Another government shake-up: Greater confusion guaranteed

János Lázár has been the focus of a great deal of media attention of late. His often provocative behavior and his less than diplomatic comments about fellow politicians and important oligarchs made a lot of political observers wonder when Viktor Orbán will deem it necessary to shove his currently number one man into the background. The discussion over Lázár’s political future gained intensity last fall with the appointment of Antal Rogán as chief of the Prime Ministry’s Cabinet Office, nicknamed Viktor Orbán’s propaganda ministry, which was created especially for Rogán. Some people believed that the creation of this new office weakened János Lázár’s position. There were also reports that Lázár was not too keen on the idea of placing another center of power inside the Prime Minister’s Office.

Speculations over Lázár’s future flared up again when a week ago he announced the retirement of Mrs. László Németh, undersecretary in charge of financial services and postal affairs. Her appointment as minister of national development in 2010 caused quite a stir. She was an absolute unknown without much educational background. But she was Lajos Simicska’s close friend and business partner. Through her Simicska pretty well controlled the whole ministry of national development. In 2014 Orbán, who was obviously already thinking of loosening Simicska’s influence over financial matters, replaced her with Miklós Seszták. Surprisingly, this was not the end of Mrs. Németh’s career. Orbán found a place for her in the Prime Minister’s Office. Mrs. Németh hasn’t yet reached the official retirement age of 65, and therefore I assume that her “retirement” wasn’t exactly voluntary. But Fidesz will find a job for her somewhere else.

Mrs. Németh’s “retirement” is probably not related so much to the Orbán-Simicska fallout as to the so-called Spéder case, about which I wrote earlier. The case is very complicated, but the most likely explanation for Viktor Orbán’s ire and his decision to unseat one of his formerly favorite oligarchs was Spéder’s less than subservient behavior toward his benefactor. Certain financial transactions were made that, in Orbán’s opinion, hurt his government’s interests. It was Mrs. Németh who was supposed to keep an eye on Spéder, which she failed to do. At least this is the most likely charge against her.

But what does all this have to with János Lázár? Quite a bit. First of all, a week ago Lázár announced that Zoltán Spéder is his friend, whom he is not going to abandon. According to rumor, the police have taken, among other things, taped telephone conversations between Simicska and Spéder, which were most likely recorded by Spéder. Whether this rumor is true or not, most likely in Orbán’s head there is a connection between Simicska, Spéder, Mrs. Németh, and perhaps even János Lázár.

In record time Mrs. Németh was replaced by Andrea Bártfai-Mager and was given the title of government commissioner, a position that carries ministerial rank. Bártfai-Mager is a member of the National Bank’s Monetary Council, so György Matolcsy, chairman of the bank, may well have recommended her for the job. Most significantly, Bártfai-Mager will not be under the supervision of the head of the Prime Minister’s office, János Lázár, but will report directly to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Mrs. László Németh and her replacement, Andrea Bártfai-Mager / Source:

Mrs. László Németh and her replacement, Andrea Bártfai-Mager / Source:

With these changes Lázár will lose power over important sectors of the government edifice: the affairs of the Hungarian Development Bank and 18 state-owned companies associated with it; the Hungarian Postal Service, which unlike its American equivalent is an important financial institution; and the integration of the credit unions, which used to be handled by Spéder. Lázár will end up looking after such things as public administration, rural development, EU subsidies, national policy, and heritage conservation.

Although strictly speaking it is an entirely different matter, I should mention in passing that it also looks as if the troublesome issue of the House of Fate, a kind of Holocaust Museum Orbán style, which was most likely Lázár’s idea in the first place, will be taken out of his hands. The task of doing something with the brand new, impressive building, which has been standing empty for well over two years, will be assumed by Zoltán Balog’s already overburdened ministry of human resources.

There is widespread consensus in Hungary that Orbán is heading a government that functions very badly. He himself seems to realize its shortcomings. But his usual fix is to change the government’s structure. He makes ad hoc decisions on structural changes, decisions that by now have resulted in a bloated government and total chaos. Dozens and dozens of government commissioners and over one hundred undersecretaries with all sorts of special jobs have only increased bureaucracy. The talk is always about efficiency and reducing the number of civil servants, but the number of political appointees keeps going up.

