Tag Archives: Attila Péterfalvi

The perils of being an opposition politician in Hungary

I don’t know whether I will be able to make a coherent story out of the mess the Orbán government most likely has purposefully created regarding the report of the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) on irregularities—fraud and possible corruption—in connection with the construction of Budapest’s fourth metro line (M4). The report covered the period between 2006 and 2015.

Although the Hungarian government received the OLAF report—or its English-language summary, the Hungarian public heard about it only from the English-language news site Politico. It didn’t take long before the Fidesz government and the Fidesz-led City of Budapest, on the one hand, and the politicians of the socialist-liberal government of the pre-2010 period, on the other, were at each other’s throats. The government claimed that practically all the financial wrongdoings were committed before 2010 while the opposition politicians accused the Orbán government of making political hay out of the case while refusing to make the report public. The administration claimed that it has no authority to release OLAF’s findings.

Most likely because of the holiday season at the end of the year, for about a month not much happened. Then, on January 16, János Lázár officially announced that he will file a complaint against Gábor Demszky (SZDSZ), mayor of Budapest between 1990 and 2010, Csaba Horváth (MSZP), deputy mayor between 2006 and 2009, and János Atkári, a highly respected economist who for many years served as Gábor Demszky’s financial adviser. That announcement started an avalanche of often conflicting articles in the Hungarian media.

A day after Lázár’s announcement, his deputy Nándor Csepreghy gave a detailed press conference dealing with the Metro4 corruption case. The government found MTI’s report of that press conference so important that it was immediately translated into English. We learned from Csepreghy that the Fidesz government had had its own suspicions of fraud surrounding the project even before. The OLAF report only confirmed these suspicions.

Csepreghy disclosed a few relevant facts that might help our understanding of the case. For example, he revealed that the investigators of OLAF conducted interviews with 50 individuals, “including the competent executives and managers” of the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV) and the City of Budapest. In addition, Csepreghy named a few companies that had been involved in the construction of the metro line as possible culprits. He also gave the initials of certain individuals heading large public and private companies. Finally, he said that “there are dozens of actors mentioned in the report who were politicians, were associated with the realm of politics, or operated as semi-public actors.” Finally, he told the press that the “government’s legal advisers are currently looking into the possibility of disclosing the OLAF report to the public in its entirety, to which the Government is fully committed.”

Nándor Csepreghy at the press conference / Photo: Tamás Kovács (MTI)

Although the government filed a complaint against Demszky, Horváth, and Atkári, they weren’t among the individuals Csepreghy referred to by their initials. A Magyar Idők editorial found Demszky’s absence from the list especially regrettable. The former mayor will get off scot-free because “according to rumors, his name doesn’t appear to be in the report.” Only the CEOs of large companies will be prosecuted. But what will happen if they reveal “the name of the chief coordinator”? In brief, the journalist responsible for this editorial accuses Gábor Demszky of being the head of a conspiracy to commit fraud.

Meanwhile Hungarian members of the European Parliament decided to look into the question of whether the Hungarian government told the truth when it claimed that it needed the approval of OLAF to release the report and that it was waiting for OLAF’s response to its request. All three opposition MEPs–Csaba Molnár (DK), Benedek Jávor (Párbeszéd), and István Ujhelyi (MSZP)–asked the head of OLAF, Giovanni Kessler, about OLAF’s position. All three claimed that, according to the information they received, it was up to the Hungarian government whether to release the document or not. Since there is a controversy over the meaning of the information received, I will rely on Ujhelyi’s statement, which includes the original English-language letter he received from OLAF. Here is the crucial passage:

In response to your question, since the OLAF final report has now reached its intended recipients, the Office is not in a position to decide on the possible release of the report. Such a decision belongs in the first place to the national authorities to which the report was addressed. It is for these authorities to assess the impact of a possible release of the report and to ensure compliance with the relevant legal obligations on judicial secrecy, data protection and procedural rights, including the right of access to file.

