Corruption is a feature, not a bug

Is that a tiny little purge I’m seeing?

In the last few months we saw no less than three OfFidesz strongmen get busted for corruption. They are very low level and their purge looks more like an attempt to take other strongmen down a notch – rather than a way to appease pubic opinion.

Public opinion must be managed – not appeased – in an autocracy.

Orbán appears to have embarked upon a quest to quell the systemic corruption that is inherent in his System of National Cooperation (otherwise known as oligarchy). The purge started a few months ago, way before the October election defeat, when triumph was still taken for granted by Orbán.

It is also a very tiny little purge. It really just means three low-level cronies who abuse their little power on the local level. They look more like making a precedent for other such local strongmen as a message.

In an autocratic system and anti-corruption drive is not what you think it is. It is not meant to clean up anything, it only serves as a message to the loyalists. And the message is that they, too, can be removed and have no control over their political faith.

An anti-corruption purge in an autocracy is not about the placation of the public opinion, even if it accidentally also serves that purpose. In fact, an autocrat might want to hold back on open anti-corruption measures, lest the public gets the idea that public opinion matters. The public opinion in an autocratic regime needs to be managed and influenced from the top down – not placated and vindicated. People may get the idea that their outrage matters and it changes things – and unlearn the helplessness that had been so carefully planted in their minds.

A couple of months ago two Fidesz local strongmen got into the limelight because the prosecution, inexplicably, decided to move against them. Speculation started why it was allowed. Where authorities are perceived following orders rather than the law, legal action against politically connected strongmen appears like an internal issue within the party, rather than the regular course of the law. Even if they are obviously corrupted, even if the corruption is out in the open, even if it is documented. If prosecution  makes a move, people ask who gave them the order – because no one believes that they are still following rules.

For subjects of an autocratic regime such a purge looks like the license to hunt down a few strongmen, and people wonder why. Is it a message within the Fidesz camp reminding them that their positions are at the mercy of the king – or is it a message to the public? Is the regime behaving alongside the logic of a democracy where public opinion matters – or an autocracy where competing gangs within the ruling party have conducted an assassination against each other? And most importantly – is it a beginning of a decline?

Orbán has been long rumored to be dissatisfied with things going on in his System of Economic Cooperation (NER for short) – the fancy name of a hand-picked, politically connected oligarchy. In particular, Orbán was said to have expressed displeasure at certain individuals taking individual incentives, creaming off more than their assigned percentage, or using their position for extorting money on their own account.

The perception that only political cover makes doing business possible created a demand for politicians to bribe. It went so far that a few years ago conmen were caught posing as middlemen for politicians – and accepted bribes in exchange for delivering a politician that can be bribed as well. When they failed to deliver, the businessman who was seeking public contracts this way was so disappointed, he reported them. This businessman might have been completely wrong to assume that no one can win a contract without bribing a politician – but the sentiment exists nonetheless. And the prosecuted strongmen were collecting such protection money according to their court cases.

Fidesz politicians are reluctant to admit low-level corruption. And high-level corruption, too, but for a different reason. The only name that keeps emerging is the biggest fish whose name can be mentioned, Orbán’s top oligarch and rumored business avatar, who made it onto the global Forbes list in just a few years. If one has to be blamed for people believing that there is corruption in public procurement, Fidesz politicians tend to blame him, and him only.

But local politics work differently. Locals know who bought the manor, locals know who got rich. As some post-election dissenters have admitted people now feel the arrogance on the very lowest level, where Fideszniks act without inhibitions, without any subtlety, ruining the carefully crafted image of the good king. Indeed, the good king – corrupt local MP fallacy has its limitations. And the limit is when people dare to blame the king for the conduct of his local representatives. When they see corruption as the feature, not a bug. When they see NER as corrupt – not just a few bad apples. And it only takes courage (or a vested interest), because the evidence is obvious for anyone who wants to see it.

The kind of arrogance local strongmen display must come from the height of (quickly) amassed wealth. It cannot come from a fellow man who is in the same financial league. It is the arrogance of those who have just recently become powerful. Locals tend to know who owns the manor and who got how much – and can nurse their resentment even if they keep quiet and vote Fidesz. Indeed, when the sex tape mayor’s deals were revealed on the whistleblower site, commenters were quick to pile on and add the exact details of the corrupt deals. Dates and names and amounts. Turns out, it was even published and documented by an economic weekly, in 2012 when it happened, but people swallowed that information and chose to vote for him nonetheless. (Indeed, they reelected him even after the evidence was undeniably out.)

The two cases of corruption crackdown on Fidesz small fry might just be poor timing by Orbán. Before the election, when Orbán felt confident about his triumph and was looking forward to 2030, it seemed like a time to create a precedent for the minions by making an example of the two. After the elections, when the verdicts are coming out, news about former Fidesz strongmen going to jail are really unfortunate for Fidesz. It may arouse political appetite for more purges by telling people that it’s possible to get a corrupt politician prosecuted.

In all likelihood, the purges will stop at these three stooges – unless there are real divisions within Fidesz and the members of NER start using the courts against each other. But that would go against Orbán’s vision of Fidesz. He had often proudly bragged that only the liberals squabble internally. Nationalists show a united front and close ranks, no matter what. And that is supposed to be a reason to vote for him, not to shun his party because they admittedly put party loyalty and power hunger before reality and law.

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Featured image: Szarvas

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