Tag Archives: Orbán government

OLAF finds irregularities–fraud and possible corruption–in the Metro-4 megaproject

So what else is new? Politico reported that the European anti-fraud office, OLAF, after looking into the financing of Budapest’s fourth metro line, found “serious irregularities—fraud and possible corruption.” OLAF recommended, because it has no authority to do anything else, that Hungary return €228 million to the European Commission and €55 million to the European Investment Bank. OLAF’s investigation covers the period between 2006 and 2015. As Politico noted, this period spans not just the two Orbán administrations “but also two Socialist-backed governments that ruled between 2004 and 2010.”

I have already written about the difficulties surrounding the building of this new metro line, so I will not recount the story here. Suffice it to say that when the line was eventually finished, it bore little resemblance to the original plans. It was only about 7 km long, running between the Kelenföld train station in South Buda and the Eastern Station on the Pest side. Originally, it was to run all the way to the outer sections of the city in Bosnyák tér, but because of financial difficulties the second part of the project was abandoned. As a result, the line is severely underutilized. And its cost was enormous. Benedek Jávor, Párbeszéd MEP, considers the project as it stands now “completely senseless.”

It is difficult to come by hard figures, but Politico puts the total cost of the project at €1.7 billion. According to the Hungarian version of Wikipedia, the cost was 450 billion forints, of which 180 billion came from the European Union and almost 170 billion from the central government. The City of Budapest contributed about 70 billion. The balance most likely came from the European Investment Bank.

As soon as the news of OLAF’s findings reached Budapest the debate began over who the guilty party is. The government’s first reaction was that it had absolutely nothing to do with the project. Everything was handled by the City of Budapest. (The City of Budapest, I would note, didn’t get a copy of the 104-page report OLAF sent to the government.) According to Lord Mayor István Tarlós’s office, as far as they know all the irregularities occurred between 2006 and 2010. So, the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments and Gábor Demszky, former lord mayor of Budapest, are responsible for all the “irregularities” while the Orbán government is blameless. This is hard to believe.

Since the government has not released the OLAF report, we are in total darkness about the nature of these “irregularities.” I am, however, somewhat suspicious about their alleged timeline. For starters, it was only in September 2009 that the European Commission made the decision to finance the first 7-km section of Metro-4. Of course, that doesn’t preclude the possibility that fraud and corruption occurred before that date. Most likely it did. We know only too well how business is conducted in Hungary, especially when it comes to the prospect of “free money” from Brussels.

As you can see, no money was spared on the appointments

What strengthened my suspicion of the Orbán government’s culpability in this affair was an article that appeared in the government mouthpiece Magyar Idők only a few hours ago. The title of the article is telling: “Brussels wants to saddle Orbán with the affairs of Medgyessy and Demszky.” Brussels, it would seem from the headline, is pointing the finger at Orbán. Perhaps in anticipation of such a finding, the Orbán government set out to shift the blame to Medgyessy and Demszky.

Péter Medgyessy was prime minister of Hungary between 2002 and 2004. After his political career ended, he returned to his consulting business and in this capacity received 597,000 euros from the French company Alstom in 2006, the year when the final decision was made by the City of Budapest to buy Alstom cars for the new metro line. In December 2014 Alstom was found guilty of paying more than $740 million in bribes to government officials around the world.

A few months ago Hungarian authorities began an investigation into the connection between Medgyessy and Alstom. The final verdict on Medgyessy’s innocence or guilt has not yet been reached, but even if it turns out that he lobbied the Demszky administration on behalf of Alstom, for which he received money from the company, it is unlikely that OLAF considers this something for which either the Hungarian government or the City of Budapest is responsible. Unless, of course, they can prove that Medgyessy tried to bribe the officials responsible for the decision to buy Alstom cars. It seems, however, that the investigative committee set up by the Budapest City Council in September has been singularly unsuccessful in proving that any of the lobbyists tried to bribe those responsible for the decision. The final report of the committee has not been published yet, but probing questions by the right-wing media to Fidesz members of the committee have failed to unearth anything about money exchanging hands in connection with the purchase of the Alstom cars.

We can’t expect any information on the OLAF investigation from official sources for months. But, just as in the past, it can easily happen that the document will be leaked to the Hungarian media. After all, Politico is in possession of certain material already. Until then it’s a guessing game.

December 22, 2016

Hungary quits the Open Government Partnership in a huff

Yesterday the Associated Press reported the Hungarian government’s decision to quit the Open Government Partnership (OGP), “a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance.”

