Tag Archives: Lajos Simicska

Could János Lázár be the sacrificial lamb of the Elios affair?

The other day, while discussing Péter Juhász’s indiscretions, I noted that a politician must choose his words carefully and be mindful of what information he shares with the public. Overly talkative politicians are normally found in MSZP, where party discipline is lax and individual party leaders often espouse views that contradict official policy. Such speaking out of turn is practically unknown in Fidesz with its stringent party discipline. Spokesmen for the party get their orders, and they faithfully repeat whatever the current slogan is that comes from the propaganda and communication gurus. The monotony that results might be very dull for journalists and political junkies, but it is effective.

One high-ranking Fidesz politician who is something of an exception is János Lázár, who has been in charge of the huge prime minister’s office ever since 2012. From the outside it may look as if Lázár is the person who is actually running the show, but no one should be misled. Viktor Orbán might be gallivanting around and delivering deep “philosophical” lectures to his captive audiences, but practically all decisions, large and small, come from him.

This is also true about decisions regarding the individuals with whom he works. Whether one describes the relationship between Viktor Orbán and his associates as akin to the bond that exists between the godfather and his subordinates in the family or the bond that existed between the seigneur and his vassals, Orbán can move his people around as if they were pieces on a chessboard. János Áder, currently the president of the country, had no intention of leaving the European Parliament, but in the end he reluctantly took the job, and by now there is no way out. Antal Rogán was quite happy as the leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary caucus, but in 2015 he was ordered to head the newly created propaganda ministry. Lázár’s move to the prime minister’s office was very much the same story. He had to quit his job as mayor of Hódmezővásárhely halfway through his term, a job he loved, to oversee the prime minister’s office.

János Lázár might not enjoy his current job all that much because, in the last year or so, he has been talking about his desire to return to the life of an ordinary member of parliament, representing electoral district #4 in Csongrád County. He likes to talk to his constituents. Despite his arduous job in Budapest, he still lives in Hódmezővásárhely. And according to those in the know, nothing can happen in town without Lázár’s nod. Talking about personal preferences is unheard of in Fidesz circles, and therefore I can’t help thinking that Lázár’s departure from the prime minister’s office might be in Viktor Orbán’s playbook. It is possible that Lázár has already been told that after the election there will be a personnel shakeup and his place will be occupied by someone else.

In any case, there are signs that Lázár is preparing for another role. He, who used to jealously guard his family’s private life, just started a professional-looking internet site on which one can see touching family scenes and where his wife describes life in the Lázár household and her husband as the father of her children. Lázár is extremely popular in his district. He easily won all the elections since 2002, and therefore he doesn’t need this kind of advertising. People suspect that Lázár wants to attract national attention, perhaps even as someone who could replace Viktor Orbán if and when the time comes. Such ambitions, if they are too obvious, are hazardous to one’s health in Orbán’s Hungary. As it is, Lázár might be in trouble over his role as István Tiborcz’s first customer as mayor of Hódmezővásárhely.

Source: lazarjanos.hu

The spectacular business career of Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law began in Hódmezővásárhely, most likely at the request of the prime minister himself. Last November the overly talkative Lázár, replying to a question, admitted that he and Tiborcz “together figured out how to solve the public lighting problem” in his city. At that time, he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to explain that in 2010, when the two met, Tiborcz had no connection whatsoever with the Orbán family. Unfortunately for Lázár, no amount of protestation will change the fact that the romantic relationship between Tiborcz and Ráhel Orbán began in 2008, and by 2010 Tiborcz was considered to be practically one of the family. Or, at least he was part of the post-election celebration, standing alongside the members of the Orbán clan.

I doubt that Orbán is happy with the way Lázár is handling the situation, but there is no good way of downplaying this well documented fraud case. The line that Tiborcz had nothing to do with the day-to-day operation of the firm cannot be maintained for long. First of all, there is Lázár’s own admission of his collaboration with Tiborcz. Second, there is an interview with Bálint Erdei, Tiborcz’s partner in Elios, from 2015 in which he stated that there was a division of labor between them as far as running the business was concerned. He did the “operative” work and Tiborcz was in charge of “the strategic fine-tuning.” Maintaining that it was Lajos Simicska who was responsible for what happened is not a viable option for the government, especially since only three of the 35 contracts in question were signed while Simicska was involved with the firm.

And so, Orbán will have to find someone else to take the fall for this affair. Government propagandists like Gergely Huth of Pesti Srácok only a couple of days ago accused Lázár of trying to drag Tiborcz into the Elios affair and thereby involving Viktor Orbán himself in the scandal. Alfahír, Jobbik’s official news site, heard that some people could see a way out of this sticky situation if they could blame Lázár for the whole thing. EU subsidies are handled exclusively by the prime minister’s office, after all. Will he be the sacrificial lamb?, asks Magyar Nemzet, because stories to that effect have reached the paper.

Today János Lázár held his regular press conference at which Ildikó Csuhaj of ATV asked him whether it is true that to some of his closer friends he complained that “some people want to shove him into the epicenter of the Elios affair.” He called the story “rubbish” (marhaság). It does sound far-fetched, but it may be one way of both stifling Lázár’s political ambitions and shielding the prime minister’s son-in-law.

