Scan­dal shows Hun­gary’s op­po­si­tion that Or­ban is not in­vin­ci­ble after all

Shock may­oral poll after EU fund­ing fraud harms rul­ing party’s bid to win third term in govern­ment

The Sunday Telegraph - - World News - By Peter Fos­ter EUROPE ED­I­TOR and Balazs Csekö in Hód­mezővásárhely

AT FIRST glance, there is noth­ing spe­cial about the en­ergy-ef­fi­cient street lights of Hód­mezővásárhely, a small town of 45,000 in­hab­i­tants in south­ern Hun­gary whose con­vo­luted name loosely trans­lates as “the mar­ket­place on the beaver’s field”.

But as Hun­gary goes to the polls to­day, the furore that erupted over the street lights is of­fer­ing a few crumbs of hope to the coun­try’s frag­mented op­po­si­tion as they try to stop Vik­tor Or­bán, the coun­try’s in­creas­ingly au­to­cratic prime min­is­ter, from win­ning a third con­sec­u­tive term.

Mr Or­bán’s rul­ing Fidesz party is rid­ing high in the of­fi­cial polls, with some 40 per cent of the vote, but a shock elec­tion de­feat for the Fidesz can­di­date in Hód­mezővásárhely’s may­oral elec­tion last month has raised ques­tions about whether Mr Or­bán is quite as in­vin­ci­ble as he seems.

In that con­test, it was those LED street lights – or, more ex­actly, an EU in­ves­ti­ga­tion al­leg­ing they were part of a mul­ti­mil­lion-euro pro­cure­ment fraud – that helped pre­cip­i­tate the po­lit­i­cal back­lash that saw Fidesz de­feated.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the EU fraud watch­dog found “se­ri­ous ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties” in some €40 mil­lion (£35 mil­lion) worth of con­tracts to mod­ernise street light­ing in 35 towns across Hun­gary, in­clud­ing Hód­mezővásárhely. All the con­tracts were won by a com­pany that was then co-owned and led by István Ti­borcz, Mr Or­bán’s son-in-law.

The al­leged scan­dal gal­vanised the op­po­si­tion par­ties to unite be­hind a sin­gle “in­de­pen­dent” can­di­date, pulling off a vic­tory that stunned the Fidesz party lead­er­ship. Péter Márki-Zay, the suc­cess­ful can­di­date, says his hard- fought cam­paign has come to sum up how Mr Or­bán’s party has cap­tured so much of the ap­pa­ra­tus of Hun­gar­ian democ­racy that a fair fight in the na­tional elec­tions is now close to im­pos­si­ble.

Dur­ing his cam­paign, Mr Márki-Zay strug­gled with lo­cal me­dia, which is con­trolled by Fidesz-friendly press barons and the lo­cal bu­reau­cracy.

Me­dia out­lets re­fused to sell him ad­ver­tis­ing space, restau­rants and pub­lic build­ings re­fused to rent him space for meet­ings, and the lo­cal elec­tion com­mis­sion only ac­cepted and up­held Fidesz’s com­plaints. Mr Márki-Zay be­lieves that to­day’s elec­tion rep­re­sents one of the last chances to loosen Fidesz’s grip on power, which is built on an ever-deep­en­ing net­work of eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal in­ter­ests de­signed to squeeze out op­po­nents.

“There’s a huge risk that Fidesz will com­plete its cap­ture of the state and civil so­ci­ety,” he said. “I of­ten com­pare it to the com­ple­tion of the Death Star in Star Wars. When this is done, they can to­tally de­stroy all op­po­si­tion.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.