Tag Archives: Felcsút

Financing of Hungarian sports: court rules it must be transparent

Even small victories can lift anti-Orbán hearts nowadays in Hungary. Thanks to the recent decision of the Kúria, Hungary’s highest judicial body, Viktor Orbán was rendered a defeat that must have hit him hard. At risk is what he considers to be one of his greatest achievements, the Felcsút Football Academy.

Transparency International spent a considerable amount of time and energy investigating the government’s lavish support of sports and came to the conclusion that the sports financing system the Orbán government established is rotten to the core. In the course of its investigation Transparency International also ascertained that the “absolute winner of the whole system is the village of Felcsút and its football club.” Felcsút has become the symbol of everything that is wrong in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. It is a village of 2,000 people with one of the most lavish football stadiums, which can seat 4,500. The club uses all sorts of tricks to entice people to attend the club’s games, usually to no avail. The stadium is practically empty most of the time. In fact, according to those in the know, Hungarian football is dead, and the incredible amount of money that was poured into the game was an utter waste. Hungary’s FIFA standing is the same as it was before.

Over the years people have tried to find out how much money was being spent on sports, mostly football. But the system is intentionally complicated in order to hide the exact amount that comes from two main sources: direct grants allocated for sports in the budget and something called Társasági Adókedvezmény/TAO (Corporation Tax Allowance), introduced in 2011. Corporations can get a tax break if they support one or more of five sports: football, handball, basketball, water polo, and ice hockey. Money allocated to support sports is considered to be part of the tax owed. Thus, all money that is donated to these sports is a direct loss to the central budget. Since 2011, according to the latest estimate, 330 billion forints of corporate tax money was diverted to sports organizations. Or, put another, more shocking way, in the last six years the Hungarian state has given up one out of every nine forints in tax revenue.

From this money 128 billion went to football clubs and 86 billion for handball, while the rest was shared by basketball, water polo, and hockey. Viktor Orbán has been insisting for years that TAO is not public money and therefore no one has the right to learn about the sponsors, the recipients, and the amount of the money donated.

Interest in Hungarian football–Debrecen Stadium, which can seat 20,000. Cost €40 million

Transparency International, being convinced that the tax allowance is public money, asked the ministry of human resources for their allocation figures, which was denied. Transparency at that point sued the ministry. In the first instance, Transparency lost the case. The decision was based on tax secrecy. In addition, the judge didn’t consider the requested data to be of public interest. On appeal, however, the decision was reversed. Tax secrecy as a reason for denying access to the information was discarded, and the court ruled that the TAO monies are, after all, considered to be public funds. The ministry then turned to the Kúria, and on October 25, 2017 the decision of the appellate court was upheld.

Concurrently with Transparency International’s suit against the ministry of human resources, Demokratikus Koalíció (DK) sued Viktor Orbán’s Academy in Felcsút for the release of all contracts for jobs that were financed by TAO money. Felcsút apparently received about 14 billion TAO forints in the last six years. In July 2016 the Székesfehérvár Court ruled in DK’s favor, but Felcsút Academy had no intention of obliging and appealed. In February 2017 the Budapest Appellate Court also ruled in DK’s favor, but for a different reason from the Székesfehérvár Court. While the lower court considered TAO to be public money, the appellate court based its verdict on the non-profit status of Felcsút Academy. Felcsút Academy was obliged to turn over all documents relating to TAO funds within 15 days. Felcsút Academy again appealed the verdict, and thus the case ended up in the Kúria for a final decision. On November 15 the Kúria ruled that Felcsút must provide details of how they spent the enormous amounts of “public” money. The verdict could have been predicted because a month earlier, in connection with the Transparency International case, the Kúria had already declared TAO funds to be a public resource.

Index described the verdict as “the final and humiliating defeat of Orbán’s football academy.” János Lázár’s reaction a day later amply showed what kind of a country Hungary has become in the last six or seven years. During Lázár’s usual press conference on Thursday, when asked his opinion of the Kúria’s decision, he said: “There is a judge in this country who is very angry with Hungary’s government and Fidesz. His name is András Baka. Because of his changed official status, he has been greatly offended, and for some strange reason all TAO cases end up on his desk. I wouldn’t want to suppose that any bias would have influenced the judge, who on numerous occasions publicly criticized Fidesz and the government.”

Let’s stop here for a moment and go back to 2011, when the Hungarian Supreme Court became the Kúria. The chief justice at the time was András Baka who, prior to his appointment in 2008, had been a judge at the European Court of Justice for Human Rights for 17 years. Although he was considered to be a conservative judge, he became worried about Viktor Orbán’s so-called judicial reforms. He objected, for example, to the forced early retirement of judges, which gave the government a free hand to fill about 300 positions that became vacant as a result of the new law on retirement. Orbán desperately wanted to get rid of Baka and eventually came up with a good excuse. Baka hadn’t been a judge in Hungary for five years. His 17 years with the European Court of Justice were not considered relevant. Baka turned to the European Court of Human Rights and eventually was awarded about 100,000 euros, which naturally the Hungarian government, or to be precise Hungarian taxpayers, had to cough up. Baka couldn’t return to his old post, which had been filled by someone else, but he was reinstated, I’m sure grudgingly, as one of the leading judges in the Kúria.