It is hard to fathom why the Orbán government again resorted to lying instead of appealing to the possible legal problems that could stem from the release of the report. Since then, Attila Péterfalvi, president of the National Authority for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, personally asked István Tarlós, who by now has a copy of the document, not to make the OLAF report public. It looks as if Péterfalvi, before making this request, consulted with János Lázár of the Prime Minister’s Office and Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, who are both against the release. Although there might be compelling legal reasons not to allow the publication of the OLAF report, given the reputation of Péter Polt’s prosecutor’s office one cannot help being skeptical about the real reasons for the secrecy.

Over the weekend Gábor Demszky gave an interview to Vasárnapi Hírek in which he detailed his position on the case. Demszky said that, according to the rules of the Council of Europe and the European Parliament, OLAF must give anyone mentioned in their investigative reports the opportunity to respond. Since no one contacted Demszky, Horváth or Atkári, it is probably safe to assume that they are not the subjects of the investigation. Even so, the Orbán government filed complaints against them. Demszky also said that because OLAF conducted its investigation between 2012 and 2016, “most of their information came from the offices of the Fidesz government.” OLAF, Demszky added, most likely accepted the information in good faith because its investigators don’t expect these offices to be swayed by political pressure.

I might add that one has to be very careful when assessing the veracity of witness testimony. We know from other politically motivated trials that witnesses often give false testimony. The most infamous was that of Zsolt Balogh, head of BKV. In order to save himself months of pre-trial custody, he invented the story that Miklós Hagyó (MSZP), one of the deputy mayors, demanded 40 million forints, to be delivered in a Nokia box.

The opposition parties are truly worried about the prospect of years of investigation by politically motivated Hungarian prosecutors. Even though in the past most defendants were eventually exonerated, they remained in limbo for years and their careers were ruined. We must also keep in mind that although OLAF has filed scores of such reports on cases involving fraudulent procurement practices, only four guilty verdicts have been handed down in the last almost seven years. Some cases, like that involving Orbán’s son-in-law, were unceremoniously dropped. The prosecutors’ sudden interest in this case indicates to me that they think they can use it to do damage to the opposition, one way or another. Evidence of culpability has never been the litmus test for deciding which cases to pursue.

January 30, 2017

Thousands of fraudulent endorsements and still no investigation

More and more evidence surfaces daily about large-scale electoral fraud even though the election is still more than a week away. Ever since March 1 there have been rumors about how newly established parties got hold of an incredible number of endorsements. Some of these parties were formed in order to receive generous government support, others to weaken Fidesz’s opposition. It was discovered early on that some, if not most, of the signatures were fake. In one case, one of the employees of the office handling election matters discovered his own name on an endorsement list. The man went to the local police, but the municipal official in charge of matters connected to the election refused to do anything because the fake signature “doesn’t materially influence the outcome.” After all, he claimed, the candidate has more than enough bona fide signatures. These are the people who are supposed to make sure that the election will not be fraudulent.

Soon enough it became clear that no one would check the validity of signatures even though a week later serious questions were raised. Attila Péterfalvi, the man responsible for data protection, didn’t seem to be bothered by proof of fraudulent endorsements. He announced that it would take too long to check the validity of the names and signatures. It would be impossible to undertake such an arduous task. I guess I don’t have to tell anyone that Péterfalvi, who was ombudsman before 2010, is a devoted Fidesz man.

I don’t know how long the Hungarian administration can maintain that everything is in perfectly good order given the current state of the election process. Three days ago one young man, who was a volunteer for the Magyarországi Cigánypárt (MCP), came forward. He claimed that not just MCP but to his knowledge at least four other parties exchanged lists and endorsements. Aladár Horváth, chairman of the Gypsy party, denied all charges. He denigrated the work of the volunteers who, according to him, did more harm than good, and he accused MSZP of hiring the young activist to level false charges against MCP. As he contended, MSZP has a Roma section that was opposed to Horváth and his friends organizing a separate party, and now these people are paying MCP back for being “traitors” to the cause.

