Against corruption in Hungary: seven suggestions

Ferenc Gyurcsány lately has been very fond of numbers. Numbers of points. Numbers of reforms. Numbers of steps to be taken against corruption. The first forty-eight points were necessary to demonstrate that he and his government take the reforms seriously and will not retreat, whatever the "political scientists" say. (See my earlier writing about my opinion of these so-called political scientists.) On Monday evening, Gyurcsány came up with seven new points. This time to clean up government and party finances. To try to eliminate corruption as much as humanly possible.

Not that Gyurcsány has not been contemplating this move for a long time. We know from his co-workers and his biographer that when he first became part of the administration (minister of sports and youth) he quickly realized the unprofessional, opaque way of conducting business. To be precise, giving out grants to so-called civil organizations. Back then he could do little against the vested interests, in part because he headed a very minor ministry (which he has since abolished) and also because by that time he most likely didn’t have Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy’s full backing. Gyurcsány made some changes, but nothing fundamental.

Even after he became prime minister he couldn’t really clean house in the party because he wasn’t the head of the party. Also, everybody knows that within the party he has many opponents, including Katalin Szili and her friends. Most likely he felt that he wasn’t strong enough to move. However, after the Zuschlag affair, where numerous young socialists are being detained and charged with conspiracy to commit fraud (embezzlement) and when a video appears on which another socialist politician discusses the "fee" for his services to get government grants, the prime minister undoubtedly believes that it is time to act. The party is in trouble, and perhaps the party big wigs will realize that they have no choice but to follow his lead.

However, according to leaks, some people in the MSZP caucus are still not happy with the way Gyurcsány handled this latest crisis. They complain that the prime minister didn’t inform them of all of his seven points, leaving out the one that affects them most: that being a member of parliament is a full-time job. If accepted by parliament (and that is doubtful because its passage would require a two-thirds majority and so far Fidesz has consistently voted against government proposals), the members cannot be mayors, members of city councils, heads of big corporations. Apparently at the moment one-third of the members, approximately 130 people, work in parliament only part-time!

The seven points are the following: (1) New and stricter laws concerning party and campaign finances. These would include provisions that parties would receive substantially more money from the budget and that parties could receive contributions only from individuals. The length of the campaign would be also shortened. (2) The financing of the youth organizations of the different parties should be properly regulated. (3) Civil organizations that are involved with party politics should not receive any government subsidies. (4) Parliamentary members’ salaries should be raised to an acceptable level, but at the same time compensation for expenses should be properly accounted for. (5) Strict regulations concerning possible conflicts of interest in granting subsidies. (6) Higher-level civil servants should also give a yearly accounting of their financial situations. (7) Members of parliament shouldn’t have second and third jobs in addition to their main function.

The first reaction on the other side is immediate rejection. István Balsai, once an MDF member but now one of the "legal experts" of Fidesz (and in my opinion not a very smart man) immediately answered that all this would increase governmental expenses, and therefore it shouldn’t even be considered. As for the parliamentary members’ having only one job, he suggested that perhaps Gyurcsány should give up his job as prime minister in this case. Or, a parliamentary member shouldn’t be a minister or an undersecretary. Only someone totally unfamiliar with the parliamentary system can say such nonsense. Fidesz should come up with something more imaginative than that (and I’m sure they will).

As for the inner workings of the brain trust of Gyurcsány and his friends. The decision was made not to remind people of the incredible corruption of the Orbán govenment because this finger-pointing doesn’t achieve anything. I agree. Instead, let us see what the largest opposition party will say. To turn down all these proposals out of hand might damage the party’s reputation. After all, why shouldn’t Orbán and the other Fidesz leaders want to clean up the current mess? Defending the present situation might give the impression that they hope to gain from the existing state of affairs. (That’s probably the Pollyanna point of view. A realist would say that the Fidesz is riding high now. Why should they help to clean up the government’s mess when this mess can only benefit them?)

We know that the MDF will probably support most of the proposals. The SZDSZ likewise. The Christian Democrats, following the lead of Fidesz, have already said no. So most likely the seven suggestions (with the possible exception of a pay raise for members of parliament) will remain simply "suggestions."  But at least it’s a start.