The Kúria’s answer to Lázár was brief and to the point. They will not comment on politicians’ statements concerning their activities, but the spokesman explained that the assignment of cases is determined a year ahead and given to judges according to their professional specialties.

Unfortunately, I’m not at all sure that this is the end of the story because János Lázár intimated at the press conference that it was time “to make order” as far as TAO is concerned. To make order to me means that they will most likely come up with some modification to the law that would prevent the public from learning where that incredible amount of money has gone.

November 17, 2017

Felcsút: The forbidden village for EP “bureaucrats”

Let’s return to Viktor Orbán’s choo-choo train, which runs between the two villages where the Hungarian prime minister spent his first 14 years. In his childhood this narrow-gauge railroad was still functioning, but because of insufficient traffic MÁV, the state railway company, scrapped the line sometime in the 1970s. Apparently Viktor Orbán had fond memories of that train, and once he had the opportunity he decided to revive it. His own Puskás Academy Foundation launched the project. It purchased and renovated the old run-down train station and bought newly refurbished cars and an engine. The project was declared to be of premier importance as far as Hungary’s economy was concerned. This designation was necessary in order to skip the otherwise requisite public tender procedures. It was supposed to be a great tourist attraction, with thousands of passengers.

By the time it was finished the train project had cost 3 million euros, 2 million of which was provided by the European Union as part of a 652.5 million euro package given for the development of the counties of Veszprém, Komárom-Esztergom, and Fejér. In June 2016 The Telegraph reported that OLAF, EU’s anti-fraud agency, was investigating the train, but that turned out to be a false alarm. Still, the Felcsút complex with its 3,500-seat soccer stadium only yards from Orbán’s weekend house and now a railroad going from nowhere to nowhere raised eyebrows in Brussels.

All that didn’t deter Viktor Orbán, who reportedly planned to extend the 5.7 km line, perhaps hoping that the number of passengers could be increased this way. The Hungarian government had promised between 2,500 and 7,000 passengers daily to justify the investment, but according to 444.hu, in its first month of operation Orbán’s choo-choo train attracted only 900 passengers–that is, only 30 a day. By October 2016 there were days when the train had no passengers at all. A few days ago atlatszo.hu published figures it acquired from the Puskás Academy. Since its first run on April 30, 2016, the academy reported, 48,533 people used the train. Last year 30,219, and so far this year 18,314. During that period, the railroad accumulated a 4.1 million forint loss. These dismal figures didn’t seem to bother János Lázár. In his opinion, if 20,000 people use the train, it is a profitable undertaking. Strange accounting, I must say.

From the start questions were raised both at home and in Brussels about the efficacy of this project, and therefore it was not entirely unexpected that the Budgetary Control Committee (CONT) of the European Parliament, whose fact-finding delegation will be visiting Hungary between September 18 and 20, put the Felcsút train on its agenda, alongside the huge Metro 4 construction project. Once János Lázár learned that the delegation would like to see Felcsút in all its glory, he hit the ceiling. Or, to be more precise, it was most likely Viktor Orbán who hit the ceiling. Lázár was just assigned the dirty work of fighting it out with the chair of the committee, Ingeborg Gräßle.

I have the feeling that Lázár/Orbán made a huge mistake when they decided to take on Grässle. She has been a member of the European Parliament since 2004 and is considered to be especially influential. She is known as a strong advocate of increased transparency and accountability. And, as we will see, she is no pushover. Occasionally one has the feeling that Fidesz politicians think they can intimidate foreigners as easily as they do their “subjects.” But Grässle is an especially forbidding opponent.

In any case, Lázár wrote a letter to the chair of CONT on August 9. In it, he complained that the committee was not following Hungary’s suggested list of projects and accused the committee of setting up a program of its own, which is “strongly politically motivated.” Politico quoted the following passages from his August 9 letter: “I found it outrageous that a committee of the European parliament systematically ignores and rejects a notable amount of suggestions of the Hungarian government, thus significantly interferes in the Hungarian [election] campaign.” He especially criticized the committee’s decision to include a trip to “the home village of the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.” Grässle wasn’t impressed. She refused to change the fact-finding mission’s travel plans and politely assured Lázár that “there is no bias either behind the choice of the date of our mission or of the projects. The Budgetary Control Committee will conduct its visit in a politically neutral way, as we always do.”

Perhaps if at that point Lázár had just backed off he wouldn’t have gotten himself and the government he represents into hot water, as he ultimately did. On September 4 he wrote another letter, in the same manner as the first. Both letters struck some members of CONT as uncouth. And, further pressing their case, the Hungarian government instructed the Hungarian ambassador to the European Union to plead with Grässle to change the list of projects to be visited, or to postpone the whole visit until after the election in 2018. Grässle apparently told the ambassador that the budgetary control committee “does not accept political interference in the way it organizes its work of controlling the implementation of the budget.”

