Translation of investigative journalist Andrá Pethő’s article “The man on the front line in the government’s war–The secret history of Antal Rogán, part II” published by daily online origo.hu on July 31st, 2012.
He began as a bespectacled bookworm in a terrible pullover, but now wears luxury brand clothing and works out to build muscle. Courted by powerful businessmen, he stuck to politics and has become one of the most important allies of the prime minister. [origo] presents the rise of Antal Rogán, one of the country’s most influential politicians. Part two.
Officials from the District 5 local council and mayor’s offices gathered last December in Café Kör, one of the trendy city centre restaurants in Sas utca. The guests had a choice of two menus, and received gift packs containing hard cheese, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and the customary workplace present of a personal calendar/diary. Lunch for the affluent couples and suited businessmen at the bistro-style restaurant was originally slated for noon, but the invitees had been asked to arrive a little earlier, at 11:30 am.
Mayor Antal Rogán had requested the change because of his afternoon schedule. According to one of the councillors, Rogán told him this was partly because he wanted to go somewhere with his wife, and partly because he wanted to take Christoph for a beer. This referred to Christoph Rosenberg, the head of an IMF negotiating team, who was in Budapest with colleagues at the time for talks on financial assistance requested by the Hungarian government the previous November. Rogán was a member of the Hungarian delegation who, as a fluent German speaker since childhood, could easily communicate with Rosenberg, a regular guest in Hungary since the earlier IMF agreement.
So Rogán looked forward to a pleasant, quiet day, while in reality a conflict was brewing behind the scenes that would define Hungary’s political drama for months to come. It was 15 December, a day after a parliamentary debate over two proposals regarding the Hungarian National Bank [MNB] that had been received with incomprehension and anger by delegates from the IMF and the European Commission. They protested that the government-backed proposal posed a threat to the independence of the MNB, and they left Budapest early despite having scheduled plans for the Friday. The planned beer with Rogán was on Christoph Rosenberg’s schedule, but according to the politician, the chief negotiator signalled that this visit had also been cancelled.
Prelude to war
The Fidesz politician was thus among the first to learn of the decision that was only leaked to the press the following day, and signaled a prelude to the outbreak of conflict between the Hungarian government and international financial institutions that would go on for months. This directly affected Rogán as a member of the Hungarian delegation, and because he was involved in many of the economic policy interventions at the centre of the dispute. As president of the parliamentary economics committee, he took part in the drafting or amendment of numerous laws that had a significant effect on the activities of economic players such as banks. He was also among the governing party’s most active politicians in the case of regulatory reforms affecting the MNB, which drew protests from the IMF negotiators.
This episode at the end of last year clearly signaled that Rogán was no longer merely the leader of one of Budapest’s most important districts, but a defining factor in economic policymaking. It became clear that his career in local politics had come to an end, and after several years on the outside, he was once again operating at the national level. Having begun his career here, this was not uncharted territory for him (see the first part of this article). Nevertheless, his most recent previous endeavor had left him with his fingers badly burned.
Hesitation while under construction
Rogán was Fidesz campaign manager for the 2006 general election, which ended in defeat despite the party leading opinion polls just months ahead of the vote. Fidesz’s self-confidence had already been boosted by a victory in the 2004 European Parliament elections, with András Gyürk as campaign manager. After he took a seat in the EU assembly, a new person was needed for the 2006 test, and the name of Gyürk’s long-time friend Rogán came up. For years, he had been concentrating on building up Fidesz in District 5, and a source with knowledge of the campaign chief selection process said Rogán initially declined the task. “Tóni thought long and hard about whether he should take the job,” said the Fidesz politician, who puts the hesitation down to the fact that the mandate would mean interrupting his local party building work.
The source said Fidesz began looking for a new campaign manager soon after the EP election in June 2004, and Gyürk started by reaching out to Rogán. Extensive discussions were needed before his success was assured, but by the time of Viktor Orbán’s formal offer, Rogán had already decided to accept the job. This came a few months after the EP campaign, when the post of campaign leader seemed a guarantee of success in terms of political power relations – but as it turned out, the appointment spelled disastrous failure for the politician.
