The Hungarian Don Quixote?: Zoltán Szabó (MSZP)

The first time I saw Zoltán Szabó was when he was speaking in parliament. Very often he contributed to discussions on education, and I always found whatever he said intelligent and forward looking. It turned out that Zoltán Szabó was a mathematician who before he became a politician had taught mathematics at ELTE (Eötvös Lóránd Tudományegyetem, Budapest). Since then I found out that he was active in the reform movement of MSZMP from the beginning of 1989 and in October of that year he was one of the founders of the new party, the Magyar Szocialista Párt (MSZP). He has been a member of parliament continuously ever since 1994.

Lately Szabó decided that he had had enough of all the accusations of corruption against MSZP politicians, especially on the local level, and that he would do a bit of research on the wrongdoings of the other side. Since he started his crusade he has held nine press conferences. Fidesz doesn't respond. There was only one exception when, on September 13, András Cser-Palkovics, deputy spokesman of Fidesz, held a press conference. In it he recited a laundry list of liberal-socialist politicians and public figures who themselves accuse MSZP of corruption; he added that if the party's own supporters claim corruption then Szabó should concentrate on his own party.

On June 8 I wrote about what was going on in Fót ("A Hungarian political microcosm: Fót") where the KDNP-Fidesz mayor behaves in such an irrational manner that one wonders about his sanity. However, there is another problem in Fót: corruption, most likely involving Fidesz officials. There is even proof: tape-recorded conversations about a low-ball road construction bid with "work to be performed later" excluded from the bid. Meanwhile, the company said that those in the Fót administration who helped seal the deal would be provided for under the table.

If my memory serves me right it was after the Fót affair became public knowledge that Szabó decided to look into the shady dealings of other local governments in Fidesz hands. And indeed Fót wasn't unique; since mid-June at least nine cases have surfaced. Presumably now that local MSZP politicians have someone to "squeal" to, they are more forthcoming with their accusations. Once Szabó thinks that he has a case, he goes to the prosecutor's office asking it to investigate.

Szabó has called attention to several shady deals. There is the two-year-old case of Győr, the stomping ground of Péter Szijjártó, Viktor Orbán's right hand man. Zsolt Niepor, the head of MSZP in Győr, claimed that Szijjártó was involved in a rigged bidding scheme. Szijjártó sued, which was a mistake. A few days ago according to the final court verdict Niepor's accusations were not baseless. Now Szabó plans to return to the prosecutor's office, asking them to reconsider the case that two years ago they refused to pursue. How successful he will be, we will see. In his place I wouldn't be too sanguine.

Then there is the case of the Fejér Megyei Energia Szolgáltató Nonprofit Kft. Here the culprit, according to Szabó, is the Fejér County Government that allegedly illegally passed 5.8 billion forints over the course of fifteen years to a company responsible for maintaining the heating systems of schools and other institutions under county supervision. The details of the alleged malfeasance are complicated, but the upshot is that the company was supposed to invest 4.3 billion in the county's heating systems. However, the bid specifications were written in such a sloppy way, either wittingly or out of ignorance, that it is almost impossible to ascertain whether the company complied. The requisite improvements are not spelled out, there are no deadlines, and often buildings that had already been refurbished by the country government are on the "to do" list.

Szabó then turned to Esztergom and another questionable Fidesz appointment, Mayor Tamás Meggyes. I wrote about the havoc this man is wreaking in the city ("Viktor Orbán's Vision for Hungary," Sept. 8). His latest is that right across from his house he began excavation to expand an existing small pond into a lake large enough for boating. In vain did he try to explain that the earthwork begun a couple of weeks ago was no more than the usual maintenance of the little pond and that therefore he didn't need a permit; the water authority didn't quite believe him. This time at least he stopped excavating. Normally he ignores the law. Of course, the creation of a handsome lake right across from his house would greatly add to the value of the property. We will see what will happen here.

There's also a late September news item about Püspökladány (population around 6,000). The  mayor is  Sándor Arnóth, the man who had to resign his post as Fidesz MP because he yelled at one of the undersecretaries that "you'll hang." I wrote about the case on September 29, 2008 ("Fidesz political culture and its consequences") where you can even see Arnóth's very impressive mustache. It seems that Arnóth is in trouble again. This time it involves the construction of a road through the middle of town that was supposed to be built mostly on money received from the European Union. Arnóth's first sin was that he wanted the road to follow the course of a street where several of his relatives live. Unfortunately, it is not wide enough to comply with the specifications for the project. (Perhaps the first sin was one of real estate stupidity. If the relatives had businesses on the street that could become an important thoroughfare, that's one thing. But who wants to live on a busy road?) Nonetheless, the Fidesz majority on the city council approved the project. Then the job was given to a firm that couldn't provide any references and that was established with a capital investment of 1 million forints! (That is even worse than the Tennye Forrásház's 5 million!) The firm promised to pay a huge penalty if they didn't complete the job by a specified date. Well they didn't, but Arnóth generously gave them another 66 days to finish the job. The reason for the extension was the laying down of T-Com lines. Sixty-six days went by, the company still didn't finish the job. Arnóth gave them another 60 days due to an "archeological find." Thus Arnóth has forgone about 6 billion forints in penalty. Mind you, I have the feeling that the company doesn't have enough to pay a cent. Investigation revealed that the company didn't even exist at the time it won the bid.

How well established these accusations are I can't tell. Everybody denies them. According to Arnóth it is "rubbish" (marhaság). Ridiculous to talk about a 6 billion forint penalty when the whole job cost only about 400 million. Well, it isn't ridiculous if it was in the contract, but then Hungarians don't seem to take contracts terribly seriously. They pay dearly when the contracts are with a foreign company, but when it's a purely Hungarian affair all is forgiven. Well, not quite. Arnóth is threatening a law suit against Zoltán Szabó and the MSZP member of the Púspökladány city council, János Csontos.

As for the rest, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Esztergom mayor's private little lake would eventually be dug or if the prosecutors refused to investigate the Győr corruption case. Fót might be a different story because in that case there is hard evidence: the tape. But even there some "legal experts" have already announced that the conversation is "too vague" to establish that a crime was committed. Just as some "legal experts" think that breaking the contract with Suez was completely legal while occupying the building of Pécs Water Works was a borderline case. Poor Zoltán Szabó might end up being the Hungarian Don Quixote!

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Odin's lost eye
Ride on Mr Zoltán Szabó! All power to your elbow! Whilst the ‘Public Prosecutor’s office may well refuse to take any action those who it sees as its friends and protectors. When it is forced to take action it makes such a botched job of the business that even the simpletons on the Hungarian bench have to throw it out of court. I have read many articles about the shortcomings of the Hungarian legal system and have had some personal experience of Hungarian lawyers. The very best of them I had to brief in great detail and still he could not see or understand the very heart of the matter. As to Hungarian ‘Legal Eagles’ it is my experience that the very best of them might be barely be classified as ‘Legitimate Sparrows’. The idea that a ‘Legal Expert’ can proclaim (as quoted in the article) “that breaking the contract with Suez was completely legal” shows they are ‘away with the fairies’, smoking some sort of strange cigarettes, or that Hungary is above all forms of law. This attitude is giving Hungary a very bad international reputation. I hope the honourable MP will remember that if European money is involved… Read more »