Gabor Vago: The man behind Hungary’s anti-corruption movement

November 14, 2014


Two months ago Budapest Beacon senior correspondent Benjamin Novak interviewed former Politics Can Be Different (LMP) member of parliament Gabor Vago to discuss his background, his former party, and tax inspector-turned-whistleblower Andras Horvath.

Who is Gabor Vago?

I’m thirty years old, I was born in Kecskemét. Ever since I was a kid I’ve always liked helping my community. I studied at Corvinus University here in Budapest where I was also active in student organizations and had the opportunity to take part in movements in other countries. My friends and I started an NGO when I returned to Kecskemet. It soon grew and opened up to welcome other members too. We took part in organizing sport competitions, cultural programs and other community-building events. We even had a blog that won two national awards.

We were often at odds with the local governments because they would make promises that they wouldn’t deliver on. So that’s when we decided we would also become active in politics. But because we all had different ideas and beliefs, we all went in separate directions. Green issues have always been the closest to my heart, so that’s the direction I chose.

I joined the executive board of Politics Can Be Different (LMP) before it became a political party. There was a lot of momentum behind Politics Can Be Different when it became a party and I think that momentum was what put me in Parliament.

Why did you choose LMP?

I had a huge desire to see things change. When we first started, it was very clear that we are a diverse group with diverse views but we shared certain core fundamental values.  And that foundation is what we wanted to build upon. Also, a lot of the members had come from the civil sector, which meant each brought something to the table.

How do you mean?

I mean they had experience in community-building. Community-building – even regarding smaller micro-communities – is important because it facilitates interaction among others. I think that the lack of community-building is a huge problem in Hungary. So much of society has become atomized, isolated. That’s why I’ve got a lot of respect for people engaged in that kind of outreach. I felt we were able to inspire each other. Back in the old days that helped create a very positive environment within the group. But that all changed as soon as we got into Parliament.

You entered Parliament in 2010.  What was that experience like?

It was a pretty easy adjustment for me because one of my majors in college was political science, so I wasn’t too shocked when I found myself in Parliament. More than anything, I had always been disgusted by the earlier duality of the Parliament’s “left”, by which I mean that you had the “leftist thieves” and “rightist robbers”, and one would always replace the other.

So where did LMP fit into this equation?

It didn’t, it was above it.  There was a political vacuum that we were very able to fill. Back in 2010 our party was made up of all the different views and ideas that its members brought to the table. So our members really projected their ideas of how politics can be different into the party. Our popularity began to dwindle as we started developing a plan and showed it to our supporters, but our supporters came back when they saw that we were consequential with what we were saying.

LMP entered parliament in 2010 with 16 delegates.  What committees were you assigned to?

I was a member of the Committee on Budgetary Affairs, which was okay with me because I also majored in economics, as well as the Committee of Social Affairs. I was also chairman of the Subcommittee on Housing Affairs which, among many things, addressed discrimination against the homeless and the many very serious housing problems that affect 1.5 million Hungarians. It was a constant headache because all of the recommendations fell on deaf Fidesz ears.

I was the first one to bring the problems affecting households with foreign-currency-denominated mortgages before the Parliament. But I don’t feel responsible for the lame solutions offered for that problem.

I was also the first to speak up about the need to address household utility costs because they are far higher than the EU average. But I had no idea the government would use my idea to cement its hold on power. This too shows how these guys will take over the ideas of the opposition and use them as their own.

In 2012 Gordon Bajnai invited LMP to form an electoral alliance that resulted in over half of LMP’s parliamentary delegates and all three of its Budapest City Council delegates quitting the party to form Dialogue for Hungary (PM).  What was that all about?

Personally, what happened then was really a huge problem for me. It didn’t affect me politically because we had all agreed that we were doing something new.  It was neither right nor left, and that we would not forge alliances with the old guard.  For me Bajnai was just another face in the crowd of the old guard.  The technocratic style that he represents and the circle of power that he is also a member of – which is very strongly tied to the Socialists – is what is responsible for leading Hungary down a dead end.  Personally, I had no doubts whatsoever that I wouldn’t work with him. Despite there being a huge amount of pressure coming from all sides that the system needs to be changed, I feel that you can’t make that change with the same people who were responsible for it being the way it is.

Despite me having much more in common socially and culturally with those who left the party, despite us sharing the same positions on many issues, I was firm in my position that I would stay with Politics Can Be Different. I had more friends who left the party than who stayed.

When our party had its congress and this issue came up, I said the worst possible thing that could happen would be if the party split up. I said that we should choose one direction as a group, but that we shouldn’t split up.

