A Hungarian political microcosm: Fót

Fót is a picturesque town seventeen kilometers north of Budapest. One section of the town is described as the favorite place of the nouveau riche. It is prospering. While the population of Budapest is decreasing Fót's is growing. Just in the last four or five years the town added almost 1,000 inhabitants. Considering that it is a town of 18,000, that is no mean feat in a country whose overall population is shrinking. The old part of town is not that old, but it was fortunate to be the site of Count István Károlyi's estate. Károlyi was not only rich but had good taste. He employed the best architects of the day for his own palace as well as for the town's Catholic Church. The palace looks like this now. In a part of it lives László Károlyi, a descendant of the former owner who returned to Hungary in the 1990s.Fót The rest serves as a home for orphaned or abandoned children.

Taking a quick look at the local elections in the last few years it seems that Fót's citizens vote mostly for people representing right-wing parties but that there is a fairly strong socialist minority as well. The 2002 elections were interesting because out of seventeen members of the city council there were only three from Fidesz, three from the Christian Democrats, and three from MIÉP. The mayor was "independent" on paper. His name was Géza Szent-Iványi. He ran again in 2006, this time as the representative of Fidesz. By 2006, as a result of the virtual disappearance of the Christian Democrats and MIÉP, Fidesz became the leading force in town. Currently seven members of the council are from Fidesz while three people represent local mini-parties that normally espouse right-wing ideas. In addition there are six MSZP members and one "independent" who this time happens to be of Gypsy origin and, if I understand correctly, usually sides with the MSZP members.

Géza Szent-Iványi's career as mayor of Fót ended in disgrace. The council discovered that their mayor took part in criminal activities and so voted for his dismissal. Szent-Iványi fought for his survival in the courts but after a year and a half, in October 2008, the verdict became final: he was found guilty of fraud and was slapped with a hefty fine, the equivalent of 400 days in jail. Fidesz  talked about kicking him out of the party but never followed through. In fact, at the end of March 2009 Népszava reported that Szent-Iványi not only remained a party member but was still serving in the Pest county general assembly.

It seems that Fidesz doesn't have much luck with its candidates in Fót. In January 2009 bi-elections were held and a newcomer was the Fidesz-Christian Democrat candidate: Zsolt Mádly, a lawyer. Apparently Mádly was born and raised in Romania but emigrated to Hungary where he received citizenship. Mádly, reflecting the general trend, won by a huge margin–he received 3,254 votes as opposed to the MSZP candidate, who got only 1,650. If we compare these numbers to the results of the 2004 elections when Szent-Iványi won only by 34 votes over his MSZP opponent, Béla Fábry, one can see the dramatic change in the political mood in Hungary. However, perhaps the electorate of Fót is less than happy today with their choice because in his short stint as mayor Mádly has behaved irrationally (or, more charitably perhaps, badly) and, according to the city council, illegally. A day ago the city council voted unanimously for his suspension as mayor of Fót. In addition, Béla Fábry (MSZP deputy mayor) also paid a visit to the police station where he charged him with physical assault.

What happened? In the past (that is, before yesterday) if Mádly didn't particularly like what one of the members said at the council meeting he simply pulled out the microphone's connector. Or he got up and illegally closed the session. Or he challenged a foe on the council to a boxing match. One female member of the council was on the receiving end of all sorts of epithets. He threatened to shoot another councilman "as if he were a mad dog."

Yesterday, at the meeting convened to remove him from office, things really got out of hand. The mayor not only interrupted Béla Fábry, his bête noir, by disconnecting the microphone but he threw the connector straight into Fábry's face. When I read the headline in Népszava "Bloody fight in the mayor's office in Fót" I thought that it was just the usual journalistic exaggeration. But no. Népszabadság even managed to get hold of a video on which one can see the whole elevating scene, during which the friends of Mádly cheered him on in the background. Anyone who's interested in the fracas in Fót can see it at http://nol.hu/belfold/fot__verekedo_telepulesvezetok  A Fidesz spokesman responded by claiming that the mayor did not intend to do any harm and, as an alternative theory, that Fábry was actually faking it.

Before the outburst the council had voted unanimously to suspend Mádly as mayor of the town, and not just because of the way he conducted meetings. The final straw was the surfacing of a CD a few weeks ago. Oh, those cursed CD's. How much trouble they can cause. Just think of Ibolya Dávid's encounter with a CD. A few days ago Fábry and a Fidesz member of the council received a CD on which three men can be heard having a conversation. The topic is local road construction. One of the speakers is the head of the public utility services of the city of Fót, the other is the Fidesz member of the board overseeing the activities of this utility, and the third is a lawyer representing a well known construction company from the city of Pápa. The topic of the conversation is how to squeeze extra money out of the deal in the form of kickbacks. (I assume that there was no competitive bidding or, if there was, the favored firm would be the winner by one means or another.) Although the released excerpts are not entirely clear on the point, it seems that the extra money would flow into the coffers of Fidesz. In brief, the construction company would cost out the job and would then add a "kickback factor," so that the difference between the inflated bid and the realistic bid would be returned to the local Fidesz leaders and from there on perhaps higher. The CD also makes it clear that the person who facilitates the deal would get a bonus. There is also mention of Hír TV and Lánchíd Rádió (both Fidesz organs) as recipients of the extra money. Why? It is not clear to me. Perhaps for favorable reporting of the deal. Another interesting feature of this CD is that the name of "Laci Kövér" comes up in a most interesting context. One of the three men mentions that the scheme they propose has been tried elsewhere, and another man adds that "in the end we needed Laci Kövér but we managed." Perhaps it is not immaterial that Kövér is from Pápa.