OGP was formally launched on September 20, 2011, when the eight founding governments (Brazil, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States) endorsed OGP’s Declaration and announced their countries’ action plans. Since 2011, 62 other countries joined, including Hungary, which signed its letter of intent on July 10, 2012. In this letter of intent the Orbán government declared that “it attached the utmost importance to cooperation with civil organizations.” It was the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice under Tibor Navracsics that represented the Hungarian government in this particular undertaking, which claimed at the time that “it supports the effective implementation of the OGP commitments.” It also promised “in person consultations with the civil organizations and experts regularly on a monthly basis.”

These were the promises, but according to the recollections of the participants, after the initial good working relations “the process started to slow down as the document reached the political level.” The final commitments were vague and greatly weakened. By 2014 it was clear that the Hungarian government’s “sole purpose with its membership was the opportunity to communicate its devotion to open government” to the international community.

Hungary is the second country whose government is not ready to abide by guidelines set by the Steering Committee of OGP and endorsed by them. The first country to leave OGP was Putin’s Russia, which had joined the organization in April 2012. A year later, on May 17, 2013, the Russian government informed the group of its decision to leave. Russia’s participation in this group was dubious from the very beginning, but there were other countries whose commitments to the ideals of OGP were also questionable. OGP acknowledged in February 2014 that Lithuania, Malta, and Turkey had failed to meet their commitments as members of the Open Government Partnership. Warnings were issued to these three states. In addition, the Steering Committee redefined standards for suspending members. “Two warnings in a row would trigger a discussion about continued membership of OGP countries” that create hostile environments for civil society.

By October 2014 new rules were in place that made suspension of membership practically automatic if any country limits the freedom of information; limits the activities of civic groups; favors civic groups attached in some way to the government; limits the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly; limits freedom of the press, independence of the media, or engages in the intimidation of media owners. 444.hu’s eagle-eyed reporters noted the OGP’s tightened rules for suspension, adding that they are tailor-made for Viktor Orbán’s Hungary.

The first victim of the new suspension rules was Azerbaijan. In March 2016 the Criteria and Standards Subcommittee recommended the move because “such constraints are evident in the laws on grants, non-governmental organizations, incarceration of NGO activists and journalists” that would precipitate “OGP’s response policy.” At that time, it was noted, “similar NGO complaints that the Hungarian government is restricting civil society remain under consideration.” In addition, Turkey was suspended in September 2016 because it had failed to deliver a National Action Plan since 2014.

Prior to this time the Orbán government had begun a war against Hungarian nongovernmental groups, financed mostly by the Norway Grants but also by the Soros Foundation. The government accused these NGOs of representing foreign interests and proceeded to raid their offices. At that point four leaders of NGOs decided to follow their colleagues in Azerbaijan and launch a formal complaint against the Orbán government. Fanny Hidvégi of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Sándor Léderer of K-Monitor Watchdog for Public Funds, Miklós Ligeti of Transparency International Hungary, and Júlia Keserű of the Sunlight Foundation wrote a letter to the members of the OGP Steering Committee. The letter is available on the internet.

After considering the complaints submitted by Hungarian NGO leaders, OGP proposed several remedies that the Orbán government should adopt. It suggested the establishment of a Permanent Dialogues Mechanism (PDM) within sixty days that would ensure the participation of the relevant government agencies and interested civil society organizations. What must have especially irritated the Orbán government was that “all members of the public will be kept informed about all core aspects of the national OGP process—and especially know well in advance … about the key moments to provide inputs and discuss priorities.” OGP demanded five so-called Smart Recommendations that the Orbán government would never accept: monitoring of public disclosure practices of local government and state-owned enterprises; reviewing party and campaign financing regulations; revising the freedom of information regulations; revising regulations on classified information; and launching e-procurement. For easy access to this document, I am attaching it in full at the end of this post.

After reading these “recommendations” I’m not at all surprised that the Orbán government accepted the odium of withdrawal. A semi-autocratic, illiberal government of the kind that exists in Hungary today would never agree to such demands.

So, let’s see how the official government media explained the decision. Magyar Idők justified the Hungarian decision by citing OGP’s “one-sided criticism” of the Orbán government based on the unfair accusations of “civilians financed by George Soros.” These NGOs serve foreign interests and have been spreading false stories about the Hungarian government. Transparency International and TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the Civil Liberties Union, had complained to the organization about the Orbán government already in October 2012, shortly after Hungary joined OGP. In January 2013 K-Monitor allied with TASZ and TI in a new attack. And here was the latest one. It was high time to quit this unfair organization.

In the opinion of Szilárd Németh, deputy chairman of Fidesz, Hungary’s abandonment of the organization “actually sheds a very positive light on us because we do not want to participate in an organization where members carry on a conversation among themselves after which they single out somebody whom they are trying to keep at bay with one-sided reports, distortions of facts, with documents prepared by phony civil organizations mostly financed by George Soros.” It was a good decision, “a lovely gift for the time when they can get together again and they can nod against Hungary.” Németh is referring to the Open Government Global Summit, which is being held at this very moment in Paris.

