Legal but Illegitimate: The Gypsy Minority Self-Government in Jászladány

07 February 2004

Anita Danka and Nicole Pallai1

Jászladány, a village in the Hungarian county of Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok, has 6,194 inhabitants, of which 655 declared themselves Roma during the 2001 census.2 The village has been a showcase of the various deficiencies of the Hungarian minority self-government (MSG) system, particularly where the Romani minority is concerned. The current Gypsy minority self-government (Cigány Kissebségi Ă–nkormányzat), which took office after the elections in October 2002, is composed of one person who identifies herself as Romani and four persons who identify themselves as non-Romani. The election of non-Roma for the Gypsy minority self-government and the events that led to this result, draw attention to the failure of the Hungarian legal regime on minority self-governance to solve the tension between the right to a free choice of ethnic identity, enshrined in the Hungarian Constitution and the 1993 Act on the Rights of the National and Ethnic Minorities (hereinafter "Minority Act"), and representation on ethnic grounds - an inherent feature of a minority governance system.

Background on the Minority Self-Government System in Hungary

The 1993 Act on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities defines the Bulgarian, Romani, Greek, Croatian, Polish, German, Armenian, Romanian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian and Ukrainian ethnic groups as national or ethnic minorities native to Hungary. The established criteria of a national minority are: "?all such nationalities, settled at least one century ago in the territory of the Hungarian Republic, which are in a minority as regards the number of inhabitants of the state, are Hungarian citizens and are different from the rest of the population in their language, culture and traditions, and such a consciousness of banding together can be seen in them which preserves this heritage, protects their historically created societies and represents their interests."3 Since the Hungarian legal system does not differentiate between national and ethnic minorities, this definition is equally valid for both.4

Article 7(1) of the Act states that "it is the individual's exclusive and inalienable right to take on and declare their affiliation to a national or ethnic group or a minority" and "nobody is obliged to proclaim that they belong to a minority group".5

The Act also declares that minorities have the right to form local and national self-governments. The minority self-governments are bodies that represent the interests of the given national and/or ethnic minority at the local or national level. The guarantee of cultural autonomy was the underlying principle in the creation of these legal entities. For this purpose, they have the authority to maintain institutions in the areas of education and promotion of traditions and culture, as well as to establish minority media (Article 27). Furthermore, any decision of the local government concerning education, media, language and promotion of culture may be taken only after the approval of the minority self-government (Article 29(1)).

The law outlines three types of local minority self-governments (Articles 22 and 23): 10 if more than 50 percent of the members of a local self-government are representatives of a particular minority group, the local self-government can transform itself into a local minority self-government; 2) if 30 percent of the board of the local representatives have been elected as representatives of the same minority group, they may form an indirectly created local minority self-government; and 3) directly created local minority self-government. The last type of minority self-government is elected by voters directly.

The elections for the minority self-governments take place at the same time as municipal elections. Every franchised person in a given settlement may take part and cast a direct vote for candidates of the given minority. For exercising the passive voting right (the right to be elected), one has to submit a written request supported by at least five voters. At least 50 valid votes are needed in settlements with less than 10,000 citizens and 100 in larger constituencies. The minimum number of candidates is also determined for the election to be valid: three candidates in settlements with less than 1,300 tenants and five candidates in the ones with more residents. The formation of national minority self-governments occurs on the basis of electoral assemblies following the formation of local minority self-governments.6

Since the Constitution ensures free choice of identity and universal suffrage,7 both the active and the passive right to vote in the course of a minority self-government election is not limited to genuine members of a minority community.8 Therefore, it can hypothetically happen that the majority circumvents the minority will by putting up candidates in the minority elections who would meet the approval of majority voters.9 As will be seen below, this is precisely what happened in Jászladány in 2002 during the Gypsy minority self-government election.

