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Interview with Budapest head mayor István Tarlós over dispute with Viktor Orbán

Translation of the interview with Budapest Mayor István Tarlós published by online daily index.hu on 13 January 2016 entitled “Shame on him who treats his ally this way” (“Tarlós: Szégyellje az magát, aki így bánik a szövetségesével“).

Those who cannot come to Budapest will be angry at the state should there be a problem with BKK [Budapest Transport Centre] service in the greater Budapest region due to the state not paying BKK for this service.  István Tarlós told our people that he does not agree with [Prime Minister] Viktor Orbán’s Budapest policies and is personally disappointed in him.  He added that if knocked down, he always gets up, and that resigning is out of the question.  He stated that his boss is the people, God, and in certain matters his wife.  Compulsory decreases to utility costs were good to ensure that City companies were left without reserves.

Recently, you announced that you are considering running again for head mayor in 2019.  Who was the message directed at?  Fidesz or [District VIII mayor] Máté Kocsis, who has been sounded out as your successor?

Máté Kocsis has no chance either.   I did not intend for his person to be part of the message at all.  2019 is still a long way off, and Fidesz is rarely in the habit of deciding such matters four years out.  It was not necessarily sending a message.

Nomination does not necessarily mean that someone is running for office.  It is also possible to run without being nominated by a party.  You could run as an independent. 

Allow me to qualify my statement.  I was merely referring to the fact that so far in this country I received by far the most votes as an individual candidate.   The people of Budapest trust me.  I am loyal to the Prime Minister’s efforts to build the country, and I continue to support him.  However, I do not agree with his Budapest policies.  And I have said so in no uncertain terms.

What is the problem with his Budapest policies?

Is that a serious question?  I very much regret that certain individuals convinced the Prime Minister that there is enough money for that for which there is not enough money.  The public transportation of a city of nearly 2 million costs a lot of money.  BKK signed an agreement with the Ministry for National Development (NFM), which the NFM did not fulfill.  In 2015 not a filler [coin] was given for translation in the agglomeration.  It is enough to read the contract, the budget law and the Budapest ’21 agreement.  We sent a letter to BKK last week demanding payment, and if it does not do so within 15 days, we will terminate the contract.  In questions regarding the public transportation of the capital city, I cannot make concessions even to the Prime Minister.  I do not agree with his point of view in connection with this.

Is it still possible to agree?

We can only agree in the event if we can ensure public transportation for Budapest, meaning the state takes over funding the costs of service within the agglomeration.  If not, then there will be no agreement.  In this I cannot and will not compromise.  The Prime Minister promised this, by the way.

When will there be an agreement, if there is to be one?

Neither I nor others can decide when the Prime Minister discusses something.  What I know is that the Prime Minister promised in November 2014 that we would directly consult one another on matters pertaining to the capital city.  I feel strongly that this promise was not kept.

The last meeting took place in the middle of December.  Our information is that it left a bad taste and was not successful.

It was not my impression that we fought—we spoke in private for one and a half hours.  But the discussion with the Prime Minister actually yielded fewer results than I would have thought.  I was even more disappointed in him as a person.  Because not everything is possible in politics.  I consider such behavior unworthy of an ally in that a “salad law” one of whose provisions burdens the capital city with the entire cost of financing BKV (Budapest Transport Company) was submitted and passed by parliament.

On this subject you recently stated that you were stabbed in the back.

Yes, I believe that was a strong expression.  I don’t believe that I am the one who needs to feel ashamed.  Whoever behaves this way with an ally should be ashamed of himself.  In any case, the Prime Minister promised the state would take over the financing of public transportation within the agglomeration.  He also mentioned that it would take over the HÉV (regional) trains.  Obviously the City general assembly must decide about this if it becomes official.  By the way, he himself said the agreement between NFM and BKK was no longer valid.

When will that take place?

We have to prepare a budget, otherwise in 15 days we will terminate the contract with NFM just as I am sitting here.

But if you terminate the contract with BKK subcontractor Volán bus, then this will affect a lot of people living in Budapest, as they use the agglomeration buses for travel within Budapest itself.

The solution will be for us to warn Volánbusz.

Why?

They can send buses out of Budapest to the agglomeration, but we won’t be able to pay for this.

And if they don’t send them?

Well then I wasn’t the one to end the service but rather Volánbusz.  Just as they don’t pay, we don’t pay.

The 15-day deadline has already passed. Can the more than 300,000 people arriving from the Budapest agglomeration every day expect complications with public transportation towards the end of January?