February 15, 2018

The way the world is beginning to see Viktor Orbán’s Hungary

In the last three days three articles have appeared in two leading English-language newspapers, The New York Times and The Guardian, about the systemic corruption in the Orbán government. The word is out at last: a crime ring, run by Viktor Orbán himself, has taken hold of the Hungarian economy. The beneficiaries are the prime minister and his family as well as a few friends and political cronies.

The foreign press’s new-found interest in the criminal activities of Viktor Orbán was ignited by a short article that appeared in The Wall Street Journal exactly a month ago. It reported that OLAF, the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office, had sent a report to the Hungarian government recommending that the authorities take legal action over “serious irregularities” in projects carried out by a company that was controlled by the son-in-law of Viktor Orbán. The very fact that Hungarians had to learn about this damning report from a foreign source says a lot about the lack of transparency in Hungary.

It seems that after almost eight years of brazenly embezzling public funds, 80% of which come from the European Union, the friends and family of the Hungarian prime minister are finally coming under scrutiny. Detailed analyses are starting to plumb the depths of the systemic corruption that has made a small group of people very rich in record time. On the basis of calculations by responsible and usually accurate investigative journalists, Viktor Orbán’s hidden wealth may amount to 300 billion forints, more than a billion dollars.

One of the two Guardian articles by Jennifer Rankin neatly lists all the corruption cases that directly involve the Orbán family, including the growing wealth of Lőrinc Mészáros, which may be only partially his own. The list Rankin came up with is most likely incomplete because sub-contractors do not appear in the databases. Since most of these riches come from the European Union, Viktor Orbán’s anti-Brussels rhetoric is especially jarring. The conclusion is that, as Miklós Ligeti, head of legal affairs at Transparency International, put it, “Hungary is now in the grip of party state capture.”

The article ends with a question: will the European Union have the courage to do something about this theft of EU funds? Between 2014 and 2021 Hungary will have received €25 billion from the European Union, which makes the country one of the largest per capita recipients of the EU’s economic development funds. EU politicians are aware of the wholesale robbery that goes in Orbán’s Hungary, but for political reasons they are avoiding tackling the problem. Ingeborg Gräßle, head of the European Parliament’s budgetary committee who visited Hungary a few months ago to take a ride on Viktor Orbán’s rather expensive choo-choo train, merely says that a new kind of “semi-legal” irregularity is emerging in these post-communist countries, including Hungary. Otherwise, she estimates that in 36% of the cases there is only one bidder for EU-financed government projects, and, let me add, the remainder is most likely fixed. But that’s not all. According to András Inotai, a Hungarian economist, in 2017 5% of the country’s GDP came from EU funding while Hungary’s economic growth during the same period was about 4%. So, all that money is doing mighty little good.


Düsseldorf Carnival 2018

On February 10 an in-depth article appeared in The New York Times by Patrick Kingsley titled “As West Fears the Rise of Autocrats, Hungary Shows What’s Possible.” Hungary is described as “a political greenhouse for an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture.” What follows is a detailed description of the process by which Viktor Orbán has managed to achieve his goal of an illiberal state. A former Fidesz official described the present Hungarian situation the following way: “sometimes I feel like I’m traveling in a time machine and going back to the ’60s…. All the characteristics and features on the surface are of democracy, but behind it there is only one party and only one truth.” Viktor Orbán is described as one of the strongmen of the age, alongside Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Donald Trump. “Although Mr. Orbán lacks the global profile of those leaders, what he is doing in Europe is seen as part of a broader decline of democracy in the world.”

This is what Hungary looks like from New York and London. But what has been happening since the OLAF report detailing István Tiborcz’s alleged criminal activities was released? First of all, the government has come up with a strategy to divert responsibility from Orbán’s son-in-law to Lajos Simicska, Orbán’s old friend-in-crime, now enemy. This strategy may work on the propaganda level but it will not be sufficient to save Tiborcz from prosecution. But we ought not worry about the future of Ráhel Orbán and her husband. The Hungarian prosecutor’s office has already announced that its investigation of the case will be long and arduous. I have no doubt that after an inordinately long investigation Tiborcz will be found innocent of any wrongdoing. The government propaganda machinery also concocted the story that the European Union’s anti-Orbán forces timed the release of the report to coincide with the national election. It is with OLAF’s help that Soros’s men in Brussels want to remove Viktor Orbán from the seat of power.

Otherwise, all eyes are on Hódmezővásárhely, where István Tiborcz’s business career began. To recap the story: Orbán’s future son-in-law needed money and a contract to establish his business credentials, which he didn’t have. Both were provided through the good offices of the prime minister. Orbán convinced his favorite oligarch at the time, Lajos Simicska, to put some money into the young man’s firm. As collateral, Simicska demanded a share of the business. After two years, Tiborcz and his business partner paid the loan back and Simicska retired from this business venture, which he had never actually run. As for the needed contract, János Lázár, today chief-of-staff of Viktor Orbán but then still mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, suddenly had a burning desire to install new public lighting.

