On April Fool’s Day thousands of stark black-and-white billboards appeared all over the country. The message they carried was simple: ordinary citizens work while the political elite and their friendly oligarchs steal the country blind. Jobbik, the party that ran this billboard campaign, hit Fidesz where it hurt. An infuriated Viktor Orbán wanted the billboards gone as soon as possible. In the beginning Fidesz activists were sent to remove or deface them, but, given the number of billboards Jobbik scattered all over the country, a better solution had to be found. In such cases Fidesz’s usual response is to create a new, targeted law.
This is exactly what happened here. On April 27 Lajos Kósa, leader of the Fidesz parliamentary delegation, and János Halász, undersecretary for culture in the ministry of human resources, submitted a proposal to re-regulate the use of posters and billboards. The bill included the stipulation that if the provider of advertising surfaces sells spaces at a price lower than the “current market value,” such an action would be considered to be hidden and forbidden party financing. This regulation would be applicable at times outside of the three months officially designated as the “campaign period.” Owners of poster surfaces must turn in a price list to the State Account Office and will be obliged to make their prices available on their websites.
In addition, and much more worrisome, a government decree signed by Viktor Orbán stipulated that starting on June 1, 2017, local government permission would be needed to place new advertising spots anywhere. The decree also introduced other new regulations. For example, the size of the billboards would have to be reduced from 12m2 to 9m2 and the frame size changed from 14m2 to 11m2. An additional burden on the companies. Much worse, the appendix to the decree stipulated that in the future one will be able to advertise only on properties owned by the state or the municipality. As it stands now, 90% of the advertising surfaces are in private hands and only 10% belong to the municipalities. This decree turns the billboard market upside down and will institute a state monopoly over political advertising.
There was only one problem. Certain parts of the Kósa-Halász bill needed a two-thirds majority, and Fidesz at the moment is short by two votes. Fidesz couldn’t convince any member of the opposition to vote for the bill. The opposition, both right and left, found it unacceptable. And although one of the DK members of parliament had such a serious attack of kidney stones that he had to be taken to the hospital and missed the vote, Fidesz still came up one short. As you can see on this photo, Orbán was anything but happy. Nonetheless, it was decided to resubmit the proposal this Friday at an extraordinary session of parliament.
At the center of this billboard controversy is Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s former friend and business partner. Simicska, in addition to owning Közgép, a construction company that once had a virtual monopoly on government infrastructure contracts, also owns several other businesses, including Mahir Cityposter and Publimont, which rent out billboard spaces and advertising kiosks. Jobbik’s billboards and posters appeared on spaces owned by these two companies. It was suspected from the beginning that Simicska, who broke with Orbán and Fidesz about two years ago, provided space for the Jobbik posters at a cut rate, but until very recently Jobbik refused to divulge the cost. So, in addition to the Kósa-Halász bill and Orbán’s decree, NAV, the Hungarian equivalent of the Internal Revenue Service, paid a visit to Mahir’s headquarters. They had the right to check all financial transactions between January 1 and April 30. They were specifically looking for financial transactions connected to the Jobbik posters.
When the price Jobbik paid Simicska’s firm was finally made public last week, it was obvious that “Simicska had sold the surfaces at a ridiculously low price,” as Népszava pointed out. Simicska, who until recently was the “financial genius” behind Fidesz’s coffers, used to favor Fidesz by charging very little for advertising posters. Now he was doing the same for Jobbik.
And so, if Fidesz’s bill were to fail again, because of Jobbik’s special relation with Lajos Simicska, the real winner would be the far-right but lately somewhat mellowed Jobbik. MSZP swung into action. They dusted off an old proposal that they had earlier submitted to parliament, which they now presented as an alternative to the Fidesz proposal. It would, just like the Kósa-Halász bill, forbid political advertising except during the campaign period by parties, municipalities, and the government, but, in addition, it would specifically forbid advertising by CÖF, the government-financed so-called civic organization, and Fidelitas, Fidesz’s youth organization.
With MSZP’s move Fidesz-KDNP was presented with an easy path to victory. Fidesz is “still studying” the matter, but it finds many aspects of the MSZP bill acceptable. Jobbik naturally is not game, and it looks as if LMP is also holding to its original position. According to LMP’s spokesman, unity must be maintained against this bill, which would only help Fidesz. However, as we all know, if MSZP is ready to sit down and negotiate, there will be no problem on Friday. And in that case, Jobbik will have been outfoxed. Not surprisingly, Jobbik politicians are crying foul. János Völner, head of Jobbik’s parliamentary delegation, described MSZP’s move as one of the most obvious and brutal political pacts since 1990. He claims that the poster market was the only one where there was parity among the parties. MSZP with this move contributes to Viktor Orbán’s media dominance.
Alfahír, Jobbik’s online news site, illustrates the mood in the party. The article reporting on MSZP’s offer begins this way: “June 19, 2017. Please don’t forget this date. Today is the birthday of the Orbán regime’s Patriotic Popular Front. Today what we had suspected for years has become official: MSZP became the prostitute of Fidesz.” The Patriotic Popular Front (Hazafias Népfront) was created in 1954 and was dismantled in 1990. It was supposed to be a body representative of the whole society.
Too little time has passed since the MSZP proposal to be able to gauge the reaction of the other smaller parties on the left. I suspect that, similarly to LMP, they will not be thrilled with MSZP’s special deal with the government party. They will be most likely strengthened in their suspicion that MSZP is not playing a fair game and that somehow it has a secret understanding with Fidesz. I wouldn’t go that far, but MSZP’s leadership is not known for its boldness and clear-cut positions. How MSZP voters will react to this unexpected move no one can tell yet, but somehow I don’t think that it will be popular among MSZP voters, most of whom, I suspect, wouldn’t want to have anything to do with Viktor Orbán and his party.