political corruption

Another Friday morning “non-threat” from Viktor Orbán

According to some analysts, Viktor Orbán’s latest Friday morning interview was perhaps one of the most revealing and most frightening. On such occasions the prime minister sometimes unwittingly reveals facts about himself and the country that would perhaps best remain hidden.

I already mentioned his inappropriate quip about the unwelcome German tanks in 1944. He went on to make a “non-threatening” remark about those who do not embrace Fidesz. In connection with the clearly fraudulent tobacconist shop concessions, he said: “I am a mild-mannered person, so I am not saying this to threaten anyone, but if we wanted to enforce political considerations in such a tender, there would not be a single left-wing winner.” As Erik D’Amato wrote on politics.hu,  “if Viktor Orbán wanted to he could crush you like an ant, but he won’t, because he’s chill.”

threat commons.wikimedia.org

Threat / commons.wikimedia.org

Orbán again beat the drum about his government’s accomplishments, starting with the country’s fantastic economic achievement that by now “the whole world recognizes.” Please, anyone who’s heard such praise, stand up! I also learned from this interview that Hungary’s economic growth was respectable in 2011 but then came a “second wave of economic crisis in Europe” that caused all the trouble in Hungary. Thus, the Hungarian government’s unorthodox policies had nothing to do with the recession that followed two years of small economic growth.

Orbán actually boasted about his illegal seizure of private pension accounts from millions of citizens when he described how “we reorganized the system of pensions and took away the money from the financial markets,  taxed the banks, forced the multinationals to pay taxes.” He admitted that he could do all that because of his party’s super majority. The truth? The pensions were taken away from the people and not the markets. Both the banks and the multinationals had paid taxes before; what he and his right hand, György Matolcsy, did was to levy crippling additional taxes on them.

The untrue statements didn’t end here. Orbán claimed that the European Union wants to force the Hungarian government to “take away from ordinary people … lower pensions … lower social welfare, decrease child support.” Orbán categorically stated that he will never satisfy such demands from the European Union because they amount  to an austerity program, a concept whose very mention is forbidden by Fidesz.  But the fact is that every time the chips were down Orbán gave in to the demands of the European Union concerning the budget deficit. Except the Orbán government refuses to use the word “austerity” (megszorítás). All sorts of other words are substituted for the austerity packages that followed each other in rapid succession throughout 2011 and 2012. One of these synonyms is “zárolás” (sequestration, freezing of funds), which according to Orbán “doesn’t take money away from people.” So, if the Ministry of Human Resources must spend less on education or healthcare it does not affect, according the economic wizardry of the Hungarian prime minister, the well being of the country’s citizens.

It is also clear that Orbán is unwilling to begin serious structural reforms. If Hungarians don’t like to hear about austerity they are equally leery about “reforms.” Their experience in the past has been that reform means a diminishment of their income or their access to social welfare benefits. Instead, Orbán is ready to contemplate such suggestions as spending less on government bureaucracy, further raising taxes on banks and the multinationals, and even increasing the transaction tax rate “if the European Union insists on a lower deficit.”

And finally, a few words about Viktor Orbán’s attitude toward his own role as prime minister of the country. Ever since 2002  Orbán has often repeated that “the nation cannot be the opposition.” He equates his own political side with the nation. Those who have a different set of political views are outside of the nation. At the end of the interview this interpretation of his own role became clear: he considers himself the prime minister of those who are Fidesz supporters.

I already mentioned this gentle soul’s words about his limitless power to grant tobacconist licenses based on political considerations. Orbán explained further: “I would like to make it perfectly clear that I will never turn my back on our supporters. Why is it wrong if entrepreneurs who share our values and otherwise fulfill the requirements win these tenders?… To turn our backs on our own voters, our followers (hiveink), our supporters just because we politicians will receive less criticism  this way, that I will never accept. We have to endure these criticisms because if our followers cannot count on us, who can?”

It’s no wonder that last night Ágnes Vadai (DK) in an interview on Egyenes beszéd kept referring to Viktor Orbán as “the man who calls himself Hungary’s prime minister.”

Greed might be the undoing of Viktor Orbán and his regime

Today I’m going to look at two corruption cases that might have serious consequences for the Fidesz empire in Hungary. The first is the “seizure” of the profitable retail tobacco market and its redistribution among friends and families of Fidesz politicians. It seems that the government may have gone too far here; there are signs of internal party opposition. We know only about small fry at the moment, but that doesn’t mean that dissatisfaction isn’t present in the highest circles of the Fidesz leadership.

The other scandal is not new at all. For years Közgép, a company owned by Lajos Simicska, a childhood friend of Viktor Orbán, has won practically all government projects financed by European Union subsidies. But it came to light only now that Brussels suspended payments on two very important “operative programs,” one dealing with the environment and energy and the other with transportation.

First, the response of  two party faithfuls to the tobacco shop scandal. On April 26 HVG received a letter from a Fidesz city council member in which he said that in his town the Fidesz members of the council decided who would get the tobacco concessions. At that point the informer didn’t want to reveal his identity, but two days later he was ready to give an interview, name and all. It is a long interview from which I will quote the key sentences.

