the Hungarian government has no plans to take any steps to introduce the death penalty. Prime Minister Orban further assured the President that the Hungarian government will respect and honour all European treaties and legislation” (source in English); and Prime Ministry chief János Lázár said during a press conference that, although he personally supports the death penalty, “We will honor the values of the European Union. Democracy and democratic debate represent such fundamental values, thus the EU cannot reject any debate regarding the difficulties and problems of people” (source in Hungarian).
Orbán said later during a subsequent interview on Hungarian Radio that the government would like to promote the introduction of conditions within the European Union that would enable “all nation states to themselves decide on the death penalty” (source in Hungarian).
Prime Minister Orbán presumably floated the unrealistic prospect of restoring the death penalty in an attempt to stop the recent migration of voters from Fidesz-KDNP to Jobbik through expression of support for one of the central elements of the radical-nationalist party’s political platform. The prime minister and his government will likely continue to pursue this tactic as long as Jobbik presents the greatest challenge to Fidesz-KDNP’s political power. Over the long term, use of this tactic could serve to substantiate the old Hungarian maxim: “That which belongs together grows together” (összenő, ami összetartozik).