Tag Archives: Pál Steiner

The European Anti-Fraud Office is a bit slow: The case of the Heart of Budapest project

Well, we are back in Budapest’s District V, which is known by many names: Lipótváros (Leopoldstadt), Belváros (Downtown), or lately for a little political propaganda “The Heart of Budapest.” At least this was the name of the mega-project undertaken within the boundaries of the district that made the historic district mostly traffic-free and repaved the streets between Kálvin tér and Szabadság tér, stretching 1.7 km, with fancy cobble stones. Like everything else, the project was largely financed by the European Union.

It was Antal Rogán, the newly elected mayor of the district, who came up with the idea of revamping downtown Pest shortly after the municipal election of 2006. He convinced the City Council of Greater Budapest to apply to Brussels for a grant, and it seemed that at least on the surface the SZDSZ-MSZP city and the Fidesz district were of one mind. We mustn’t forget that at this time Antal Rogán was considered to be a moderate and reasonable man. Later the Fidesz media praised him as a truly remarkable Fidesz mayor who managed, despite the fact that the city of Budapest and the government were in SZDSZ-MSZP hands, to receive a huge sum of money for the development of his district. Well, the Heart of Budapest project really was impressive. A good portion of District V became something of a showcase.

The renovated Károly körút - Photo András Földes

The renovated Károly körút – Photo András Földes

As we know, Antal Rogán has had his share of his political trouble ever since Péter Juhász, who was Együtt’s candidate for mayor last October, decided to investigate shady real estate deals during Rogán’s tenure. I wrote about corruption in the district in December and again in January. Juhász, unlike most Hungarian politicians, doesn’t give up. Whether he will succeed in putting Rogán in jail remains to be seen.

What Rogán did not need was another scandal. But he’s under attack yet again, this time in connection with the Heart of Budapest project. The internet site vs.hu reported yesterday that OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office working under the aegis of the European Commission, found serious irregularities in connection with Rogán’s project. According to vs.hu, OLAF finished its investigation at the end of last year and called upon the Hungarian Chief Prosecutor’s Office to begin an investigation of the case. Naturally, OLAF’s findings were also sent to the European Commission. The Chief Prosecutor’s Office admitted that they received the documentation that supports OLAF’s case but said that “currently work is being done on the translation of the material.” Knowing the Chief Prosecutor’s Office, they will work on that translation for months if not years. Moreover, some opposition politicians learned that in the last few years the Chief Prosecutor’s Office received several dozen such complaints, but as far as we know Chief Prosecutor Péter Polt’s crew did nothing about them.

This is not the first time that questions have been raised about the project. At the end of 2012 OLAF found that not everything was in order. There was a good possibility that both District V and the city of Budapest would have to pay sizable fines: about 900 million forints each. The charge? The officials of the district and the city who were handling the bidding process demanded such unnecessary qualifications from the applicants that only one combined firm, Reneszánsz Kőfaragó Zrt and Bau Holding 2000, forming the Heart of Budapest Consortium, could possibly undertake the work. The bidding was theoretically open to foreign firms as well, but I doubt that much effort was put into finding non-Hungarian companies for the job.

What kinds of unreasonable demands did the authorities insist on? To qualify, a company had to have references for 1.2 billion forints worth of work on historic buildings even though the new project focused on repaving streets. There was absolutely no restoration of historic buildings. This ploy is commonly used in Hungary to make sure that the “right” company is the successful bidder. In Hungary 40% of all projects end up with a single bidder. Every time such a thing happens we can be pretty sure that corruption is not far away.

In 2012, when this story broke, Rogán and his deputy András Puskás, who has since left the district under the cloud of possible corruption, argued that there was nothing wrong with the project. It was done properly. The problem, they countered, was that the European Commission didn’t like the Orbán government and concocted this case to attack Viktor Orbán and his politics.

