In the last three or four days the Hungarian media has been fixated on the “Századvég saga.” Századvég in Hungarian means fin de siècle. It began as a periodical published by the members of a youth organization that later became known as Fidesz. Their first publication appeared in 1985. Among the editors of the early issues were such eventual Fidesz luminaries as László Kövér, Viktor Orbán, Tünde Handó, József Szájer, and Tamás Fellegi. Later came the Századvég Foundation, the Századvég Politikai Iskola, the Századvég Gazdaságkutató Zrt, and the Strategopolis Kft. In brief, over the last thirty years the modest student periodical morphed into a multi-billion forint business venture with a political mission. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that Századvég is Fidesz’s exclusive research institute, with a perhaps more sinister role.
Tamás Mellár, an economist who for a while was considered to be close to Fidesz and who was one of the founders of Századvég Gazdaságkutató Zrt., called Századvég nothing more than “a money laundering device.” Business is especially brisk when Fidesz is in power. A tremendous amount of public money ends up in the hands of the Századvég leadership. Where some of this money ultimately finds a home we don’t know for sure, but many people are convinced that a large percentage of the profit, which is substantial, ends up in the coffers of Viktor Orbán’s party.
Here is the Századvég saga in a nutshell. In December 2011 Századvég Politikai Iskola, Századvég Gazdaságkutató Zrt, and Strategopolis Kft. jointly won a tender to provide political advice, to the tune of 1.4 billion forints, for the next two years. In February 2012 another contract was signed that more than doubled the original amount. A few months later yet another contract raised the amount again, until for two years of political advice Századvég received altogether 4.1 billion forints.
Shortly after the contracts between the prime minister’s office and Századvég were signed, Hajnalka Joó, then a journalist with Origo who is by now at vs.hu, sued the prime minister’s office because of its refusal to release documents relating to these contracts. It has taken almost three years, but finally the Kúria, which is the country’s highest court, ruled that there are no legal ways to avoid the release of the documents. In February the prime minister’s office most reluctantly agreed.
Hajnalka Joó received 77,000 pages of documents on 7 pen drives. Either Századvég or the ministry made sure that the studies looked substantial. They used 36-point type instead of the normal 12. Of the 77,000 pages only about 18,000 pages are of any use whatsoever. The rest are “raw data,” which pollsters use to arrive at their results. As vs.hu explained, what researchers at Századvég did was akin to a journalist including his notes in his final article. Again, either the ministry or Századvég made sure that the journalists at vs.hu would have a very hard time with this enormous amount of material. The original documents were written in Word, which they converted to .pdf format in such a way that they were not searchable, not printable, and undated.
Vs.hu’s second article on the subject gives a few examples of Századvég’s so-called research. They asked people whether they frequent a farmers’ market and whether they enjoy its atmosphere. They also asked the same people for their party sympathies. Then they came up with the following nonsense: if someone frequents farmers’ markets and enjoys them, he is most likely an MSZP voter. If not, he might be an LMP voter or sympathize with KDNP. How did they come up with these results? By combining the results of two different series of questions. Vs.hu naturally consulted bona fide pollsters, who explained that this method is called “all by all” comparisons, which takes no work because a so-called SPSS predictive analytics program unearths the patterns.
Naturally, not all of the material submitted is of such low quality. According to experts, about 25% of the material contains useful information. Moreover, from the opinion polls ordered by the government we can now gauge what information the Orbán administration found politically important. They inquired whether people would be willing to give up, completely or in part, free hospital care or their pension in exchange for lower social security contributions. The answer was a resounding “no.” Or, the government wanted to know whether people would be willing to pay higher taxes to ensure the continuation of good service in healthcare, education, cultural activities, and in local government offices. Almost 60% of the people said “no” to healthcare and education and almost 66% were not interested in culture. Well, with these kinds of answers it’s no wonder that the Orbán government is not pouring money into healthcare and education.
From one of the sets of polling data we learn that, despite protestations to the contrary, the government was thinking of setting up state liquor stores similar to the National Tobacco Shops. Sixty percent of those polled were against them. Interestingly enough, the majority of Hungarians, including Fidesz sympathizers (again 60%), wanted Róbert Alföldi to remain the director of the National Theater, but Orbán decided otherwise–a move that created an uproar. It is also somewhat heartwarming that 86% of the people considered political sympathies irrelevant to the value of an artist. Seventy-four percent of the people considered the establishment of highly regulated tobacco shops useless as a deterrent to young people smoking. The government disregarded their opinion. The Orbán government also got a message from the electorate on building stadiums: 56% were totally or somewhat against building all those football stadiums while only 18% supported the project wholeheartedly. Well, that didn’t make a dent with Orbán.
It is clear from the documents that the government learned a great deal about the people Századvég interviewed: age, sex, profession, income, and political sympathies–information it could use to target different groups of people in its political campaigns. That the government, on taxpayer money, underwrote these studies in some instances blurred what should be a boundary between a political party (here, the government party) and the government itself. In fact, just yesterday DK announced that it is suing the Orbán government because, according to its estimate, the government used 1.4 billion forints of public funds for political advertising over the course of two campaigns, touting the accomplishments of the Fidesz government.