Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and members of the Fidesz parliamentary caucus launched what promised to be a glorious path to victory. Everything was prepared. After propaganda campaigns against George Soros and the migrants in the last two years, Fidesz was in the midst of a new assault on those NGOs that receive financial assistance from abroad, claiming that they pose a national security risk through their active promotion of immigration. Fidesz’s election law, which favors Orbán’s party, coupled with limits imposed on the opposition parties’ ability to wage an effective campaign, ensured an easy victory on April 8.
But then came a worrisome message from the European Commission’s European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF). After two years of thorough investigation, OLAF found such serious “irregularities” in the business practices of Elios Innovatív Zrt. that it is suggesting the return of €40 million to the European Union, money that it claims was illegally obtained. Unfortunately for the government and for Viktor Orbán, this is not one of those run-of-the-mill corruption cases that are far too numerous in Hungary. It is special since Elios Innovatív Zrt.’s co-owner was István Tiborcz, the prime minister’s son-in-law.
Although many who follow Hungarian politics are of the view that not even this super-scandal can shake the Orbán government, I’m beginning to think that this time really might be different. No, I’m not suggesting that Fidesz will lose the election, but I believe that this scandal will not just disappear into the thin air without leaving serious scars on Hungary’s governing party.
Although I can put together a logical argument for my hypothesis, I actually arrived at it in a flash of insight. Today I watched an interview with Gergely Gulyás, the latest leader of Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation. It was a terrific interview, the kind one can see in Western Europe and the Anglo-Saxon countries. Egon Rónai of ATV was in great form. He was hard-hitting and refused to let go. Gulyás, who is articulate, smooth, and able to talk himself out of any situation, crumbled in front of our eyes. It became obvious that he had no good way to communicate Fidesz’s message.
There are already signs that Viktor Orbán has ordered a retreat. Let’s start with the infamous “Stop Soros” legislative package against the NGOs. The original plan was to put the proposal before parliament in a great hurry and to vote on it in typical Fidesz manner, that is, within a few days. But first the laws were amended on the recommendation of loyal citizens who were invited to comment on the draft proposal. As a result, certain parts of the bill that previously needed only a simple majority now require a two-thirds majority. Gergely Gulyás appealed to the opposition to support the bill in the interest of national security.
Commentators critical of the government were certain that this move was a trap. Fidesz wants to show its followers that the opposition parties are not good patriots and that deep down they want to fill the country with African and Middle Eastern immigrants. That explanation made no sense to me then and makes no sense to me now.
Last night we learned that Fidesz is not going to bring the bill forward for a vote before the election. The way Gulyás explained it, the opposition parties will not vote for the bill and therefore it is not worth even trying. After the election, when, according to our optimistic Gulyás, Fidesz will have the necessary two-thirds majority, the bill will pass easily. I might add here that Viktor Orbán, in his pep talk to the members of Fidesz MPs during a recent two-day retreat of the parliamentary delegation, told the troops that he isn’t counting on a two-thirds majority.
Well, let’s take a closer look at the issue. If it took Fidesz only a day to discover that they don’t have enough votes, why did they introduce those amendments that made its passage more difficult in the first place? I suggest that the addition of the last-minute amendments was designed not to shame the opposition but to serve as a pretext for “postponing” the vote. Why? One reason is what Gulyás himself admitted — that the pressure from abroad was too great. The German government specifically expressed its disapproval of the bill. The United Nations and the Council of Europe also protested. And we have no idea what kinds of telephone calls came from Brussels and what kinds of warnings Viktor Orbán received. It had to be something pretty weighty if the vote is “postponed.”
Finally, a few words about the possible ramifications of the Tiborcz scandal. What we hear from Fidesz sources is that many leading Fidesz leaders think that OLAF’s unveiling of the massive fraud committed in a crime syndicate of sorts “might be no more than a mosquito bite, but it can also shake the very foundations of Fidesz because, if these accusations are true, they are indefensible.” Some people who were present remarked that Orbán, despite his decades in politics and all his political cunning, is stunned by the assault on him and his family.
Viktor Orbán is not the only one who is stunned and perhaps on edge. Gergely Gulyás’s miserable performance last night is indicative of the jitteriness of Fidesz bigwigs. He was caught lying when he tried to convince Egon Rónai and ATV’s audience that the Orbán government learned about the OLAF report only this week. But how could that be, he was asked, when the MSZP member of the Szolnok city council received an OLAF document from the government that was dated October 2017? Gulyás had no ready answer. And that document is not the only proof that the Orbán government has been sitting on this report for about four months. There are other less direct clues for the approximate date of the arrival of the report.
I would like to point to two instances which, given this timeline, now make a great deal more sense. One is the complicated story János Lázár told on October 9, 2017, about which I wrote yesterday. I have the feeling that by that time Lázár knew the contents of the OLAF report and that’s why he spent so much time dissecting the exact relationship between the Orbán family and István Tiborcz. My second clue is an interview conducted by Origo, which by then was a government mouthpiece. Tiborcz, who I don’t think had ever given an interview in his life, offered the internet site a lengthy interview about his business activities. The interview appeared on October 30, 2017. In it he told the sad tale of a man whose real calling is business but who is restricted in his financial dealings by the fact that he is now related to the prime minister. This arranged interview was most likely one of the preemptive measures taken at the urging of Viktor Orbán himself.
Meanwhile, Gergely Gulyás wrote a brief note to all Fidesz politicians outlining the official line of communication concerning the Tiborcz scandal. Here are the three simple points. (1) The Olaf report is a “Brussels campaign report and thus an interference in the Hungarian election campaign.”(2) “In 2014, they also timed news concerning the case to come out just before the election. The case was investigated once, but now they are repeating the accusations.” (3) “They try to attack Viktor Orbán despite the fact that during much of the period under investigation the majority owner of the company was Lajos Simicska’s Közgép.”
This is, I’m afraid, a feeble attempt on the part of whoever is in charge of official government lying because right off the bat we can counter that: (1) The report was released in October, not just before the election. (2) The news concerning Tiborcz’s firm didn’t become public until December 2014, while the election took place months earlier, on April 6, 2014. (3) Of the 35 contracts called into question by OLAF, only three were negotiated and signed while Simicska held a majority stake in the company. Moreover, the CEO of the company all along was István Tiborcz.
In brief, Fidesz is floundering. Soon enough, I suspect, Gulyás will have to come up with a new set of instructions.