Now that OLAF finally got to the point of calling on the Chief Prosecutor, the district is trying to shift the blame to the current opposition. After all, the argument goes, the first phase of the project was finished in 2009 when Gordon Bajnai was prime minister. And Gordon Bajnai was present at the official opening. I guess that, according to the brilliant logic of the editorial offices of Magyar Nemzet, Bajnai had something to do with passing on the job to an earlier designated firm just because he cut the tricolor ribbon at the opening ceremony. For good measure, Magyar Nemzet added that Viktor Szigetvári, co-chair of Együtt and then Bajnai’s chief-of-staff, participated in the negotiations. Szigetvári calls the accusation a lie.

In addition, Magyar Nemzet blames the SZDSZ-MSZP administration of the city of Budapest. “All this happened during the era of Demszky-Hagyó-Steiner.” Pál Steiner was the whip of the MSZP caucus on the city council while Miklós Hagyó was the MSZP deputy mayor. Hagyó was later accused in a vast corruption case, which is still pending. The lurid details of the case tarnished MSZP and helped Fidesz coast to an overwhelming victory, resulting in a two-thirds majority in 2010.

OLAF has been investigating for the last six years. Right now, the Chief Prosecutor’s office is busily, or not so busily, translating. When do you think we will know exactly what happened? If you ask me, never.

 

The new Hungarian ombudsman: László Székely

The news of the day in Hungary, aside from record temperatures over 40ºC, is President János Áder’s announcement that the next ombudsman will be László Székely, an associate professor of civil law at ELTE’s Law School. Just as today’s record temperature was not a great surprise given the weather forecasts, Székely’s nomination for the post wasn’t exactly unexpected.

As in almost all facets of the administration of the country, Fidesz made fundamental changes in the function and position of the Hungarian ombudsman. Earlier there were several ombudsmen, each with a specific field of expertise: environmental issues, data protection, minority rights, etc. Viktor Orbán obviously decided that he didn’t want to be bothered by too many nosy ombudsmen and therefore completely reorganized the system. Today there is only one ombudsman who has to handle all complaints. Moreover, this new position became a great deal more important than before with the introduction of a new constitutional provision that gives only the ombudsman, in addition to parliament and the president, the right to ask the constitutional court for a review of laws passed by parliament.

The sole ombudsman who kept his job when Orbán came into power was Máté Szabó who earlier, in my opinion, didn’t distinguish himself. Most of the issues that interested him sounded petty to me. I guess at the time of his reappointment it was this  aspect of Szabó’s activities that actually appealed to Viktor Orbán. He most likely thought that Szabó would get bogged down in picayune issues and would be too busy to spend much time on the constitutionally questionable legislative work of the Fidesz voting machine. To everybody’s surprise Szabó became a very active ombudsman who resolutely fought to salvage Hungarian democracy. By now he is the only man in an important position who can be called independent. Since Szabó’s tenure ends on September 24, János Áder was required by law to nominate someone to replace him by August 10.

A couple of days ago Áder, emphasizing that he is not obliged to listen to the heads of the parliamentary caucuses on his choice of ombudsman, declared his willingness to get together with the parliamentary leaders, including András Schiffer whose party just lately regained its right to form an official caucus. In addition to Schiffer, there were leaders of Fidesz, KDNP, MSZP, and Jobbik. Neither PM (Párbeszéd Magyarországért) nor DK Demokratikus Koalícíó was represented because of the parliamentary rules introduced by László Kövér according to which they couldn’t form a separate delegation.

Fidesz-style consultations shouldn’t mislead anyone, especially if they are initiated by János Áder. It’s true that occasionally he makes gestures to demonstrate his “independence,” but by and large he is faithful to Fidesz dogma. There is no question in my mind that the person was already picked after some consultation between Viktor Orbán and his closest associates way before the leaders of the parliamentary delegations were invited to Sándor Palota. During the consultation no name was mentioned. Áder only wanted to know what kind of a man his visitors had in mind. The laundry list included such characteristics as independent, highly qualified, not someone too closely associated with one party, etc.  At the end of the meeting Áder announced that they had agreed on an ideal candidate. He will act accordingly.

Today Áder emphasized that Székely “was never a member of any party either before or after the change of regime.” Every time I hear someone proudly announce on talk shows that “I have never been a member of any party,” I know full well what’s coming next: an emphatically right-wing assessment of the present political situation. As if lack of party membership would ensure political independence. Of course this is not at all the case.