It is the responsibility of the state, as I’ve already said.  We will not prevent Volán from continuing to send buses.  We indicated that on the basis of the provisions of the new law the capital city will not be able to pay the invoices.   If Volán is willing to take the risk, then it should submit the bill to the state.  We cannot undertake a task for which we cannot pay.  Those living in the agglomeration should not be angry at the capital city if there is nothing from which to finance the service.  They should be angry at the state!  I was also angry when two days before Christmas the Ministry for National Economy announced that the capital city had to perform this task through 2022.  They neglected to mention that the state forgot to fulfill its obligations provided for by the contract.

The possible restructuring of the HÉV will require a more complicated organization.  What will happen once the deadline expires?

If, per the Prime Minister’s suggestion, they attach it to the MÁV (Hungarian railways) suburban system, that could work, but this has to be approved by the City general assembly.  Another possible solution is that the capital city continues the service, but is paid for it.

And if no such solution emerges?

I would be very disappointed if the state took that risk.  I can only say with certainty that we cannot pay.  By the way, it is possible from a technical point of view for HÉV to only run as far as the city borders.

Does the 15-day deadline allow time for an agreement to be reached?

I am not under any time pressure.  But this time the technique by which we say nothing, say nothing, and it turns out bad for the capital city anyway isn’t going to work.  If the deadline expires, we will terminate the contract and that’s all.  I am not pressuring anyone to act quickly.

Minister for National Development Miklós Seszták was assigned the task of negotiating with the capital city.  Do you think he will give the capital city what it asks?

We have a very good working relationship with Miklós Seszták. I don’t know to what extent Miklós has dealt with public transportation, but that is not the point because we need to agree on how it is to be funded.

Have you already agreed?

The minister represents the same point of view as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. That’s his problem.  I don’t care to what extent he has been given a free hand or not, but that the public transportation of the agglomeration community can be funded on the basis of the new laws.

How much money is at stake?

I cannot say precisely for sure.  Last year it cost HUF 16 billion (USD 55 million).  Prices do not go down.  I do not dispute the political benefit resulting from the mandated decrease in utility costs.  And as a citizen I was happy for them.  But the utility cost decreases as well as the various fee collection manipulations left the City public utility companies in bad shape.  I do not know what to make of suggestions on the part of certain individuals that we should spend the company’s dividends, because in that case the dividends will disappear.  There are those who ask the eternal question, why don’t we change the structure?  To my way of seeing things, that is stupidity.  It is difficult to understand given the facts of the matter how the capital city would hide such a budgetary shortage.

Returning to your announcement, if I was dissatisifed with something, I would not threaten to run for re-election but to resign. The rumor is even spreading that you promised to resign.

Parmenion once told Alexander the Great that “if I were Alexander the Great, then I would do this and that”.  To this Alexander the Great responded that he would do that too if he was Parmenion.  That is what I can say to you.  By the way, I did not grow up in the downtown gigolo salons.  If someone knocks me down, then I am in the habit of getting up, not giving up.  For the moment there can be no question about resigning.  Nor did I say I would.

What is your relationship like with the district mayors making up the Fidesz majority in the city council?

During this cycle the district mayors have been positive with me and I have no problem with them.  If they want to punish me, it is not Tárlos but rather themselves and the capital city they are punishing. We have been arguing for five years with the government over these public transportation matters.

If they want to punish Tarlós, then why would they nominate you in 2014?

I have never insisted on remaining head mayor.  Fidesz nominates candidates of its free will.  But if they wanted a yes-man, then they should not have nominated me.

Whose idea was it to modify the laws so that the capital city would have to pay from its own till drawer rather than receive money?  Or as you put it, the stab in the back?

I could tell you even worst things, but as for whose idea it was, I do not know.   What is certain is that I cannot debate public transportation with people who sign from relatively poor settlements.  Not even if the Prime Minister designates them.

The bill was signed by Mihály Varga and Antal Rogán.  Rogán was the mayor of a downtown district for a long time.

You would have to ask them why they signed it.

Earlier you said that you were on good terms with both of them.  So far János Lázár was your main opponent, now two quasi friendly politicians have appeared behind him

We should be careful with this “friend” expression.  My friends cannot be found in the political arena.  For me this is not a matter of friendship, but a political alliance that either works or doesn’t work.  I’ve noticed that certain parties do not take into consideration basic rules of political alliances.  One-sided “friendship” doesn’t work with me.  It cannot be expected from me that I do always do everything, but Budapest is not reciprocated.  There can still be an agreement.  If the state assumes responsibility for funding the agglomeration transportation, that strikes me as an acceptable compromise.

