At the time Viktor Orbán became prime minister of Hungary in 2010 he talked a lot about his “war against corruption.” As we know by now, Orbán is always at war with absolutely everybody and everything. His war against corruption seems to be about as successful as his battles against the money markets and the credit rating organizations. According a new survey on corruption by Transparency International, corruption in Hungary grew last year. A year ago Hungary ranked forty-sixth out of 183 countries. Now Hungary has dropped to fiftieth.
A new book by József Debreczeni about political corruption appeared a few days ago, A politika fertője (Slough of Politics). Debreczeni, who started his professional career as a teacher of history, traces political corruption to post-1867 politics when the majority of Hungarians were not too keen on the Compromise of 1867. They would have preferred total independence. In order to uphold the constitutional arrangement worked out by Hungarian politicians and Emperor Franz Joseph, the only reasonable solution at the time, favors had to be given in exchange for political support.
To maintain the limited home rule achieved in 1867 against the wishes of the majority of the population all sorts of illegal tricks were necessary. One reason, for example, the voting laws had to be so restrictive was the fear that wider electoral rights would give a majority to the Party of Independence. Political corruption was widespread. Anyone who would like to refresh his or her memory of those days can read some of Kálmán Mikszáth’s books. He should have known. He was a member of parliament between 1887 and his death in 1910.
The prime ministers of the period, however, were never accused of any corruption. They knew what was going on, how the middle nobility had to be paid off with jobs and other favors to support the government, but they themselves were never the beneficiaries of any ill-gotten money. That was also true about the Horthy period. The Horthy family didn’t become rich as a result of Miklós Horthy’s position. Horthy himself had a very modest estate of a couple of hundred acres, and the family left the country close to penniless in 1944. The prime ministers of the interwar period were also honest men. The situation was the same after 1945. Neither Zoltán Tildy nor Ferenc Nagy, the two Smallholders prime ministers, was on the take.
After 1990, József Antall didn’t try to enrich himself while in office and no one could come up with any dirt as far as the Antall family was concerned. The same couldn’t be said of Gyula Horn. There was, for instance, the rather expensive villa he built while in office. When questioned where the money came from, Horn claimed that he covered the expenses from the money received from the German translation of his autobiography. Maybe yes, maybe no. Suspicion lingers to this day.
The Orbán family’s enrichment during his tenure in office between 1998 and 2002 was legendary. I will write about these shady dealings of the Orbán family, father and son, tomorrow because I think it is time to refresh people’s memory. Especially the memories of those non-Hungarian-speaking people who in those days were less well informed about Hungarian affairs.
As for the prime minister after Viktor Orbán, Péter Medgyessy, rumors of corruption were widespread. His son and the son of an important MSZP politician received all sorts of sweet deals with companies that had close ties to the Hungarian state. There were no charges of corruption that could be levelled against either Gordon Bajnai or Ferenc Gyurcsány.
But individual corruption cases are only one kind of political corruption. The other is the financing of the parties. By law only 386 million forints can be spent on election campaigns, but according to László Majtényi, former ombudsman, 90% of the money spent on elections is illegally obtained. According to some calculations the parties together spent as much as 4 billion forints on the 2006 campaign. The situation was even worse in 2010 when the ratio between “black” and “white” money was 95:5. Thus, out of every 20 forints 19 came to the parties illegally.
According to Debreczeni, the local elections are even more expensive than the national ones. Those who know the details claim these elections may cost three times as much as the general elections. And we mustn’t forget about the economic necessities of a well functioning party such as radio stations and newspapers. Debreczeni quotes Viktor Orbán after the lost elections of 2002 when he talked to him about the mistakes of József Antall. “He didn’t govern before so these mistakes can be forgiven. But what we have done cannot be forgiven. The problem is not that we are again in opposition but that we are in opposition absolutely naked with our behind uncovered. After forty years of left-wing governments … a right-wing government managed to win. And we were unable to use this opportunity. That was a terrible mistake. Not to be prepared in case we lose the elections. Here we are without a political infrastructure…. There is not one newspaper, not one radio or television station. Not one!”
How much did it cost Fidesz and through the party the taxpayers to gather financial support for this “infrastructure”? What had to be promised to those rich supporters to set up television stations, to put money into weeklies and dailies? I have the feeling the country is still paying these guys for services rendered.
Orbán may not have spent enough energy during his first premiership to develop a media infrastructure for his party, but he took good care of his and his family’s well being. I will talk about those “deals” tomorrow.