The following is the editorial from the December 11 biweekly edition of the Budapest Business Journal.
The appearance of corruption has long been a problem for this government, but in the first week of December, officials were so blatant in their efforts to circumvent scrutiny that it was almost humorous. In truth, the way these maneuvers destroy trust in our leadership is not very funny.
A law that was pushed through Parliament on December 1, in a special procedure that essentially prevented debate, allows relatives of officials to bid in public tenders. The law contains a laughable safeguard against corruption: Relatives who live under the same roof as top officials cannot bid in these tenders – next door sure, but not in the same house. The defense of the law offered by Cabinet Chief János Lázár was equally laughable. “This is the strictest procurement law in Europe,” he declared on December 3.
The prime minister repeated this baseless claim of the law’s strictness a few days later, during a parliamentary question session – which could only take place after the law had already been railroaded through the legislature. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán refuted opposition criticism by saying that no one in his family is taking part in procurement tenders. Everyone knows that Orbán’s son-in-law István Tiborcz left the business of selling public lighting systems this spring – so Tiborcz is probably not taking part in tenders right now. But we also know that, before Tiborcz sold his stake in Elios Zrt., the company won procurements worth a reported HUF 1.2 billion in European Union funding for the upgrade of outdoor lighting in municipalities around Hungary. Tiborcz himself made HUF 470 million in dividends from Elios in 2014, according to reports. Since the law has some “retroactive” elements, it might even be used to defend any improprieties that were committed in the past. But it does not appear that the law will derail the on-going EU investigations into Tiborcz’s business with the government.
On December 3, just days after passing the “Tiborcz law”, Parliament passed another law that was ludicrously described as protecting people’s privacy. It says that, as of January 1, citizens can no longer ask the tax authority to investigate the wealth and income of anyone, including elected officials. The tax authority can initiate these investigations itself. But since this government has always chosen the head of the tax authority from among long-time associates of the prime minister, it seems unlikely that we will see intensive scrutiny of officialdom. Only days after passage of a law that made it clear they would leave the government alone, tax inspectors were making news: They posed as parents who wanted a St. Nicholas impersonator to entertain their children with the traditional St. Nicholas Day visit on December 6, a service that typically goes for around HUF 5,000. After the inspectors paid St. Nick and he did not give a receipt, they pulled out their badges and charged him with tax evasion. This PR blunder is so pathetic as to be hilarious. But officials obviously did not care.
It almost seems that the government no longer feels the need to hide the appearance of corruption. Like the communist government that this country had about a quarter of a century ago, it does what it wants and justifies its actions with flimsy excuses, as if public opinion does not matter. It is hard to tell whether officials are insulting our intelligence or we are supposed to be in on the joke. Either way, a government that does not care what its people think is no longer democratic. And that certainly is not funny.