Many believe there is a trump card to the dispute with ministers and state leaders that has yet to be played.  If the advertising column war did not have the fervor that it did, perhaps you would be in a better negotiating position.

My position on this matter has not changed and I do not wish to offer an opinion.  A legally enforcable court decision has yet to be handed down.  Once the lawsuit is over, then perhaps I will state my opinion.  But since you have raised the issue of whether there is a card I haven’t played, I do not play this way.   If someone kicks me in the kidneys from behind on the soccer field, I do not conclude that I should kick the same people in the kidneys from behind.  I was raised differently.

The reason we ask is because you were not the one who proposed to terminate the contract, and since the Mahir columns continue to stand undisturbed in the districts, it seems as though you are being blamed for it.

I don’t feel that way.  That is yet another careless remark.  If we both want to play the naive person, then allow me to call your attention to something unrelated.  This contract was signed three cycles ago.  For now I only know of one assemblyman who is still sitting here who opposed it (as a member of the ruling party).

On the other hand there is Publimont which sells advertising areas on the sides of BKV buses which belongs to the same interests as Mahir.  Doesn’t the city have a problem with that company?

BKV has the right to sign its own contracts, so you would have to ask the BKV CEO.

Disregarding the political situation surrounding agglomeration public transportation, would you not support a longer term concept of forming a tariff alliance with the surrounding settlements instead of terminating?

It was a mistake to knead it into a company with a large number of employees.  By the end of the year we need to shrink it down to a public transportation organization of 100 persons (not including the 5-600 ticket inspectors), and for this reason significant downsizing can be expected.   However, this only covers but a fraction of the missing funds.   In my opinion the debate over the financing of BKV operation has been going on for 26 years, as well as over the the role of Budapest.   One of the reasons we are at an impasse today is because so far it was not treated as a technical question but a political question.  That is why there is no solution.  However, it is important to emphasize that a complete false communication is taking place about this.  It is not necessary to prove that we are talking about politics here.  Distorted political messages are being sent which may prevail with the help of superior communications but which are no more true for it.  When the 2010 cycle began, I asked that we solve the problems that existed at that time, about which one politician who certainly knew nothing about Budapest public transportation said, “Tárlos, do not expect any reward for this.”

Was that János Lázár?

This was the minister, in fact.  That was when our relationship deteriorated, because I could not accept that from a person who could not possibly have any idea about what the actual situation was.  Let’s not kid ourselves!   His next statement was that the capital city should solve the problem with its own HUF 700 billion (USD 2.4 billion) budget.  That is precisely half of the capital city’s budget.

If anyone is loyal in this political alliance, then I am certain that I am the gentleman if I maintain my loyalty in other matters but not in this.  All I can say is shame on those who attack their political allies this way.  Does anyone dare say that we haven’t accomplished anything over the past five years in Budapest or with BKV?

If they force you to swallow this despite every opposition, what will be the consequence?  While BKV go broke?

It would not go broke.  This is a frequently discredited obsession repeated daily on the part of a former MSZP (now DK) assemblyman.  BKV would manage Budapest public transportation.   Read the budget law.  It contains that it is necessary to satisfy the local transportation needs.  If we did this, then there wouldn’t be agglomeration public transportation, which is a voluntarily task.  The law says voluntary tasks cannot be performed at the expense of obligatory ones.  Apart from that, it is not possible to plan a budget that contains a shortfall.  So, if afterwards the city were to continue to fund agglomeration transportation, then it would violate precisely three laws.

According to an article appearing in today’s Népszabadság, Orbán forced you to back down and will not give additional support with which to finance Budapest or suburban transportation, and that he informed you of this.

This article also gets personal and furthermore is mistaken and confused.  I do not know who the supposed anonymous leaking Judas is, but for sure it is not a friend of the Prime Minister’s because he says things which are a political deficit from the outset.   Perhaps he is calculating with their suspecting me (as the source of the leak-ed.).  The question here isn’t how friendly Orbán and Tarlós are, but the numbers, the facts, the laws and agreements, as well as whose interest it is to make reality irrelevant through manipulative communication.

There have been more disagreements with the government over BKV money.  Is this a more pronounced situation than before?

I wasn’t the one aggravating the situation.  The one aggravating it is the one who insists that we pay for something from an empty cash drawer.  This cannot be asked of me.  The mayor of Budapest is a rather legitimate position.  My situation is different from that of Fidesz members.  My boss is the people who elected me.  Other than the people, God and in certain questions my wife, but that’s it.  I, of course, take into consideration the opinions and intentions of the country’s leading politicians.  But not even they may command the opposite of what they asked from me before.  That for me is a political ally, nothing more, nothing less.

 

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