László Székely the nominee for the position of ombudsman

László Székely, the nominee for the position of ombudsman

What we know about László Székely is that he held government positions in both the first and the second Orbán governments. Otherwise, he is a professor of civil law and, according to his students, is a good lecturer, a fair grader, and “if you’re prepared you have nothing to fear at his exams.” He also makes his lectures interesting. Otherwise, at least according to Áder, he is no stranger to international law because in 1984 he received a diploma from the “Seminar of International Comparative Law of the University of Strasbourg” which sounded a bit strange to my ears. How can you receive a diploma from a seminar? I managed to find a Regent University School of Law at the University of Strasbourg which offers a six-week  course for international students as part of the Strasbourg Study Abroad program. Perhaps this is what Áder had in mind, but if this is the case this mini-course can’t really be called a proper grounding in international law.

András Schiffer, who was most likely a student of Székely, admits that he is an excellent teacher and a good theoretician but claims that his knowledge of constitutional law is scanty when under the present circumstances the ombudsman is “the last bastion of constitutionality.” Schiffer also objected to Székely’s constitutional philosophy. Székely’s last government job was to coordinate the work done by several scholars on the new civil code where he had no objections to discrimination against people not officially married. Or, perhaps even worse, Székely’s main field of interest is the media. But he approaches this subject not from the point of view of freedom of expression and freedom of the press; rather, he is much more interested in regulating the media. Not a good omen.

Fidesz and KDNP leaders are naturally delighted with the choice. Gábor Vona was less polite than Schiffer. He announced that “László Székely’s ties to Fidesz are well known” and therefore his party will formulate its opinion on the subject on this basis.

MSZP was very restrained. Pál Steiner, a member of the parliamentary committee on the constitution and justice, announced that “they will take the President’s suggestion seriously and the MSZP caucus will decide on the issue at its first meeting of the fall session of parliament.”

For the time being it is hard to say what kind of ombudsman Székely will be. After all, Szabó turned out to be excellent despite earlier indications and predictions to the contrary. It may happen again, but Viktor Orbán rarely makes mistakes on personnel choices.

March for Life and the anti-Semitic Patriotic Bikers of Hungary

A group of right-wing bikers planned to stage a demonstration all across Budapest, including zooming by the famous synagogue on Dohány utca. The slogan for the demonstration was “Give Gas! Hands off our homeland and our homes!” The demonstration was scheduled for April 21, the same day as the March for Life (Az élet menete). The march, designed to pay tribute to the victims of the Hungarian Holocaust, has been held every year since 2002. Last year’s march was especially memorable, and I wrote about it right after the event.

II Give Gas With police escort Hands off our homeland and our house

II. Give Gas!
With police escort
Hands off our homeland and our homes!

Readers of Hungarian Spectrum are familiar with the Goy Bikers, whom I introduced as early as 2008. The organizers of this particular gathering belong to another group who call themselves Nemzeti Érzelmű Motorosok, loosely translated as Patriotic Bikers. As one can see, however, patriotism is not exactly their most notable characteristic. Their anti-Semitism is. At least the Goy Bikers proudly identify themselves as an anti-Semitic group, which is reflected even in their name. These guys, on the other hand, hide behind their patriotism.

And as if we didn’t have enough of these characters lately, there are also the Scythian Bikers (Szkíta Motorosok) who are ready to join the “Give Gas!” demonstration. As a reminder, the Scythians were an Iranian tribe and Jobbik is especially fond of the current regime in Iran. According to some commentators, the Goy Bikers have closer relations with Fidesz while the Patriots are linked to Jobbik. We know that the chief organizer of the “Give Gas!” demonstration, Sándor Jeszenszky, is the Jobbik chairman of Budapest’s District XI. (District XI, by the way, is one of the ritziest sections of Buda.) Gábor Vona, the chairman of Jobbik, is apparently furious over Jeszenszky’s connection with the Patriotic Bikers, although I doubt that the party chairman knew nothing about it earlier.

