The Spectacular Fall

Fidesz caucus Chairman Antal Rogán announces the party's support for mandatory drug-testing.

Antal Rogán announces the Fidesz’s support for mandatory drug-testing (photo: 444.hu) .

On December 8, 2014, Fidesz National Assembly caucus Chairman Antal Rogán announced that “a significant majority” of party representatives supported proposed mandatory annual drug testing for Hungarians between the ages of 12 and 18 as well as political officials and journalists (source in Hungarian).

Rogán’s announcement of support for the proposed drug-testing was presumably an attempt to divert the Hungarian public’s attention from the issues and events that have dominated news headlines in Hungary since the beginning of the autumn: the entry ban that the United States imposed on allegedly corrupt officials from Hungary’s National Tax and Customs Office; the luxurious lifestyles of officials in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s inner circle; highly unpopular legislative initiatives; an unprecedented series of anti-government demonstrations; and disunity within the previously rock-solid Orbán administration, particularly between Fidesz and its allied Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP).

The focus of the media on these issues and events has significantly undermined the popularity of the Orbán government and Fidesz. The four major independent polling companies operating in Hungary reported the following month-on-month declines in the proportion of voters surveyed in November who said that they would vote for Fidesz in an upcoming election (source in Hungarian):

                                                                 Medián     Tárki      Ipsos      Nézőpont

                            November                    26              25             30                 29

                            October                         38              37              35                 32

                            Monthly Loss             -12            -12              -5                  -3

The opposition media has pointed out that Fidesz sustained an unprecedented loss in popularity in November, exceeding even that of the Hungarian Socialist Party immediately following the leak of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s infamous “We fucked up” speech in September 2006 (source in Hungarian).

U.S. Entry Ban

Banned from entering the United States: National Tax and Customs Office President Ildikó Vida (photo: MTI).

Banned from entering the United States: National Tax and Customs Office President Ildikó Vida (photo: MTI).

On October 16, the pro-government business daily Napi Gazdaság reported that the U.S. State Department had prohibited unnamed officials from Hungary’s National Tax and Customs Office (NAV) from entering the United States based on former President George W. Bush’s Proclamation 7750 of January 12, 2004 suspending entry “of persons engaged in or benefiting from corruption” that “has or had serious adverse effects on the national interests of the United States” (source A in Hungarian and B in English). The corruption in question allegedly involved attempts to persuade the Hungarian subsidiary of U.S. agribusiness company Bunge to finance an unnamed pro-government foundation in exchange for NAV’s tacit permission for the company to engage in Value Added Tax fraud (source in Hungarian). The chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy in Budapest, André Goodfriend, declined to identify the NAV officials prohibited from entering the United States, though said that the embassy had sent them letters informing them of the ban (source in Hungarian). In a November 5 interview in the pro-government daily Magyar Nemzet, NAV President Ildikó Vida admitted that she was among the tax-office officials subjected to the U.S. travel ban (source in Hungarian).     

Embarrassment of Riches

János Lázár wearing his Rolex Bubbleback.

János Lázár (left) wearing his Rolex Bubbleback at the Hungarian Parliament Building.

Most Hungarians regard wealth as evidence of greed, immorality and treasonous cooperation with external powers (see Kuruc vs. Labanc) and feel particular hostility toward political leaders who appear to have used their position to obtain personal fortune. Since the beginning of the fall, the affluence and lavish lifestyles of the following four members of Prime Minister Orbán’s inner circle have been the focus of media attention: Minister in Charge of the Prime Ministry János Lázár; Minister of External Economy and Foreign Affairs Péter Szijjártó; Prime Ministry State Secretary in Charge of Government Communication András Giró-Szász; and Fidesz Vice President Lajos Kósa.

János Lázár

On December 2, the opposition television station RTL Klub reported that in April Lázár had purchased a house in Budapest under the name of his ten-year-old son at a cost of between 60 million and 70 million forints, or 260 and 300 times the average monthly salary in Hungary of just under 230,000 forints (source in Hungarian).

On November 10, the tabloid Blikk reported that Lázár had cancelled a 75,000-euro, or 23-million-forint, pheasant-hunting trip to the Czech Republic scheduled to take place earlier in the month (source A and B in Hungarian).

On November 25, the opposition website index.hu reported that the Rolex Bubbleback watch that Lázár was seen wearing during a plenary session of the National Assembly the previous month was worth an estimated 1 million forints (source in Hungarian).

Péter Szijjártó

On September 24, RTL Klub reported that Szijjártó had purchased a house in the Budapest suburb of Dunakeszi at a cost of 167 million forints, about 725 times the average monthly salary in Hungary (see Feeling No Shame).

András Giró-Szász

On November 24, index.hu reported that Giró-Szász had recently sold his stake in a media consultancy for 750 million forints (or about 3,265 times the average monthly salary in Hungary) and, according to his newly released asset statement, has 140 million forints in his bank account and owns a yacht worth 25 to 30 million forints (source in Hungarian). On November 25, index.hu reported that Giró-Szász would be the minority owner of a 3-billion-forint hotel being built in the center of Budapest (source in Hungarian).

Lajos Kósa

On October 7, RTL Klub reported that Kósa’s wife had purchased a home worth an estimated 100 million forints, or about 435 times the average monthly salary in Hungary, in the Óbuda district of Budapest (source in Hungarian). On November 22, index.hu reported that Kósa and three travel companions had spent an estimated 1 million forints each on a four-day trip to New Zealand primarily in order to attend a Rolling Stones concert in Auckland (source in Hungarian).