Ingeborg Grässle subsequently fired off two letters: one to Antonio Tajani, president of the European Union, and another to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. In her letter to Tajani she wrote: “I disapprove of the attitude to exert pressure on an EP parliamentary body with regard to the organization of a mission as well as with regards to its content.” She added that Lázár’s choice not to cooperate means that he does not comply—”in political or in legal terms”—with the requirements of mutual sincere cooperation, which is a basic rule among the institutions and member states. She considered the case so serious that she suggested to Tajani that he raise the issue with Juncker.

There is no question in my mind that it was Viktor Orbán who found the visit to Felcsút a personal attack on him by an EU body and tried to use next spring’s election as an excuse. But it backfired. As Grässle put it: “We are important but not that important.” Surely, it wasn’t the election that bothered the Lord of Felcsút. He simply didn’t want anyone from Brussels to see the place. As we know, anyone who tries to take pictures anywhere near the stadium is usually met with scores of policemen. And this case is more than the usual curious journalists trying to get close to his little empire. It is a group of European politicians who will see that whole grotesque scene Orbán managed to create in that “miserable village,” as Tamás Deutsch called it.

Orbán, with the assistance of Lázár, cast his regime in the worst possible light. One’s first response, which Grässle most likely shares, is: “These guys must have something to hide.” By the way, I wonder what the plans are for the day when the mission visits Felcsút. Will the Hungarian government order out thousands of people to ride their choo-choo train? Anything is possible in that Potemkin village called Hungary.

September 9, 2017

A few gems from Viktor Orbán’s “strong and proud” Hungary

There are just too many topics that have piled up in the last few weeks that deserve at least a mention. So I decided that today’s post would be a potpourri.

Lex Felcsút

Hungarians like to use the Latin “lex” for “law” when a piece of legislation proposed by the Orbán government is specifically designed to circumvent already existing legal constraints or has been enacted for the specific benefit or disadvantage of individuals. Here are a couple of examples. When Viktor Orbán wanted György Szapáry, who was over the age of 70, to be Hungary’s ambassador to Washington, he simply changed the law, raising the upper age limit for diplomats. When he wanted Zsolt Borkai, an Olympic champion and former lieutenant colonel in the Hungarian Army, to become a Fidesz member of parliament, the five-year moratorium on members of the armed forces for political office was lowered to three. Thus, Lex Borkai.

In 2015 the Demokratikus Koalíció sued FUNA, the foundation that runs the Felcsút football academy, after the foundation refused to release all the documents between January 2013 and November 2015 that pertained to the billions of tax-deductible forints the foundation received from large corporations. The foundation’s position was that the money certain sports clubs receive this way is not considered to be “public money.” The Székesfehérvár court didn’t agree. It ruled that the so-called TAO money in support of sports facilities (Corporate Tax Program) is considered to be public money and instructed FUNA to provide documentation of their finances. FUNA appealed, but in February the Budapest Appellate Court ruled that the books of the foundation for the required period should be made public. The ruling this time was based not on the public nature of the TAO support but on FUNA’s designation as “a publicly useful nonprofit” (közhasznú) organization. Within 15 days FUNA was supposed to deliver the documents to DK.

Those who had been distressed over this murky set-up full of opportunities for corruption were thrilled. “Here is the end,” said Magyar Narancs in February 2017. But not so fast. Nothing is that simple in Orbán’s Hungary. First of all, 15 days came, 15 days went, and no documents arrived. At that point the Demokratikus Koalíció sued. And the case was moved to the Kúria, Hungary’s highest court, for a final decision. There is no decision yet, but the government doesn’t leave anything to chance. On June 27 Magyar Nemzet noticed a small change in the TAO law enacted by parliament a few days earlier. Sports organizations are henceforth no longer designated as “publicly useful nonprofit” entities. If the appellate court decided that the documents must be released because FUNA is a publicly useful organization, the way to deal with this problem is simply to abolish the designation. That’s why this latest fiddling with the law is called Lex Felcsút.

The Poster War

Another perfect example of Fidesz inventiveness when it comes to legislation is the recent law nicknamed Lex Simicska. After a couple of abortive attempts, the Fidesz majority pushed through a law that should have required a two-thirds majority by amending a piece of existing legislation that needed only a simple majority. President János Áder dutifully signed a clearly unconstitutional law. You may recall that these Jobbik billboards, the target of the law change, featured not only Orbán but also Lőrinc Mészáros and Árpád Habony. Jobbik made the right decision when it included these two on their posters. Only yesterday Iránytű Intézet (Compass Institute) released a poll on the popularity of Habony and Mészáros, in addition to that of politicians. These two are at the very bottom of the heap. Habony is most likely seen as the symbol of Fidesz’s very aggressive method of communication, while Mészáros is the symbol of corruption. Clearly the Hungarian people like neither.

A 2010 Fidesz poster right next to Hungária Circus in Hatvan / Source: 24.hu

Lajos Simicska’s firm, Mahír, gave a substantial discount to Jobbik, which Fidesz tried to portray as concealed party financing. But selling advertising spots is like any other business venture where there are no fixed prices. Sometimes they are cheaper–for example during winter. Sometimes they are more expensive–for example, at election time. And, I assume that in certain circumstances personal preferences may play a role. For example, in Jobbik’s case, Simicska’s by now intense hatred of Viktor Orbán must be taken into consideration. Or, conversely, when Simicska worked hand in hand with Viktor Orbán for the good of Fidesz, he gave, as we all suspected, a very good price to his own party. In fact, at the very beginning of the 1990s Simicska purchased Mahír for that very purpose.

