Corrupt student leaders, corrupt politicians

Just the other day Hungarian Transparency International released a study on the “Lack of Transparency in Hungary’s Higher Education.” This title is somewhat misleading because the main emphasis is on corruption in higher education and in the student unions, Hallgatói Önkormányzatok (HÖK). Five hundred students were interviewed in a questionnaire survey, and a number of in-depth interviews were conducted with teachers and administrative professionals. According to the students, it is in politics that corruption is the highest but it is also present, even if not to such an extent, in higher education. Thirty-two percent of students believe that the teaching staff is not at all or only partially honest. Twenty-six percent question the integrity of the admission committees, and 46% doubt the honesty of the student council/union.

Let me concentrate on the student councils here. The HÖKs were set up with generous support from the government in the early 1990s when politicians in their democratic zeal felt that students, just like every other group, needed their own self-governing institution. They were given both funding and wide-ranging privileges. They could offer financial assistance to students in need. They also had jurisdiction over the dormitories. And they had the right to vote on the appointment and promotion of professors.

Quickly enough some students discovered the benefits of attaining high positions in the student union, including substantial personal monetary benefits. As a result, it was not always the most honest men and women (mostly men, I’m afraid) who vied for these positions.

These student unions became incubators for future politicians, especially those who eventually ended up in Fidesz. Fidesz in the 1990s was extremely popular among students, and eventually the whole leadership of Fidelitas, the junior branch of the party, underwent their political apprenticeship in student unions of various universities. Since then, with the rise of Jobbik, in some universities Jobbik took over the student unions. You may recall that at the Faculty of Arts of ELTE the Jobbik leadership of HÖK picked out “the most promising” (i.e., most likely to join Jobbik) freshmen. This crew had a running list of entering freshmen and made special mention of who might be a Jew or a left-winger.

A leadership position in HÖK could have been good preparation for an honorable political career. These student leaders had to negotiate with the faculty and the university administration, and in theory they were supposed to defend the rights of the student body. Unfortunately their primary concern was to fill their pockets and acquire more and more power. In the study half of the students claim that members of the student union ask for money, gifts or favors from those who request a place in the dormitory or social assistance. The financial affairs of the student union are unregulated and opaque.

The corruption of the budding Fidesz-Jobbik student leaders practically guaranteed that when they found themselves in more important political positions they would carry on their shady business, only on a much grander scale.

Perhaps the most notorious HÖK was at the University of Szeged where in early 2011 there was practically a student revolt to get rid of the corrupt HÖK members. There, as István Tanács, Népszabadság‘s Szeged correspondent wrote, “instead of student autonomy HÖK had a potential for blackmail of the administration.” About 600 students, freshmen and sophomores, naive souls, signed a petition demanding more electoral transparency. Their demands were modest: they wanted the votes collected to be kept at night in the safe of the Dean’s Office and not in the office of HÖK. They wanted a public notary to be present when the results of the election were counted. They also demanded a completely new election for all positions and not individual replacements of students whose term of office was ending.

"I no longer want to be chairman for that long" -- Márk Török, the notorious chairman of Szeged HÖK

“I no longer want to be chairman for that long” — Márk Török, the notorious chairman of the Szeged HÖK

The leadership of the Szeged HÖK managed to fend off the attempts at undercutting their power within the organization. That could be done relatively easily because the heads of the student unions are not elected in a truly democratic manner. In fact, the HÖK in Szeged is organized in such a way that its president has absolute power and the university’s administration has no say whatsoever over its affairs. The university’s senate accepted that arrangement as well as the demand of HÖK that this provision can be changed only with the approval of the student union.

The head of the Szeged HÖK is in charge of billions of forints spent on scholarships, the maintenance of dormitories, and assistance for living expenses, for books, for sports and cultural events. Moreover, without the approval of the leadership of the Szeged HÖK no student can be removed from the university for academic or disciplinary reasons. One of the vice-presidents of the university who made such a decision on his own was himself eventually removed from the university at the insistence of the HÖK chairman. It looks as if the university administration is actually afraid of the student union.

So, the younger Fidesz leadership, and these people by now are probably in their early forties, often comes from these student unions where for years they were masters of manipulation and where they enjoyed unquestioned, concentrated power. We shouldn’t be surprised about the atmosphere that pervades the party. In addition, let’s not forget that Viktor Orbán and his buddies come from a very similar background. When they were at university they spent more time politicking than studying. They managed to achieve self-government within their small dormitory and ran the show with practically no supervision.

While I think that political activity should be part of university life, I also think that the power of HÖK should be broken once the electorate gets rid of those who brought into Hungarian political life the institutionalized corruption learned already in college.

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10 comments

  1. THere was an interesting article about the background of the chairman of the new “National Electional Committee”.

    Basically, he can decide the elections at the counting of the mailed-in votes from Romania, Serbia and the Ukraine, and by fining newspapers, by rejecting pesky foreign observers.