Unpopular Legislation

On October 21, the National Economy Ministry revealed that the government was planning to introduce a 150-forint-per-gigabyte tax on Internet usage (source in Hungarian). Though the proposal stipulated that the tax would be levied on service providers, most Hungarians expected them to build the cost of the tax into customer fees. Prime Minister Orbán revoked the proposed tax following massive demonstrations against it in Budapest, though said his government would revive the proposal in early 2015 (source in Hungarian).

On November 6, Christian Democratic People’s Party National Assembly caucus Chairman Péter Harrach announced that the Orbán government would support the party’s proposed mandatory Sunday closing of shops in Hungary (source in Hungarian). A total of 58 percent of those Hungarians surveyed in a Medián poll conducted in 2007 said that they opposed possible legislation stipulating the mandatory closure of shops on Sunday (source in Hungarian). Orange Files doubts based in empirical evidence that more Hungarians currently support such legislation, which the National Assembly approved on December 16.

Anti-Government Demonstrations

October 28 demonstration in Budapest against the proposed Internet tax (Orange Files photo).

Demonstrators cross the Elisabeth Bridge in Budapest during October 28 protest against the proposed Internet tax (photo: Orange Files).

Several tens of thousands of people took part in demonstrations held in Budapest on October 26 and October 28 to protest the proposed Internet tax (source A and B). With an estimated 30,000–40,000 participants, the October 28 demonstration was likely the largest ever against an Orbán-government measure (source in Hungarian). 

Several smaller demonstrations took place in Budapest over the subsequent weeks to protest the proposed internet tax and government corruption in connection to the U.S. travel ban (source A, B and C in Hungarian).

These culminated in the November 17 “Day of Public Outrage” (Közfelháborodás Napja) demonstration ending with a long standoff between protesters and riot cops in front of the Hungarian Parliament Building that was reminiscent of those that occurred regularly during the wave of anti-government demonstrations that took place in Hungary in 2006 and 2007 (source in Hungarian).

Signs of Disunity

There were growing indications of internal discord within the Orbán government beginning in the fall of 2014:

—in early October, Hungary’s ambassador to Norway, Géza Jeszenszky, resigned from his position, officially to write a book, unofficially because he disapproved of the Orbán government’s crackdown on Norwegian-financed NGOs operating in Hungary (source in Hungarian);

—in late October and early November, Peace March organizers András Bencsik and Zsolt Bayer announced that they would organize another such pro-government demonstration, though the Orbán administration rejected this initiative on the grounds that it would create the impression of weakness (source A, B and C);

—immediately after KDNP National Assembly caucus Chairman Harrach’s November 6 announcement that the government would support a bill calling for the mandatory Sunday closure of shops, the National Economy Ministry issued a communiqué stating that the government would first have to discuss the issue with trade unions organizations representing shop owners before it could formally support it (source in Hungarian);

—on November 26, Fidesz oligarch Lajos Simicska, who has been involved in an indirect and unacknowledged conflict with Prime Minister Orbán since the middle of the year, indicated that he might stand as a candidate in the February, 2015 by-election in the city of Veszprém that Fidesz must win in order to preserve its two-thirds super majority in the National Assembly (source in Hungarian);

—in a December 3 open letter to the Orbán government on the website mandiner.hu, Editor-in-Chief Gábor Bencsik of the pro-government monthly Magyar Krónika wrote “Let us clarify something: this is not why we went out to the Peace Marches. . . . This is not why we tried to convince our friends. We did not stand up for you in every forum so that you could enrich yourselves (source in Hungarian);

—and finally, on December 8, National Assembly Justice Affairs Committee Chairman György Rubovszky of the KDNP told the opposition newspaper Népszabadság that the he was against the proposed mandatory drug-testing legislation, which he said “bleeds from a thousand wounds” (source in Hungarian).

End of Infallibility

Not a Bubbleback: Fidesz National Assembly caucus Deputy Chairman Zoltán Pokorni.

Not a Bubbleback: Fidesz National Assembly caucus Deputy Chairman Zoltán Pokorni.

The awkward attempt of Prime Minister Orbán and members of his inner circle to divert public attention from the politically damaging topics that dominated the domestic news in Hungary this fall via the red herring of mandatory drug testing suggests that they are either unwilling or unable to understand the true reasons for rapidly growing public dissatisfaction with their rule and to make the necessary adjustments to their political methods and tactics. This fall marked the end of an eight-year period, beginning when Orbán was still in opposition, during which he and his party radiated an aura of unassailable legitimacy and infallibility. From now on they will be forced to defend their public policies and justify the personal conduct of government and party officials against criticism in a truly competitive political arena. Some members of the Orbán administration have apparently understood this. Speaking on the pro-government television station HírTv on November 29, Fidesz National Assembly caucus Deputy Chairman Zoltán Pokorni said (source in Hungarian):

These bigger and smaller affairs—who wears what kind of watch, who goes where to relax or on summer vacation or whose house is how big—these were obviously known over the past years, but they didn’t interest anybody. They were not connected to charges of corruption. However, since the United Stats entry ban, these many small facts that were previously thought to be minor annoyances have now become rearranged into such a cross-section. The United States struck a chink in our armor, just a small hole, though it is through this hole that the water flows. And we must stop this water. There can’t be such living like a lord, that is, it shouldn’t be done, because a responsible government member or leading political official cannot permit himself to engage in the kind of lordly conduct that he could perhaps get by with before.

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