Now, it seems, Viktor Orbán has come up with yet another reorganization of the government. The announcement, which was totally unexpected, came from János Lázár this afternoon at his regular Thursday government “info.” He said very little about the details, not because he tried to be secretive but because I suspect he himself doesn’t know much about the impending changes.

So, what’s in the offing? I think Index put it best: “Orbán turns everything upside-down: he is creating two little governments.” Yes, this is the gist of it as far as I can ascertain. As it stands now, once a week the ministers and their undersecretaries get together for what we in English would call a cabinet meeting, presided over by Viktor Orbán. In Hungarian it is called “kormányülés” (government meeting). It is here that final policy decisions are made.

Now, in addition to this group, Orbán will create two “cabinets.” One will be called “gazdasági kabinet” and the other “stratégiai kabinet.” These cabinets will have wide decision-making powers. The idea is that these cabinets, whose membership will vary depending on the subject matter discussed, will allow government officials to focus on important questions in greater depth.

Such an arrangement might make sense if these “cabinets” had only an advisory role, but I don’t see how the decisions of the weekly meeting of ministers and those of the lower-level cabinets can be brought together into a cohesive whole. I’m convinced that the chaos and confusion that now exists in the Orbán administration is nothing compared to what will happen when two mini-governments compete with the real “cabinet.” I don’t know whether such an arrangement exists anywhere else in the western world or whether Viktor Orbán’s latest brainchild will have the dubious distinction of being a unique addition to his illiberal state.

July 7, 2016
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Jean P.
Jean P.
July 8, 2016 2:36 am

OT with a bit of news about Lázár.

The Tokaj-Hegyalja wine district may be destined to become an Orbán domaine. Some steps in that direction has been topics of post in HS. It began with Orbán’s wife acquiring a vineyard in Sárazsadány and rapidly reselling it to who knows. Later came Orbán’s involvement with the former Fidesz ambassador to Paris in the Patricius winery in Bodrogkisfalud and his purported business participations in the Tokaj wine industry. Recently Orbán’s presumed strawman Mészáros bought the French owned modernized winery Dereszla including a newly built champaign factory Henye in Bodrogkeresztur. Last but not least János Lázár has bought a property Bor-Tó in Mezözombor with a defunct and stripped wine production plant originally built by a wine collective in communist time.

July 8, 2016 3:15 am
It continues to amaze that the government in Hungary, which has the population of one large-sized city elsewhere in the world, manages to go through so many contortions in an effort to achieve a functioning government. One suspects that the ‘contortions’ are merely rewards (or punishments) for the Fidesz minions and the effective and only ruler continues to be VO himself and the reorganizations are just a side-show. One matter that is not a side-show is, the rape of the Varosliget and the Castle district in line with VO’s plans to move into the Palace, which he sees as the proper centre of power for a man of his quality. The propaganda campaign on the Varosliget, where, like-it-or not, the Budapest Museum Quarter is being formed, has already started. In the metro there are computer-generated representations of what the ‘liget’ will look like. These are airily beautiful except that every single one contains a building, roads and bricks and mortar. The liget it appears from these plans, will cease to be a park. Who voted for the rape of the Varosliget, one must ask? At the same time, the rape of the Castle district has started in earnest with 4… Read more »
July 8, 2016 4:57 am
Rather OT but typical re the efficiency of the Hungarian government: I got a letter from the mayor that I need a tax no -and hurry up, you got 15 days! Of course it didn’t say where to get it, so it took another phone call: You have to go to the tax office in Keszthely … I already had a premonition of what would be waiting for me – a year ago we accompanied a sick woman friend there. Bbecause she was wearing a face mask and was obviously very frail the around 20 people waiting there in the heat (no A/C of course) let her go straight to the only (!) counter … So we went there this morning and again – one counter and twenty people waiting (no numbers given out so you couldn’t just take a number and return an hour later) … An elderly man in a guard uniform was also walking up and down, looking really bored … A German guy I talked to after he was served told me that he’d have to wait at least three months for his tax number – no problem, the mayor’s office said, as long as it… Read more »
July 8, 2016 7:46 am

After reading of your experience I think the script for that was previously written.