The opposition’s interpretation of the move was predictable. They pointed out that the Orbán government no longer cares what the world thinks of it because surely, following in Russia’s footsteps, they are practically admitting that they are corrupt to the core. Zsolt Gréczy, DK’s spokesman, said that Hungary’s eventual suspension from the organization was inevitable. But the country’s withdrawal from the organization a day before the beginning of the Global Summit was unnecessary in that Hungary was not facing suspension at this time. The demands the organization made on the Orbán government, however, were more than the “proud Magyar” could stomach.

♦ ♦ ♦

December 8, 2016

Growing dissatisfaction with the Orbán government

A fascinating study was released today, “Dissatisfied voters in Hungary,” the joint work of Policy Solutions and Závecz Research with the assistance of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Budapest. It is a 35-page report jam-packed with information and data to which I can’t possibly give justice here. Those who know Hungarian can read a summary of it in an HVG article with the catchy title “At last we know who the dissatisfied Fidesz voters are.”

We can learn a lot about the present mood of the country from this poll, conducted during the months of October and November and based on personal interviews with 2,000 respondents. Perhaps the most important conclusion is that although the monthly polls on the relative strength of the parties still show Fidesz way ahead, the Orbán government cannot rest on its laurels. I’m sure that Századvég and Nézőpont Intézet, the two polling companies that provide the government with vital data on the mood of the country, have already presented Fidesz with most of the information we can glean from the study under review.

The message is that 61% of the electorate are unhappy with the performance of the government. This level of dissatisfaction may be behind the sudden decision of the Orbán government to raise the minimum wage. In addition, after some hesitation the government announced that as of January 1, 2017 it will raise old-age pensions by 1.6% as opposed to the planned 0.9%. Moreover, as a “Christmas gift” each pensioner will receive a 10,000 Ft “Erzsébet card,” which is a kind of government gift card.

The public response to these measures was that the sudden “generosity” of the government has something to do with the coming election. I’m not convinced. The announcement is far too early. The 2018 election, if the government follows past practice, is more than a year and four months away. People’s memories are very short, so one would have to question the wisdom of making this kind of an announcement so early in the game. It is enough to recall what happened in 2002 when Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy’s government raised all teachers’ and doctors’ salaries by 50%. They were not grateful for long.

The gloomy picture that emerges from the pages of the Political Solution-Závecz report leads me to believe that Fidesz’s primary consideration in raising the lowest wages and pensions was not so much preparation for the next election as a recognition that dissatisfaction is growing now. This dissatisfaction poses a threat to Fidesz, especially if the opposition manages to show some strength in the coming months.

In the past, polls consistently showed that villages and very small towns were Fidesz strongholds. We were also told that Fidesz voters, by and large, come from the less educated strata of society. Yet this poll shows that people who live in small villages are the most dissatisfied with their lot. A great deal more so than people in Budapest. In the capital only 55% of the inhabitants think that “Hungary is heading in the wrong direction” while in the villages this figure is 63%. This is even truer of pensioners, 68% of whom are pessimistic about the future and only 25% of whom are happy with the present government.

Commentators complain, rightly so, about the hasty manner in which the Orbán government makes decisions, but I’m certain that panic set in when the Fidesz high command realized how widespread the dissatisfaction is, especially in the countryside. It was bad enough that in the past they had to worry about Budapest and the large cities, now they seem to be losing the village folks. In fact, dissatisfaction in Budapest is lower than the national average of 61%.

green = satisfaction; salmon: = dissatisfaction; blue = doesn't know

green = satisfaction; red = dissatisfaction; blue = doesn’t know

Another significant piece of information from the study is that the least-educated people are the most dissatisfied and that university graduates are the least dissatisfied: 83% versus 50%. Clearly, the growing impoverishment and the ever larger gap between rich and poor is taking a political toll. The Orbán government’s conscious decision to enrich the better-off strata of society while exacting a 16% flat tax from even those on minimum wage created a serious social problem, with the number of people living under the poverty line continuing to grow. Whether the latest measures will remedy the situation we of course don’t know, but I personally doubt that the large number of pensioners will be appeased by a 1.6% raise and a 10,000 Ft. gift card.

In addition, the poll produced a political profile of the electorate which I hope the opposition parties will study and try to learn from. Many politicians and commentators are convinced that the opposition can get new voters “only from the center.” Some, like Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, formerly of MDF and DK, are trying to find this center among disenchanted Fidesz voters. Others, however, point out that inveterate Fidesz voters are unlikely to vote for the liberal parties. They may remain at home as they did at the by-elections, which deprived Fidesz of its two-thirds majority almost two years ago. In any case, the number of disappointed Fidesz supporters is relatively small, at 5%.

