Sun May 1st, 2016 at 07:46:55 AM EST
Last year, Viktor Orbán, Hungary's right-populist prime minister, decided to regain voters lost due to endemic corruption by starting an anti-refugee hate campaign. With success. But that success made his minions only more brazen.
I recount two recent tales with comical elements: the rise and fall of shopping-free Sunday (or: the mystery of the baldies), and the secrets of the central bank.
Frontpaged - Frank Schnittger
The Orbán government introduced shopping-free Sunday a year ago, exempting small shops run by the owner. On the surface, this was a sop to the Christian Democrat coalition partner of Orbán's own party, Fidesz. In practice, it was meant to channel shoppers from multinational retailers to the franchised shops of a Fidesz-close pair of entrepreneurs (and win back grocery owners alienated by the state franchising of tobacco sale, which was used to reward friends & relatives). Worker exploitation was no factor, of course. The move didn't work out as planned: people overwhelmingly chose to shop at the same place but on Saturdays. But the government didn't want to admit a mistake.
Enter the opposition Socialists. Sensing an opportunity to take up a popular cause, they sought to start a referendum on abolishing shopping-free Sundays. In Fidesz-Hungary, there are two new conditions for a referendum initiative:
- the referendum question has to be approved by the National Election Commission (NVB) before you collect signatures,
- no two referendum initiatives on the same subject can be active at the same time.
NVB, a nominally independent body, is now filled with Fidesz loyalists, who threw out literally dozens of previous opposition referendum questions on technicalities like grammar errors. Not this time. This time, the trick was to use the second new rule: have a "private person" submit a question on the same subject and find a reason to give it priority ahead of the Socialists'. However, the actors were so ham-fisted that the performance was repeated three times yet failed to get results every time:
- In July last year, the Socialists managed to submit their question first, but NVB threw it out on the grounds that the submitter wasn't the signatory but a representative, and enjoyed unfair advantage vs. the "private person" by having an entry card for the building. The problem: the "private person's" question was incomprehensible and illogical, so, in the end, NVB was forced to throw it out, too.
- The Socialists sued against NVB's decision, but lost in October 2015. This opened the way for re-submissions. This time, the minute(!) the court announced its decision, another "private person" submitted another question, minutes ahead of the Socialists. The problem was, the second "private person's" question was illogical, too, and the Socialists could get a second-order court ruling on that.
- Thus came the third round in February 2016. This time, the Socialist submitter arrived early, but a dozen men who looked like football hooligans (shaven heads, steroid-boosted muscles, tattoos; the media christened them "the baldies") shouted insults and blocked their way in. But when the third "private person" and a companion arrived, they were allowed to pass. The same thing repeated indoors where a time-stamping machine was installed. It wasn't even the third "private person" but her companion who did the stamping and submission. Then the baldies left. All this without security guard intervention, and in the full view of assembled media.
This was too much for the head of the NVB who proposed to throw out the third "private person's" question, but the majority over-ruled him, claiming that it's not obvious that the Socialist submitter was hindered, and the third "private person", an old woman, is semi-handicapped and can be allowed to use a representative. Journalists quickly identified some of the "baldies", as well as the "private person's" companion, all of whom had ties to the private security service of a football club now presided over by a key Fidesz official. In contrast, police failed to find, interview or indict anyone to this day.
The turn came when security camera tapes surfaced. The second-level court had no choice but to annul the NVB's decision and finally open the way for the Socialists' question.
This time, Orbán took matters in his own hand, and did a 180-degree turn. To prevent the Socialists from scoring big, the immediate abolition of shopping-free Sunday was pushed through parliament in a few days, making the referendum obsolete. Would-be renegades (out of ideology or business ties) among Fidesz MPs were even threatened with expulsion.
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It has been known for some time that Hungary's central bank, the Hungarian National Bank (MNB) removed sums adding up to a billion euros from public oversight by parking them in foundations. MNB refused to provide any information on the spending of these foundations by claiming that it is not public money.
After various lawsuits by journalists and opposition politicians passed multiple court instances, the government launched a last-ditch effort: they pushed a law through parliament which would have made the spending of the foundations secret.
This time, it was the (largely representative-only) President of the Republic, János Áder, who threw a spanner in the works. Áder was a member of Fidesz's original leadership clique alongside Orbán, but when Orbán developed into a sole leader and a group of second-generation leaders rose (men marked by absolute loyalty to Orbán and absolute ruthlessness in cashing in), Áder was miffed, semi-retired into his current post, and began to sabotage the new generation's doings. In this instance, too: he had the law on the MNB foundations checked by the Constitutional Court, which threw it out. (In other matters Áder is still a fellow-traveller, for example, he is responsible for the composition of the National Election Commission.)
Thus, finally, a week ago, MNB was forced to reveal information. As everyone expected, lots of funny money went to various Fidesz-close entrepreneurs. But there was more small-time corruption, too: lots of funny money went to companies run by the friends & relatives of the head of MNB. In the most blatant case found so far, five of the foundations have independently subscribed to the exact same monthly financial study of the company of a cousin.
This scandal is far from over: MNB has only released data on money given to legal persons, but is still blocking the release of data on money given to private persons, although the data protection ombudsman denied that privacy applies here.
The long story short: like in Berlusconi's Italy, the government's reaction to high-level corruption is to change laws to make actions legal, but effective opposition only comes from within the regime.