‘It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the ….’Twilight Zone’.

And a little bit of imagination takes us where the ‘spirit’ of Kadarian and Kafkaesque life appear to live on.

July 8, 2016 8:38 am
wolfi? Could you explain please what a tax number is required for? Do I need one (at the moment!) as a visitor with a house in Hungary? I don’t intend paying any taxes in Hungary! And I try and avoid the 27% VAT by ‘importing’ as much as possible in a big car. Why do you need a tax number? My partner has an APEH card. Slightly O/T O/T – my partner’s mother needs varying levels of pain killers and the basic level is a 600mg Ibuprofen tablet – max three per 24hrs. A packet of 20 x 600mg Ibuprofen (which you can’t buy in England without prescription the threshold is 400mg which can be dispensed by a pharmacist) for 1700forints – €5½ . In England we buy 16x 200mg from the supermarkets (max two packets per person per purchase to stop you committing suicide!) for 25p – 29 cents (euro) or 90 forints per packet! I’m sure if you shopped around you could find it much cheaper. So we buy Ibuprofen at every visit and take them to Hungary – she takes three in place of one of hers – to assist the more innumerate reader! Ibuprofen is four… Read more »
July 8, 2016 11:07 am
Charlie, I don’t know yet – seems a new regulation for people who have a “second residence” in Hungary like me. I have a so called “cim kartya” and I can vote in local elections (for mayor e g). After we’ve made our visit and know more I’ll write about it. Re medicine: It’s really complicated, prices differ so much and also the need for a prescription varies from country to country – as with other stuff where we have our lists what to buy where, some things are much cheaper in Germany, some in Hungary. Totally OT: Aspirin is (or was) extremely expensive in Germany so I used to buy it at the Boots in London in large numbers for all family members and friends in the 70s and 80s – once a pharmacist came up to me looking very worried and I had to explain to him what I was doing – he laughed … Later I bought Aspirin in the USA – 600 times 300 mg for 5$! Nowadays of course you can buy stuff via the internet – even if it’s officially illegal to import medicine … I have sources, people which import from India to… Read more »
July 8, 2016 6:18 am

Interesting profile about MSZP’s new chairman. The author isn’t too optimistic (to say the least) about Molnar’s and MSZP’s ability and willingness, one might add, to defeat Fidesz.

July 8, 2016 6:31 am

The ad hoc decisions and rule by decree, the “commissar” appointment and centralization are typical knee jerk reactions of a dictator, becoming attributes of the system.
Add the counter-selection of cadres raging in the Orban regime, which aggravates the problems.
The latest contortion is also doomed by design, as history and the current downward spiral in Hungary prove yet again.
Hajra zemberek.

July 8, 2016 8:00 am

Re: ‘kormanyules’

Mr. Gyurcsany’s Polonius seems to be in that room. Mr. Orban that rack politician knows how the brutal and sycophantic competition for power in the bureaucracy can work to advantage. Perhaps there is method to the confusion. And illiberal states are political masters at this.

July 8, 2016 8:05 am

London Calling!

It’s a classic ruse – to have two ‘silos’ sharing the power so you can play off one against the other and ‘massage’ your loyalty as each silo competes to show who is most loyal. Each upping the ante in extreme shows of affection.

Orban needs this – such is his inferiority complex masquerading as a superior one.

Tito was a master at this – balancing many more ‘silos’ to keep the lid on his pressure cooker – before it finally exploded after he popped his clogs.

Only if the silos become unbalanced are they a threat – so as long as his balancing act is effective no one person will gain an ascendance over the other – and life continues in the Victorlae Orbanescu hothouse.

Nasty. Nasty. Nasty.

July 8, 2016 10:39 am

If those bureaucrats are tulips we’ll see if they can handle the heat that’s bound to come in the hothouse kitchen. And it’s striking if true that tulips allegedly the national flower are a sign of wealth. Botany and Fidesz. They make a great bunch…;-)…