As the director responsible for the day-to-day running of the campaign operation, he was forced to come up with embarrassing explanations during the so-called “server-gate” affair (it had come to light that a hacking attack on the agency providing campaign materials to the MSZP originated from a Fidesz server), and when it emerged from a faxed message that, despite assertions to the contrary, Fidesz was linked to a publication called Magyar Vizsla which printed attacks on government politicians. A member of the campaign team said it became far more difficult to run the campaign operation after these blunders, and it was clear that “Tóni had had enough”. It emerged that the politician, otherwise known for his self-control, yelled at the team members around him, although the source said “he would calm down within five minutes, and you could then discuss things with him”.
“We get on with things while you lot mess everything up”
According to the former team member, the atmosphere at campaign meetings remained calm, and even the leading politicians took a pragmatic approach. When faced with a problem “they worked on how it should be communicated”. They discussed, for example, the best solution to a given situation: respond, keep quiet, or perhaps bring forward something planned for a later date, which they could use to draw attention away from the problem. However, this pragmatic approach did not mean that Rogán entirely avoided internal criticism. The parliamentary caucus saw the campaign blunders in a particularly bad light. According to one of Rogán’s colleagues, MPs highlighted their own efforts and sent in messages along the lines of “we are getting on with things while you lot mess everything up”.
Behind this griping lay an older dispute affecting the upper echelons of the Fidesz party. The parliamentary caucus was led by János Áder, who did not like the direction in which Orbán had taken the party since its defeat in 2002. There were arguments about, for example, reforms to the party structure with increased membership via citizens’ circles [a conservative grass roots movement], as well as the communications activities. These existing tensions rose to the surface as the 2006 campaign stumbled on. According to one member of the campaign team, this also affected Rogán. Although he had stayed well clear of national party matters in the preceding years, as campaign chief he could not dissociate himself from the dispute. As one source put it, with the party president as the figurehead of the campaign, the campaign chief was drawn into the fray alongside him.
After the defeat, Orbán signalled in internal forums that the responsibility was his own, and thus shielded the campaign team from the severest criticism. However, according to his friends, the failure took a heavy toll on Rogán. “He was rarely seen despondent, but he was at that time,” one friend said, adding that the politician seemed physically tired and “knew that it would take years to recover from it”. Rogán also recognised that he had not handled the fiasco well and, for that reason, he withdrew again from national party politics against Orbán’s wishes. “He tried again to convince me to work alongside him, but I told him I did not think that would do him any good for the losing campaign manager to stay with him,” said Rogán, who said the party leader tried until the last minute to persuade him to change his mind.
Dual campaign in District 5
The last minute meant the start of the campaign for the local government elections in the autumn. Rogán’s plan was once again to focus on the city centre, and run for the seat of district mayor. He began preparing for this even while still working as campaign chief, and according to a member of his local government team, he had already decided when he showed up in District 5 that he not only had to rebuild the local Fidesz party, but his own image as well. “From the start, we thought we had to run more than one campaign, there was a campaign for District 5, and a campaign for Antal Rogán,” said a source close to the politician, noting that Rogán was the only local Fidesz politician who was known nationally. So, while rebuilding his image, they kept in mind that one day he might return to major league politics.
Part of this work was for Rogán to show voters a friendlier, more human public face than the openly confrontational figure he had been before. A new tactic at the time was to use the tabloid press, because they reckoned this would allow them to reach many people whom they could not reach via traditional political channels. “We had to make this decision around 2004, and it was then that consultants put together the first such plan,” said one member of Rogán’s team, who noted however that there was some hesitation about using the tabloid press. “Whether this was good or not was an open question. It works for some politicians, unless of course they are mired in scandal, that is, if the conditions are right.”
There followed news and television reports about Rogán’s love life, his second marriage, his honeymoon and family celebrations. Rogán initially found this difficult, and old friends say that such role-playing remains alien to his personality. “We are not talking about showing the inner self. If we were, he would have done it earlier,” a friend explained. He added that they had had conversations about this, and Rogán told him: “That’s the way it is, this is an integral part of politics”.
