Two stories, two political scandals. The web of old Socialist Party-affiliated networks has emerged again to remind the Hungarian voter of those years that set the stage for the disastrous defeat of the Socialists and Liberals in 2010. Emerging now just a few weeks before the election, these latest controversies might be a big step for the Left - toward a second, terrible defeat. Hungary really deserves more, a better political opposition that can win voter trust.
In 2000, in the happy and more optimistic days of the new millenium, a song called Ranbo 13 hit the charts, a track from the Hungarian electronic music band Neo. In its animated video, a post-Soviet scientist creates a substance that magically brings to life the old Lenin statues, which then ruin everything around them. The zombie-like Lenins can only be stopped by the American cartoon heroes and, well, Michael Jackson. The video of this now all-but-forgotten electro song, especially its Lenin zombies, could serve as a tragicomic meme for the last weeks of the election campaign in Hungary.
But in the Hungarian version, the Socialist Party zombies and its politicians of yesteryear become self-destructive after details of secret bank accounts are revealed. It wasn't enough that the Hungarian left had failed to renew and rebrand itself after the 2010 defeat. Now, with these latest revelations, the burden of the nefarious business dealings of the old Socialist networks threaten to crush whatever little hope remained for the now united left
in the April 6 election.
Two stories that have broken in the last few weeks remind Hungarian voters of the years that led to the disastrous defeat of the Socialists and Liberals in 2010.
The first is the story of János Zuschlag. Only 36 years old, poor Zuschlag has already seen the kind of meteoric rise and horrible fall that would for most other politicians be enough for a lifetime. This Balzacian figure came from the Hungarian countryside and made a quick career in politics. Joining the Socialist Party in the glorious 90s at the age of 17, he became the youngest member of the Hungarian Parliament in 1998. Six years later, still climbing the ladder and becoming more influential, he was forced to resign after a camcorder picked up an offensive joke he uttered at a Holocaust memorial event. But this was just the beginning of his long downfall. From 2005, he was implicated in official investigations of youth associations and their real estate as well as allegations of misuse of funds in the youth movement of the Socialist Party. As evidence piled up, Zuschlag was taken into custody in 2007. After a long legal battle, he was sentenced to six years in prison.
János Zuschlag was released from prison earlier this year. He had remained mostly silent during his incarceration but following his release from prison he decided to publish a tell-all book to burn his former Socialist cohorts who had, he claims, abandoned him to take the fall for the rest. Mr Zuschlag's book, in fact, is more pulp than carefully documented rapportage, and his wildest accusations have yet to be confirmed. He writes about the existence of a safe at the Socialist Party headquarters that held tens of millions of Hungarian forints in cash, and he also claims to have been handed a plastic bag carrying 50 million forints (224,000 USD or 160,000 EUR) so that he would not run for parliament in 2006. Leading Socialist politicians have denied his accusations and, they still lack proof. The problem of course is that the accusations he has brought against Socialist leadership sound as if they could be true. And even without backing them up, the daily coverage and debates surrounding his accusations have the Socialists and their allies on the defensive just weeks before Election Day.
The other story, even more troublesome, is the intercontinental adventure of Gábor Simon, a former vice president of the Socialist Party. Simon was one of the grayest figures among the Socialists. He was seemingly never involved in any scandals or the mudslinging and turf battles that make up the rough and tumble of everyday politics. Just a colorless figure in the second string of the party's apparatchiks. He eventually made it to the top echelons of the party, was a member of parliament and was going to run again in the elections in April.
At the beginning of February, a story broke that Simon held an account at a bank in Austria with a balance of 240 million forints (just over 1 million USD or
770 thousand EUR). Simon had failed to report it on the declaration of assets that he was required to file as an MP and has since claimed that the money is not his own. But if not his money, then whose money is it? We still don't know. Hungarian media has quoted an unnamed Socialist politician saying, "Gábor Simon was the last person anyone would imagine keeping money in a foreign account.” But he did, and so for many the question that naturally followed was: Who else holds foreign accounts?
The Socialists attempted to close the story immediately. Simon had to resign his party post and membership and give up his seat in parliament. After weeks of dodging the media, he was finally taken into custody, facing the possibility of a lengthy investigation and trial. Then it went from bad to worse.
Reports emerged that during a search of the premises of a Hungarian international adventurer and businessman named Tamás Welsz, who was wanted by Interpol, fake passports were discovered. The documents were issued by the western African state of Guinea-Bissau. One of them reportedly belonged to Gábor Simon, using the name Gabrial D. and listed at an address that happens to be the official presidential palace of Bissau-Guinea, which is a building in ruins. This passport was used to open another account, this time in a Hungarian bank, holding another 75 million HUF. More suspicious connections have emerged, linking the network to Panama and Uruguay, and the origin of the money in Gábor Simon's bank accounts remains unknown.
Then, last week, Tamás Welsz, who was clearly a person of interest in the investigation of the fake passports, died suddenly due to causes yet unknown. He was 41 years old. His unexpected death has, of course, led to all kinds of conspiracy theories.
One can only hope that the investigation and criminal proceedings will expose the truth of what's going on. The alleged connections to senior levels of Socialist Party leadership must be investigated.
Meanwhile, these stories are sobering to the voter. The old left is still with us, on a landscape full of landmines, surprises that at any moment can suddenly end political careers. Having failed to clean house and start anew following the 2010 disaster, the political zombies of this old Socialist network might emerge from the shadows at any time, keeping the left-liberal opposition in disarray. Hungary really deserves more, a better political opposition that can win voter trust.