Now we know how good a price Fidesz got from Simicska in 2010 when the whole country was plastered with Fidesz posters. Someone made sure that 24.hu got all the documentation covering Fidesz’s deal. Fidesz paid 63% less than Jobbik did for its recent billboards. One billion forints worth of advertising was purchased for 23 million! That’s a real bargain, all right. But that’s not all. Fidesz ordered 4,700 billboards for 23.2 million forints, and they got an additional 1,300 posters gratis. Thus, Fidesz had 6,000 billboards and posters as opposed to MSZP’s 2,000 posters and Jobbik’s fewer than 500 during the 2010 election campaign. But, of course, these parties didn’t have such a generous benefactor. Nor did they have such well-funded party treasuries.

State support of parochial schools

I just read that the Orbán government spends 200,000 forints on children who attend parochial schools and only 54,000 on those who attend public schools. If all children were considered equal, public schools should receive 112.5 billion forints more than they get now. I feel very strongly about this issue, and I find the trend of passing public schools gratis to various churches unacceptable. The kind of education children receive in parochial schools, given the extremely conservative nature of Hungarian churches, may have an adverse effect on Hungarian society as a whole. Moreover, how can the Orbán government justify that kind of discrimination against most of its own young citizens?

Shooting galleries for school children

I left the best for last. Even the Associated Press reported about two weeks ago that Hungarian educational authorities are currently evaluating the installation of shooting galleries in schools to increase the variety of sports available to students. Officials of the Klebelsberg Center insist that the idea has absolutely “nothing to do with aggression and violence.” I saw a high-ranking official of the Center talk about this plan with great fervor in a TV interview, but about two weeks later came the denial. Márta Demeter, formerly an MSZP member of parliament, asked István Simicskó, minister of defense, about the veracity of the news. He flatly denied any such plans. He claimed that the Klebelsberg Center’s inquiries from school principals about appropriate locations for shooting ranges have nothing whatsoever to do with “the long-range defense development program” of his ministry. I’m sure that the Center’s inquiry and Simicskó’s earlier plans of building shooting ranges all over the country are connected. I also suspect that reactions to the notion of putting firearms into the hands of 13-14-year-olds were so negative that the great plan had to be abandoned.

Conclusion

That’s all for today, but I think these few examples are enough to demonstrate that something is very wrong in Viktor Orbán’s “strong and proud” Hungary.

July 2, 2017

Back in business: the Orbán government is after its opponents

After the summer doldrums Hungarian politics is back in attack mode. In the last couple of days we witnessed two highly disturbing events. The first was the frisking of Ákos Hadházy, LMP’s new co-chairman and a member of parliament, by watchful policemen in Viktor Orbán’s private domain of Felcsút. The second was the crude, but potentially damaging, attempt by people most likely close to government circles to discredit Péter Juhász, co-chair of Együtt (Together), who is one of the most effective political activists in the anti-Fidesz camp.

Frisking in Felcsút

Felcsút is under the watchful eyes of the Hungarian police day and night. They make sure that no stranger loiters anywhere near Viktor Orbán’s precious football stadium. Especially suspect are people who are critical of the regime. As are camera crews. In the past, the police would retreat if confronted (I assume quite forcefully) with the argument that they have no right to interfere because the area is public property. At least this was the case about a year ago when Ferenc Gyurcsány managed to film a ten-minute video on life in Felcsút.

Ákos Hadházy was not so lucky when he appeared in Felcsút in the company of the TV crew of the German RTL2. They wanted to take some pictures of the stadium and the infamous choo-choo train which keeps going back and forth on its 5 km track, usually totally empty. They were stopped and, most likely illegally, frisked, and their car was also thoroughly searched. Apparently, a “helpful” neighbor of Viktor Orbán, who has a weekend house in Felcsút, called the police on them, claiming that they wanted to enter Orbán’s house, which was obviously a lie.

Hadházy on his Facebook page described what happened. “I was just smiling, but the Germans were downright shocked.” After their thorough search Hadházy was informed that the reason for this highly unusual procedure is that the country is under a state of “increased preparedness” (fokozott készültség). A brief video taken on Hadházy’s phone can be seen on YouTube.

When Index inquired about this claim from ORFK (Országos Rendőrfőkapitányság), they were told that the police chief of the country had ordered “increased control” (fokozott ellenőrzés) for the whole country between July 1 and September 30, 2016, which allows policemen to stop anyone or any vehicle and do a thorough search. The police didn’t explain the reason for introducing such a measure between these particular dates. I suspect that this incident has nothing whatsoever to do with the “increased control” measures but rather is part and parcel of the harassment of anyone who tries to call attention to the corruption of Viktor Orbán and his family, especially in and around Felcsút.

hadhazy

Today Orbán was accosted by journalists on his way to the yearly Fidesz picnic in Kötcse and asked about the incident. Orbán said that the police “must have had their reasons.” There are rules and regulations that everyone must obey. János Halász, the Fidesz spokesman, went further. He doubted Hadházy’s veracity because “in the past he has come up with so much nonsense that we are handling this case cautiously.” The “nonsense” Halász referred to is Hadházy’s heroic effort to uncover corruption cases related to EU subsidies.

