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
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.”