The answer can be found elsewhere. The data show that the largest group among the disenchanted are the undecided voters (22%). The opposition should target this group instead of trying to court the nonexistent “middle.” I may add that the socialist-liberal camp makes up 17% and Jobbik voters 12% of this large group of people.

Finally, given the dissatisfaction in the countryside and in the agricultural sector in general, the opposition parties should ramp up their efforts in small towns and villages. These people are hard to reach by the media or the internet. It is not enough to give innumerable interviews on ATV. The largest party on the left, MSZP, has completely neglected the countryside. They no longer have activists there, without whom there is no way to establish contact with the most disappointed, poorest strata of society.

Thus, in my opinion, the strategy should be two-pronged. On the one hand, the opposition should try to awaken the apathetic undecided voters and, on the other, they should build a network of activists with whose help they could build support on the local level. Without such hard work they will never be successful.

November 30, 2016

Jobbik and the U.S. presidential election

The latest on Ghaith Pharaon

First, I think I should say a few words about the latest developments in the Ghaith Pharaon case. Heti Válasz, a conservative weekly, learned that in January 2014 Pharaon received not only a Hungarian visa but also a residency permit “for the purpose of business and investment activities.” It was the Jordanian honorary consul in Budapest—who by the way was Viktor Orbán’s host at that by now infamous dinner in Pharaon’s honor—who requested the visa, and it was the Hungarian consulate in Beirut that issued it. By the look of things, the Hungarian authorities ignored all the rules and regulations to make Pharaon’s life in Hungary trouble free. For a residency permit the applicant’s fingerprints must be taken but, when pressed, the ministry of interior admitted that Pharaon wasn’t even required to have an official photograph. For almost three years Pharaon had the right to travel to and from Hungary at will. He could also, if he chose, travel anywhere in the European Union. All national security precautions were dispensed with in this case. He most likely enjoyed the protection of Viktor Orbán himself.

Jobbik on the U.S. presidential elections

The government’s rejoicing over Donald Trump’s victory knows no bounds. The pro-government media is full of stories of the “liberal rabble” on the streets who have been aroused against the president-elect by people like George Soros. Relentless attacks on the Obama government and Hillary Clinton can be found daily in all the right-wing papers.

Interestingly enough, Jobbik’s reaction is a lot more tempered and, I must admit, more realistic. The government-financed 888.hu was outraged when it found that Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik’s spokesman, in response to a question from a reporter of HVG, called Trump “an unfit and poor candidate” who is “an unpredictable madman.” Otherwise, he said, the choice was difficult because neither candidate was inspiring.

A few days later, in an interview with Magyar Nemzet, Mirkóczki was more restrained in the sense that he didn’t repeat his one-liner about Trump’s state of mind, but he further elaborated on Jobbik’s position that the presidential choice this year was poor. The interviewer assumed that Jobbik “is as satisfied with the results of the American election” as Fidesz is, but he didn’t get the answer he was expecting. Mirkóczki said he feels for the American people, who had to choose between two poor candidates. He shares the government’s opinion that Clinton “would have been a disaster for Hungary” and in that sense between the two “catastrophic candidates, the less bad won.” Jobbik only “hopes that Trump’s policies will coalesce with Hungary’s interests.” But Mirkóczki was more than cautious on that score because “we don’t know anything about [Trump’s] political ideas.” If we can believe the Jobbik spokesman, the party hopes that Trump will mellow in time because “a radical leading the United States is not in Hungary’s interest.”

Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik spokesman

Ádám Mirkóczki, Jobbik spokesman

Jobbik doesn’t think that with Trump’s victory U.S.-Hungarian relations will be much better. Orbán will remind the American diplomats of his early support for Trump, but such messages are “irrelevant as far as economic, political, or military relations are concerned between two countries.” In plain English, as long the present government continues on the same path it has followed in the last six years, change of presidency or not, U.S.-Hungarian relations will not improve.

About a year ago Gábor Vona delivered a speech in which he talked about his party’s intention to develop direct relations with politicians in Washington. As far as I know, several Jobbik politicians visited Washington and other larger cities. Jobbik is no longer an outcast, so its politicians had the opportunity to meet with several ambassadors in Budapest, including U.S. Ambassador Colleen Bell. Mirkóczki thinks that Orbán’s diplomatic approach to the United States has been counterproductive. Jobbik would strive for consensus, a style void of the “arrogant, lecturing, and negative style” that Fidesz has chosen in its dealings with the United States.

