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Shining a light on corruption

Hungarians’ general attitude towards everyday corruption on a personal level is general knowledge and the explanation is commonplace. Who hasn’t heard that a people accustomed to living under oppression does what little it can to fight the power, defy the system and spread a little corrosion from the inside? 

When caught driving a red light by a policeman, the mutual inconvenience can be avoided by slipping a little something extra into your driver’s license. If the cable guy gets a little something on the side, he can certainly help in getting access to premium channels. And if you’re planning to set up a business, be prepared to make a larger withdrawal at your bank before getting involved in the administrative process. Cash only. It’s how things are done. 

At the same time, if the stakes are bigger and figures in high places are caught red-handed, everybody is busy being more outraged than everyone else. Judging whether that is just irony or perhaps even a healthy dose of hypocrisy is up to one’s temperament. Generally, it seems we take corruption to be a milder chronic disease: it’s not pleasant, but you can live with it. 

There’s been plenty of reason over the years, and perhaps even more so recently, to exercise, and hopefully exorcise the anger. Officials and executives at several state companies and municipal governments have been implicated in extensive corruption, leading to jokes that holding cells will become the accepted regular venues for board meetings, with full attendance guaranteed. 

BBJ´s CEO, Tamás Botka

Suspicious public procurement and other arrangements at Budapest public transport company BKV have caused the political demise of one of the most influential people in the governing socialist party MSzP. The events have almost certainly crushed the already small reelection chances of the left-liberal bloc in the capital. 

The public television station MTV moved into a tailor-made central office building under terms that seem to serve the advantage of no one but the developer, and the station is still struggling to renegotiate the contract.

The government signed a deal for the construction of a motor racing track in Sávoly, the feasibility study of which was only made public after lawsuits and direct pleas to the prime minister. The document reveals that the agreement, concluded with the involvement of a Hungarian-Spanish businessman whose name has been mentioned in a broad range of similar cases, carries significant risks. 

And the list goes on and on, with even former premiers being accused of taking part in foul play. 

Seeking clarity

Achieving economic transparency in a country such as Hungary, where there is a deeply-embedded tradition of doing things “off the record,” is no easy task. It requires the alignment of a number of factors for any results to manifest themselves. In no particular order, these include positive examples from the country’s leaders, a commitment from businesses active on its market to pursue their activities openly, and generally a willingness among the public to do things by the book, realizing that it is in the best interest of all those involved. 
These ideals could be facilitated by strong regulation on political spending, a clear and business-friendly regulatory environment and conditions that are bearable to the public so they are not encouraged to resort to clandestine means. Which should come before the other is a “chicken or the egg” debate, but it is becoming far too obvious that the widespread practices of today are a serious hindrance to the country’s overall economic, as well as moral, development.

But steps are being taken in the right direction. The Competition office (GVH) has over the past years become increasingly active in cracking down on cartels that disrupt fair competition by backroom price-fixing agreements, causing the state and its institutions major damages in the process. Parliament has also tried to contribute to clearing up the public procurement system, albeit independent experts have said the revision caused more harm than good and provided prospective bidders a new variety of loopholes to choose from. Hungarians are uncannily resourceful that way. 

The fallout has also reached the higher echelons of power. One after another, senior political figures and their associates are seeing the dirt of the past years being brought to light. On the one hand, this is seen as having the positive impression towards the public that the system works, justice is real and even those at the top are not allowed to get away with everything. The dividends of these investigations could prove very important for the general public perspective. On a side note, the newfound vigor of law enforcement agencies could also be interpreted as kicking the figureheads of the current regime when they are already down and weak and will accordingly be unable to grant any more favors. 

Shaping minds 

But even if these events do spark stronger faith in the system in the public eye, it will not necessarily mean that all hands will become clean overnight and that cash-filled brown paper bags will never again be exchanged under tables. 

The conservative Fidesz, which is revving up to claim a commanding victory at the April elections, has indicated that it is planning to cut taxes, expand the tax base of Hungarians paying their dues and also create a business-friendly environment in the process. Having to pay less would be a reasonable motivator for everyone to pull their weight, but these things don’t necessarily add up that easily. If the tax rates are reduced and the number of those paying is not increased, the state is suddenly left with an immense funding gap and unable to function. 
Fidesz has an opportunity, considering its apparent extensive base of support, to change not only the way the system works, but also the general public attitude, which in its present state will only allow for translucence as an ultimate goal. 

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