The sleepy little town is now all over the media as a result of the details of the project, which came to light thanks to 24.hu. So, Lázár felt that he had to give a press conference right on the spot. After a general denial of any wrongdoing, he offered a description of the town’s business venture with István Tiborcz. Lázár’s fairy tale about the bidding process and the details of what happened afterward is especially amusing if one reads old articles on the town’s internet news site called Vásárhely Hírek. While there, I also decided to read up on the special election campaign for mayor, which is in full swing at the moment.

The election will take place on February 25. Of course, the scandal around István Tiborcz also touches on the town and the election. There seems to be some anxiety in Fidesz circles about the outcome, although a couple of weeks ago I was certain that the independent candidate, Péter Márki-Zay, who lost his job after he declared his candidacy and was so maligned by his pro-Fidesz parish priest, had not the slightest chance of making a decent showing. But in the last few days commentators have pointed out that the Hódmezővásárhely election is a unique case in the sense that neither Jobbik nor the left-of-center parties have put up candidates and therefore Márki-Zay is facing the Fidesz candidate, Deputy-Mayor Zoltán Hegedűs, alone.

The town was planning to distribute 10,000 forint vouchers to pensioners sometime in March, just before Easter, but, behold, the decision was made to disburse them before the election. The prime minister also invited Hegedűs for a cup of coffee in his office in the parliament, and Defense Minister István Simicskó paid a visit to town to make sure that everybody knows that the old military barracks will be renovated and the Hódmezővásárhely shooting gallery will be the very first one to open in the whole country.

Political observers often complain about Hungarians’ indifference to corruption, which they tend to view as a fact of life. Perhaps there is hope. If Márki-Zay makes a good showing in a town where the deceased Fidesz mayor received 61% of the votes, followed by Jobbik with 17.1% and MSZP-DK-Együtt with 15%, it will give us a clue about public sentiment. A Márki-Zay win could have a measurable effect on the national election on April 8.

February 12, 2018

Mafia-like criminal network around the Orbán family

A month ago The Wall Street Journal reported that OLAF, the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office, after a two-year investigation of 35 projects undertaken by Elios Innovatív Zrt. to modernize municipal street lighting in Hungary, found “serious irregularities” and recommended to the Hungarian authorities that they take legal action against the persons involved. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the principal owner of the company in question was his own son-in-law, István Tiborcz.

The company’s fraudulent activities were substantial. According to OLAF’s calculations, Tiborcz and his accomplices pocketed more than €40 ($49.8) million in EU funds through illegal business practices. Although the report was submitted to the Hungarian authorities, who apparently passed it on to the prosecutor’s office, the Orbán government was loath to make the report public even though, in the past, it had been more than eager to release such documents if they involved fraud cases before 2010.

I have written so many times about this case that I won’t bore regular readers with its details. Suffice it to say that by 2014, when OLAF began its investigation, it was obvious that the fabulous rise of Tiborcz’s company was due to his relationship with the prime minister’s family. By then one could also hypothesize that Tiborcz’s decision to switch from electrical and energy supplies to the installation of LED lighting was inspired by his future father-in-law, who was fully aware that the government had put aside 9 billion forints in EU funds for the purpose.

At the outset there were two problems: Elios needed money and it needed at least one city to entrust its project to Elios as proof of the company’s soundness. With the help of Viktor Orbán both problems were solved in short order. A telephone call to his friend Lajos Simicska, who had handled Fidesz’s finances ever since 1990 and who in the interim had become an extremely wealthy man, was enough to get the necessary capital. Simicska infused much-needed capital into the business of Orbán’s future son-in-law through buying the majority of the shares in the company. The second problem was also easily solved. János Lázár, mayor of Hódmezővásárhely and by 2010 head of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation, was more than happy to help Tiborcz out. By October 2011 Hódmezővásárhely was touted as the first city in the whole of Europe to use LED technology exclusively. Mission accomplished. Two years later Tiborcz and his partner bought out Simicska, and by the end of 2011 Lázár’s city was called “the European Los Angeles.”

But it seems that all of the advantages his ties to the Orbán family offered weren’t enough for the 24-year-old Tiborcz. He was also dishonest. What we didn’t know until now was how corrupt he, his associates, and the government authorities who dealt with him were.

Well, today we know. Or, more precisely, now we are beginning to learn the details of a mafia-like corruption ring engulfing Viktor Orbán and his family.

24.hu managed to get hold of a copy of the OLAF report that the Orbán government is so eager to hide. We know from a recent OLAF report, which was made public, that these reports are extremely long and detailed. This particular investigation covered 35 business transactions, so I assume it is a lengthy document. The journalists who gained access to the OLAF report had only a few hours to study it, so I’m sure there will be plenty more information trickling in as time goes on.

Momentum’s “gift” to the Prosecutor’s Office: “Accomplice, Accomplice” / Source: Magyar Nemzet / Photo: Balázs Székelyhidi

So, let’s start with what we now know. According to 24.hu, Tiborcz and Co. “misappropriated public funds” in a “criminal association” and “on a commercial scale.” There was a network of people involved in the wholesale fraud Elios’s business partners and their helpers committed. All 35 cases involved the “misuse of public funds,” and in 17 cases OLAF discovered organized criminal activity. There were all sorts of fraudulent activities involved, but perhaps the easiest to understand is that the same person on the same computer wrote up the competitors’ so-called “indicative offers” and in every case priced them exactly 5% and 7% higher than Elios’s bid. Later we learned that this person was one of the directors of Elios.

