It was on September 26 that Magyar Nemzet published an article about the unusually high bonuses that the City of Pécs had paid out to some of the leading politicians and city employees during the city’s socialist period between 2002 and 2009. The author of the article seemed to be very well informed. He knew the exact figure, 3.1 billion forints, that had been spent on bonuses. The most favored official was the town clerk, a very high position in Hungary, who during eight years received 64 million forints over and above her salary. But she was not alone. Another city employee in charge of personnel during the same period received 41.7 million forints. MSZP deputy mayors routinely received on average about one million forints a year.
Where did the information come from? Naturally it could have come only from the Pécs City Hall. A little investigative work reveals that Magyar Nemzet‘s correspondent from Pécs is Máté Ciprián Bóka. In Pécs he is known simply as Máté Bóka, and he is the editor-in-chief of an Internet paper called “Pécs Ma” (Pécs Today). The scoop was too important to publish in a local online paper. It was certainly juicy enough to send on to Magyar Nemzet.
And indeed. The article made a splash. The first reaction came from a local civic organization called Társaság a Közérdekű Adatokért (TAKA; Association for Public Information). They demanded the publication of all bonuses paid out by the city government in the last nine years. That naturally would have also included the last two years of the Fidesz administration. The current mayor, Zsolt Páva, became mayor in 2009 after the sudden death of Péter Tasnádi (MSZP). Páva had been mayor once already, between 1994 and 1998.
Meanwhile, Magyar Nemzet continued its campaign against the corrupt socialists of Pécs. Máté Ciprián Bóka approached Páva and asked him whether these figures were for real (as if he didn’t know it already!) and the mayor confirmed that the figures cited were accurate and in fact his administration is in the middle of investigating the circumstances under which these bonuses were paid out. The socialists led the city to the edge of bankruptcy and accumulated 31 billion forints of debt. While this was going on they paid themselves 3.1 billion forints in bonuses.
Indeed, it seems pretty incredible, but there was something that was a bit odd. Although TAKA asked for a complete list of bonuses paid in “the last nine years” Páva eventually published only numbers for the 2002-2009 period. Fidesz leaders of Pécs immediately moved into action and proposed setting up a committee that would investigate “whether the political leaders received these enormous bonuses legally or not.” Péter Hoppál, Fidesz MP and member of the Pécs city council, already decided that the MSZP politicians were guilty and therefore have to pay back the money they received. Or maybe they could donate their millions to the fund that was set up by the government to pay down the country’s sovereign debt.
In the first few days after the appearance of the article MSZP politicians offered no plausible answers to these accusations. The chairman of the Pécs MSZP tried to make light of the revelations by saying that after all the 3.1 billion forints was divided among 400 employees of the city. And, he added, Zsolt Páva currently has a higher salary than did László Toller and Péter Tasnádi, his MSZP predecessors. Well, that’s neither here nor there.
Eventually, the socialists found their voice. Most likely they received inside information on the basis of which they could argue a little more forcefully. They discovered that between 2009 and 2011 when Zsolt Páva was already the mayor 850 million forints was paid out to high-ranking city politicians and city employees. One of the Fidesz deputy mayors received 2.5 million forints during 2009-2010. He explained that it was actually “a computer error” which he simply didn’t notice until it was too late to return the money. (Another version: he protested but the money kept coming.) However, he eventually gave the money to charity. The deputy mayor went so far as to accuse the socialists of creating this “computer error” in order to drag him into this “bonus business.”
The Fidesz answer was denial. Páva claimed that in 2009 he allowed bonuses for city employees to the tune of only 34 million and politicians didn’t receive a penny. In any case, said Páva, bonuses are perfectly okay if the administration does a good job, but when it doesn’t giving bonuses is “morally wrong.”
MSZP hit back. They discovered that Páva gave himself 3 million forints worth of bonuses between 1994 and 1998 while mayor of the city. Apparently that was out of the ordinary. Mayors handed out bonuses, they didn’t receive them. As the MSZP spokesman, former deputy mayor Bertalan Tóth, pointed out, that money was worth a great deal more then than today. The socialists demanded the details of all bonuses given out since 1990. When Páva dragged his heels they threatened him with a law suit. So, eventually Páva coughed up a partial list. He claimed that data for the 1990-1994 period were no longer available.
Meanwhile the fight between the two sides is continuing in a rather ugly way. A few days ago some Fidesz supporters, perhaps with the encouragement of City Hall, put up life-size paper cutouts of the MSZP politicians who received bonuses. Here are a couple of pictures.
I assume nobody is surprised that Hungarians are fed up with both parties. Although it looked at the beginning as if Fidesz would come out the clear winner in this affair, in the final analysis both parties look as bad as they deserve to.
People by now are convinced, and not without reason, that most politicians are crooks. Hungary’s so-called “political elite” is regularly shown in the worst possible light. In Budapest, the current government does everything in its power to portray the other side as criminals while on the municipal level the party in charge is doing its best to discredit its opposition.
There is something to the accusation that dragging up old dirt is good only for diverting attention away from the difficulties practically all Hungarian cities currently find themselves in. Pécs’s financial situation is grave. The borrowing continued during the Fidesz period as well. According to MSZP, Páva added another 14 billion forints to the city’s debt. And then there was Páva’s foolish move to break the city’s contract with the French company that was managing the city’s water supply. According to an independent assessor Pécs might have to pay 9 billion forints in damages. Indeed, it would be much better if all city officials would work toward solving the city’s terrible problems instead of taking pleasure in discrediting each other. But it’s easy to discredit both sides as these lists of bonuses clearly indicate, much harder to be constructive.