In 1998, there was an ad hoc committee established within the Parliament's Human Rights Committee to amend the minority legislation such that only members of a given minority could be elected. The committee did not recommend restricting the active right to vote, but suggested that the candidates should declare that they belong to the given minority, and the polling stations should be different from those of the municipal elections.10 In addition, Minority Ombudsman Jenő Kaltenbach suggested that, since participation of the candidate in the minority self-government election is legitimized by the given community, one should become a candidate only if he/she is a member of or supported by a minority organization.11 Moreover, a candidate should also meet certain objective criteria for belonging to a certain minority, which would be determined by law after a codification process involving minority consultation. Such criteria might include knowledge of culture, traditions, the language of the community, etc.12

One of the ideas raised for deterring non-minority voters from voting in the minority self-government elections was the introduction of the minority register. In Hungary, a proposal that a minority register be maintained by the minority community was recently discussed, but the National Gypsy Minority Self-government opposed it.13 Since voter registers are put on display before the elections, concerns were articulated based on the sensitive nature of the ethnic data. One proposal that appears to have more support within the Romani community is to call the minority self-government elections on days different from those of the municipal self-government elections.

Although the government promised that the amendments would go before parliament by the end of 2003, as of the date of publication of this article, such amendments had not yet been introduced.

Jászladány

In 2002, Jászladány made national headlines in Hungary because of the alleged intentions to segregate Roma at school through the founding of a private school. The Zana Sándor Imre Foundation School - the private school established by a local government, however, was not permitted to operate due to the veto of the then-Gypsy MSG. According to the then-president of the Gypsy MSG, Mr László Kállai, the private school signifies a milestone in a larger segregation process.14 The mayor of Jászladány, Mr István Dankó, stated that the establishment of the school is not anti-Romani; the purpose is rather to separate "students who wish to study from those who do not". He has also stated that the former Jászladány Gypsy MSG had a tendency to dress every issue up as Roma versus non-Roma.15 After the MSG elections in October 2002, however, the private school in Jászladány was permitted to operate. The new Gypsy MSG of Jászladány, composed of one Roma and four non-Roma, among them the wife of Dankó, did not exercise its veto right on the private school issue.

The conflict over the private school was alleged to have been one of the motivating factors behind the distribution of a flier in the village days before the MSG election, urging voters to elect the current five Gypsy MSG representatives into office. The flier listed Mr Kállai by name, under the heading "Who we shouldn't vote for". Beside "Let's not vote for the shame of the village: Lászlo Kállai and his team", the unidentified author wrote "but this requires no explanation". On the backside of the document, three paragraphs denounce national and local actors who actively opposed the private school.16

Events Leading up to the 2002 Election Scandal

Tensions between the Gypsy MSG and the local government in Jászladány had been building for several years. A chronology of the events which culminated in the 2002 election scandal follows:

Summer 1999
The Gypsy MSG posted a "Jászladány Gypsy Self-Government" sign on the local government building. Mayor Dankó had the sign taken off, on grounds that it should contain the word "Minority".17

November 21, 2000
Mayor Dankó tabled a motion regarding the establishment of a private school at the local government assembly. He justified support for the private school in saying, "In Jászladány, the Gyspy-Hungarian cleavage is increasing, although it might overlap the divide between rich and poor. This societal conflict must be avoided."18 Mr Kállai challenged the above on grounds that the local government did not consult the Gypsy MSG.

January/February 2001
Four attacks on Jászladány Roma residents were reported. The attackers were reportedly dressed in all black, with hoods covering their faces.19

February 2001
A hunger strike by Mr Kállai and other Roma from Jászladány took place to protest the politics of the mayor and the local government, in particular to protest: the plans to open a private school in order to separate Roma and non-Roma; the mayor's refusal to consult with the Gypsy MSG; the abortion of transitional social benefits since 1998; to oblige the local government representatives to examine the situation of Roma residents near the trash dump; to account for the 2.2 million Hungarian forints (approximately Euro 8,627) received from the National Gypsy Self-Government.20

May 14, 2001
The Gypsy MSG submitted a six-question referendum application to the village clerk, due to the mayor's failure to respond to the demands it made at the hunger strike.21 Questions addressed: segregated education, building permits from the local government, local government hiring of the unemployed for community construction, removal of the trash dump from the Roma-inhabited area and peaceful coexistence between Roma and non-Roma.22

