Politics is not only about the constant struggle for power between politicians, but also a match between the political actors on one hand and the powerful forces and people in business life on the other. Today we refer to the latter by the term “oligarchs”. When we look back on the second governing period of Viktor Orbán (2010-2014), “oligarch” will surely make us think of Lajos Simicska.
Thanks to the active assistance of the Orbán government, Simicska did not only attain fabulous wealth but also significant influence – according to the so-called influence-barometer, he is the third- most influential person in Hungary. This is apparently too much for Orbán, and the Prime Minister introduced several measures in the last months to limit Simicska’s escalating powers in manageable proportions. How did Simicska react? He is furious.
Who helped whom to become great?
At first look it seems it was Orbán himself who boosted Simicska. Or was it vice-versa? Did Simicska perhaps make Orbán the all-powerful dictator of the country? To get a better understanding of their power struggle, we need to look at how it all began.
We are in the 1980s. The real socialism reigns under János Kádár, even if it’s gradually slipping into agony. Viktor Orbán and Lajos Simicska, two intelligent and ambitious members of the anti-government democratic movement, live in the same dormitory. The roommates and soulmates are almost inseparable friends; whatever they do, they do it together, helping each other.
Unconditional loyalty to Fidesz
Although Simicska was not one of Fidesz’ founding members, he has been in the party orbit from the beginning (1988), first as an informal advisor, later (1993) as its official economic director. During the first Orbán government (1998-2002) Simicska was the director of tax authority APEH (now NAV) for one year. Following his resignation in 1999 (which he explained with the deaths of his father and father-in-law), he drew into the background and has been working on his business interests since.
Simicska, the confidant of Orbán, is still loyal to Fidesz. In the years when the party was in opposition (2002-2010), he was one of its most important sponsors. It happened partly thanks to his financial support – and to Orbán’s organising talent – that Fidesz became a highly diversified, powerful political force. Moreover, Simcsika pumped enormous sums of money into the Fidesz-supporting media organisations Magyar Nemzet (daily newspaper), Hír TV (news channel) and Lánchíd Rádió – and by doing so he prepared the way for the historic victory of Orbán’s party in 2010.
Weeks at Orbán’s side
The time spent forming the government after Fidesz’s landslide portrays well how close Orbán and Simicska, who is said to be a real genius by the people who know him personally, really are. Simicska spent long weeks in Orbán’s home town Felcsút discussing the list of ministers and other important matters with the new Prime Minister. Supposedly the two men also decided how the cake of government contracts should be divided.
Thus Simicska’s companies – advertising company Publimont, media agency Inter Media Group and construction company Közgép (which is directed by Zsolt Nyerges, Simicska’s right hand) – won one public tender after another from 2010 to 2014. The open tenders were tailored by the government in such a manner that the Simicska companies could almost always prevail.
This of course represented in their balance sheets with profits increasing exponentially each year – think in terms of billions. Left-liberal daily newspaper Népszabadság published in June that based on the results of his business empire, Simicska could distribute about HUF 22 billion last year.
The conflict between Orbán and Simicska, who has been an irritant for a long time for Fidesz veteran László Kövér (President of Parliament), János Áder (State Head) and Zsolt Bayer (commentator for conservative daily newspaper Magyar Hírlap), began in 2012. The first hitch was the renewal of Kossuth square outside Parliament, when Simicska and Közgép were simply left out. Then the construction of Pancho Aréna in Felcsút saw Közgép, headed at that time by Nyerges, infuriate Orbán by acting in a bloated and smug manner.
Orbán tries to squelch Simicska
This is why Orbán decided to keep Simicska under control with a series of measures: with the advertising tax, with the plan to impose a retroactive tax on major road construction companies, and with the constantly forming idea of founding a National Communication Agency (NKÜ) to handle advertisements for state-owned companies (with a yearly advertising budget of about HUF 50 billion).
In addition to these factual and potential measures that could cost Simicska billions, Orbán also pulled some personal strings. Several people in powerful positions in the state apparatus, including ministries, were removed because they were believed to support Simicska.
Simicska is raging with anger. Supposedly he was thinking about Orbán when he said: “I have helped these people to get in power and I will also crush them if I have to.” According to the information of left-liberal weekly newspaper Magyar Narancs, Orbán and Simicska don’t talk any more, and the busy Chancellery Minister János Lázár is playing intermediary.
Is a compromise still possible?
Despite the seemingly irreconcilable conflict, according to Népszabadság a peace is still possible. The compromise would be that Simicska would silently retreat once and for always from the media organisations (Magyar Nemzet, Hír TV, Lánchíd Rádió and Class FM) that he finances and influences. The clear beneficiary of such a deal would be the influential advisor and confidant of Orbán, Árpád Habony.
Habony, who controls economic magazine Napi Gazdaság, would build a new conservative media portfolio that would guarantee Fidesz the upper hand in the political fight. In this process he would be backed up by Andrew G. Vajna, the government representative for the development of Hungarian cinema, who would increasingly focus on investment in the national media market.
According to insiders, what Orbán wants is to have a better balance in the influence and power circles of the economic sector, in other words he does not want to allow power concentrations such as the Simicska-Nyerges partnership to develop. If he is the one pulling all the strings, then that is fine with him. Because, as many spectators of Hungarian political events agree, the Prime Minister is a talented power engineer.