The Hungarian State Audit Office’s assault on democracy

Perhaps nothing sums up the state of the rule of law in Hungary better than the Hungarian State Audit Office’s (ÁSZ) selective enforcement of regulation aimed at penalizing opposition parties (and likely driving one of them into bankruptcy), whilst dismissing the same rules when it comes to the ruling Fidesz party. The head of the State Audit Office is none other than a former Fidesz politician, László Domokos, who served as Fidesz’s deputy leader in parliament from 1998 to 2002 and was also elected as a Fidesz MP in 2010.

László Domokos, former Fidesz politician, currently president of ÁSZ.

To summarize the current state of affairs:

  • Jobbik has been fined 331 million forints to be paid within 15 days and will later be penalized by another 331 million forints for accepting illegal campaign contributions in kind–namely, billboard advertising at discounted rates from companies affiliated with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s former college roommate and once close friend, Lajos Simicska.
  • The Democratic Coalition (DK) has been fined 16 million forints for renting office space at below market rates.
  • The Együtt party has been fined 16 million forints, also for renting below market office space and also for apparently recording a membership due as a donation. (Együtt questions how ÁSZ has access to the party’s membership list in the first place.)
  • The Politics Can Be Different party (LMP) was fined 8.8 million forints also for renting office space at a discounted rate.

LMP and DK have announced that they will refuse to pay the penalty. In DK’s case, the party is demanding that ÁSZ disclose to them which office space they deem to have been acquired too cheaply–information that ÁSZ has thus far failed to clarify. Jobbik, on the other hand, does not know how it will find the money to pay the first installment of its massive penalty. The party only raised 54 million forints from supporters in December to pay the fine and will try to intensify its fundraising efforts in the 14 days that remain until the deadline. János Völner, Jobbik’s vice president, said that the penalty is tantamount to the “financial elimination” of the party and added that Jobbik will not have funds to contest the April 2018 elections.

ÁSZ has demonstrated no interest whatsoever in investigating the affairs of the ruling Fidesz party, even when the actions of Fidesz politicians clearly raise questions of illegal or undeclared political contributions. For instance, State Secretary Bence Rétvári handed out 4 tons of free potatoes to voters in the town of Vác (each voter who stood in line received a 10 kg bag of potatoes). According to the same laws that ÁSZ used to penalize the opposition parties, Mr. Rétvári must disclose who made this in-kind donation, as its market value exceeds 500,000 forints. When Socialist politician Mrs. Ildikó Borbély Bangó inquired from ÁSZ if it intended to investigate Fidesz, the office indicated that parties are audited every two years and the governing party will not be investigated within the next six months.

But much more troubling than the 4 tons of potatoes is the fact that Fidesz is continuously using billions in public funds to run partisan political campaigns for the party. The endless series of “national consultations,” the jungle of anti-Soros billboards plastered across the country, eight pages of full-page government ads in a single issue of pro-Fidesz publications and letters written by the prime minister to Hungarians living abroad urging them to vote (and of whom 94% vote for Fidesz) are all clear examples of taxpayer funds being used to advantage the ruling party. Yet ÁSZ refuses to investigate when it comes to Fidesz.

Viktor Szigetvári of the Együtt party wrote an insightful piece today in which he explained that despite promises on the part of DK and LMP not to pay the fine, the opposition parties have no choice but to make the payment and there is no further recourse or appeal available to them. If the parties fail to pay their fine within the next 14 days, the National Tax and Customs Administration (NAV) will deem the parties to have defaulted on their debts and will be able to freeze funds in their accounts. Mr. Szigetvári warns: if Jobbik fails to pay its fine in full, it will not be able to use any public funds that the party is eligible to receive in March for campaigning ahead of the April 2018 elections, as parties cannot use funds deemed to be an unpaid debt for political campaigns. If Jobbik or any party does, nonetheless, go this route, they will face another massive fine by ÁSZ in late 2018.

Mr. Szigetvári believes that the opposition cannot wait beyond 2018 to dislodge or at least weaken the Orbán regime. By 2022, the date of the following election, whatever remnants of rule of law that still exist in Hungary will have been eliminated.

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