    Mr Patyi was a
    Communist (MSzMP) party member in the 1980s, then he
    helped to build the Nazi “turul” memorial of district 12 in 2005, then
    helped to create the Fidesz New Order at the Courts after 2010.

    Colorful career.

    http://www.nepszava.hu/articles/article.php?id=681476

  2. THere was an interesting article about the background of the chairman of the new
    “National Electional Committee”.

    Basically, he can decide the elections at the counting of the mailed-in votes from Romania,
    Serbia and the Ukraine, and by fining newspapers, by rejecting pesky foreign observers.

    Mr Patyi was a
    Communist (MSzMP) party member in the 1980s, then he
    helped to build the Nazi “turul” memorial of district 12 in 2005, then
    helped to create the Fidesz New Order at the Courts after 2010.

    Colorful career.

    http://www.nepszava.hu/articles/article.php?id=681476

  3. One of the issues to be noted here is the misguided idea that students must have a say in the operation of a university. Because it is so democratic and we are so enlightened and democratic so we give them this.

    Problem is in reality Hungarian students are not active at all and they don’t care. Whereas you got dozens of student associations, groups and circles at a good college in the US, in Hungary nobody wants to be active in that way. Civil society is notoriously weak in Hungary and private initiations are almost nonexistent.

    So it is not surprising that an obligatory ‘democratic’ institution such as the HÖK will be hijacked soon by the savvy and will get corrupted. Similarly it was natural that HaHa (the diffuse anti-HÖK) disappeared without a trace. Nobody cares about Haha, if they had cared about HaHa or student issues in general HaHa would have existed long ago. Kids only want to have their Iphones and work as little as possible, they don’t care about anything else (of course if you tell them that, they get offended).

    But make no mistake the corruption of HÖK is the interest of both the people in HÖK and the university as well.

    It is because HÖK gets a default say in matters of importance to top university administrators, a certain portion of the votes in various university boards. So university administrators naturally try to get those votes — by any means necessary.

    Until HÖK exits it will be the breeding ground for corrupt politicians, since it is unlikely that students will really care about the HÖK and HÖK will continue to be out of control. Since kids tend to be right-wing (as the left cannot attract the younger generation which is anyway distances itself from politics, well, except for the tarisznya-wielding Jobbik fans) HÖK will continue to be school for corrupt right wing politicians. That’s all.

    It will also the in the interest of the university to coopt HÖK. So it is a perfect combination — all in the name of democratic participation.

    I think HÖK must be eliminated completely and students should not have a default say in everything. It is an illusion to expect that this obligatory student participation will be anything more than opportunity to educate certain kids in corruption. HÖK cannot be reformed because there is no structure in which a HÖK could be put under any effective control, especially not under a control of the students themselves who couldn’t care less.

    Needless to say the left would never dare to eliminate or restrict HÖK, because the left is too afraid of any conflicts, and is too afraid of the young especially, and the young could be fired up by Fidesz and Jobbik in no time (among whom the left is deemed hopelessly unpopular and uncool), so the left will continue to let the HÖK operate so that it could educate the next generation of the left’s – much smarter – opposition. That is if the left ever gets to power, which is unlikely — after all, they could not attract anybody from the generation that reached voting age in the last 15-20 years, which is a pretty big cohort if you compare it to the life expectancy in Hungary.

  4. I was shocked to read this Editorial. I knew Hungary and the people could be very corrupt but it never occurred to me that even the student’s representatives could be involved in corruption to this degree.

    Looking back at my professional experience here, perhaps I should not be so surprised. After all the road to riches here is generally corrupt, tainted with a heavy disregard to those being trampled along the way.

    Whereas the notion in the USA is to build success previous successes, here it is to destroy another’s and thereby to quicly replace it with your own even greater success.

    Following communism the remnants of the previous 40 solid years of psychological indoctrination completely bad-mouhed capitalism as being the greatest evil on earth. The active population had been brainwashed whether they knew it or not.

    The system was though of as man-eat-man, each one for himself. The opportunity that capitalism was offereing was only to a select few. At least that was the Marxist ideology. And that there were only filthy rich capitalists. The road was a dog-eat-dog world. It was taboo to say it but acting so behind the screen was legit and believed to be a requirement.

    The concept of the large middle class living a pleasant, comfortable life did not fit the communist iodeology and waas not promulgated. Therefore this notion did not exist in leader’s minds. You were either rich or a ‘niemand’ (a nobody…).

    Censequently the daddies and mommies began indoctrinating their children to behave like themselves. Take the sabre, cut out the bush people were hiding behind and attack them at close range. Trench warfare in the office, lying, conniving and making allegiances with those deemed sufficiently corrupt to serve in your ad-hoc militia.

    Public service became a self-enrichment game of power-brokering, and manipulating state businesses. The goal was to produce mega-losses that would lower the value of the state enterprises that then would be sold to Western corporations at such low rates that there would be plenty to pay into private Swiss bank accounts for those helpful in offering them the companies being ‘privatized’ at an extremely friendly price… It was left to the future foreign owner whether he would just scrap the company, buildings, old machinery, and the workers, thereby eliminating any local manufacturing competition, or perhaps to invest in new machinery, management and administration with the hope of using the cheap available local labor… The sugar industry, the meat industry, and who knows how many manufacturers were thrown to the hounds.

