Former Budapest District 9 mayor Ferenc Gegesy on what went wrong in Hungary after 1990

February 20, 2017

Ferenc Gegesy

“This is not a rule-of-law state.  Until 2010 we appeared to live in a rule-of-law state, but today there is no longer even an appearance of this.” – Ferenc Gegesy, former mayor of Budapest District 9

Translation of interview with former SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats) politician and Budapest District 9 mayor, Ferenc Gegesy, published in the February 23rd, 2017 edition of liberal print weekly Magyar Narancs under the title “We lived in a state having the appearance of rule of law until 2010” (“2010-ig látszatjogállamban éltunk”).

Since 2010 there is not even the appearance, says the subject of our interview, who led Ferencváros (Budapest District IX) between 1990 and 2008 as an SZDSZ politician and then for another two years as an independent.  His book, Rend és rendszer (Order and System), summarizing twenty years of political experience appeared at the end of last year.  But apart from that we also spoke with him about corruption and the state of the country.

Magyar Narancs (MN):  You were the mayor of Ferencváros for twenty years.  Which period do you look back on most fondly?

Ferenc Gegesy (FG):  Without question my first term as mayor between 1990 and 1994.  It was practically by accident and without special preparation that I became mayor, and I had to learn on the job.  During the period through 1994 there were 34 can-do people in the city council, and together we had to figure out what to do and how to do it.  We didn’t really know each other either, and in this way some alcoholics managed to get elected to the body, or the assemblyman who showed up at one of the meetings with his Doberman.  However, the prevailing attitude was the intention to help, and serious, professional debates took place. Characteristically, when the district council decided on its own compensation, it voted for half the maximum permitted by law.  This attitude gradually changed, and the level of professionalism became lower, and party affiliations became more conspicuous.  And more and more councilmen came to regard this as a vocation rather than a calling.

MN: When did the early mood start to change?  When did the first questions arrive that were clearly political?

FG: After the system change a new system came about that ensured a large degree of independence to the local governments.  We were not approached directly by either parties or ministries.  We had conflicts with the City of Budapest, but those were mostly of a professional nature.  I decided in 1994 that I didn’t want to deal with national politics.  Before the elections Bálint Magyar categorically declared that SZDSZ would never enter a coalition with MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party).  After the two rounds, he was already talking about how if Gyula Horn is prime minister, then there will not be a coalition.  After the elections, however, the party still entered into coalition with the Socialist government.  The principles behind the coalition were unacceptable to me, primarily the advantage to SZDSZ of obtaining a few ministerial positions.  István Tarlós, for example, left the party at that time. I, on the other hand, wanted to remain district mayor, which is why I made a compromise with myself:  I would not participate in national politics.  On several occasions SZDSZ tried to recruit me for a leading body, but I rejected the nomination.  I regarded myself as a municipal leader, and not a politician.  I wanted to maintain this situation, but in 2006 I entered parliament, and as a member of parliament I could no longer say that I was not a politician.

MN:  What experience did you get in parliament?  Did anything surprise you after your years in municipal government?

GF:  And how!  Even though I had heard first- and second-hand rumors before, I experienced for myself in parliament just how much agreement there was among parties on important questions.  I even wrote in my book about the case when a modification to a law containing changes favorable to banks took place during an especially tense budgetary situation.  The MSZP-SZDSZ government submitted the proposed change anyway, and with the exception of a few assemblymen, the entire parliament voted for it.  One week later the finance minister János Veres acknowledged that the change—for which he also voted—created a HUF 5 billion hole in the budget.  A large consensus occurred on other far-reaching matters.  However, when SZDSZ left the government, it did not vote down the MSZP interpellation—at that time some MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) MPs helped the minority government.  I sat next to them, and I saw that they did not vote against MSZP.  What I experienced in parliament significantly influenced my world view.

MN: Are you glad that you did not win in 2014 either, and that you have not been active in politics since then?

FG:  When on the evening of the 2010 election the results came in and I heard that, out of 53 districts, I had won a total of 15, I naturally took that badly.  But it quickly occurred to me afterwards that the tension in my life had ceased to be, and that I didn’t have to get up early any more in order to agree with assemblymen.  Of course, I miss performing such useful work as I did for twenty years while mayor.  With just the rehabilitation and the allotment of council flats alone I was able to improve the lives of thousands of people, and that was a good feeling.  However, it really bothers me that my successor destroyed a big part of the results I achieved.  The current mayor was a district assemblymen for 12 years and (Fidesz) fraction head for 8-10 years, as well as the chairman of the financial oversight committee as well as a vice mayor.  He had insight into everything, and he could have adopted any of those practices he wanted.  Instead, the city rehabilitation slowed down, a significant part of buildings to be renovated where instead slated for demolition, even though the necessary resources were given by the Orbán government in 2010.  They allowed the Ráday street to decay, and one of their first acts was to withdraw the support of the primary school for disadvantaged children, and in doing so practically closed it.  I see that the struggle against corruption is also lacking.  I could quote here the saying that if you cannot stop a process, stand at the head of it!  There are bad decisions which I cannot justify with other values.

MN:  What can be done against corruption in local government?

FG:  At a local level we attempted to involve as many actors in the decision-making process as possible.  In some matters it was unavoidable that the mayor decided on his own, but in such cases it is necessary to create procedures that enable as many people as possible to observe the decision-making process, and know on the basis of what principles and facts a decision was made.  For example, in the case of public procurements, there was a committee made up of district government employees and financial, technical, and public procurement experts and lawyers under the direction of the district notary, and another committee made up of assemblymen led by an opposition chairman.   Both committees made recommendations in the case of a few public procurements, and I based my decisions on these.