Of course, it is difficult to tell how much of this is merely for show. Recently BBC’s Nick Thorpe wrote an article about the metamorphosis of Jobbik “from a radical nationalist party … to a moderate ‘conservative people’s party’” and said that Vona “now promises to restore the checks and balances lost under Orbán.” He quotes Vona, who nowadays tries to avoid political labeling, who said that “if [he] lived in Greece [he] would probably vote for Syriza, though they are supposed to be on the left.” He also adopted Bálint Magyar’s characterization of Orbán’s regime and called it “a mafia-type state.”

Given Jobbik’s past, it is probably wise to take much of this with a grain of salt. But Jobbik’s cautious attitude toward the impending Trump presidency is much more statesmanlike than the Orbán government’s uncritical admiration of Trump’s radicalism. In this respect at least, Jobbik sounds more like a conservative party; Fidesz, the radical one.

November 16, 2016

Mátyás Eörsi declines the government nomination

At the beginning of August I devoted two posts to a “candid interview” of Péter Szijjártó, minister of foreign affairs and trade, by András Dezső and Szabolcs Panyi of Index. I prefaced my articles by saying that members of the Orbán government rarely give interviews to publications critical of its policies. It is possible that the relatively relaxed manner in which the interview was conducted was Szijjártó’s attempt to show the readers of Index that the government he serves is actually the paragon of cooperation. At one point he dwelt at length on all the assistance the Orbán government extends to opposition politicians in their travels abroad, for example to Ferenc Gyurcsány in China. He added that “it was the most natural thing for me to ask the Department of Chinese Affairs to put together some preparatory material for the former prime minister.”

Seeing the journalists’ astonishment, he decided to surprise them even more. “But I can also tell you some breaking news! Recently I had a visit from Mátyás Eörsi, who lives in Warsaw and works as deputy-secretary general of an international organization called Community of Democracies. This organization has 18 members, among them Hungary, and Eörsi would like to run for the post of secretary-general, but he needs the nomination of his government. He asked me whether such a nomination would be possible, and I said: of course. I visited the prime minister and told him that this was a good idea. He said that [Eörsi’s] merits at the time of the regime change deserve respect even if we have since disagreed on many things.”

In the second part of my two articles I gave a brief introduction to the Community of Democracies. As far as Mátyás Eörsi’s distinguished political career is concerned, a short biography can be found in the English-language Wikipedia. Below you can see the interview with Mátyás Eörsi on ATV’s Egyenes beszéd (Straight Talk) in August, after the Orbán government’s endorsement of him for the post.

Prior to the interview Eörsi published an announcement of his nomination by the government, which was followed by a fairly acrimonious debate in liberal circles, which I described in the second part of my post on the Szijjártó interview.

Since then Mátyás Eörsi had a change of heart. Below you will find his letter to Foreign Minister Szijjártó informing him of his decision to decline the nomination of the Hungarian government for the post of Secretary General of the Community of Democracies. The translation is mine.

♦ ♦ ♦

Péter Szijjártó
Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade
Budapest

Warsaw, October 11, 2016

Dear Mr. Szijjártó:

First of all, let me thank you once more for the support of the Hungarian government in nominating me for the position of Secretary General of the Community of Democracies.

I have to inform you with heartfelt and profound regret that as a result of the incidents that have taken place in Hungary over the past days and weeks I cannot accept your endorsement. I have already informed the president of the Community of Democracies and the State Department of the United States of America of my decision.

When I speak of the reasons for declining your support I have to be, above all, self-critical. Although I have been aware of the Hungarian government’s actions during the past six years by which it has systematically destroyed the democratic institutional structure that functioned more or less well before, I still hoped that as the head of an international organization I could effectively assist the consolidation and development of democratic norms in the participating countries. I thank you specifically for mentioning my accomplishments at the time of the transition to democracy. Over and above my role at that time I hoped that through my past work as caucus leader in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and in the Liberal International—then still in alliance with Fidesz—I had gained sufficient international credibility to enable me to perform this task.

But we must be clear that past merits can provide only a foundation for credibility. A person nominated by a government that has become infamous for destroying democratic institutions cannot credibly lead the Permanent Secretariat of the Community. While my aspiration is still to serve the cause of democracy, it seems ever more impossible with the support of the present Hungarian government.

The hate campaign full of untrue allegations that cost more than the aggregate campaign for and against Brexit in the United Kingdom was unacceptable for a democrat. Claiming victory over a clearly lost referendum and the politically motivated shuttering of the largest Hungarian daily, Népszabadság, marking a crucial landmark in the liquidation of free print media, are diametrically opposed to the Warsaw Declaration of the Community of Democracies signed by Hungary.