The organizers proudly announced on their posters that the bikers will be escorted by the police. From the poster it is also clear that this is not the first such demonstration organized by the Patriotic Bikers. It is the second. They made an appearance for the first time in 2012 on the day the March of Life took place in Budapest. Why didn’t we hear about their demonstration a year ago? Well, there were a couple of articles about the bikers protesting high gasoline prices, higher tolls, and new rules and regulations concerning drivers’ licenses. So, their demonstration couldn’t be directly connected to the March for Life. This time there is no question what “Give Gas!” means. Mind you, the “Give Gas!” slogan is not exactly original. On a 2011 poster of the German National Democratic Party (NPD) the party leader Udo Voigt can be seen riding a motorbike with the slogan “Gas geben.”

The Hungarian Jewish umbrella organization, MAZSIHISZ, called on everybody to come to the gate of the Jewish quarters in order to prevent the bikers from entering. And indeed that would have been one of the two legal answers to the bikers’ provocative plans once the police accepted their application to demonstrate. The other would have been for members of the government, including Viktor Orbán, to join the March for Life and walk along with the crowd and those opposition politicians who normally attend. But given Viktor Orbán’s reluctance to alienate the extreme right and his negative attitude toward any kind of cooperation with the opposition, we knew that he would neither show solidarity with the Jewish population of Hungary nor walk alongside his political opponents. However, considering that the next meeting of the World Jewish Congress will be held in Budapest, which apparently Viktor Orbán himself will attend, the prime minister decided that he had to do something, however uncomfortable it might be for him. A truly uncomfortable position given Orbán’s relations with the extreme right and his fears that the fourth amendment to the new constitution may not be well received in Brussels. It took only a few hours for Viktor Orbán himself to forbid the “Give Gas!” anti-Semitic demonstration.

This happened on Monday in Parliament. Pál Steiner of MSZP asked Viktor Orbán, who happened to be in the chamber, about a “Nazi-like” (náci szellemű) demonstration that is being “led by the police.” Although according to house rules it should have been Sándor Pintér who answered the question, Viktor Orbán, stressing the importance of the issue, rose to reply to Steiner’s question directly. In his answer he informed Steiner that he had already “instructed Sándor Pintér not to grant permission” for the bikers to hold their demonstration. A few hours later the organizers were informed in writing that the announced demonstration cannot be held.

Viktor Orbán as prime minister has the right to instruct his ministers to do or not to do certain things. Did Pintér have to follow Orbán’s instructions and did the police have to obey Pintér’s instructions? The answer is yes. The only remaining question is whether it was legal to forbid the biker demonstration. Legal experts claim that most likely it was not legal. According to laws currently in force, police competence to decide who can and who cannot demonstrate is extremely limited. As the law reads, the police force “doesn’t permit” a demonstration; it only “acknowledges” its taking place. There are only two circumstances under which the police may not “acknowledge” an already announced demonstration: (1) if the demonstration seriously endangers the functioning of the parliament or the courts or (2) if the flow of traffic cannot be ensured via an alternate route.

The bikers announced their demonstration to the police on April 3, and because the police didn’t raise any objection to their holding the rally within 48 hours they in effect sanctioned it. When on April 8 the police refused to recognize the demonstration, they gave as their reason that the demonstration “might be accompanied by an assault against public order.” But to prohibit a demonstration on the grounds that it may involve a crime is not lawful. If in the course of the event there are signs of violence the police can simply disperse the crowd.

Given the presumed illegality of the police action taken on the instruction of Sándor Pintér and Viktor Orbán, it is not at all surprising that the Patriotic Bikers are challenging the decision in court. It can easily happen that the Bikers will win. As one of the legal experts said, by now Viktor Orbán and his government don’t even try to pretend that Hungary is a full-fledged democracy. The quasi-dictator can transgress existing laws and act on his own. And his “subjects” even thank him for it, as Pál Steiner did in parliament. Such occurrences can also happen in a country where the laws concerning freedom of assembly and its limitations are not properly spelled out. Just as Viktor Orbán can forbid this particular demonstration, he might be able to do the same when the democratic opposition wants to go out on the streets the next time. Although the anti-Semites’ bike ride is odious, the way in which Viktor Orbán and the police handled it shows the state of Hungarian democracy today.