Yesterday 8,000-10,000 photocopied endorsement lists were sent by an unnamed person to László Helmeczy, an Együtt-PM candidate who is a lawyer and a former Fidesz member. Helmeczy, by the way, must be an excellent lawyer because in the past important politicians asked him to represent them in politically motivated cases. For example, Ibolya Dávid, herself a lawyer and former minister of justice in the first Orbán administration. Or János Veres, former MSZP minister of finance in the Gyurcsány administration.

Tibor Szanyi (MSZP) and Viktor Szigetvári (Együtt-PM) immediately turned to the National Election Committee. It is the committee’s duty to investigate cases of electoral fraud.

After looking at the material, Összefogás came to the conclusion that not just five but ten parties were involved. Keep in mind that eighteen parties are on the ballot. Here is the list of parties that presumably submitted phony endorsements: Új Magyarország Párt, Új Dimenzió Párt, Kisgazdapárt-MIÉP, Szabad Választók Pártja, Szociáldemokraták Magyar Polgári Pártja, Sportos és Egészséges Magyarországért Párt, Magyarországi Cigány Párt, Összefogás Párt, Elégedetlenek Pártja, and Jólét és Szabadság Demokrata Közösség. Now it is up to the National Election Committee to decide what to do. Of course, it is possible that in usual Fidesz fashion the committee will simply ignore the whole thing, although I have the feeling that the government is already feeling the pinch of foreign criticism.

As a first line of defense the Hungarian government decided to “explain” that the critics are wrong and that the new Hungarian electoral law is much better than its predecessor, which was the result of a compromise between communist apparatchiks and the new opposition in 1989-1990. The document, which is unsigned, was distributed to a select list of Americans in the DC area. It answers the “myths” that are circulating about the Hungarian election and and gives the “facts.”

I would like to call attention to problems that the document doesn’t even try to tackle. For example, the handling of foreign votes; the distinction between new citizens and citizens by birth right; the very limited opportunities for the opposition to be heard; and the government propaganda that is being broadcast on public television and radio. And naturally it says nothing about fraud committed by the government-funded fake parties.

Three important civic supporters of Fidesz László dizmadia (FÖF), András Bencsik (Magyar Demokrata, and Zsolt Bayer (Magyar Hírlap

Three important organizers of CÖF/Békemenetth
László Csizmadia, András Bencsik, and Zsolt Bayer

Yesterday we got proof that CÖF, the famously” independent” civic organization that was suspected of receiving Fidesz and/or government financing, was indeed organized by Fidesz. A telephone conversation was recorded between a citizen and a Fidesz party official about a free bus ride to CÖF’s big demonstration next Saturday. It became apparent that Fidesz party headquarters is organizing the bus rides to the capital. All of CÖF’s campaign posters are in reality Fidesz posters.

Here is the Hungarian government’s propaganda leaflet, which might interest you.

* * *

HUNGARY ELECTIONS: MYTHS AND FACTS

MYTH: The governing Fidesz-KDNP party alliance unilaterally and hastily changed a well-functioning electoral system before the elections to ensure electoral victory in 2014.

FACT: Hungary’s hybrid electoral system was one of the most complicated in Europe,1 mainly because it was a result of a difficult political compromise of the 1989/90 roundtable negotiations between the communist state party and the democratic opposition.2 Adjusting the electoral system was not Fidesz’s new idea. Since 1990, every major party in Hungary had their own reform proposals, but no party or coalition had a strong enough majority (two-thirds) to pursue fundamental changes in the electoral law. An average voter could not fully understand or explain how their votes turn into mandates. The system needed more transparency and simplification. The new electoral law was adopted in 2011, three years prior to the elections and the electoral procedural law was adopted in 2013, one year prior to the elections, following a 7 month long debate in Parliament. To predict that the new system will favor Fidesz is a hypothesis that lacks real empirical evidence, since the new system has never been tested before, all parties act under a veil of uncertainty. By now, one of the most obvious result of the electoral reform was that it made it easier for political parties to enter the race and register candidates, so if anything, it has widened the scope of democratic choice and enhanced political competition for all parties.3

MYTH: Establishing a single round of voting instead of the previous two round (run-off system) was designed to make it even harder for small parties to win seats in the individual districts.