While once more I want to thank you for the nomination, please permit me to seize this opportunity to caution you, the Hungarian government and the government party, Fidesz, whose original members were once my friends. Historical experience shows that a government without checks and balances restricts democracy. Its aim is to annihilate those it considers “enemies” of the nation, believing that once the “enemy” is destroyed it will restore democracy.

This was the original idea of the communists who wanted to get rid of Nazism, of Colonel Qaddafi who wanted to get rid of the dictatorship of King Idris, and of Fidel Castro who brought the oppression of Batista to an end, and many others who originally with good intentions began the destruction of their opposition. Slowly, without realizing it, they themselves became the oppressors. By that time there was no way back if for no other reason but fear. Please, don’t misunderstand me: Fidesz and the current government, even if it made attempts at the incarceration of its political opponents, haven’t gotten to this point yet. But you have to be aware of the consequences of the destruction of institutions and the liquidation of critical media and civil society. Once this is done there will be no one to prevent fatal mistakes, the consequences of which can be a catastrophe for the nation, including its leaders. As the saying goes, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Although I have no reason to think so, I would still like to believe that the government will come to its senses and will restore democratic norms in order to prevent a tragedy.

Sincerely,

Mátyás Eörsi

October 18, 2016

 

For Viktor Orbán the Hungarian media is still too free

I understand that Viktor Orbán is mighty annoyed with the independent media, which in his opinion remains far too critical of his government. For instance, hard-working journalists have unearthed an incredible number of corruption cases. I know that people like to complain about the quality of Hungarian journalism, and I myself often grouse about articles that are hard to follow or are sloppy. On the whole, however, Hungarian journalists should be commended for working under difficult circumstances for very little money. There are a couple of politicians who decided to specialize in exposing corruption cases, like Ákos Hadházy (LMP), Péter Juhász (Együtt), and lately Bertalan Tóth (MSZP), but the bulk of the corruption cases came to light thanks to the growing number of investigative journalists.

Investigative journalism was a new field in post-communist Hungary. I still recall how feeble the first attempts were in the first half of the 1990s. But by the early 2000s there was a handful of first-rate investigative reporters who were, for example, instrumental in informing the public about the enrichment of Viktor Orbán and his family, which was of course modest in comparison to the situation today. And by now there are at least two NGOs, Direct36.hu and Atlatszo.hu, that are non-profit investigative journalism centers “with the mission to expose wrongdoings and abuse of power through fair but tough reporting.”

Orbán would like to tone down or, better yet, stifle the media’s outcry over what’s going on in government circles. His government’s first move was to transform the public broadcasting system, whose staff even before 2010 had been less than independent from Fidesz influence, into a totally servile government propaganda machine. An incredible amount of money was and continues to be poured into a TV station that practically no one watches. Once the low viewership numbers became obvious, the government started a new channel specializing in sports, which is used as a “pseudo news channel.” Every fifteen minutes or so “government news” is broadcast between sports events. This way there is no escaping the news–news that bears a suspicious resemblance to that broadcast in the Rákosi and the early Kádár regimes. People in the trade swear that by the second half of the 1980s journalists at the state television and radio stations had more freedom than employees of the state television and radio stations do today. Just one example. Journalists stopped people on the street to ask about their reaction to the migrants. When one woman said that she has no problem with them, she was told that they are not interested in what she has to say.

Prior to February 2015 the government had an extensive, loyal media network thanks to Lajos Simicska, Viktor Orbán’s high school friend who owned a TV station, a radio station, a daily newspaper, a free paper distributed at metro stations, and a weekly magazine. The last two publications were also available online. With the fallout between the two old friends, however, Orbán lost Magyar Nemzet and HírTV, both of which were critical for his government, especially since the “state television” (MTV) turned out to be a flop. So, the pro-government gurus moved into high gear and within a year and a half managed to build an even larger network of media outlets. And they haven’t finished their job yet. Friends of the government are buying up popular media properties and transforming them into propaganda machines.

To replace Magyar Nemzet a new pro-government daily was created called Magyar Idők, which is not exactly a favorite of the public. On a list of the fifty most popular online news sites Magyar Idők didn’t make the cut. Mind you, neither did Magyar Nemzet, which in my opinion has become a quite respectable paper in the last year and a half. In addition, several other pro-government internet sites came into being, among them ripost.hu, a tabloid that has a decent-sized readership (179,842/day in July 2016).

chain

The two most popular sites are origo.hu (561,494/day) and index.hu (513,854/day). The former was recently purchased by a cousin of György Matolcsy and has since turned decidedly to the right. Apparently the future of index.hu is not at all assured because the current owner, Zoltán Spéder, is no longer a favorite of the prime minister. There are still a couple of popular independent internet sites like hvg.hu and 444.hu that trounce the official government hirado.hu in readership. Could they be in the government’s crosshairs? Surprisingly, nepszabadsag.hu is not a popular news site, despite the fact that the print version is the most popular nationwide daily paper. But even Népszabadság’s fate is not quite settled yet. There is talk about Vienna Capital Partners selling Népszabadság to the owner of Duna Aszfalt, László Szíjj, who was described by Népszava as a possible front man, along with Lőrinc Mészáros, of Viktor Orbán.