We already know some details of the fraud through the case of Szolnok’s contract with Elios. That case indicates that even government authorities who handle the European Union’s “environmental and energy efficiency operational program” (KEOP) helped Tiborcz win the contract by changing the parameters of the requirements on a Friday with a deadline on Monday to fit Elios’s specifications. The scheme worked the following way. Ivette Mancz, the Elios director in charge of public lighting, was also involved in writing the specifications for the job ordered by the municipalities. And once Elios finished the work, an “independent auditor,” INS Kft., inspected the finished work. The signature on the so-called independent audit, however, was Mancz’s. The scheme was foolproof: Mancz set the terms, Mancz’s firm did the work, and Mancz was also associated with the company that checked the results.

These revelations were naturally welcomed by all the opposition parties, whose politicians had already decided that the Tiborcz case is “the atomic bomb” they have been waiting for. Considering that the prosecutor’s office is solidly in Fidesz hands, I wouldn’t be too optimistic. Nonetheless, these disclosures shook even some Fidesz politicians. For example, in the city of Zalaegerszeg, whose city lighting was handled by Elios, two opposition members of the city council requested a copy of the OLAF report and, behold, 6 of the 12 Fidesz members supported the opposition. But it took only a few hours for the mayor to declare that, sorry, it was a mistake. The Fidesz members simply pushed the wrong button. As for the major opposition parties, they are up in arms. They seem to be concentrating on Chief Prosecutor Polt, who “will have to end up in jail.” Jobbik went so far as to demand Orbán’s resignation.

The Orbán propaganda media’s response will most likely follow the reasoning that Magyar Idők proposed in an article which appeared on January 20. It tried to shift the blame onto Lajos Simicska, who for a short time was the majority shareholder of Elios. Origo today published another piece along the same line. We can expect dozens of such articles in the next few days. In the meantime, investigative journalists will have a heyday exploring and exposing Elios’s fraudulent business affairs.

February 7, 2018

János Háry in the country tavern

According to supporters of the Orbán government in the journalistic world, today is another milestone in the history of Fidesz propaganda. It was almost three years ago, in February 2015, that Magyar Nemzet, HírTV, and Lánchíd Rádió, in other words Lajos Simicska’s media empire, ceased to serve Viktor Orbán’s political interests. Simicska, the old friend and financial maverick behind Fidesz as a business venture, was no longer ready to follow Viktor Orbán on his march toward Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. Viktor Orbán and his government were left high and dry without the all-important instruments of propaganda.

Admittedly, both Magyar Televízió and Magyar Rádió had by then become propaganda machines of the government, but Orbán wanted to replace all three Simicska news outlets. The first order of business was a pro-government newspaper. By September 1, 2015, Magyar Idők was ready to be launched. By January 2016, a radio station, Karc FM, was acquired and staffed largely by people who had left Lánchíd Rádió either for higher pay or for ideological reasons. A few months ago Lőrinc Mészáros purchased the little-watched Echo TV with the intention of making a second HírTV out of it. It was this revamped Echo TV that broadcast its first program today.

We are only too familiar with the quality of Magyar Idők. It is too early to tell whether the revamped Echo TV will attract a larger audience, but I doubt it because some of the most objectionable programs and anchors remain.

Karc FM has been on the air for almost two years. At the time of its launch Ottó Gajdics, who is the editor-in-chief of both Magyar Idők and Karc FM, believed that the radio station, which serves the pro-government audience of Budapest and environs, would need a bit of time for the Fidesz loyalists to find it and become faithful listeners. Just like the liberal Klub Rádió, it has a call-in show, “Paláver,” which offers a platform for right-wingers. “Paláver” is broadcast at exactly the same time as György Bolgár’s call-in show “Megbeszéljük” (Let’s talk it over) on Klub Rádió. Gajdics made no secret of his plans to establish a radio station that “first and foremost broadcasts programs for Fidesz voters.” Gajdics, in fact, succeeded in making Karc FM a vehicle for unabashed propaganda, with an audience that was described as “horrible” in the sense that “if there is the slightest move on the part of the anchor away from the party line, the callers label him a communist.”

About half a year after Karc FM was established, a journalist from Magyar Narancs decided to listen to “Paláver.” He found that at that time at least the favorite topics were migrants, gays, and Jews. The host of the call-in show barely ever contradicts the callers, no matter what outrageous stories they come up with. The general impression was one of “solid hatred oozing out of the mouths of the Fidesz loyalists.” Perhaps not getting involved in conversations with callers is wise. Zsolt Bayer, one of the people in charge of “Paláver,” got into trouble when Bernadett Szél reported him to the Médiatanács (Media Council) for threatening anti-government activists who dared demonstrate in front of the parliament building. In his usual manner, he promised to smash their faces and to drag them in their snot and blood if they ever show up again. Karc FM got off easy. It only had to pay a 200,000 Ft fine.

