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.
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.