Fidesz media comes to the rescue of Antal Rogán

This is not a pretty story either. Tamás Portik, who is currently serving a fifteen-year sentence for murder and other criminal activities, testified against Antal Rogán in the case Rogán bought against Péter Juhász, co-chair of Együtt. Juhász called him a criminal  and said that, as mayor, he had embezzled a great deal of money through his sales of property in the ritzy District V of downtown Pest. Portik claimed that at one point he was asked to deliver 10 million forints worth of euros from one of Rogán’s “customers” to the mayor. I covered the story in great detail back in June. Since then the Hungarian prosecutor’s office has declined to investigate the authenticity of Portik’s testimony. But, for one reason or another, Rogán and the people around him still don’t feel safe and so decided to go after Juhász.

On September 7 Pesti Srácok, a far-right Fidesz and government supported internet site, came out with a story that Portik’s girlfriend, Erika A. E., “handles his money” in Hungary, some of which is used to support an unnamed but well-known opposition politician. The claim is that some of Portik’s money, about €22-23 million of which is in Switzerland, is managed by his 20-year-old son. It is used to finance opposition parties.

According to Pesti Srácok, Portik’s money is funneled through a “foundation,” which recently received 80 million forints for the support of the politician. The person Pesti Srácok was obviously referring to, even if not by name, is Péter Juhász, who a few months ago asked the public for financial help because on his meager salary as district council member he cannot provide for his family of four.

Once the Pesti Srácok story was out, revelation followed revelation in the right-wing media. Válasz, another Fidesz mouthpiece, revealed that Juhász was the politician in question. A few hours later Attila Menyhárt, a former cellmate of Portik, showed up at Andy Vajna’s by now notorious TV2 studio. He recalled that Portik had proudly told him that he is able to influence politics even from inside his cell. He said that Péter Juhász was “Portik’s man, and that means a lot. He is the one who tells Juhász what to say, what to do, and what kinds of statements to make in public. Portik considers Juhász his puppet.” Portik would like to see the current government overthrown, which he believes will result in his freedom.

Naturally, Fidesz decided to pursue this juicy story. Moreover, as if the story weren’t damning enough on its face, it kept getting embellished. By the time it got to István Hollik, a member of the KDNP parliamentary delegation who was assigned to the case, the claim was that Juhász had admitted that he had accepted money from Portik.

How did this story gain traction? According to Juhász, Erika A. E., whom he didn’t know at that point, phoned him and offered him a picture on which Portik and Rogán can be seen together at some kind of gala gathering. The picture was evidence that the two men knew each other, or at least had met. When Erika delivered the photo, she asked whether Juhász would be good enough to collect some articles about the Rogán-Juhász trial for her from the internet because she is not too familiar with the ins and outs of the internet. She would like to give them to Portik, whom she visits frequently. Juhász obliged, collected the material, and was seen giving an envelope to Erika.

Juhász’s friendly gesture was a potentially costly mistake. We can expect a lengthy, ugly case that will track down the financial sources of the “foundation” and try to uncover the contents of the envelope. Rogán and his friends might have gotten hold of a story, however flimsy, that will ruin Juhász’s reputation.

September 10, 2016

It’s hard to get away from football when discussing Hungarian politics

I picked a few topics today that on the surface don’t have much to do with one another, but by the end I trust we will see a common theme. Yes, I know, the title has already given it away.

First of all, we have a public opinion poll by the newly established ZRI (Závecz Research Institute). Tibor Závecz used to be a member of the Ipsos team, but Ipsos stopped doing political polling. Závecz therefore formed ZRI as a kind of successor to Ipsos. The poll, taken between July 10 and 17, doesn’t reveal any dramatic changes in political trends, but the responses to some of the questions ZRI posed may offer opposition party leaders a strategic compass for the 2018 election.

I will spend little time on the actual numbers. In the sample as a whole, Fidesz gained three percentage points, from 24% to 27%, in the last month. This gain, according to Závecz, is most likely due to the intensification of the anti-migrant campaign and the initial success of the national football team at the European Football Championship. All the other parties moved up or down by about a couple of percentage points. However, the weakening of Jobbik over the last few months can by now be described as a trend. In April Jobbik’s share was 15%, in May 14%, in June 12%, and this month 11%. It looks as if Gábor Vona’s new strategy is not exactly a success among the radical elements. Apparently, the losses are especially noticeable among members of the younger generation and in the countryside where the party was extremely strong. As is usually the case in Hungarian polls, the largest group among the respondents, 36%, could not name a party for which they would vote today.

Among those respondents who said they would definitely vote if the election were held today, 49% said they would vote for Fidesz. Yet in the sample as a whole, 43% would like to see a change of government in 2018 and only 32% would like to see this government continue. The problem is that those who would be happy to see the Orbán government go are extremely passive. Only 16% of them would even bother to vote. The task of the democratic opposition, and it is a daunting task, must therefore be to motivate some of those people whose current attitude is, as Tibor Závecz aptly described it, “I want you to vote and get rid of this government for me.” Leaders of the democratic opposition will have to figure out a way to get these dissatisfied masses to the polls since 43% translates into more than 3 million votes.