A few days ago Karc FM “Paláver” was in the headlines again. Index’s Comment.blog noticed that an older woman caller came up with an incredible story about George Soros’s Mein Plan, according to which the evil billionaire wants to abolish sexes; intends to make homosexuality compulsory; plans to get rid of borders; wants to import migrants into Hungary and to transfer Hungarians into migrant countries (those who refuse to move will be dispossessed and will have to live under the bridge, but only after they change religion); envisions foreigners buying up Hungary with the money landing in Soros’s hands. In fact, Soros has already made $200,000 billion on the deal. Finally, he promised to make drug use compulsory; to encourage pedophilia; and to revive SZDSZ, which should form a government but only if Ferenc Gyurcsány is willing to become prime minister. The woman swore that she read that on the Internet and naturally was shocked, but then she talked to three other Karc FM listeners who assured her that it was true.

Well yes, all that was on the Internet all right, but on the site of Hírcsárda (News Tavern), the Hungarian equivalent of The Onion. The journalist who was listening to all that nonsense was becoming a bit suspicious, but when she was told that the caller’s friends are also convinced that this is all true, she simply responded with “this is shocking.” After the final story, about the revival of SZDSZ, the anchor screwed up her courage and informed the woman that she “didn’t know this particular book of Soros” and/or that she is “not familiar with this translation.” Once that was over with, she proceeded to read all seven theses of the Soros Plan, according to the summary that appears on the questionnaire of the latest national consultation. The exchange can be heard on the November 29 program of “Paláver” after 5:10.

Of course, general hilarity followed reports on the story, but Válasz, a right-of-center news site, didn’t think it was laughable, especially in light of the fact that the elderly woman’s friends also believed the story. There is nothing new about panic and false alarms spreading as a result of a newspaper article, but politicians shouldn’t take advantage of the phenomenon, the article said. That’s all very well and good, but we know that the Orbán government fuels uneducated people’s fear of “fake news.”

News Tavern Fake News Site! / Established in 1351

The anchor in question, Kata Jurák, is up in arms and calls the articles that appeared in the opposition media “a cocktail of lies.” Jurák also writes editorials in Magyar Idők, where her “refutation” appeared. In the article she insists that she “refuted the caller’s allegations and tried to convince the lady that what she was reciting was not written by Soros.” At the end, she “cut her off and read those ideas that were actually written by Soros.” It is true that she read the “seven theses” of Soros as summarized in the national consultation on the Soros Plan, but she didn’t refute anything. I have the feeling that these journalistic hacks are afraid to correct even the most obvious lies that their listeners come up with because otherwise they will be accused of standing on the side of the migrants and Soros and not defending the nation against all the perils of the world.

December 4, 2017

Another attempt to silence Jobbik

In the last few days we have witnessed an entirely new form of pressure being exerted on Jobbik, currently the largest opposition party in Hungary, by the Orbán government with the assistance of the State Accounting Office (ÁSZ).

ÁSZ audits the finances of all parties biennially. This is one of those years when ÁSZ asks for documentation of party finances. The parties were informed that the auditing procedures for 2015-2016 would begin on August 10. On October 3 ÁSZ announced that Jobbik had refused to cooperate with the office and that it was therefore turning the case over to the prosecutor’s office. Unlike in other cases, the prosecutor’s office was prompt. It referred the case to the Nemzeti Nyomozó Iroda/National Investigative Office (NII), which is often called the Hungarian FBI. NII deals with cases involving human trafficking, state secrets, terrorism, drug-related issues, money laundering, and tax evasion.

Jobbik denies the accusation and claims that Péter Schön, the financial director of the party, and the chief accountant of ÁSZ’s investigative team were in constant touch. Moreover, on September 21 Schön and the officials of ÁSZ met personally. At that time Jobbik was told that this year ÁSZ was not going to do the auditing on the premises; Jobbik would have to send all the documents electronically. Then, suddenly, on September 28, Jobbik received an e-mail in which it was informed that, after all, there would be an audit at Jobbik’s headquarters and that ÁSZ was also interested in the first six months of the current year. This was a highly unusual request. In the 27-year history of ÁSZ no one ever wanted to audit financial transactions of a current year. Moreover, ÁSZ also informed Jobbik that the auditing team would arrive at 9:00 a.m. on the next day although—or because—Péter Schön had informed the ÁSZ officials already on September 27 that he would not be in the office that day and suggested the following business day, October 2, for ÁSZ’s visit. I should add that Jobbik by law had five days to respond and therefore was not obliged to jump.

Once ÁSZ’s men found the office locked on September 29, the office refused to accept the electronically submitted documents that Jobbik tried to submit. It also rejected the documents that János Volner, vice chairman of Jobbik, and Péter Jakab, the party’s spokesman, carried to ÁSZ in two boxes on October 3. They were told that ÁSZ cannot take the documents. They can accept only electronically submitted material, which Jobbik was prevented from submitting earlier.

