Hungarian politicians happy to continue playing hide and seek

Hungarian politicians happy to continue playing hide and seek
Hungarian parliamentarians appear happy to remain obscured from view.
By Blanka Zoldi in Budapest August 4, 2016

Hungary’s wealth declaration system for MPs leaves many loopholes allowing politicians to hide assets, be they members of the governing Fidesz party or the opposition, the latest article in a series of investigations insisted on August 3.

Opposition parties regularly criticise Fidesz politicians for concealing wealth, and have often called for reform of the asset declaration system. However, at the same time, many opposition lawmakers appear to be in a similar business, and their parties have failed to come together to insist on the reform awaited by civil organizations. That exposes once again that they are ill-equipped to mount any real challenge to the ruling party.

Members of the Hungarian parliament are required to make an annual declaration of assets. In April, Prime Minister Vikor Orban emphasized in parliament that the declarations "must comply with reality". “It is a crime not to do so,” he added dramatically.

However, in "reality" the regulations are a lot less strict than Orban suggests. There is, in fact, no specified penalty for making an incomplete or inaccurate declaration.

There is also no official and searchable database of the declarations. Making it even easier to hide business interests, family members of politicians are not obliged to make their declarations public.

A series of exposes by Direkt36 has shown how these loopholes are being exploited by MPs on both sides of the fence.

The site reports, for example, that Minister of State Laszlo Taso, responsible for transport development policies, failed to declare properties, as well as HUF3mn (€9,600) received in state subsidies. Fellow Fidesz MP Zsolt Becso forgot to detail a company he co-owns, including the HUF54mn (€173,800) of public funds it has received. Even Orban has failed to file his declarations according to the law; details of some of his land purchases have remained hidden for years, the investigative site claims.

In the wake of these revelations, opposition parties were mobilised. “They made promises to eliminate the flaws of the asset declaration system. They initiated wealth gain inspections against MPs who were reported by Direkt36 to have filed declarations that do not comply with the rules,” Andras Petho, co-founder of Direkt36 tells bne IntelliNews.

Demokratikus Koalicio (DK), the centre-left party led by former Socialist PM Ferenc Gyurcsany, stated in a press release on August 3 that it “will keep fighting for reform ... [to create] complete transparency”.


However, the latest article of Direkt36’s series shows that the opposition is far from perfect in declaring wealth itself, raising concern over its enthusiasm to initiate in-depth changes. DK’s pledge came hours after Direkt36 revealed that the party's vice president, Laszlo Varju, has failed over several years to declare three companies he owns. DK’s press release was entitled “Laszlo Varju made a mistake, and he corrected it”.

He is not alone within the opposition in being error prone. In 2006, Socialist Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy omitted land worth of HUF20mn (€64,400) from his declaration. Gabor Simon, deputy chairman of the Magyar Szocialista Party (MSZP) was forced to resign in 2014 after it was revealed that he held HUF267mn (€859,300) in undeclared assets.

Indeed, the left-wing governments that preceded Fidesz proved every bit as reluctant to change the system as the incumbent, which has taken no significant steps since it came to power in 2010.

Although the first draft of the Fidesz government’s National Anti-Corruption Program, compiled in early 2015, included plans for an electronic database of asset declarations and the introduction of sanctions for those who do not comply with the regulations, they were dropped by the time the final strategy was accepted. Fidesz has repeatedly claimed since that Hungary’s asset declaration system is one of the strictest in Europe.

Civil organizations beg to differ. "Obligations to declare assets and business interests are easy to circumvent, which catalyses growing mistrust in politics,” Miklos Ligeti, legal director of Transparency Internaional (TI) Hungary tells bne IntelliNews.

TI Hungary recommends the introduction of a publicly accessible electronic database of searchable and comparable asset declarations. Declarations should also be regularly compared to MP's actual financial situation, the NGO says. “Otherwise the asset and interest declaration system remains as good as drawing water with a sieve,” Ligeti insists.

In the absence action from the government, Direkt36, news site, and TI Hungary have already joined together to develop a database called Vagyonkereso (meaning “Asset Locator” in Hungarian). It allows anyone to search for the declarations of MPs.

“We don’t know whether any of the parties have a serious intent to reform the system,” Zsuzsanna Wirth, a journalist at Diretk36 tells bne IntelliNews. "However, we hope that our project – through the public - can exert such a pressure on politicians that at least they will take more seriously the system of asset declaration, and that it won’t be worthwhile to abuse it.”