Fear of the weak point
At the same time, Rogán himself stated that his attitude towards the media was not the result of conscious, long-term planning. He says the whole thing started ahead of the 2006 mayoral election when he saw he had a chance, albeit his standing was not equivocally good, and he feared that the MSZP incumbent Pál Steiner would run a strongly negative campaign against him. He felt that, for example, his recent divorce could be a weak point, and he had “still only partially sorted” his life out. On one occasion, he asked the editor of Magyar Nemzet, Gábor Liszkay, whether he would advise talking to the editors of a few tabloid newspapers.
“I sat down with a few people and the answer was pretty much that the tabloids would go for anything, and I knew I would be an interesting personality for them from this point of view. But they also said that if I was afraid they would attack me, why not give then some other information about myself,” said Rogán, who said things took off when they gave details to the press about his personal life, for example, that he was looking after the children even though he had separated, or that he had a girlfriend whom he would soon marry.
Now Rogán not only showed a new face to the media, his personal life also began to change. He had surgery on his eyes so he no longer had to wear glasses. He began to work out and visibly bulked up with several kilos of muscle. He changed his wardrobe, too, and while he was usually to be seen wearing a suit since the start of his political career, a friend said he had worn “terrible jumpers” at university, whereas now he shops in the best brand-name stores, often wears jeans in public, and has many of his suits tailored for him. Meanwhile, along with his exterior, his behaviour also changed and, at least according to friends and colleagues, he has become more relaxed and open in recent years. Rogán has said in several interviews that this is down to his new wife, though according to a member of his team, his local government activities are also part of it, because he is much closer to the problems and the people: “If we decide to head over to the Gerlóczy café for a spritzer, we are sure to be stopped by twenty people.”
“He sat on the back seat and got a book out”
All this marked a drastic change from how those around him had previously seen Rogán. Old friends unanimously described him as having been an unsociable, aloof and austere person, who did not make friends easily. In the village where he was born, Szakonyfalu, the locals remember that as a child he did nothing but read and study. “He never went out to play football or muck about with the others,” said one man in front of a pub near the Rogáns’ house who said he was a cousin. His mother confirmed that her son loved to read, and said bus drivers and ticket inspectors used to tell her that he “always sat on the back seat and got a book out” on the bus to Szentgotthárd.
Teachers at his former school, the Vörösmárty Gymnasium in Szentgotthárd, have similar memories. “He was very clever, that was obvious. For example, he gave a speech on 15 March that everybody remembers. But he did not have a social life, he was reserved,” said a teacher from the school. Another, István Enszel, who prepared Rogán for his university entrance exams, recalls that “while the other children messed about, Tóni would slip quietly away and read a book”.
Despite being solitary, Rogán did not have problems with the other students, and they did not try to ostracise him, Enszel said. He was always among the first to be chosen for football teams although he “had no talent for sport” and they always tried to get him to join in the activities at school fêtes. “On one occasion, there was a performance of Swan Lake. There was a washtub on the stage, and the boys jumped around it to Tchaikovsky’s music. Tóni’s role was to keep the swans away from the lake,” the teacher recalled. The students knew he would not jump around, but found a role for him so he could be part of the parody, which was a great hit with the public.
He was unsociable and austere at university. One fellow student recalled that Rogán had a very difficult exam, and told the others that he would not speak until he had passed it. “And he stuck to this, he didn’t speak for days,” the former student said. (Rogán recalls that they only tried to drag him away from his studies on the first day, and then left him in peace.) He was also noted for not often going out to relax with the others, or not drinking much when he did. “We went out partying in the countryside once, and came back by train at first light. Tóni came too, but sat in the corner the whole time reading a book about stagflation. He finished it by the morning,” recalled a former college mate. He was not really a drinker in later life either, and according to one friend, was the most sober person on his stag night.
Friends and parties
Nowadays he presents a far more relaxed image of himself. For example, in a video to mark the 13th anniversary of the founding of the Fidelitas organisation, he boasted of riding drunk on the bonnet of a car while away at a camp. He adds with a laugh in the video that he does not do that sort of thing any more, but those who know him will tell you that he often goes out to cafés and restaurants and does not mind being the centre of attention. Last year he wife organised a surprise for him at one of Budapest’s most expensive Japanese restaurants, the Kyoto, where she invited old university friends, a few Fidesz politicians, many colleagues from the local council, and a few other notable people. Among them was the film producer Andy Vajna, known to have good relations with Rogán, and two well known TV personalities, Péter Hajdu from TV2 and Lilu from RTL.