Ákos Hadházy is a veterinarian in Szekszárd, the county seat of Tolna. He considers himself to be a conservative, but “this tobacconist shop-affair broke something in [him].” The Fidesz members of the council looked at all the applicants and suggested who should get favorable treatment.” Mostly friends and relatives. Hadházy struggled with his conscience. He felt that the way the selection was made was wrong, but at the same time he realized that “many would consider revealing his doubts a betrayal” of his party. Finally he decided that although “perhaps in the short run the party might lose a few percentage points, in the long run these revelations might actually be good for this party.”

In his opinion “the 2010 landslide victory was a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time such a large victory is harmful for a party.” A well functioning opposition is “a basic necessity…. If there is no opposition, sooner or later [the party leadership] will be unable to control [its] own decisions. There will be no reaction when [they] make wrong decisions.” Unfortunately this is what happened in Fidesz’s case.

Hadházy even went further and announced that the problem is that there is no opposition within the party either. The members of parliament are no more than voting machines because after 2014 there will be fewer seats available and naturally everybody would like to keep his job. “One can’t expect negative opinions from them…. If there are no debates within a party … then there are only two possibilities: either [the party] does something fantastically well or something is not right.” Most often decisions are unanimous. Ordinary party members are not consulted. Maybe once a year there is a meeting of the local party members, but that’s all.

corruption2Fidesz is indeed a very disciplined party, but he thinks they “went too far.” Such discipline was fine when Fidesz was in opposition. Then “the para-military structure was acceptable, but when in power the party should have moved in a more democratic direction.” Hadházy believes–I think wrongly–that Fidesz has fantastic “intellectual capital” but doesn’t try to use this capacity and doesn’t listen to them. “This in the long run is a suicidal strategy because the members of the intelligentsia  are the ones who can influence public opinion.”

As far as he is concerned there are two possibilities: the party will not take kindly to his going public and then his political career will be over. If, on the other hand, he is spared he “will be very glad to know that Fidesz is full of real democrats, even if this is not always evident given how decisions are made now.”

The other rebel is András Stumpf of the pro-government Heti Válasz.  Don’t think that András Stumpf is a “soft” Fidesz supporter. He is no Bálint Ablonczy, another reporter for the same weekly, who is a moderate right-winger. Stumpf is pretty hard-core. He aggressively defends the government at every opportunity–for instance, when he appears on ATV’s Start. Even in this critical article he expresses his belief that Sándor Laborc of the Office of National Security hired Tamás Portik to spy on the opposition, meaning Fidesz. Yet it seems that the tobacconist concessions and the amendment to the Freedom of Information Act were too much for him. Not even he believes that the quickly amended piece of legislation has nothing to do with the concessions and the government’s attempt to hide the truth from the public. In Stumpf’s opinion, the amendment is most likely unconstitutional and what the government is doing is “frightening.” If they have nothing to hide, make the documents public.

Moving on to the withheld EU payments, a new internet website, 444.hu, published an article entitled “Secret war between Budapest and Brussels” on April 30. According to the article, last summer the European Union suspended payment for cohesion fund projects. The apparent reason was that Brussels discovered that there is discrimination against foreign engineers. Only engineers who belong to the Hungarian Society of Engineers can be hired.

With due respect to the journalist of 444.hu, I can’t believe that this is the real reason for the suspension of billions of euros. Instead, I recall that about a year ago Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció turned to the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) to call attention to the fact that Közgép, Simicska’s company, had received an incredible number of government contracts, all financed by the European Union. The suspicion is that Közgép through Lajos Simicska is actually owned by Fidesz. Or at least a substantial percentage of  its profits ends up in party coffers. I remember that sometime during the summer of 2012 OLAF’s investigators took possession of Közgép’s computers. I suspect that the suspension of funds has more to do with Fidesz government corruption than with discrimination against foreign engineers.

By now opposition politicians are openly accusing Közgép of being a front for Fidesz. Gábor Scheiring (PM) said that “the essence of Lajos Simicska’s firm … is financing Fidesz from its profits.” Gyurcsány considers “Lajos Simicska  the most notorious and most influential person in Fidesz and the business establishment built around it.” László Varju, the party director of DK, in one of his press conferences talked about the need to investigate the possible “role of [Közgép] in the financing of the government party.” If it could be proven that Közgép and Simicska are just a front for Fidesz, Orbán might find himself and his party a lot poorer.

Is the Demokratikus Koalíció a liberal party?

A few days ago Gábor Fodor announced that he will establish a new party called Magyar Liberális Párt. SZDSZ is no more, he declared, and it mustn’t happen that Hungary has no liberal party.

I’m not familiar with the personal relationships among SZDSZ politicians, but former colleagues who once sat in the same parliamentary caucus hardly speak to and refuse to cooperate with one another. Although the various splinter groups have divergent ideas, they seem to have one thing in common: nobody wants anything to do with Gábor Fodor.

