“It is a major problem that honorable mayors who have no part in corrupt deals have scarcely any access to funding, because those who award the money have certain expectations about who should be able to submit a bid, who can take part in public procurements, and who can do the implementation work.” – László Köteles, mayor of Komlóska
Translation of Ilona Matkovich’s article appearing in the May 4th, 2017 edition of print weekly Magyar Narancs under the title “Stealing control of Szentistván: The Matyó wedding parties have stopped.”
After the mayor of Szentistván in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén (B.A.Z.) County announced that he was joining György Gémesi’s recently formed New Beginning [Új Kezdet] party, the council withdrew its support. The story exemplifies the difficulties faced by the leaders of small towns and villages who try to escape the mire of corruption.
“Up and at it” – the election, that is. That was how some of them greeted each other on the road between the Bükk hills and Lake Tisza after the council dissolved itself in Szentistván, which lies in the heart of Matyó country: 8 kilometres from Mezőkövesd and 30 kilometres from Eger. Although the campaign for the election on 9 June was not due to get under way for a good month, the village of 2,400 souls was already stirring. Five of the council’s seven members had voted on 6 April for it to be dissolved.
“Since the coup against mayor Adrienn Pusztai-Csató, I can no longer go where I please in the village, because the supporters of the coup live at one end, while at the other there is a woman who walked the streets blowing a whistle when Adrienn was unseated as mayor,” Erzsike B. said. Szentistván is known for leaning to the left, and the socialist Jakab Ördög ran the village for four consecutive terms. Then the MSZP [Hungarian Socialist Party] dragged him with it when it nose-dived in 2010, and his place was taken by the deputy mayor, József Koncz, with the backing of the Fidesz party. However, the new leader failed to live up to the hopes attached to him, and although there was some progress during his term in office, he was unable to keep order in the village: the police placed Szentistván in the category of high risk settlements that needed patrolling round the clock.
When the mayor’s own home was burgled in the summer of 2014, election year, the Szentistván branch of the Jobbik party saw the time had come to invite Zoltán Mihály Orosz, the mayor of Érpatak, to its annual public hearing. Orosz offered to help in restoring law and order. Several locals said “you dare not go out into the street in the early evening because of the disturbances” and “your house is already being burgled by the time you get to the garden gate”. Local council employees spoke of being subjected to serious threats while at work, but in a hearing peppered with heated interjections, no one asked for the Érpatak model. The villagers well aware that the criminals are a small, clearly delineated group, and not “the Gypsies” in general. They “didn’t want to turn Szentistván into a new Gyöngyöspata”.
Instead, in the council elections of 2014, the locals unanimously backed the village’s public notary, Adrienn Pusztai-Csató, a graduate of police training college. Pusztai-Csató ran as an independent and won with the support of Socialist and Jobbik voters, receiving almost two-thirds of the vote on a turnout of almost 80%. The former mayor does not deny that she had previously been a resolute Fidesz sympathizer.
“My mother was a great campaigner for Fidesz in Mezőkövesd,” she said, also revealing that she still dreams of meeting Viktor Orbán to let him know of her disillusionment with a Fidesz that had not been faithful to its principles. And she has another reason to be bitter: it has been two-and-a-half years since Szentistván received any EU funding. Despite their best efforts, all they managed was to get the fence opposite the church painted with rose pattens (this is the typical embroidery motif of a Matyó village). And it was not Pusztai-Csató who secured the money for this, but a landowner with influence in government circles, who got it from the Hungarian Arts Fund.
“The village badly needed work for women and unskilled laborers, so we leased a plot of local council land to a firm so it could bid for support to set up a fruit drying factory. In the end, the Miskolc-based tender writing firm Nord Tender Ltd informed the company that the money would not be coming to Szentistván,” said the mayor, who made several bids through Nord Tender but was always refused. The owner of Nord Tender, Tamás Bihall is the vice-chairman of the Hungarian Chamber of Commerce, and president of B.A.Z. county’s chamber of commerce.
Pusztai-Csató can see no reason for the refusal to help launch the drying facility in such a disadvantaged region. However, in the public sitting where the local council voted to dissolve itself, deputy mayor Zsuzsanna Tanner Attiláné Koncz said András Tállai – the parliamentary state secretary for taxation affairs, and also the region’s representative in the national assembly – would not support Szentistván “because of mayor Pusztai-Csató’s behavior”. So in Hungary in 2017, a deciding factor in the decision of a local council to dissolve itself was whether or not the mayor enjoyed the favour of the local potentate.
What, how much, to whom
Szentistván is a neat and tidy little village. The community center hosts a multitude of events, and at the time of our visit the standing mayor opened an exhibition by the local sculptor Ildikó Kovács. There are two cultural groups and a Matyó sewing workshop, a kindergarten, a primary school, a doctor’s surgery, a registry office, bakery, corner shop, four hairdressers, a cake shop and a café. Young people who buy their first home in Szentistván can get a settlement grant of 600,000 forints (USD 2,200) from the local council. A Dutch estate agent has pensioners from the Benelux countries lining up: some 50 properties are in foreign hands, and many of them live there permanently. Although Szentistván lies at the end of the road, the producers’ cooperative that has been renamed Szentistván Agricultural Ltd still provides jobs for almost 200 people in the area. You can buy an affordable house in Szentistván for between 5 and 8 million forints (USD 18,000-30,000), although the low wages and the expensive public transport mean only a handful of people travel into Eger or Miskolc to work.