“The party wasn’t about having close friends there, it was more of a social event,” said one guest. Several close acquaintances of Rogán said that although his network has grown hugely over the years, he has few real friends. In a certain way, his unsociability remained. Moreover, according to a fellow student from university, Rogán once told him directly that “a politician cannot have friends, because they always want something from him”.
Despite this, there are some in political life with whom Rogán has more than just a working relationship, but with whom he relaxes or meets with their families. One such person is the political adviser Árpád Habony, who, like him, enjoys a long-standing and close relationship of trust with Viktor Orbán. Habony, who stays out of the public eye and never speaks to the press, came to Fidesz as a communications consultant, but government sources say he now also gives political and strategic advice to the prime minister, and is counted as one of the most important people in his entourage.
The man who just wanted to build Orbán up
Habony’s relationship with Rogán also goes back to the start of his activities as a consultant. He appeared in Fidesz circles after the 2002 election defeat, when Orbán’s relations with existing communications advisers deteriorated in the wake of the election result. Habony had previously worked as a furniture restorer, but was well acquainted with Zoltán Cselovski, who had close connections to the Fidesz leadership and held a leading position in the committee for the protection of historical monuments during the first Orbán government. According to Habony’s acquaintances, it was Cselovski who recommended him in 2002 to Tamás Deutsch, who was working on the local election campaign as president of Fidesz’s Budapest chapter. Habony first joined the campaign to elect Pál Schmitt as Mayor of Budapest, then Deutsch recommended him to the party leadership.
According to Fidesz sources, the consultant almost immediately gained the ear of Orbán, who did not have a stable communications team around him at the time. “When things fell apart after the 2002 defeat, Árpád was the one who told Orbán how he could reconstruct himself,” said a source close to Habony. The key to the consultant’s rapid rise was partly that he got on well with Orbán on a personal level, and partly because, unlike previous chief adviser András Wermer “he did not want to build up the party, but only Orbán himself,” the source added. This meant how he dressed, his speaking style and the message, as well as the Fidesz leader also opening up new channels of communication, such as the tabloid press and commercial media.
Around 2003-4, Habony was already playing a busy role in Fidesz activities, and according to joint acquaintances, it was presumably during this period that he forged closer ties with Rogán. One point of contact between them was the fact that Habony’s old friend Zoltán Cselovski was active in the District 5 Fidesz organisation that came under Rogán’s leadership (Cselovski was appointed the district’s chief architect under Rogán’s leadership). It also helped strengthen their relationship that Habony met and married Fanny Kaminski, who was then coordinating Rogán’s appearances in the tabloid media. Although they later divorced, Habony met his next partner, Zsóka Kapócs, at one of the politician’s events, a birthday party in the Kyoto restaurant.
A divisive friend
Habony also helped Rogán to change his image, although the politician maintains this was just friendly advice and not of a “formal, legally working” nature. The closest working relationship between the two came when they worked on the 2006 parliamentary election campaign, and their relationship was not marred by the defeat, nor by the fact that people who know Habony say he is extremely difficult to work with. “He is abrupt and really doesn’t like to be contradicted. There are occasions when he shows restraint, but if he is in a close circle with people he knows, he does lose his rag from time to time,” as one source who knows Habony well put it. One member of the 2006 campaign team said Habony was “someone you cannot talk to, because he would just make declarations”. If, for example, “he had ten ideas, then no one would understand five of them, two or three were sure to be nonsense, but the rest would be brilliant”.
Along with these characteristics is the fact that Habony is a very divisive figure within the Fidesz party. Many find his style offensive while others simply see him as a charlatan and think that his successful moves were at best down to chance. A government official said that his forceful character means what generally happens is “either people yield to him, or get into a nasty dispute with him. This makes Rogán an unusual case in that, according to mutual acquaintances, he “is among the few who can handle this situation” without prostrating himself in front of Habony, and without a conflict exploding between them.
