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Budapest’s Smoking Gun

Could a tobacco corruption scandal finally undo Hungary’s retrograde, hubristic government?

by Balint Szlanko 15 May 2013

It is a matter of some debate in Hungary what the strong-arm methods of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government ultimately represent. Is it a genuine belief in a political system that vests more power in the executive without tiresome interference by courts, journalists, and other independent actors?


Or is it simply an expression of the prime minister’s personality: impatient with deliberation, intolerant of dissent, hardheaded, and unable to understand modern governance, which distributes power among many actors?


Another popular explanation for the dismantling, in the last three years, of checks and balances in the Hungarian political system is more cynical, but it has gained currency recently. It says that the System of National Cooperation – as Orban and his bootlickers impudently call their awful regime – is about little more than naked, industrial-scale theft.


A recent example of this, astonishing in its brazenness, is a new law that abolishes the right of corner shops and stores to cell cigarettes and makes it a government concession, purportedly to restrict the sale of tobacco to young people and to generally broaden the fight against smoking. As a result of strict application rules for the licenses, the number of tobacco-sellers will fall from about 40,000 to about 7,000 nationwide when the changes take effect this summer.


It is possible that this will result in some people giving up smoking. My guess, though, is that people will simply stock up on the stuff or even buy their fix on the black market, as tends to happen when licit sources of pleasure like alcohol or sex dry up.


The real reason behind the scheme, however, seems to have been to grab a flourishing market and redistribute it to friends. There has been scandal after scandal in recent weeks indicating that local governments, run by Orban’s people, doled out the concessions to businessmen based on their connections to the ruling party.


Two audio recordings have surfaced from meetings in two provincial towns that appear to prove just that. There, licenses were awarded based on how much money the applicant had given to Fidesz, the governing party, and whether he or she was friends with the right people.


The press has since revealed that at least four local and national Fidesz office-holders have family members who have won big in the concessions, and many more have friends who have done so. Naturally, no one has resigned over this and no police investigation has been launched. Janos Lazar, a top aide to Orban, suggested it was probably Philip Morris that stood behind the scandal. Of course.


What does this have to do with Orban’s destruction of the constitution? Everything. The almost total takeover of the state by his party means suspicious acts like this have become essentially impossible to investigate and punish. For all intents and purposes Hungary has become an autocratic state where, in between elections, no public oversight of government is tolerated.


When a Socialist and an Independent lawmaker wanted to raise questions about this in parliament, Speaker Laszlo Kover, Orban’s closest ally, refused to give them the floor (Kover says the questions were offensive). When the press and some of the losing applicants asked for the applications to be made public, they were simply refused.


Two days later, parliament moved to change the freedom of information act, making it essentially impossible for citizens to access information held by public bodies. The new law would basically leave it to the petitioned bodies to release the information or not. Miklos Ligeti, Transparency International’s legal director in Hungary, said in a statement that the measure “heralds a dark age for democratic governance in Hungary.”


This new law is probably unconstitutional, not that that matters, as there is no longer any meaningful judicial review in this country. The government has made it very difficult to take cases to the Constitutional Court. On the few occasions when the court has struck down some of its laws, the government has simply used its parliamentary supermajority to write those laws into the constitution.


President Janos Ader has since sent this monstrosity back to parliament for reconsideration, though if legislators pass it again he will have no choice but to sign it.


Should you wonder what then stops them from abolishing elections altogether and governing by decree, the answer is, technically, nothing. They are openly considering doing away with byelections, which can be less predictable than nationwide polls, before the next national vote in 2014, presumably to spare themselves embarrassment.


It is a little difficult to believe they can get away with all this. But the Hungarian public has been remarkably tolerant as many of the political achievements of 1989 have been undone. Perhaps because all this constitutional stuff is too abstract. Perhaps because democracy and liberalism here don’t enjoy a terribly good reputation – too much corruption, too much economic hardship have tainted the past 20-odd years, the age of democracy in Hungary. Cynicism prevails.


My guess is there is a limit. Political corruption, ubiquitous as it is in this country, appears to be tolerated to some extent. People simply assume that they’re all thieves. Some cases, however, display a brazenness that makes it very difficult to forgive. The tobacco scandal may be one of these. These things are always difficult to measure, and no meaningful polls have been released yet. But anger is palpable. If something undoes Orban’s regime, it will be the economy – and this.

Balint Szlanko
is a journalist in Budapest.
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