With regard to legislation, it is necessary to keep to a minimum the practice of holding secret meetings.  It is possible to hold closed meetings with reference to privacy rights or the local government’s economic interests, but practically everything falls under one or the other category.   After that, not even publicity will hold back politicians.  And naturally it is necessary to strengthen the rule of oversight bodies, the notary, the government procedure office, the State Audit Office, the police and prosecutors.

MN:  Does the new law on municipal governments better or worsen the situation?

FG:  The new regulations worsen the situation on the whole.  For example, they expanded the possibility of secrecy in that it is possible to hold closed council meetings for the purpose of negotiating the issuance of public tenders, even though every step in connection with public tenders is open to the public.  Even though the law says that decisions taken at closed council meetings are public, in practice the local governments do not announce these decisions on their web pages.  The district notary can most effectively audit local governments because he possesses the most information.  By contrast, today notaries are totally dependent on the people they ought to inspect.  Mayors can practically fire notaries without reason, and in this way the latter cannot perform worthwhile work.

MN:  In your opinion, why have politics become this way in Hungary after the system change?

FG:  After the system change we adopted a successful rule-of-law state model that had been successful in the West, together with many of its institutions and laws.  Already at the beginning the checks and balances were not very strong, and they became weaker over the years.  A good example of this is how easy it is for local governments to play with the Constitutional Court.  The mayor of a large city proudly recounted at a conference how they had passed an ordinance they knew was unlawful.  A year passed by the time the matter went before the Constitutional Court based on the observations of the government procedural authority. However, one week before the hearing the ordinance was rescinded.  The court closed the matter, and the local government passed the ordinance again the following week.  Or another instance—we noticed at the beginning of the 1990s that some municipal workers quickly allocated flats which they then sold inexpensively.  We were able to get the flats back, but the perpetrators got away.  The criminal procedure took such a long time that, by the time it concluded, the statute of limitations had run out.  The Budapest District 9 police were so underfunded that not only was the shortage of patrolmen a continuous problem, but the fact that they constantly asked the local government for printing paper.  Since the system change those in power have continuously weakened the oversight bodies.  However, if oversight is weak, then those prevail who undertake to break the law with its smaller and smaller associated risks.  This is not a rule-of-law state.  Until 2010 we appeared to live in a rule-of-law state, but today there is no longer even an appearance of this.

MN:  You haven’t been mayor for six years.  Why did you write a book, and why now?

FG:  At first I had to allow myself to settle and reflect on the events of the twenty years.  When I get together with my friends from that period, a few stories always come up.  For example, the time somebody broke into my office armed with a knife and demanded a flat, or when the police ordered me to wear a bullet-proof after I received a threatening anonymous letter, and I went to the Lágymányos bridge that evening where nothing happened.  My friends and my wife assured me that these are interesting stories.  The writing began this way, but then the old matters and decisions followed one after the other, which provided opportunity to once again reflect on those events and the events taking place in the country.  But I hope that my book helps us confront the mistakes made since the system change, and to better understand where we slipped up after 1990.  I would be most happy if a discussion would begin about the past 25 years, and the experiences I collected could be built into the system.  If we continue on as before, and make the same mistakes over and over again, then that will not end well.

The veteran’s tales

Ferenc Gegesy’s book Order and System summarizes his twenty years experience as a mayor and two cycles as a member of parliament, as well as the reason he feels the country has reached the point it has.  It explains how a mathematician from New Pest became the mayor of Ferencváros, and we find numerous anecdotes about the 1990s which seen with today’s eyes seem naive.  For example, the new flat law was debated live on television by politicians, and the viewers could vote on it at the end; at one of the Christmas celebrations municipal employees performed a parody of a district council meeting before the governing and opposition assemblymen.  But we also learn from the book how they rejected, on professional grounds, Péter Gergenyi’s application to become district police captain, who later became the chief of the Budapest police.

Gegesy lists the various expert political successes and failures (especially interesting is the part about the city rehabilitation), although perhaps in too great detail.  Chapters on education, public health-care or partner cities appear in the first half of the book, and these drier topics perhaps intimidate the reader (but, for example, we learn that the liberal mayor, in a manner similar to today’s public works program, preferred to give people work than aid).  However, he later gets into more sensitive topics such as the arbitrary squatters, the Dzsumbuj, the Aszodi residential district, and the destruction of the Kultiplex, and the scandals surrounding the construction of the Müpa or the repercussions of the Balatonöszödi speech.  His point of view is sometimes disputable, but he does not boast that he was unconditionally right, he only says that at the time he thought the decision to be correct.

Various scandals receive their own chapters, for example the Tocsik affair, in which the 9th district was also mixed up.  The district parking issue comes up and what favor the treasurer of one of the parties asked of the mayor.  We also learn that it is possible to bribe a mayor with a couple of million of forints — or at least contractors attempting to bribe Gegesy showed up with such offers (foreign companies, rather, attempted to achieve their goals with the offers of summer vacations.  One contractor tried to obtain a municipal property by sending a woman in a miniskirt to his office who made her intentions known very clearly).

After 2002 the local government coalition whose formation matched that of the city or the national parliament enjoyed such an overwhelming majority in the district that there was nothing to hold back harmful individual intentions.  Gegesy admits that by then he had grown tired of the struggle, and often turned a blind eye to certain matters.

Chapters assessing the local government’s situation and the period since the system change are an important part of the book.  For example, according to Gegesy’s calculations, the resources of larger municipalities have increased since the system change, while those of the majority have not changed, and only the situation of the smaller municipal governments has worsened.  The author recounts in detail what went wrong after the system change, which mistakes were made by the liberals, the socialists, and what the right-wing did wrong.  Gegesy’s words do not only apply to municipalities when he writes that the situation has only gotten worse since 2010.  “The fundamental goal of the changes is not the better functioning of the system, but the organization of more effective direction from above.”