FACT: The two-round system was costly and it became redundant because with time, parties adjusted electoral strategies and many of the races were already won in the first round of the elections (hence the traditionally low voter turnout in the 2nd round). Small parties never really had a good chance of winning seats through the individual districts alone, since winning these races required an absolute majority in the first round or a relative majority in the second round. Most importantly, the single round system increases transparency because previously small parties usually withdrew before the second round to support their political allies based on behind-the-scenes bargains in which the voters never had a say. Supporters of the smaller parties usually ended up voting for their first preference in the first round without knowing if their favorite party will even compete in the second round. The best hope of small parties has always been winning seats through the party list and compensation list and not in the individual districts.4

MYTH: Fidesz gerrymandered electoral districts to ensure its own victory.

FACT: Parliament was required to redraw the electoral districts for the 2010 elections, not only because the number of MPs was cut in half and the number of electoral districts was reduced, but also because the Constitutional Court invalidated the district map in 2010 so elections could not have been legitimately held on that basis. The electoral district map which was used for the past six elections was unilaterally drawn by communist party apparatchiks and implemented by a Ministerial Decree before the first democratic elections took place, the thus created district map was not subject of the grand bargains of the Roundtable negotiations and there was no system for revisions despite significant population changes in the last decades. The Constitutional Court ruled on two accounts that the existing voting districts are unconstitutionally disproportional (e.g. Constituency No. in Pest County: 74,000 voters vs. constituency No. 06 in Veszprém  County: 27,00 voters). The size of the Parliament was also reduced in 2010 from 386 (which was a disproportionately large number of MPs for a country of 10 million) to 199, which also necessitated changes in the districts. The current system takes into account the Venice Commission’s recommendations, i.e. that deviation from the norm should not be more than 10% or 15% (in special circumstances) and furthermore the new law stipulates a trigger for automatic redistricting in case the deviation from the norm in a district exceeds 20%. Gerrymandering in favor of any party is constrained in the current law since the districts are required to cover a contiguous territory and must remain within the county borders. Since the relevant law was adopted, no party filed a constitutional complaint to challenge the district boundaries.

MYTH: Fidesz raised the threshold for the opposition alliance from 5% to 15%.

FACT: The parliamentary threshold did not change since 1994. The threshold has always been higher for party alliances: 10 per cent for two parties running together and 15 per cent for more than two parties. The same rules applied in 2002 when Fidesz and MDF ran together and in 2006 and 2010 when Fidesz and KDNP ran together. And the same rules will apply this year for the Fidesz-KDNP list (10%) and the MSZP-Együtt-PM-DK-MLP alliance (15%).

MYTH: Fidesz granted voting rights to Hungarians abroad to win the elections.

FACT: First, Hungarian citizens living or temporarily residing abroad who had a permanent residence in Hungary had the right to vote since 2004. Second, the simplified naturalization of ethnic Hungarians living abroad who might or might not have a permanent address in Hungary was supported by all of the parties in the Parliament in 2010. Hungarians who do not have a permanent residence address in Hungary and have registered to vote can cast by mail only one vote for the party list, while those who have a permanent address have to vote in person at Hungarian embassies and consulates, but can cast two votes, one for the individual candidate in the district where their address is located and one for the party list. As a general rule, larger parties focus on winning individual districts where their comparative chances are better, while smaller parties benefit more from party lists because of the proportional system. Generally, whichever party wins in the individual districts also wins the elections, so the newly naturalized citizens’ vote (about 230,000 registered voters vs. 8 million eligible voters residing in Hungary) will only be decisive in a very close race. Besides, no opinion poll has ever been conducted on the political preferences of out of country vote, so any conclusion based on this cohort’s vote is extremely hypothetical.