On the television front, government propaganda lost HírTV, but after a lot of finagling Andy Vajna, the former American-Hungarian movie producer who is now the owner of several casinos and a loyal friend of Orbán, purchased the German-owned TV2. Vajna, who is not exactly a poor man, didn’t have enough money for the purchase so the Orbán government gladly lent him 8 billion forints, which most people believe will never be paid back. TV2 was heavily indebted at the time of Vajna’s purchase, and it is unlikely that it will suddenly become wildly popular, surpassing the favorite commercial television station in Hungary, RTL Klub. Only a couple of their shows are attracting a larger audience, while RTL Klub has at least six such favorites.

Passing TV2 to Vajna was not quite enough for Orbán, who would like to have a quality television channel specializing in news. It looks as if there is an attempt to upgrade Echo TV, which is owned by Gábor Széles, a rich man of extreme right-wing political views. Echo TV’s current audience is very small. However, I just read that Ferenc Szaniszló, who had a weekly program and who belongs to what I call the lunatic fringe, was fired and that Echo TV is being reshaped to be a more respectable outlet of news and political discussions serving the government’s needs.

Apparently, Orbán hoped that Lajos Simicska would give up his losing media outlets. In the past, when the two men were still friends, Magyar Nemzet and HírTV received government ads galore in addition to thousands of subscriptions for government offices. Since the blow-up no government advertising money has come Magyar Nemzet’s way. Moreover, the paper isn’t getting much in the way of ads from the private sector either since rich businessmen who are heavily dependent on government orders are afraid to advertise in opposition papers. This is the way the government ensures that papers they consider to be disloyal will starve to death.

Orbán’s aim was the total destruction of Simicska’s media outlets, but so far he hasn’t succeeded. The only victim was the free newspaper Metropol, which used to be distributed at metro stations. One day the Budapest Transit Authority (BKV) broke its contract with Simicska on the grounds that he had received the right of distribution without a tender. BKV immediately signed a contract with Árpád Habony’s Modern Media Group Zrt., whose new publication, Lokál, took its place. I might add that Modern Media Group also received its contract without any competition. Lokál, being a free paper, depends on advertising, and it is chock full of government ads. The government is keeping it afloat.

The picture is grim and, I’m afraid, it can be grimmer still. One can only hope that Orbán, in his insatiable appetite for a servile media, will not gobble up every important outlet, leaving only crumbs for the opposition. If, for example, pro-government owners were to acquire hvg or index, it would be an irreparable blow to the democratic opposition.

September 22, 2016

Despite an all-out effort, enthusiasm for the referendum is shrinking

A friend of mine just returned from a short trip to Hungary and phoned to report on her impressions. She is one of those American-Hungarians who closely follows Hungarian news and is well aware of the tremendous effort the Orbán government has put into ensuring that the referendum on the non-existent compulsory quotas will be valid and that it will pass with a very large majority. Even so, she was not expecting the barrage of giant billboards lining the road from the airport to Budapest. “You have to be there to feel the atmosphere this campaign creates,” she said. No wonder. According to reports, there is a billboard every 40 meters.

tudta-kampany

The intensity of the campaign has been growing steadily ever since, at the end of February, Viktor Orbán announced his intention to hold a referendum. For Orbán a successful referendum, requiring the participation of more than half of the electorate, seems to be a matter of life and death. This is not an exaggeration. Only two days ago, at the Fidesz picnic at Kötcse, he used the phrase himself. What is waiting for him is a fight with Brussels which must be won because otherwise the death of the nation will be waiting for Hungarians.

Gábor Török, one of the numerous political commentators, questioned the wisdom of the prime minister for putting so much emphasis on the referendum. What if too few people show up and the referendum is not valid? That would be a real embarrassment.

Why is Orbán trying so hard to get out the vote? Even if he didn’t reach the magic 50% + 1 threshold, polls last month showed that over 80% would vote “no,” as the government wants. This result would still show tremendous support for Viktor Orbán’s migration policies. One possible rationale for Orbán’s frantic scramble for votes is that this referendum is not so much about the migrants as it is about gauging (and beefing up) his current level of support.