Rogán himself described his connection with Habony as “normal, friendly relations”, while those who know them say that beside personal warmth, they are bound together by the knowledge that they both have an important role in the prime minister’s entourage. “They both have a cunning way of thinking, and can see that the prime minister is not going to switch one for the other,” said a friend of Rogán who has also worked with Habony. Another mutual friend put it like this: “they both recognise the scale of each other’s political significance”.
The territory he marked out for himself
Although Rogán had enjoyed a close relationship with Orbán since the beginning of his political career, his privileged position became even clearer after the change of government in 2010. Although he did not assume a post in government, he increasingly left work in District 5 to his team while he concentrated on his parliamentary work. This proved to be an important area, since in order to circumvent the government administration, many significant legislative bills were put before parliament directly by the ruling party’s caucus, which promptly adopted them thanks to its two-thirds majority.
Many substantial bills had Rogán’s name on them: he started with laws reforming media regulation, and continued with a wide variety of economic themes. These often appeared to be private initiatives, but according to governing party politicians, it was clearly a process that was directed from above. “Orbán often governed via the caucus, and Rogán was brilliant at this,” said a Fidesz MP who formerly held government office. In most cases, Rogán officially acted in his capacity as head of the economics committee, having personally applied to Orbán and the then caucus leader János Lázár for the post in May 2010. Though there was a separate little political tussle over the possible post of deputy mayor of Budapest, he focused a large part of his energy on economic matters.
Although he had left the field of economic theory since graduation, his interest in economics remained, so this area was a natural choice for him. He studied finance while at the Budapest Economics University (now Corvinus University), which former students described as the highest-level subject, and the most difficult faculty to enter. Many graduates went on to work in the Finance Ministry or the Hungarian National Bank, and many of them were personally acquainted with Rogán, who gave lessons for a while after receiving his degree. He shared classes with, for example, Klára Dobrev, who was a state official under the Medgyessy government and went on to marry Ferenc Gyurcsány. (Rogán says he is on “normal speaking terms” with Dobrev, but they do not usually meet.)
Tempted by Sándor Csányi
Although in his earlier days as a politician he had not held any office directly related to economics, he built a diverse range of contacts from the business sector as his career progressed. This is demonstrated, according to those close to him, by the fact that for a time Sándor Csányi tried to lure him to OTP, and he also received offers from the directors of other large firms. Rogán said the invitations came between 2002 and 2006, when he withdrew from national politics, and “they felt it was unclear whether or not I took politics seriously”. He added that it never reached the point where concrete tasks were discussed because “I told them I wasn’t interested”.
Now Rogán is clearly in the thick of politics, which is further proven by the fact that he played a part in practically all of the more important economic policy decisions over the past two years (2010-2012, tran.), from interventions to help people with foreign currency debt, or pay off such mortgages, to the reform of regulations concerning the Hungarian National Bank. He worked at several levels in such cases, assisting in drafting legislative proposals, acting as an intermediary for various participants, and helping to fine-tune the solutions.
According to observers of the decision making process, his involvement in the preparation work meant Orbán had involved him in the deliberations that took place in a small circle, with regular input from the Ministry of National Economy headed by György Matolcsy. His work as an intermediary included negotiating with banks over government interventions that disadvantaged them, and transferring information between the ministerial apparatus and the head of government team. This was regularly necessary when calculations and analysis of ideas transmitted from above raised concerns among the professional team. “Rogán had an important role as a moderator in such situations. Whether for the prime minister or for Habony, he played an equally important part in the communication of political decisions,” explained a source who was involved in several economic policy decisions.
For the third type of task, the fine-tuning, Rogán used the office he held at the head of the parliamentary committee. Through this position, he was able to jump on legislative proposals facing the parliament if the ministries or he himself found a problem with them. “In the period of intensive law-making there wasn’t time to hone the laws, so it was necessary to correct defects found after the proposals were put forward, said a former government official, noting for example the frequent need to revisit the text of tax rules, for which Matolcsy was am important partner for Rogán.
“He tried to pre-empt conflicts”
Although Rogán always publicly supported government policy interventions in public – according to two source close to him – he often argued against them in internal discussions. One of these was a policy allowing borrowers to pay off foreign currency mortgages with a discounted lump sum, which favoured some borrowers but angered banks. Another was the Hungarian National Bank law, which caused an international outcry. “He saw exactly which were the points that would raise objections from investors and the European Union institutions. He tried to pre-empt these conflicts,” said one source with knowledge of the economic policy process, who added that these discussions usually included the prime minister, whose world view left its stamp to a large degree on economic policy decisions.