MYTH: The new campaign finance law makes it easier for “fake political parties” to run on public money, which divides the anti-Fidesz vote.

FACT: The reason why the law on public financing of parties was introduced is precisely to bring accountability to the system. The new rules on how public money is spent are much stricter than the old rules, since the State Audit Office shall review the campaign spending of all parties that get into the Parliament. Besides, in a democratic society, one cannot distinguish between “fake parties” and “real parties.” Candidates who do not obtain parliamentary mandates and don’t get more than 2% of the votes must repay the public funding they have received which ensures that candidates who don’t have a legitimate support don’t receive undue taxpayer money.

MYTH: Political campaign ads were banned from commercial TV stations so voters won’t be able to make an informed decision.

FACT: On the contrary, campaign rules were tightened to make commercial TV campaigns more equitable and fair by providing equal representation in public media and requiring commercial channels to air political advertisements for free. Many European countries regulate campaign advertising. In Hungary, it was the decision of the individual private TV stations not to air political ads for free, which the government has no business in overwriting. But all the parties that were able to put up a national list now enjoy free equal airtime on public television and radio, which is a guaranteed platform widely accessible and regulated by strict rules to ensure fairness.

MYTH: The new electoral bodies are not independent.

FACT: There are two bodies overseeing and managing the elections: 1) the National Election Commission, whose tasks are establishing the results of the elections; ensuring the impartiality, fairness and legality of elections; adjudging legal remedies and restoring the legal order of elections if necessary; 2) the National Election Office, which is tasked with preparing and conducting elections (providing impartial information to voters, candidates and nominating organizations; aiding the activity of the National Election Commission; providing the material and technical conditions for the implementation of elections; and conducting the operation of election offices on territorial and local level). The members of the National Election Commission were previously nominated by the minister responsible for the elections, while now the President of the Republic nominates them and the Parliament confirms them by two-third-majority rather than by simple majority as previously. At the same time, the Commissioners’ mandate was extended from 4 to 9 years, i.e. longer than the parliamentary cycle, which is an attribute of independence. The commissioners’ benefits and remuneration are strictly regulated and they are now required to hold a law degree. As to the National Election Office, previously it operated as an arm of the executive branch (a department within the responsible ministry), with its head appointed by the responsible minister for an indefinite term. Now it functions as an autonomous body subject exclusively to the relevant law and hence it is separated from the executive branch. Its head is appointed by the President of the Republic for nine years.

NOTES

[1]The Hungarian hybrid system was a combination of the winner-takes-all system (see UK, US), proportional (PR) system (see GE, IT, ES) based on the Hagenbach-Bischoff formula, and compensation list based on the D’Hondt formula. It is therefore composed of (i) individual candidates running in voter districts and (ii) party lists. Voters cast their ballots both for an individual candidate and a party list.

[2]The communist state party and its successor (MSZP) was in favor of the winner takes all system since they were the only ones with national organization, while the newer, smaller parties were in favor of a PR (list) system which would have made sure that they are represented in parliament even if they cannot win in the individual districts.

[3]In the individual districts, a total of 810 candidates ran for elections in 2010, as opposed to 1,577 candidates running this year. Four years ago, only 6 parties could put up a national list, whereas this year 18 parties and 13 national minority party lists qualified. This means increased competition for Fidesz as much as for every other political group in the race.

[4]For example, SZDSZ in 2002 (13 out of 20 mandates won via compensation lists), MIÉP in 1998 (11 out of 14 won via compensation lists), Fidesz in 1994 (13 out of 20 won via compensation lists).