It was obvious that ÁSZ, which in the past has been fairly even-handed, must have gotten the word from above to put pressure or worse on Jobbik. We know from Fidesz sources that Viktor Orbán flew into a rage over Jobbik’s brilliant billboards showing Viktor Orbán, Lőrinc Mészáros, Árpád Habony, and Antal Rogán. In a great hurry the government proposed a new law that was supposed to put an end to billboards with political messages, but it was so sloppily thrown together that it was full of loopholes. Lajos Simicska came to Jobbik’s rescue, selling the party 1,200 billboard spaces that allowed the party to continue its political attacks on Viktor Orbán and Fidesz. I assume that Orbán decided to put an end to this cat and mouse game once and for all.

János Volner and Péter Jakab in front of ÁSZ’s headquarters

Fidesz’s auxiliary forces were on hand to offer their two cents. István Kovács, the “strategic director” of the notorious Center for Fundamental Laws (Alapjogokért Központ/AK), which is a government-financed legal think tank, moved into immediate action. In an interview on the state television’s M1 channel, “without exhibiting any objectivity,” he announced that there is a strong possibility that Jobbik’s “refusal” to cooperate with ÁSZ will result in the party’s loss of its legal status. Such a move would throw the whole country into chaos, which might result in the physical violence on the streets that Antal Rogán and other Fidesz politicians kept talking about. As it turned out, however, the super clever legal experts of the Center were mistaken. The present law doesn’t allow the shuttering of a political party due to financial misconduct. But there is a brand new law which seems to have been written just for this occasion. In a great hurry Magyar Közlöny (Official Gazette) published an extraordinary issue on October 6 which contained the announcement of only one law: any offense committed in connection with the statutory aid to parties will result in an abatement of the amount received by the guilty party. Moreover, the amount ÁSZ found missing must be paid back in the form of taxes. So, in case anyone is naïve enough to think that the whole affair wasn’t staged and that Jobbik was actually uncooperative, this law is proof that it was premeditated. The Orbán government and Fidesz used the allegedly independent State Accounting Office and, through it, the prosecutor’s office to concoct stories in order to deprive its political opponent of the financial means to conduct a campaign for the next national election.

LMP, in a surprise move, came to Jobbik’s rescue. The party issued a statement deploring “the campaign against representative democracy with the assistance of the commissars of the prosecutor’s office.” The party also announced that it will ask TASZ, Hungary’s Civil Liberties Union, to provide legal aid to Jobbik. No official statement came from the other opposition parties as far as I know. I’m sure that LMP’s concern is genuine, but at the same time the move has benefits as far as LMP is concerned. Bernadett Szél just announced her candidacy for the post of prime minister and turned out to be the most popular among all the opposition candidates. For an aspiring party and its leader it is good politics to be in the news. It is important to be active.

The Jobbik leaders already labelled the government’s attack on their party the “Orbán Plan.” They naturally portray themselves as the only likely challenger of Fidesz of whom Viktor Orbán is afraid. Jobbik politicians might exaggerate their own importance, but it is true that in the last 12 months Fidesz attacks on Gábor Vona and his party have been fierce. Although Jobbik has lost some of its supporters, I don’t believe that this was due to the concerted offensive launched by Fidesz, led by Viktor Orbán himself. The relatively small loss of support was mostly due to Vona’s effort to make Jobbik a less radical and more mainstream right-of-center party. Some of the radicals in the party’s ranks most likely moved over to the Fidesz camp, which has shown a slow but steady rise. Therefore, I don’t believe that this latest assault on Jobbik will achieve its aim. It is very possible that it will actually elicit a certain amount of sympathy. In any case, I think that András Schiffer, the former co-chair of LMP, is quite right in saying that Fidesz, when it comes to Lajos Simicska, loses even its pretense of rationality. But, he added, it is really outrageous that ten million people have to suffer because of the personal vendetta that exists between these two men.

October 7, 2017

Dilemmas in current Hungarian politics

On the surface it was no more than a storm in a teacup: András Gerő, historian of the Habsburg Monarchy, wrote an angry letter to a somewhat secretive organization called Szeretem Magyarországot Klub/SZMK (I love Hungary Club) because the club members gave their blessing to an invitation to Jobbik Chairman Gábor Vona to meet with the membership. What the club members were especially interested in was Jobbik’s racist and anti-Semitic past and its present change of heart.

András Gerő is not a member of the club, but he normally gets invitations to the monthly gatherings because of his earlier appearance before the group as an invited guest. Still, he decided to write a sharply-worded letter to the club in which he expressed his disapproval of the decision. In the letter he admitted that Jobbik is “a legitimate parliamentary force,” but he argued that SZMK, with this invitation, legitimizes Jobbik and its chairman. The former is a political legitimization; the latter, intellectual and moral. Moreover, SZMK’s claim that by listening to Vona the members could gain new and useful information is idle. What one can hear about Jobbik in the media is quite enough to form an opinion of this party.