“I always say I want to raise Szentistván up to the standard of a European village, whether they like it or not,” Adrienn Pusztai-Csató says with a sweeping gesture as we arrive at a small lake, which sympathizers have named after her, while her opponents call it the “Csató puddle”. She explains how she contacted András Tállai in 2014 to ask his opinion of her running for office, and in the hope of some form of support. “I was told I could do it, that it was my right as a citizen. If I had been told ‘don’t run or you are a dead man’ I wouldn’t have dared do it,” Adrienn says, recalling the time when the then Socialist mayor and Jobbik stood shoulder to shoulder in support. She stressed, though, that she had always considered herself conservative-Christian in outlook while at the same time belonging to no one political camp.
Then on 15 March last year, New Beginning, which positions itself on the centre-right, raised its flag under the leadership of (Gödöllő mayor-tran.) György Gémesi, and came looking to Szentistván’s mayor. A significant number of New Beginning members are small-town mayors who are highly critical of the government’s policy towards towns and villages, including the narrowing of opportunities to access funding. The mayor of Komlóska, László Köteles, wrote about this on his Facebook page: “I see it as a major problem, that honorable mayors who have no part in corrupt deals have scarcely any access to funding, because those who award the money have certain expectations about who should be able to make a bid, who can take part in public procurements, and who can do the implementation work.”
The Szentistván council did not initially have any objections to the mayor’s new party allegiance, and the councillors even liked the fact that one of New Beginning’s main aims was the protection of small towns and villages. So it came as a bolt out of the blue for Pusztai-Csató when they suddenly withdrew their support. Since there was no Fidesz councillor, she suspects they wanted to use the by-election to change this situation. She is running in New Beginning’s colours, and would not be surprised if a grand coalition of Fidesz, the MSZP and Jobbik were to line up against her.
Jakab Ördög is adamant that he did not turn against the mayor because of her membership of New Beginning, but because he was very disappointed in her. He dismisses the rumor that he “handed over the votes of 200 Szentistván pensioners” to the joint candidate for a “certain sum” as completely laughable.
I’m Zsuzsi and I’m not stupid
Many people gave the mayor a piece of their mind in the council session on 20 April. Deputy mayor Zsuzsanna Tanner Attiláné Koncz said she had almost been persuaded to run in New Beginning’s colours against András Tállai in the national parliamentary elections. The deputy mayor put it like this: “I’m Zsuzsi and I’m not stupid…was I ready to destroy my family?” Naturally, the discussion also turned to financial matters. Szentistván’s councillors enjoy a comfortable monthly stipend. For example the head of the financial committee receives an honorarium of 150,000 forints, while the council members get 80,000 forints gross a month. Ördög was one of many who complained in April that, after they had acquiesced to Pusztai-Csató’s request that councillors give up a part of their pay, which was high by rural standards, the mayor had not put a penny towards the village’s Christmas lights.
It was during his time as mayor that the “Ökotám” sewerage development got under way, enabling participating towns and villages to make financing contracts with the Ökotám Foundation, and the residents to set up water infrastructure associations. The association would apply for the credit, and private individuals would sign contracts with building societies, allowing the development to go ahead with a minimum investment by the residents themselves. The four communities that took part in the program in Szentistván have committed to repay their loans by 31 January 2018, and as guarantors, have put up their own assets as security.
Pusztai-Csató found it ridiculous that she could not look into the financial affairs of the foundation, given that, as the leader of the village, she was responsible for paying back the 1.5 million-forint loan, even though she had not been resident in the village at the time of the investment. “All I know is that several mayors and councillors have already appeared in court because of the Ökotám program,” she said. Jakab Ördög – who saw the local sewerage development through to completion during his time as mayor and now deals with the financial side of things as president of the Szemege Water Utility Association – confidently asserts that there is no cause for concern and the loan will be paid back in time.
Just like in big-time politics
Three members of staff resigned from the council’s finance office because of an “atmosphere of everyone against everyone else”; among them was the chief business administrator. Jakab Ördög and the Jobbik councillor Szilárd Barta came into the office together with the chief business administrator, who was working off his notice, at seven o’clock in the morning of the Tuesday after Easter. Ördög said he went so early (half an hour before the start of work) because he wanted to know who in the office had been tasked with keeping an eye on him. The Jobbik politician was curious about two invoices, which he duly found and photocopied. Ördög did not take part in this, he mainly wanted to sprinkle cologne on the office’s female employees as they turned up for work. After these events, Pusztai-Csató ordered an internal investigation, during which it turned out that certain documents were missing from the files. She believes that Ördög could not stand the idea that he could not tell her what to do. In fact, after the dissolution of the council he said: “I helped you get to the top, and I can knock you down as well.”
The head of the national tax authority (NAV) and national assembly member András Tállai held a press conference on 28 April, where he said the village was heading in the wrong direction. As an example, he said “the Matyó wedding parties have stopped, there is no one who can organize them…and the football team has stopped playing, so the community and its values have disappeared”. The lawmaker said he had not really seen any “need for development worthy of the government’s attention”.
It is probably a coincidence, but we’ll mention it anyway: Adrienn Pusztai-Csató, who is a silent partner in a local company, told this newspaper that the partnership had recently been informed by the NAV that it was to be subject to a financial audit.
MAGYAR NARANCS 4 May. POLITICS p.17