May 29, 2001
Jenő Kaltenbach, Ombudsman for National and Ethnic Minorities, visited Jászladány in response to Mr Kállai's letter of complaint, to meet with the mayor. The Ombudsman notified the local government that the body may only transfer education property or maintenance rights with the approval of the Gypsy MSG.23

June 2001
The Jászladány clerk, Terézia Lajkó, rejected the Gypsy MSG referendum application on the grounds that four out of five questions addressed areas outside the jurisdiction of the local government.24

June 2001
Two lawsuits were initiated: the Jászladány local government sued Mr Kállai for calling the village leadership "fascist" at a village gathering. Mr Kállai sued a local newspaper for offensive statements targeted at him personally and at the Jászladány Roma generally.25

July 2001
The Gypsy MSG submitted a revised group of referendum questions to the Jászladány clerk. The Gypsy MSG had turned to the Roma Civil Rights Foundation (Roma Polgarjogi Alapitvany) for advice on revising the questions. 26

July 30, 2001
The Jászladány clerk rejected the second Gypsy MSG application for a local referendum.27

September 15, 2001
The Gypsy MSG held a Roma Day celebration. The occasion was used to re-post the "Jászladány Gypsy Self-Government" sign. Since the local government removed the sign in 1999, the passageway through the courtyard from the local government to the Gypsy MSG had been blocked off, reportedly by the mayor. In addition, the Gypsy MSG had received a response to their inquiry from Ombudsman Jenő Kaltenbach. He stated that MSGs have the right to choose their name and insignia. Gypsy MSG representative Karoly Danyi found the gate locked on Roma Day, and he could not post the sign.28

March 12, 2002
The Jászladány local government council passed a motion to lease part of the public primary school building to the Zana Sándor Imre School Foundation. At the same assembly, the local government voted 10:1 to accept a request for negotiation from the Gypsy MSG if it publicly apologised for the "fascist" name-calling.29

April 2-5, 2002
The Gypsy MSG protested at the trash dump, arguing that the accumulation of waste there was hazardous for the Roma-inhabited area.

May 28, 2002
The Ombudsman for the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities wrote a letter to the Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok Administrative Office in response to Kallai's complaint that the local council did not seek the approval of the Gypsy MSG in leasing local government property to the private school. The Ombudsman also declared that the establishment of the Zana Sándor Imre School would cause negative discrimination for Jászladány Roma. The letter declared the local government's demand for public apology (March 12, 2002) as a precondition for negotiation with the Gypsy MSG, since the two bodies are obliged, by Hungarian law, to work cooperatively.30

August 30, 2002
The Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok County Administrative Office reversed the decision of the Jászladány local government to lease a school building to the private school.31

September 2, 2002
The Zana Sándor Imre School closed down after one day of teaching. The Jászladány Public Primary School took back students enrolled in the private school.32

September 10, 2002
Parents whose children were enrolled in the private school demonstrated in Jászladány. Such parents also sent a letter to the prime minister, Péter Medgyessy, claiming that the closing of the school was unlawful.33

October 1, 2002
Several national Romani politicians denounced the intention of Gabriella Makai Dankóné, non-Roma and wife of the Jászladány mayor, to run in the Gypsy MSG elections. Among those denouncing the development were: László Teleki, the state secretary for Roma Issues at the Prime Minister's Office, Flórian Farkas, President of the National Gypsy Self-Government, Orbán Kolompár, leader of the Roma Left Coalition, and Aladár Horváth, Advisor of the Prime Minister. Gabriella Makai commented to the Roma Press Center (RSK): "I didn't write the law," and cited her right to run for the office.34

October 16, 2002
Kállai told the Hungarian Press Agency (MTI) that he called international monitors to the October 20 local elections in Jászladány. He said he decided to do so when he learned that non-Roma had registered candidacy for the Gypsy MSG.35

October 2002
"Immediately previous to the elections",36 a flier was distributed in Jászladány, entitled "Jászladányi Szamizdat". The flier states: "Who we should vote for" and "Who we should not vote for". Under the latter, "doctors", "teachers working at the local government primary school, or anyone closely related to them," and "the shame of the community, László Kállai and his team" were listed.37

October 20, 2002
Elections were held in Jászladány for mayor and local government positions. Ms Makai Dankóné was elected to the local Gypsy MSG.