Gerő often ends up in the midst of controversies of his own making. A few years ago he divided the historical community by accusing Ignác Romsics of anti-Semitism, which most observers found unwarranted. His siding with Mária Schmidt against Mazsihisz and other Jewish organizations in the altercation over the House of Fate didn’t raise Gerő’s stature in my eyes. His relationship with the Fidesz government is also hazy because he is the director of the Habsburg Historical Institute, a one-man organization (plus a secretary) with a very elegant office. The institute’s continued existence depends on the goodwill of the Orbán government. It was because of this connection that Jobbik accused Gerő of serving Viktor Orbán’s interests in trying to blacken the name of Jobbik.

I doubt that Gerő acted as an agent of Fidesz, trying to torpedo Vona’s appearance before the members of SZMK. But Fidesz certainly loved Gerő’s attack on Jobbik’s chairman since Viktor Orbán’s real enemy at the moment is Gábor Vona. First of all, although Jobbik’s move to the center has weakened the party somewhat, it still has a large following. Jobbik today is the second largest party in Hungary. Moreover, there are signs that Jobbik has acquired a powerful patron with deep pockets in the person of Lajos Simicska, who seems ready to spend a considerable amount of money to get rid of Viktor Orbán. Simicska not only helps Jobbik financially. He also shares with its leadership the large repository of his “dirty tricks” that made Fidesz into the powerful organization that it is today. Jobbik’s move to the center especially frightens Orbán because he worries that his whole political edifice might crumble if Jobbik and the left-of-center forces decide to cooperate in some manner.

When it comes to the coverage of Jobbik in the Fidesz media, the emphasis is on the extremism of Jobbik. Magyar Idők published several articles on Gerő’s letter in which it embraced the historian’s opinion that “Jobbik is the political putrefier of Hungarian society.” Magyar Idők’s editorial on the subject carried the title: “Gábor Vona bowed before the Left.” Gerő, who enjoys being in the center of these controversies, in one of his television appearances called SZMK’s invitation to Vona “political racism.”

What transpired at this contentious meeting? It is difficult to get too much information about SZMK’s gatherings. We know that it is an elite club where the recommended yearly dues are 120,000 forints (approximately $450). Members and participants are asked to be discrete, and therefore the club functions pretty much without any public mention. Last year Károly Gerendai, the founder of SZMK and the brains behind the Sziget Festival, which is one of the largest music and cultural festivals in Europe, did talk to Magyar Nemzet. There he gave some details about the membership and about the illustrious visitors who had appeared before them in the past few years, but otherwise little is known about the club’s activities. ATV got in touch with a few members, some of whom admitted that a long debate preceded Vona’s invitation. But, they said, at the end the decision was reached that “Gábor Vona is one of the most remarkable figures today in Hungarian politics who has been moving away from his earlier right radical position. We know his past, but he has a place in this club because we have many questions we would like to get answers to.” Moreover, “Gábor Vona and his party are a factor in Hungarian politics,” one of the participants said.

Magyar Idők’s editorial recalled that in 2011 Gergely Karácsony, then still a member of LMP, suggested a temporary strategic alliance among all the opposition parties, including Jobbik, which could easily defeat Fidesz and gain a two-thirds majority. After a few months of “housecleaning” and a new more proportionate electoral law, the parliament could be dissolved and new elections could be held. This strategy has been in the air ever since. Miklós Haraszti, without suggesting a temporary alliance with Jobbik, is also thinking along the same lines: to force Fidesz in some way to accept a new electoral law. Lajos Bokros, when he talks about the magic 500 days which would be enough to get rid of the most objectionable pieces of Fidesz legislation, after which new elections could be held, is also proposing a variation of the same theme. And this is exactly what Viktor Orbán is worried about because, if that materializes, if Vona were able to convince the socialist-liberal parties that he is no longer the man they had known for years, Fidesz’s chances of winning the election, at least as things stand right now, would be nil.

Moreover, there are a lot of ordinary citizens who consider Orbán’s removal so important that they believe a temporary alliance with Jobbik is still preferable to perhaps decades of Orbán’s fascistoid one-party system. Ferenc Gyurcsány talked about this more than a year ago. After seeing that, at a couple of by-elections, citizens were ready to maximize their votes by voting for the candidate most likely to win and ignoring party affiliations, he wondered whether left-right cooperation might materialize. As he put it, “I wouldn’t have any enthusiasm for it, but I can no longer rule out the possibility of the opposition parties’ joining forces in the interest of getting rid of the present government. This regime might have a very strange end.”

At present no one contemplates such a joint action involving Jobbik. In fact, Gyurcsány’s party is one of the loudest in excluding any such possibility. On the other hand, apparently Vona told his SZMK audience that “Jobbik is ready to cooperate with anyone against Fidesz and specifically mentioned LMP as a possible ally.” Mandiner, a right-wing publication, noted that Vona and his audience especially saw eye to eye when it came to the person of Viktor Orbán. As the paper’s source claimed, “the audience and the party chairman outdid each other in their invectives against Orbán.”

Jobbik joined the other parties when it came to the “national minimum” on healthcare, and today the Közös Ország Mozgalom announced that they had received assurances from Dóra Duró, a Jobbik MP, that the party will take a look at the electoral law in its final form and will make a decision as to whether they are ready to support it. No one can see into the future, but there are signs of left and right pulling in the same direction.