Fidesz may have benefited in this survey from the performance of the Hungarian national football team, but Hungarian soccer is an unlikely long-term prop for the party. It’s enough to look at the miserable performance of FTC (Fradi) against Partizani Tirana in the Champion’s League qualifiers. The Albanians beat the Hungarian team 3-1. The Hungarian players were so bad that the coach actually apologized, and the fans demanded the resignation of Gábor Kubatov, Fidesz’s campaign wizard and the chairman of FTC. Fewer than 9,000 spectators showed up for the game, played in the brand new Groupama Arena with a capacity of almost 24,000. The game was a reality check. Hungarian football, despite the flash in the pan in France, cannot compete internationally with any hope of success, despite generous financial support from the Orbán government. FTC received close to 1.5 billion forints from the government just this year, and the new stadium cost almost 16 billion forints.

And now let’s move to Felcsút and the findings of Direkt36, “a non-profit investigative journalism center with the mission to expose wrongdoings and abuse of power through fair but tough reporting.” Direct36 works with 444.hu, which yesterday published some details of the Orbán family’s land holdings in Felcsút. The details of the story are not entirely new. In 2013 the late Krisztina Ferenczi reported on how Viktor Orbán, at the very end of 2006, made offers to several homeowners in Felcsút to purchase parts of their large backyards. These parcels of land now serve as the VIP parking area for the Pancho Arena. So, Ferenczi concluded, Orbán already had well developed plans for a large arena at a time when he had just lost his second election in a row. He was waiting for the moment when he would be prime minister and could build his hobby arena from taxpayer money.

csaladi focibusiness

Anita Vorák of Direct36 in the 444.hu article shows that Orbán didn’t fill out the financial statements he submitted to parliament properly. Of course, in comparison to other corruption cases, this “little oversight” is really a small item. But from the way the story of the purchase of these strips of land unfolds, one has the distinct impression that something is very fishy. First of all, it is not at all clear what the connection is between Viktor Orbán’s own holdings and those of the Felcsúti Utánpótlás Neveléséért Alapítvány, a foundation behind the Ferenc Puskás Academy which was established by Viktor Orbán with an initial capital of 150,000 forints. For example, not only Viktor Orbán but also Anikó Lévai, his wife, and Győző Orbán, his father, gave the foundation free use of the land they had purchased for 50 years. The non-profit foundation’s founder has no legal, formal connection with its creation, the Academy. But it’s curious that the founder of the foundation and his family members “lend” land to the foundation, land that will be used by the Academy.

I was astonished to read that the foundation has 110 employees. This is a large tax-free business funded almost exclusively by the state for the pleasure of the founder of the organization. And the wealth of the Academy and therefore of the foundation keeps growing. I really wonder what will happen to this whole edifice when Orbán is no longer prime minister and the flow of money from government coffers comes to an end. Because I assume that the next administration will have the good sense to stop funding this monster and will instead investigate this so-called foundation, what Krisztina Ferenczi called “the Felcsút family football business.”

July 22, 2016

Hungarian success didn’t change opinion of Orbán’s football mania

The Hungarian performance at the European Football Championship created a political controversy at home. Critics of the Orbán regime feared that since Orbán’s name is so closely associated with the game, the relatively good performance, especially in light of the past performance of the national team, would bring added popularity to the regime. Opinion pieces at home and abroad pointed out the political dividend of the fantastic enthusiasm that took hold of the population, especially after the first two games against Iceland and Portugal. Many of the critics bemoaned the likelihood that, with the Hungarian team’s marked improvement, the population would more readily endorse Viktor Orbán’s gigantic spending on football. Perhaps the enthusiastic fans will find Orbán’s unnatural preoccupation with the sport justified. Viktor Orbán himself certainly thought there was a connection between his extravagant spending on the sport and the initial success of the national team when on his Facebook page he said: “You see!” (Na, ugye!) By the way, for Orbán the game is a deadly serious affair, as the picture taken of him during the Austrian-Hungarian game shows.

For Viktor Orbán football is not a game

For Viktor Orbán football is not a game / Getty Images

Some of my friends, who certainly cannot be called supporters of the Orbán government, were furious with those commentators who shared their worries over the political fallout of the Hungarian football success. They foresaw the inevitable reaction from the other side. Indeed, the right-wing media called them traitors to the national cause, spoilers of a giant national celebration. For instance, Tivadar Farkasházy, an avid football fan and humorist, had an interview last fall on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd in which he said “Of course, I always root for the Hungarians. On the other hand, I have another self. When we lose I console myself that we managed to create a bad day for Viktor Orbán.” This statement was subsequently completely distorted, as a result of which someone spat into his face on the street. Magyar Idők and Magyar Hírlap published long articles about the disloyal left, which cannot be happy over the fantastic performance of the national team. Magyar Idők called it a hate campaign against Orbán and Hungarian football success.