    Very few companies actually got into Hungarian hands. And if they did the consequences with few exceptions were disastrous. The ones that were not destroyed willfully were, like Malev, thrown to the wolves due to inept direction and incompetent government decisions. To the glee of Irish-owned Ryan-air, German-Wings and other vultures.

    State pensions, a golden goose of investment companies were used up in ways heretofore not made public, and borrowed EU- World-Bank funds were spent on state pruchases of MOL a previously private company. Which, two years later is being offered at a 35% loss… again at taxpayer expense.

    All in the meanwhile the government is going all out with the outrageous serial-comment that we are getting richer because -(the losing)- MOL is ours….

    The only news in business for the first 15 years came from the Chief of the State Privatization company on Pozsonyi ut who was being changed every 9 to 15 months or so, because corruption was so heavy that he’d become an embarrassment for the government at the time.

    Western technical experts were sent to advise the banks and the companies and the government. We’d meet evenings at the watering-holes for expats in Budapest.

    My western pals were getting a great salary from their big-name consulting companies but undoubtedly it was also in the western companies’ interest not to know too much… as the ownership rights to former public enterprises were being primarily offered into western corporate hands.

    The Orban methodology is a new ingenious attempt at another go-round of sales decreeing prices that would produce losses resulting in the current western owners to lose interest. The process will be to offers a high price for buying up the companies so they become public property once again. With losing price-structure these incompetent state monopolies headed by unknown relatives with their only qualification a false language-certificate will again run the utilities into the ground. At which time Mr Orban will find a good reason for needing any money to repay one or another of the many state loans. And lo-and behold another buddy will become an overnight billionnaire… 50% going into Mr Orban’s own pocket (big pockets to be had on one Caribbean island or another… Ones as good as the next when it comes to this kinda money. …

    So we return to the corrupt Univeristy student-politician. The road that goes from daddy, a former apparatchik turned ‘voleur’-capitalist to son ‘the crook-in-training’ at univeristy to the retired gentleman on the Bahamas in tax-paradise…

    Marx’s prediction was self-defeating. He taught these guys to think like this. Thereby actually corrupting capitalism itself !!!

  5. @Petersen. “One of the issues to be noted here is the misguided idea that students must have a say in the operation of a university. Because it is so democratic and we are so enlightened and democratic so we give them this.”

    I’d like to disagree. I know universities where the involvement of student councils and students sitting in at decision-making bodies have been very constructive and overcame the professors-only hierarchies.

    But as we can see democracy needs democrats – a civil society – and can be easily manipulated into becoming an autocratic vehicle. In this, Hungary is not alone.

  6. For some students the idea of having power (and also getting relatively “rich” at the same time) must be fascinating.

    A bit OT:
    This reminds me of the case of Ali Schmeißner whom I personally knew more than 40 years ago. He was in 1968 one of the leading figures of the students’ revolt in Germany (actually it was a kind of accident) and a founder of the green party (became a member of parliament too) and also a manager of the students’ organisation “Studentenwerk” at the university of Tübingen where he managed a lot of activities. One day it was found out that he had embezzled more than half a million Deutschmarks – he was a compulsive gambler …

    After his trial (he was sentenced to 10 years in prison) he disappeared from view – hiding in Prague for more than ten years while his family tried to repay the students’ association …
    Then he returned home but stayed an outcast – no one of his formr co-revolutionaries talks to him.
    So again we remember the saying:

    Power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely!

  7. The problems have one name: Orban.
    This all knowing power is hijacking the mind of enough decent and indecent people to suffocate a nation, a continent, and with his extremist co-dictators, large parts of the world.

    Let us defend our independence against such powers.

  8. liberation :
    The problems have one name: Orban.
    This all knowing power is hijacking the mind of enough decent and indecent people to suffocate a nation, a continent, and with his extremist co-dictators, large parts of the world.
    Let us defend our independence against such powers.

    Presently in Florida, but imagine my surprise at the government shutdown by the GOP!
    Had I brought the Hungarian contagion with me?
    The shutdown makes no sense: it’s aimed at Obamacare which has already been passed into law by both houses. Why is the GOP acting like Hungarians? Why are they acting against the best interests of their own country? Who is manipulating them?

    Could the ‘sources’ of all this imbecility in the US and Hungary be the same?

  9. wolfi: Yep, dem students undressed to stretch their point… Now then, can you blame the stalwart Muslims for protesting against the wild behavior in the West???

    They had enuf. They wanna blow up the west to smitherines. They want their peepl to cover all, while westerners wanna prance around naked.

    And when Kaposvár wants in-between suddenly peepl staart aaaskin kveschonz…

    I am surrprised Fidesz isnt bringing the issue to the table…

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