October 25, 2002
Mr Kállai appealed to the Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok Court, stating that he could not accept the decision of the Provincial Electoral Office. The latter rejected Kállai's objection to the elections on the grounds that the contents of the "Jászladány Szamizdat" flier influenced voting. Kállai claimed that the mayor's office participated in the distribution of the flier, and that he had an eyewitness from Hungarian Radio.38

October 28, 2002
The Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok Court rejected Kállai's appeal of the Provincial Electoral Office's decision.39

November 23, 2002
The Jászsag Roma Citizens' Rights Organisation (Jászsagi Roma Polgarjogi Szervezet) was founded by Mr Kállai in Jászladány; Mr Kállai became the group's president.40

Events leading up to the 2002 elections clearly indicate that the Gypsy MSG and the local government had been in conflict for some time. The means of protest chosen by the Jászladány Gypsy MSG, under the leadership of Mr Kállai, included legal action at the provincial court, popular demonstrations, a hunger strike, a referendum, petitions, open letters, appeals to the Ombudsman and to the President of Hungary. The 2002 elections marked the culmination, and end, of the tense relations between local government and the Gypsy MSG. In October of that year, the above-mentioned flier was distributed and the five candidates listed on that flier overwhelmingly defeated Mr Kállai and other Romani candidates. The one Romani member of the current Gypsy MSG, Ms Rita Suki, is now its President. Mr Kállai has continued pressing for legal action against the private school, which earned its operation permit and opened in September 2003.

Mr Kállai was at the center of the Jászladány events since 1999; his presidency at the Gypsy MSG started in 1995. In media reporting on Jászladány, local government representatives and residents associated with the private school often pinpoint Kállai as the source of "trouble" in the village. The episode serves as a stark illustration of the fact that current Hungarian minority rights legislation enables the majority to remove from even nominal political power persons who it regards as irritating, such as activists agitating for equal rights. An interview was conducted with the former Jászladány Gypsy MSG leader, to collect his thoughts on the MSG system in general and on recommendations to change the law in particular.

Endnotes:

  1. The article is based on field research in Jászladány conducted in August 2003 by Nicole Pallai and on legal research conducted by Anita Danka. Nicole Pallai is a recent graduate of the Nationalism Studies Masters Program at Central European University (CEU), Budapest.  She wrote her thesis on “Nancy Fraser: Recognition and Redistribution in the Instance of the Roma Minority Self-Government of Nagykanizsa, Hungary.”  She is currently continuing her research on the MSG system in Hungary. Anita Danka is legal assistant at the ERRC. She has graduated the Human Rights Masters Program at Central European University.
  2. See Népszámlálás 2001. Kőzponti statisztikai hivatal, 2002.
  3. LXXVII Act of 1993 on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities, Article 1(2). Official translation, at: www.obh.hu/nekh/en/index.htm.
  4. Kaltenbach, Jenő. “From Paper to Practice in Hungary: The Protection and Involvement of Minorities in Governance.” In Bíró, Anna-Mária, Petra Kovács (eds.). Diversity in Action. Local Public Management of Multi-Ethnic Communities in Central and Eastern Europe. Budapest, LGI-OSI, 2001, p. 176.
  5. The 1992:LXIII. Data Protection Law declares data related to one’s national or ethnic belonging sensitive, and therefore protected by the criminal law.
  6. On the election of local minority self-governments and national minority self-governments see 1990:LXIV Act on Self-governments.
  7. Hungarian Constitution, Article 70(1).
  8. At the same time, Antal Heizer, head of the Office of National and Ethnic Minorities argues that Article 68(4) provides for the right of national and ethnic minorities to form local and national bodies of representation, therefore this right is secured to members of that particular minority group and not to other minority or majority communities. In: A kisebbségek kerekasztal lovagjai és a fegyverhordozók, at: http://www.meh.hu/nekh/Magyar/3-mh.htm.  
  9. According to the data published by the Central Office of Statistics, there were settlements where minority self-government elections were initiated, although, according to the 2001 census, no one declared himself/herself a member of that minority, no one marked that particular minority language as his/her mother tongue and no one expressed cultural attachment to that particular minority. Quoted in Kaltenbach, Jenő. “Report on the Minority Self-government Elections in 2002 and 2003”, p. 7, at: http://www.obh.hu/nekh/hu/index.htm.
  10. “Report on the Minority Self-Government Elections in 2002 and 2003”, p. 3.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Gábor, Czene. “A cigány önkormányzat elutasítja a kisebbségi  névjegyzéket”, Népszabadság, October 6, 2003.  
  14. Interview by Nicole Pallai, August 5, 2003, Jászladány.
  15. Doros, Judit. “A cigány önkormányzat nem fitneszklub”. Népszabadság, September 3, 2001.
  16. Jászladányi Szamizdat, No.1.
  17. Doros, Judit. “A cigány önkormányzat nem fitneszklub”. Népszabadság, September 3, 2001.
  18. Letter from the Ombudsman for National and Ethnic Minorities to Dr Tota Aronne, the Director of the Jasz-Nagykun-Szolnok Administrative Office, May 28, 2002.
  19. Doros, Judit. “A cigány önkormányzat nem fitneszklub”. Népszabadság, September 3, 2001.
  20. Purgely Hiradó: A Jászladányi Cigany Kisebbsegi Önkormanyzati Lapja, March 1, 2001.
  21. Doros, Judit. “A cigány önkormányzat nem fitneszklub”. Népszabadság, September 3, 2001.
  22. “Döntsön a nép!”, Purgely Hiradó: a Jászladányi Cigány Kisebbségi Önkormányzat Lapja, July 3, 2001.
  23. Letter from the Ombudsman for National and Ethnic Minorities to Dr Tota Aronne, the director of the Jasz-Nagykun-Szolnok Administrative Office, May 28, 2002.
  24. “Jászladányi Nepszavazasvita”, Népszabadság, June 2, 2001.
  25. Amaro Drom, “Jászladányi: Private School and Trash Dump”, 2001.
  26. “Kétszer elutasított jászladányi népszavazás”, Népszabadság, July 31, 2001.
  27. “Kétszer elutasított jászladányi népszavazás”, Népszabadság, July 31, 2001.
  28. Doros, Judit. “A cigány önkormányzat nem fitneszklub”, Népszabadság, September 3, 2001.
  29. Letter, from the Ombudsman for National and Ethnic Minorities to Dr Tota Aronne, the Director of the Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok Administrative Office, May 28, 2002.
  30. Ibid.
  31. “Jászladányi iskolaügy,” Népszabadság, September 19, 2002.
  32. “Jászladány: Per, cáfolat,” Népszabadság, February 3, 2003.
  33. “Jászladányi iskolaügy – demonstráció az alapítványi iskoláért”, Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), September 10, 2002.
  34. Kállai, Szilvia. “Választási botrány Jászladányba”. Roma Press Center (RSK), October 1, 2002.
  35. “Önkormányzati választások – nemzetközi megfigyelőket hivtak Jászladányra”, Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), October 16, 2002.
  36. “Önkormányzati választások – Jászladány – bíróságon a választási kifogás,” Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), October 25, 2002.
  37. Jászladányi Szamizdat, No.1.
  38. “Önkormányzati választások – Jászladány – bíróságon a választási kifogas”, Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), (October 25, 2002).
  39. “Önkormányzati választások – Jászladány – elutasított kifogás”, Magyar Távirati Iroda (MTI), October 28, 2002.
  40. “Roma polgárjogi iroda Jászladányba”, Népszabadság, January 28, 2003.

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