Then we had another party congress in January 2013 where the issue came up again. By that point it was clear that they were going to leave the party. That’s when I said we should do this in a way that results in a win-win situation, not a lose-lose situation. Unfortunately both parties ended up losing out.  But the loss was greatest for Hungary because there is no longer an impeccable opposition. The internal problems of political parties make them look petty on the outside, and that causes a lot of problems for them when they are trying to bring good solutions to real problems as a party.

I’ve met PM co-chairs Timea Szabo and Benedek Javor on a few occasions. Both of them struck me as intelligent, well-spoken, issue-focused politicians. I can recall numerous issues in which they really did a lot to help bring the public into the “debate” according to their respective area of expertise.

That’s what’s so strange about the whole breakup. Many people still harbor resentment towards them and there’s still a lot of bickering back and forth. There’s only a handful of people in LMP who keep in touch with them, I being one of them. Frankly, it’s much more important for me to have good relationships with good people than to sever ties over petty political differences. I have a lot of friends with lots of different views, but still we manage to have good relationships and avoid going for each others’ throats.

Within our party there were only a couple of us who were saying that we shouldn’t hate each other and that we should support each other. I would have been happy to see a strong opposition that could eventually oust the Fidesz government, but there were a lot of people who didn’t agree with that. I think that’s really unfortunate.

What percent of the popular vote did LMP get in 2010?

A little under 8 percent.

How much did they get in the 2014 elections?

Just over 5 percent.

What prompted you to leave LMP in January of this year?

Like I said, there’s an organizational sociology problem within the party.

What does that mean?

There’s an issue with how the organization actually operates. Look, there was a lot that happened before the party split and that contributed greatly to a really negative environment. A mentality developed that essentially said “whoever isn’t with us is against us.”  It’s a Bolshevic mentality. Eventually, what we saw was that instead of helping each other, the various factions in the party were preventing the other factions from getting anything done. That’s something I really don’t agree with. I don’t think it’s productive at all and it’s not the kind of politicizing that I want to be part of. The real problem is that it became typical of how the party operated. Some of this also carried on into the group that split from our party.

I don’t think LMP is constantly trying to thwart others’ work. Competition is a part of politics and it’s even a part of internal party politics.  But we shouldn’t be preoccupied with how we are stopping others from getting things done.  Greater emphasis should be put on helping those who we see are more capable of getting things done.

I had problems with the organizational set-up and the political direction of the party but I gave voice to these problems. With regard to forming an electoral alliance with the other left-wing parties, I thought that we should be working harder to find common ground with other micro-organizations because I thought that our party could have been a magnet to attract smaller separate political movements. This is one of the things that I would have liked to see. When our party congress voted on my recommendation, they shot it down because they thought that our party should do everything alone. I happen to believe that we should seek opportunities to cooperate with others instead of acting like upset little piggies who insist that only they know what is right.

Another problem was that the party’s leadership did not support my candidacy on the party’s national list because they felt I compromised the ability of others to be elected to Parliament. I wasn’t upset about not having the support of the party’s leadership, I was upset about the direction I saw the party heading in. I was a relatively well-known person within the party and I was also known outside the party. There was a survey conducted in the last Parliament which showed that the least hated party in Parliament was Politics Can Be Different, and I was the least hated of its members.

Being the least hated member of parliament must have been a dubious honor!

My goal was never to be in Parliament. I got involved in politics because I want to see things happen.

So was internal tension within LMP what caused you to leave the party?

It wasn’t only the internal tension. It was also the direction the party was headed in. The party became a say-nothing party.  And it lost its color in the spectrum of Hungarian political parties, which is a shame because, when it started, the party was very colorful and vibrant.

Give me an example.

You tell me! Are there any issues that you can tie to Politics Can Be Different?

There was the Kishantos issue but other left-wing parties addressed that issue as well. The Andras Horvath and Tax Authority scandal is definitely the major issue that I associate with the party. You were very actively pressing the story, urging the government to investigate it, and making public appeals.

Yes, well I really pushed this Andras Horvath/Tax Authority issue alone and it eventually became my one-man war against the system. The reason I got involved in that issue is because I was tired of seeing newer and newer scandals coming to light every day. When this issue came to light I saw that this is affecting trillions of forints of the state’s budget. It is literally so big that it eats up 3 percent of this country’s GDP.

When Andras Horvath turned whistleblower it became very clear that the Tax Authority and certain tax cheats were in cahoots with one another in very specific areas of the economy. It also became obvious that the reason why this issue has not made much headway in the realm of political discourse is because the tentacles of this scandal extend deep into the political world.