As for the existence of a liberal party in Hungary, I propose that there already is one. It is called Demokratikus Koalíció. I venture to say that the bulk of DK voters and party members come from former SZDSZ supporters and/or members. This is only a hunch, but I suspect that a public opinion poll that would tease out the correlation between former SZDSZ and current DK followers would lend credence to my contention.

At least two well-known SZDSZ politicians are on board in DK: Tamás Bauer and Mátyás Eörsi. Both were founders of SZDSZ and both served as members of parliament. Eörsi between 1990 and 2010 and Bauer between 1994 and 2002. Bauer is an economist while Eörsi has a law degree.

liberalism by brexians flickr

Liberalism by brexians / Flickr

Here I would like to summarize an article by Tamás Bauer that appeared yesterday in Galamus. The title of the piece is “Someone who can’t stop attacking Gyurcsány” (Aki a gyurcsányozást nem bírja abbahagyni). Even from the title it is evident that Bauer is coming to the defense of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The great virtue of the article, however, is that Bauer is thoroughly familiar with the details of behind-the-scenes party politics  about which we outsiders know practically nothing.

Bauer’s article is an answer to an opinion piece by András Böhm, an SZDSZ member of parliament between 2002 and 2010, in HVG entitled “The One Who Cannot Stop” (Aki nem bírja abbahagyni). Böhm maintains that Gyurcsány’s political activity turns away hundreds of thousands of voters from the democratic opposition. Böhm made a long list of  political blunders committed by Ferenc Gyurcsány, from the “tax burlesque” of 2006 to his resignation in 2009 that, in Böhm’s opinion, was too late. In the article Böhm makes Gyurcsány solely responsible for the two-thirds majority victory of Viktor Orbán. Or at least this is how Tamás Bauer interpreted the article.

Bauer finds this argument more than odd, especially coming from someone who became a member of parliament in 2002. At that time the new parliamentary majority, instead of correcting the economic mistakes of the first Orbán government, added to the problems with Péter Medgyessy’s two 100-day programs that further increased the deficit. András Böhm, as an SZDSZ member of parliament, voted for all these government programs.

As for the “tax burlesque” of 2006, Gábor Kuncze, chairman of SZDSZ at the time, tried to convince the SZDSZ caucus to give up the idea of decreasing the personal income tax burden as well as the VAT, but Kuncze’s effort was in vain. The majority of the SZDSZ delegation insisted on the decrease. Gyurcsány apparently did the same during his negotiations with the board (elnökség) of MSZP. He got nowhere. Gyurcsány “had to deliver the speech in Balatonőszöd to convince his fellow socialists” to agree to change course. In addition to a mistaken economic policy, political corruption was another reason for the failure of the socialist-liberal governments. Again it was only Ferenc Gyurcsány, says Bauer, who fought for transparent party financing. After he failed, he left MSZP in October 2011 to establish a new party, the Demokratikus Koalíció.

According to Bauer, Böhm’s only concern is what Gyurcsány did or didn’t do between 2004 and 2009. He pays no attention to what the Demokratikus Koalíció is doing today in Hungarian politics. The question is whether DK has a role to play on the Hungarian political spectrum. According to Bauer, the answer is a resounding yes.

Bauer reminds Böhm that SZDSZ was the only party that refused to vote for the so-called “status law” that would have provided Hungarians living in the neighboring countries special privileges inside of Hungary. The members of SZDSZ’s parliamentary caucus were the only MPs who refused to vote for a resolution condemning Slovakia in connection with the language law and its treatment of President László Sólyom.

It is DK that is continuing this tradition when it comes to policies concerning Hungarian minorities. After 2010 both the MSZP and the LMP caucus voted for dual citizenship, with the exception of Ferenc Gyurcsány. Today DK is the only party that continues the former policies of SZDSZ when it comes to the Hungarian minorities. Citizenship yes, voting rights no.

It was during the 2006 campaign that Viktor Orbán first came up with the idea of decreasing the price of natural gas. MSZP tried to outdo him and promised even greater decreases. It was only SZDSZ that refused to follow suit. Today MSZP promised support for the government’s decision to lower utility costs. DK is against the measure.

In 2008, on MDF’s insistence, MSZP voted to repeal the inheritance tax; SZDSZ had the courage to vote against the measure. Today DK’s party program spells out its insistence on reinstating inheritance taxes on estates over 20 million forints. Bauer points out that today MSZP is talking about absolutely free higher education; it is only DK that is calling for tuition fees across the board combined with financial assistance for the needy. Once upon a time it was only SZDSZ that wanted to renegotiate the agreement between Gyula Horn and the Vatican. Today it is part of DK’s party program.

All in all, in Bauer’s opinion, DK is the only party representing a liberal economic policy, liberal legal thinking, liberal higher education, liberal national policy (magyarságpolitika), and liberal policies concerning church and state. There is no other party among the opposition groups that represents these ideals.

Bauer concludes his article by saying that it is not enough to win the elections. It is also important to know what kind of Hungary will be created after the victory. And in that new Hungary one must have a party that represents “these liberal values that neither MSZP nor Együtt14 is ready to stand behind.”