Watch Pécs: It will tell a lot about Fidesz plans for Hungary

You may recall that due to the death of Péter Tasnádi, the socialist mayor of Pécs, elections were held in May. Although the most popular MSZP politician, Katalin Szili, a native of Pécs and one of its representatives in the Hungarian parliament, ran against Zsolt Páva, who had been mayor between 1994 and 1998, she lost by a very large margin. (See my blog of May 12, 2009, "Mayoral elections at Pécs: Defeat for the Hungarian socialists.") This defeat was not surprising given the current political atmosphere, but that Fidesz put forth Páva was somewhat puzzling. The first time around Páva proved to be middling at best; after four years Fidesz proposed another candidate whom the party obviously thought would have a better chance against the socialist candidate, László Toller. Toller won. Moreover, although their candidate only squeaked by in 2006, the socialists managed to hang on to the post. One of the very few cities that did.

For at least four or five days the whole country has been full of stories about what Mayor Páva and his Fidesz friends are doing to the French company Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux that owns 48% of the shares of the city's hydroelectric company. It is a story that would not be out of place in Putin's Russia, but in Hungary it is not an everyday occurrence. Admittedly during the Orbán government something similar happened: the Hungarian government broke a binding contract with a Canadian firm to manage the Budapest Airport, in effect renationalizing the management company. That renationalization was very expensive, costing the Hungarian government (by that time Orbán was out of office) 85 million dollars in addition to court costs. I'm afraid that something like that will happen in Pécs. Although I originally planned to write about the Suez upheaval today, I think the story might be better understood if I summarize Páva's activities since May and postpone the Suez story for tomorrow.

Zsolt Páva most likely is receiving detailed instructions from Fidesz headquarters in Budapest, and therefore it is not too far fetched to assume that if Fidesz wins the elections the same pattern will follow nationwide. His first aim was to change the composition of the city council that at the time of his inauguration had a slim MSZP-SZDSZ majority. Within a few weeks he managed to change the color of the council from red to orange, mostly due to desertions from the socialist camp and the new mayor's insistence on eliminating one of the socialist deputy mayors.

Páva, who in his earlier tenure was a rather ordinary local politician, has become a populist through and through. First he came up with the idea to take the oath of office in front of throngs assembled on Széchenyi tér, but the then still MSZP-SZDSZ majority council refused to endorse the plan, considering it "blatant demagoguery." Thus the official oath of office took place inside City Hall, but Páva insisted on a second one "in front of the people." During this ceremony he announced with great fanfare that the VIP parking in front of City Hall would be given back to the citizens. This whole thing sounded curious to me because the last time I was there the only people who could drive into the Old City were residents whose cars had a special sticker. Moreover, three days after the announcement work began on Széchenyi tér and the whole area, including City Hall, was cut off even from pedestrian traffic.

Then he began "referendums" by telephone. The first one concerned the renovation of Széchenyi tér. Páva wanted to know whether the citizens wanted to put an extra 300 million into the work in order to have it done by the time the city officially becomes the Cultural City of Europe. He also wanted to know whether people wanted to use local companies for the work. This charade cost 200,000 forints. Soon enough it came to light that Páva had a business connection with one of the companies working on the project.

Cassandra could have foretold that managers of city-owned companies would be sacked, especially if they had anything to do with MSZP. And indeed, the first man who was fired was Péter Varga, head of Pécs Holding, handling city properties. His "sin" was that he was appointed during Péter Tasnádi's tenure. The ostensible cause of his firing was his alleged awareness of a shady transaction by Pécs Transit. Varga denied the accusation but that didn't matter. The next victim was Gyula Ács, manager of the Pécs Airport. Investigations found "negligence and bad business decisions." Apparently the investigation was conducted in such a "fair" manner that Ács wasn't even questioned. The next head to roll was the manager of the City Funeral Home. His connection with MSZP was clear: he ran, unsuccessfully, for a seat on the city council in 2006. He apparently used a company car for a foreign trip and he bought "inexpensive coffins in bulk." (I don't know what's wrong with that business practice; it works well for Wal-Mart.)

Then there were two more referendums, costing 18 million forints. The first one asked whether the city should pay for a bypass that would lessen the traffic in one of the districts of the city. The second was whether parking should be taken over by the city. Two easy questions with predictably affirmative answers. However, we don't yet know the outcome because these questions were attached to the ballot that was supposed to decide the seat that became vacant due to László Toller's incapacity. This by-election was invalid the first time around due to low voter turnout; in the two successive tries the turnout only withered further.

Every company owned by the municipality is being audited at a cost of 65 million forints. Thanks to these wide-ranging audits (still in progress), Páva announced, he is saving the city 500 million. He claims that he "turned off all the faucets" through which money was being wasted. Yet socialist opponents claim that it all depends on what kind of "faucet" we are talking about. For example, Páva hired a Budapest firm, Rákos Invest, on a yearly retainer of 18 million to take care of business that could easily be done by the employees of Pécs Holding. I don't know the management of Rákos Invest, but I think it's safe to assume that they have ties to Fidesz. After all, the new hydroelectric company that is supposed to take over Suez's share will be headed by Tamás Winkler, one of the founders of Fidesz. But more about this absolutely incredible story tomorrow.

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Fascinating stories.
I find your blog very interesting, its not often international students in Pécs can read about current state of affairs!

Eva S. Balogh

Chris: “I find your blog very interesting, its not often international students in Pécs can read about current state of affairs!”
I guess you’re a student in Pécs! Medical school? I also have something to do with the city: I spent my first eighteen years there and still have relatives in the city.
I’m glad you like the blog.