“The prime minister’s conception is that economic policy cannot be directed only by the logic of economists, but must be subordinated to certain political interests,” the source said. As an example, he said Orbán believes that stock market speculation does not create value, so no measures should be taken that would allow this activity to gain ground. Since Rogán, by contrast, viewed the prime minister’s ideas with the eyes of an economist familiar with market processes, he would lose many points in the internal arguments. However, according to the source, this did not mean a weakening of his position, because “Orbán enjoys arguments within closed groups and straight talking, while Tóni did not act in a provocative or disrespectful way, but as a partner”. When the decision taken in one or another case was the political one, “then he was able to champion it wholeheartedly both inside and outside the party”.
Rogán did not want to discuss these internal arguments, but he did confirm that he played a significant part in many economic policy decisions. He says it was not the result of any conscious resolve that a large part of these were handled outside parliament. “We came to realize that if we wanted to make decisions quickly, then we had to step over the typical opposition of government bureaucracy.” He added that he did not think that this had yet become clear in May 2010, but that it was rather “a process that had largely crystallized by mid-autumn”.
Rogán’s role became more valuable in this new situation, and Orbán had known him for a long time and knew he was a dynamic politician who could do the tasks given to him. “The prime minister is a similar type, who won’t tolerate screw-ups,” said a government official familiar with Rogán and Orbán, and according to whom they do not resemble each other only in their dynamism, but also in that they are both strategic thinkers, and “there aren’t many such men in politics”.
Initiator and executor
Nevertheless, decision-making complicated by passage through parliament revealed a few differences between them. The typical division of labour was that Orbán would lay down ideas formulated in broad brushstrokes, while working out the details was left partly to the government apparatus, and partly to Rogán. “They say there are two types of leader: the innovative type who comes up with the ideas, and the implementing type, who likes to hone things. The prime minister and Matolcsy belong to the first category, while Rogán belongs more to the second,” explained a source with background knowledge of economic decision making.
Despite their different characters, Rogán and the prime minister cooperated smoothly, so it came as no surprise when he was named caucus leader to succeed János Lázár, who had accepted a government position. There had been rumours earlier that Rogán was also to join the government, although a Fidesz politician on friendly terms said this would not make much sense, because it was clear that “Tóni is a more important pillar in the current political organization than many state secretaries or ministers.” Rogán himself told a fellow MP last spring that he was not preparing for a role in government. “He said that he definitely wouldn’t be joining the government during this term, and he agreed with the boss that he would spend his time in District 5,” the representative said.
Meanwhile, Rogán will be forced to make a decision in the next parliamentary term, as it will no longer be possible to be a member of parliament while also holding local government office. Those close to him say there is no doubt that he will choose national politics, and it is conceivable that he will assume government office if Fidesz wins again. For his part, Rogán rarely speaks about his long-term plans and has often regretted a 2001 statement in which he mentioned his political future. Among his dreams for the next ten years was that he “could be one of the leaders, or the number one leader” of Fidesz.
“You have to step aside occasionally”
More than ten years have passed since then, and he still has not held any office in the Fidesz leadership, but many of the party’s politicians see a bright future for him. Meanwhile, Viktor Orbán has run Fidesz for two decades now, and there is no sign of a potential change, so for now it does not look like the road to the party leadership – including the prime minister’s office – is opening up for anyone.
Rogán must also reckon with the fact that even if such an opportunity should present itself, he is not necessarily capable of forging the same links with his supporters as Orbán. “If he enters a high position, everyone will regard him as very clever, and thus acceptable, but they are not going to like him with any enthusiasm,” a Fidesz politician said, adding that this could even be advantageous because “on the other side, he will not generate such negative feelings as Orbán does”. Still, according to an old confidant, Rogán does not harbor any ambition for a particular position. “It’s not a question of I want to be this or that,” said the source, who thinks Rogán approaches politics as a long-distance runner. “He knows this is an area where you don’t always have to come first. From time to time you can step aside, or even drop out.”
The first installment of this two-part article can be read here.