The government, of course, did its best to make the team’s achievement its own. The initially spontaneous celebrations eventually deteriorated to official ones where the number of people coming out for the team was anything but spectacular. While the state radio and television station talked about 20,000 fans gathering on Heroes’ Square, more modest estimates judged the size of the crowd to be about 5,000. As the Hungarian saying goes, “Every wonder lasts only three days.”

And the football wonder is definitely over. As Publicus Institute’s latest poll shows, Hungarians are not so naïve as to think that the couple of decent showings of the national football team had anything to do with the billions of forints of taxpayer money Orbán spent on his hobby. Or that the half-empty football stadiums have anything to do with the quality of Hungarian football. Reaction to Orbán’s football extravagance is as negative after the European Football Championship as it was before. Eighty-three percent of the adult population still think that Viktor Orbán should spend less or a great deal less on building stadiums. People believe that the money allocated to stadium construction should instead be spent on healthcare, education, the elimination of poverty, employment opportunities, and higher wages in the public sphere, in that order.

There is, however, a change from the December 2015 poll with regard to government support of professional football and NB1 players of the National Championship. Although 63% of those asked would like to see less money spent on football players, eight months ago this figure was 72%. But when the respondents were asked the cause of Hungary’s success, only 10% pointed to the financial assistance the government/Viktor Orbán gave to the national team. Most (42%) said the players themselves and hard work were the source of the good performance. Almost as many (41%) named the two coaches, Pál Dárdai and Bernd Storck, who had coached the team over the last twelve months. So, those who thought that Orbán would reap great political benefits from the performance of the national football team were mistaken.

The future of Hungarian football will most likely depend on those youngsters who are currently enrolled in the 15 football academies. Three years ago MLSZ (Hungarian Football Association) hired an internationally well-respected Belgian company, Double Pass, to evaluate the performance of these academies. Double Pass’s first assessment was published in 2014, and it was described at the time as devastating. Everywhere Double Pass looked it found major deficiencies. The best of the lot, Debrecen’s academy, got a grade of 66%. The Felcsút Academy, which received an incredible amount of financial assistance from pro-Fidesz oligarchs, ended up #9. At that time Orbán boasted that the Puskás Academy was one of the top ten in Europe.

Now, two years later, Double Pass has released its final report, and the results are no better. Népszabadság called the report “Awakening from the EC dream,” emphasizing the poor quality of the players being trained in these academies. Double Pass analyzed strategy, infrastructure, coaching, the study of games, etc. and still found Debrecen to be the best. The richly endowed Felcsút, which just last year received 11 billion from tax-free contributions to sports, mostly football, and which is getting a new indoor football field for six billion forints, did move up in the rankings. Instead being ninth, it is now sixth out of fifteen. The whole report is available online. A good summary appeared in HVG.

One of the criticisms of Double Pass was that the owners of the academies often get personally involved in the strategy and management of the academies. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Viktor Orbán were among these meddlers. If that is the case, he is not a very good strategist or manager because the season results of the Felcsút Academy between 2013 and 2016 were anything but sterling. In the 2013-14 season they were in fourteenth place with a record of 8 wins, 15 losses, and 7 ties. They were tenth in 2014-15 with 10 wins, 15 losses and 5 ties and eleventh in 2015-16, next to last in the National Championship’s first tier (NB I) with 7 wins, 16 losses, and 10 ties. By now, Felcsút plays in NB II. But I doubt that Orbán will take Double Pass’s recommendations to heart. He rarely listens to others, especially if the advice comes from abroad.

July 17, 2016

Numerology and chugging along

This morning I had a delightful brunch with a group of friends, among them a Hungarian visitor to this country. In between serious conversations about democracy and checks and balances we joked about some of the idiosyncrasies of the actors on the Hungarian political stage. When I said that I still had no idea what I was going to write about today, they urged me to say something about György Matolcsy’s crazy ideas and Viktor Orbán’s childish dream. So, I’m obliging.

The sharp-eyed Jenő Veress of Népszava is one of my favorites. He is a man with a fantastic sense of humor who delights his readers practically every day with short op/eds, usually about some ridiculous aspect of Hungarian political life. A few days ago he noticed that the address of the Hungarian National Bank is no longer Szabadság tér 8-9. It is simply Szabadság tér 9. The change seems to be so important to Matolcsy that he ordered the employees of the bank to change their business cards. Moreover, according to the personnel of the bank, all rooms that earlier were marked with the number 8 are now labeled 7/1 or 7+1.

Well, I decided to look into the numerological meaning of the number 8, and I learned that it is associated with “money and power.” As one of the sites claims, “the 8 is the great Karmic equalizer, a force that you will reap what you’ve sown.” That sounds pretty ominous to me and perhaps also to Matolcsy. Another source’s interpretation sounds outright frightening: “If you often face obstacles, meet with accidents, and feel unlucky, you are ruled by No. 8 and Saturn. Numerology for 8 when exalted makes you a saint. When afflicted it makes you a proficient criminal.” Well, what do you think of that?