Admittedly, if more than half of the electorate were to vote massively in line with the wishes of the government, his hand would be strengthened at gatherings of the European Council. “You see, my support at home is overwhelming.” Moreover, he could rest assured that he will remain prime minister for some time to come. But let’s say that only 37% of the electorate turned out to vote on October 2. Not only would he look weak in Brussels, he would look weak at home as well. Especially since the opposition parties more or less unanimously, if belatedly and in some cases half-heartedly, have finally agreed to support a boycott of the referendum. If 63% of eligible voters stay home, there is no way to know how many of them were just lazy or indifferent and how many were active boycotters.

Last week an article appeared in Élet és Irodalom by Mária Vásárhelyi, who is known to readers of Hungarian Spectrum because we have discussed her sociological studies extensively here over the past few years. It is titled “Népakarat vagy politikai manipuláció” (Will of the people of political manipulation). In it she convincingly argues that “in dictatorships and autocracies referendums are the most effective means of political manipulation,” an assertion she supports by pointing to the frequent referendums held in Hitler’s Germany. One of Hitler’s first moves after becoming chancellor was to change the law on referendums: they could be initiated only by the government. Vásárhelyi calls attention to the fact that the Orbán government in 2010 also changed the law on referendums and since then has done everything in its power to prevent holding any referendums initiated by the public. If a referendum in an autocratic regime is intended to increase support for the regime, the fact that the democratic opposition parties haven’t managed to come together and formulate one common message against the referendum “is an unforgivable sin against Hungarian democracy,” she concludes.

Vásárhelyi wrote those lines before the latest Závecz Research poll about the referendum came out. You may recall that a month ago I wrote an article titled “Orbán’s anti-refugee propaganda is a roaring success,” in which I reported on a survey conducted by the same polling company at the end of July. “The enthusiasm is tremendous,” I wrote. “At the moment the majority of the population (54%) plans to vote. If they actually follow through, the referendum will be both valid and, from the government’s viewpoint, stunningly successful. Only 19% of the population claim they will stay at home. Another 23% haven’t decided yet. Of those who intend to vote, 85-90% will vote ‘no.’”

Závecz Research repeated the survey at the end of August, when the opposition parties’ campaign hadn’t yet started. The hilarious anti-referendum posters of the Magyar kétfarkú kutya párt (party of the dog with two tails) were not yet on the streets. Nevertheless public enthusiasm for the referendum dropped considerably in the past month. Tibor Závecz now feels fairly certain that it will not be valid. The number of people who will vote to support the government has dropped and the number of undecided voters has grown. In July 54% of the electorate was intent on voting while today this number is only 41%. That is a very considerable change.

Here are some details. Support from Fidesz voters is pretty much unchanged. Sixty-four percent of them would go and vote “no.” But the number of those who would vote “yes,” that is against the government, has grown from 5.5 to 8.1%.

The changes that occurred in the month of August are most striking in the case of Jobbik voters, who in July were as enthusiastically supportive of the government’s position as Fidesz voters were (61.8%). That number in August has shrunk to 47%. The number of Jobbik supporters who will go and vote against the government has grown substantially, from 3.8% to 8.5%.

DK’s message has been very effective all along. It was a simple slogan: “Stay at home, stay in Europe.” Their supporters got the message. Seventy-three percent of them will boycott the referendum and 10.8% of them will vote “yes,” which is twice as large as it was in July.

MSZP with its mixed messages managed to confuse its already confused electorate. Their reactions are all over the map, but the upshot is that almost 15% of MSZP voters intend to vote “no,” which must be translated as support for the Orbán government. In addition, 20.2% of MSZP voters indicated that they would vote but claimed they haven’t decided how they will vote, which can easily mean a pro-Fidesz vote. About 20% haven’t decided whether they will vote or not and only 31% say they will stay at home, which is practically the same as it was a month ago. MSZP’s new leadership has proved to be an ineffective lot, perhaps because its members are split on the issue. Some of them share Orbán’s anti-immigrant stance, while others take the position that they have to keep in mind their supporters’ views, which are not exactly friendly toward the migrants. A good summary of MSZP’s attitude toward the referendum can be found in today’s 168 Óra.

A few days ago, in an interview, Richárd Szentpéteri-Nagy, a political analyst with the Méltányosság Politikaelemző Központ (Equity Center for Political Analysis), went further. He suspects that there are “a fair number of people within MSZP who are directly or indirectly maneuvered, instructed by Fidesz.” Mária Vásárhelyi puts forth another hypothesis. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that the “mischievous” MSZP is perhaps already thinking of a possible Fidesz-MSZP coalition.

That’s where we stand at the moment. Only DK and the two other small parties, Együtt (Together) and PM, are consistent and steadfast opponents of the Orbán government which, as a friend told me, is being encircled with “increasingly quiet hatred.” The question is what this currently quiet electorate will do and whether there will be anyone to turn to for leadership when the time comes.

September 12, 2016