Anti-Brussels referendum campaign gets HUF 800 million boost

September 7, 2016

Laughing all the way to the bank: Antal Rogán and Csaba Csetényi
Laughing all the way to the bank: Antal Rogán and exclusive Pasa Park neighbor, media mogul Csaba Csetényi

The HUF 3.1 billion (USD 11.3 million) in public funds earmarked for the government’s October 2 anti-EU settlement quota referendum had already been spent by the end of August, necessitating an additional appropriation of HUF 800 million (USD 2.9 million), reports left-wing daily Népszabadság.

With more than a month to go before the vote on which Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has staked his political prestige and that of his government, propaganda minister Antal Rogán signed in August yet another no-bid contract with an advertising consortium owned by his Pasa Park neighbor and Fidesz supporter Csaba Csetényi.

The original HUF 3.1 billion contract was awarded to the same consortium of Csetényi’s companies, Network 360 and Affiliate Network Kft., called “United Advertising Consortium” (Egyesült Reklám Konzorcium). Csetényi was tasked with “the implementation of a public awareness campaign and the display of the government’s anti-quota messages.” (Csetényi’s media companies have become a favorite partner of Rogán’s propaganda office, receiving tens of billions of forints to direct government media campaigns, including the bid to host the 2024 Olympic games.)

In response to questions posed by the print daily in late August concerning the total costs of the referendum campaign, the Government Information office, supervised by Rogán, responded that “no more than HUF 3.9 billion is available for the entire communication campaign contract. The contractor is the United Advertising Consortium. We still cannot say whether, during the course of the referendum campaign, the government will exhaust these funds.”  However, by the time the office issued the statement, the original earmarked HUF 3.1 billion had already been entirely spent.

Deep pockets, long fingers

Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) MP Tamás Harangozó personally reviewed the contracts of the Office of the Prime Minister’s cabinet in August, and reported to Népszabadság that Csetényi’s consortium contract expired August 10, shortly after which the 3.1 billion forints was all spent. So in August, the cabinet office drew up a new contract with the same consortium, without issuing a public statement. In that contract, it authorized the use of an additional HUF 800 million to finish out the campaign until October 2, a grand total of HUF 3.9 billion (USD 14.2 million).

Meanwhile, Fidesz’s campaign manager András Gyürk told Népszabadság-Online that Fidesz’s monetary contribution to the referendum campaign would not exceed HUF 100 million, a sum dwarfed by the 3.9 billion total, taken from public funds. This prompted MSZP vice-president András Nemény to turn to the National Elections Commission (NVB), complaining that the entire campaign was contrary to the principle of electoral equality and unconstitutional, because the government has the use of virtually endless funds to communicate its position to the electorate. All opposition parties combined, by contrast, would not be able to amass HUF 100 million to spend on their campaign, meaning the Fidesz-controlled government and the party itself are outspending the entire opposition by a margin of more than 40:1.

Predictably, the National Elections Commission rejected the complaint, a decision recently upheld by Hungary’s highest court, the Curia.