Of course it’s bonkers, but Matolcsy is apt to believe all sorts of nonsense. Do you remember his infamous “red spots”? In 2012 he came up with a story he allegedly heard from Japanese scientists. According to these learned men, 30% of all Japanese and Hungarian babies are born with a “small red dot on their bottoms,” so Japanese-Hungarian economic cooperation is even genetically determined. Soon enough we learned that these spots are not red, not small, and not round, as Matolcsy claimed. Instead they are blue, can be quite large, and are of irregular shape. They are common among East Asians, Southeast Asians, Polynesians, Native Americans, and East Africans. But not among Hungarians.

A year earlier he made the claim, referring to unnamed Persian and Byzantine sources, that Hungarians’ ancestors couldn’t be rivaled in gastronomy and brain surgery. Yes, brain surgery. So, the man is an odd bird with many crazy beliefs. Why not numerology?

Matolcsy also suffers from an excessive concern for his own safety. In the fall of 2015 he allocated 200 million forints for the creation of a security force whose sole job was guarding the VIP of the Hungarian National Bank. A few months later another 140 million forints was spent on a second force for the security of the deputy chairmen, including constant surveillance of their residences. The bank bought several hundred guns and 200,000 rounds of ammunition.

Matolcsy is not the only man who suffers from an excessive fear of ordinary Hungarians. Viktor Orbán is well known for his paranoia. Even when he was the leader of the opposition he hired several body guards, and rumor had it that on October 23, 2006, knowing darned well that there would be trouble on the streets of Budapest after his fiery speech against the government, he escaped as soon as possible in a borrowed armored car. Eagle-eyed observers are certain that he sometimes wears a bullet-proof vest, and I suspect that his VW mini-bus is armored. He seems to be so afraid that, even inside the parliament building, while walking the corridors between rooms, he is followed by four body guards. And let’s not forget that one of his first acts as prime minister in 2010 was the creation of TEK (Terrorelhárító Központ), which was a force of hundreds of highly-trained men whose sole job was the security of the great man.

Oh, yes, TEK. Dozens and dozens of members of TEK worked overtime yesterday at the opening of Viktor Orbán’s mini train line. At the moment the narrow-gauge train can take passengers from Orbán’s Pancho Aréna in Felcsút to the Arboretum that was created by Archduke Joseph of Habsburg, whose former estate now belongs to the Orbán family and their friends. The whole length of the line is only 5.7 km. Orbán would like to extend it to Bicske, from which another leg to Székesfehérvár would be a cinch. And from there passengers could go all the way to Vienna. From Felcsút to Vienna. What a thrilling prospect. And how economically promising.

Orbán's train

Only a select few could participate in the opening run of the train. As a gift to Felcsút, three children from each class of the Felcsút elementary school were chosen to join the illustrious crowd. Those who had not been invited but who came out of curiosity were not allowed near the great man. Nor were the members of the media, who could watch the prime minister only from afar. The sole thing they could report was that he gesticulated a lot.

Apparently, Orbán was somewhat agitated because he is angry at those who don’t understand the importance of this project. These nay-sayers are cynics who don’t appreciate his efforts at building a prosperous Hungary. The audience also learned why rebuilding this railroad was so important to Orbán. It turned out that the Orbán family lived at the very edge of Alcsút. The train, which still functioned in his childhood, went by right next to their house. He was especially fascinated by the inspection trolleys that periodically checked the lines. He still hopes that one day he will be able to drive one. The railroad had to be rebuilt, he said, because “the communists closed it.” A lame excuse for reliving his childhood memories.

The European Union obliged in fulfilling the Hungarian prime minister’s dream. Brussels contributed 600,000 million forints for the construction, although, according to the terms of the grant, if the annual number of passengers does not reach 10,000 the money will have to be repaid. I suspect it will not be terribly difficult for the Puskás Academy Foundation, the owner of the railroad, to come up with a number that will satisfy the European Union.

There were a couple of problems even on the trial run. One of the semaphores stopped working, and the train had to stop when two female DK activists lay on the tracks and the police had to drag them off.

Today the passengers didn’t have to pay the fairly steep price of a ticket–1,000 forints for adults (more than $3.50) and 600 forints ($2.20) for students–for a twenty-minute ride from nowhere to nowhere. Today’s visitors, among them many children, were not exactly thrilled to learn that no one knows when the trains depart or when they arrive. Moreover, for no discernible reason, half-way through the trip, in Alcsút, the train sat idle for 15 minutes. While waiting for the train at the stations (there are three of them), children are provided with no entertainment. But some clever children discovered that Orbán’s train looked almost identical to the Chuggington trains on a BBC’s children program or, what I’m more familiar with, PBS’s Choo-Choo train.

choo-choo train

PBS’s Choo-Choo Train

Chuggington

BBC’s Chuggington

There is not much to see along the route, but some people were happy to discover that one could get a pretty good look at the Pancho Aréna, which normally cannot be approached by sightseers.

Finally, let me report my sad discovery last night that Puskás Academy was just booted from the NB1 category of soccer clubs. It seems that money isn’t everything. All the money that pours into Orbán’s foundation can’t make up for a lack of talent. The same is true about governance. No matter how much the Orbán regime steals from the Hungarian people, they are unable to provide a better life for the country’s citizens. The talent for governance is missing.

May 1, 2016