September 25, 2017

Hungarians’ changing priorities; shifts in the left-of-center media

Changing opinions on political issues 

Yesterday I saw a Hír TV news segment that I found intriguing. A woman reporter with a cameraman behind her stopped passersby wanting to know what the “man in the street” thinks about current affairs. This is the umpteenth time that I have encountered such an exercise. The result was always disappointing. Eight or nine people out of ten simply refused to answer any of the questions while the other(s) proclaimed their loyalty to Viktor Orbán, who has created a wonderful, prosperous country. To my great surprise this encounter turned out differently. Everybody was willing to speak, and there was only one woman out of about ten who was enthusiastic about Viktor Orbán on account of his defense of the country against the “migrants.”

The reporter wanted to know what people think are the most urgent tasks and problems Hungarians face today. The answers were practically uniform: healthcare and education. A couple of people mentioned low wages and inflation, especially food prices. When people didn’t cite migration as a problem, the journalist asked them about the topic. With the exception of one person, they all claimed that the danger of migration is not in the forefront of their concerns. There are no migrants in Hungary, and migrants show little inclination to settle there anyway.

One of those dissatisfied citizens

At first I thought I may simply have seen an atypical, or skewed, news segment. But then, a few hours later, I found an article in 24.hu reporting that “Hungarians worry more about poverty and healthcare than migration.” It summarized the findings of two international organizations, Eurobarometer and the conservative International Republican Institute. Both indicated that migration is not uppermost in Hungarians’ minds. The International Republican Institute’s findings are especially interesting because the respondents were not faced with a set of prepared options. Here poverty and the lack of social equality (28%) were people’s main concerns, followed by corruption (15%), unemployment (13%), healthcare (12%), and “migration” (4%).

But in that case, why did the Orbán government launch a new campaign against the “Soros Plan”? Knowing the careful political calculations of Fidesz, we must assume that the questions in the new “national consultation” will be slanted in such a way that it will speak to the concerns of the majority of Hungarians. There are signs that in the present Fidesz vocabulary the “Soros Plan” is actually just another name for the European Union. In this case, the main thrust of this new campaign will again be anti-EU. But it has to be structured so that it doesn’t cause the kind of adverse reaction that the “Stop Brussels” campaign did.

Changes in the left-of center media

Those of you who are able to watch Hungarian-language television must be aware of the slow transformation of ATV, which until about two years ago was the only independent TV station. At that time Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s old high school friend and the financial brain behind Fidesz, turned against Orbán, allegedly because of his pro-Russian orientation. This put an end to the pro-government stance of Simicska’s Magyar Nemzet and Hír TV. At about the same time, major changes began to be introduced at ATV, which is owned by the fundamentalist Assembly of Faith. It is hard to tell whether these changes were made in order to boost viewership or for political reasons, but there are fewer programs for people who are interested in political news. Reporters were hired from TV2, a commercial station that caters to a different audience from the one that ATV had attracted earlier. Also, two important reporters, Olga Kálmán and Antónia Mészáros, left the station. Kálmán joined Hír TV and Mészáros left the profession altogether. In addition, several reporters simply disappeared from the screen. The new crew was, at least in my opinion, not worth watching.

The final straw was the replacement of Kálmán and Mészáros with Zsuzsa Demcsák, who began her career as a fashion model but later spent years at TV2, a commercial station recently bought by Andy Vajna, most likely as a proxy for the Hungarian government. After the change of ownership, reporters started leaving TV2, including Demcsák in April. ATV jumped at what the management considered to be an opportunity and hired her. The arrangement was that Demcsák and Egon Rónai would rotate being anchor of “Egyenes beszéd” on a weekly basis. Demcsák’s first week on the job was dreadful. The woman was simply out of her depth. The following week she showed off her incompetence on ATV Start, an early morning political program. Then came Friday morning when she was, I’m afraid, quite drunk while interviewing Tibor Szanyi, MSZP’s European parliamentary member. She was suspended, awaiting the results of an internal investigation, but I’m almost certain that we are not going to see her on ATV again.

On the other hand, Hír TV came out with several new programs. This morning I watched two of them. The first was “Elmúlt 8 év” (The past eight years) with Györgyi Szöllősi, who is a good reporter. The other was “180 fok” (180 degrees) with Sándor Csintalan, a somewhat controversial character who started off as an MSZP politician and at one point was in the Fidesz camp. He is now a committed foe of Orbán. The program is in part a call-in show and and in part a series of interviews. The first guests were Miklós Haraszti, who is no stranger to the readers of Hungarian Spectrum, and the head of Iránytű (Compass), a polling company allegedly close to Jobbik. I encountered Iránytű’s director before and found his views moderate and balanced. And I loved the screen behind Csintalan, showing an idyllic countryside with a charming peasant house when suddenly Orbán’s infamous choo-choo train goes across. The train appears every five minutes or so. I laughed every time. I think I will also check out another new program called “Magyar Exodus,” which will be mostly filmed abroad, with Hungarian emigrants.

Unfortunately, these two cable channels reach very few people, but their existence is still vitally important. One can only hope that ATV will find its bearings soon because otherwise it can close up shop.

September 17, 2017