(Bloomberg) -- Akos Hadhazy used to be a member of Hungary’s governing party. Now he’s a crusader against graft in what’s become one of the European Union’s most corrupt countries.
Six years ago, Hadhazy publicized his first finding, an allegation that tobacco-sale permits in a provincial town were handed out based on loyalty to Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party. Hadhazy, unconvinced by the government’s defense, left the party and went on to unearth cases, angering the leadership he once supported.
In the latest case, a ruling-party politician was arrested on suspicion of bribery related to the distribution of EU development aid, an issue that Hadhazy has helped to bring to public attention. A court in Budapest confirmed the detention in a statement Wednesday and said that four people in total have been arrested.
Hadhazy also drew the scrutiny of the government and state-controlled press, which labeled him a foul-mouthed attention seeker. He acknowledges that some of his antics -- like “illustrating” an Orban speech in parliament with explicit placards -- have been bold, but he says that’s necessary to break through in a media landscape dominated by the ruling party.
On the flip side, such work has won him praise from civic groups and built up a local following in a country that’s been castigated by Brussels for its unpicking of democratic institutions. The 45-year-old has turned into one of the most recognizable faces of the opposition, which has struggled for the past decade to find leaders to unite behind and challenge an increasingly entrenched ruling party.
“It isn’t a challenge to uncover more scandals,” Hadhazy said in an interview. “The challenge is to find cases that can get the attention of the remaining independent media.”
While Hadhazy is among the best known and most popular opposition politicians, his approval ratings have been well behind leading ruling-party figures.
During Orban’s premiership, Hungary has tumbled down the rankings in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, to 64th from 50th in 2010. Only Bulgaria and Greece are now worse in the EU.
Hadhazy, an independent member of parliament who quit Fidesz in 2013, says the opposition must sharpen its message to capitalize on gains in October’s municipal elections and stage a comeback in time to beat the still-dominant Fidesz in 2022. For him, the way to do that is to zoom in on corruption.
A practicing vet and a trained pilot, he’s flown multiple sorties to get an aerial view of a secretive estate in the prime minister’s village, which has punched well above its weight when it came to attracting development. A veterinary database also became useful to identify the Orban family’s dog guarding the mansion’s grounds. He also helped investigate the business links of an Orban ally caught in a sex scandal this year.
He was fined the equivalent of $1,100 in October for holding up a billboard saying “He’s got to lie because he’s stolen too much” right under Orban’s lectern as he spoke in parliament, as well as another sign with expletives.
“Hadhazy has mobilizing power as the face of the fight against corruption,” said Miklos Ligeti, legal director of Transparency International Hungary. “He tries to bring cases to the surface and keep them there.”
While Orban acknowledges the existence of graft, he has downplayed allegations that it’s widespread, saying a nation couldn’t be one of the EU’s fastest growing economies if the problem was as extensive as his opponents claim.
Fidesz took a same approach to the latest scandal, saying that it doesn’t concern any of its lawmakers.
“Everyone must obey the law, therefore it’s appropriate that the authorities are doing their job,“ the party’s press office said in response to the arrests and Hadhazy’s allegations that some lawmakers gain leverage from the distribution of EU funds.
The danger, as Hadhazy sees it, is that all rungs of society become beholden to the ruling party. Towns and villages “can only get EU funds if they behave,” he said. To boost accountability, he’s collected hundreds of thousands of signatures that seek to pressure Orban to accept the jurisdiction of a new EU prosecutor to probe corruption.
The government says the authorities pursue alleged corruption cases reported to them, and indeed some lawmakers have already faced criminal proceedings in isolated cases both within Fidesz and the opposition.
Frequent squabbles among opposition parties have helped the government to ignore any pressure.
“We are sitting on the ruins of a parliamentary democracy but we are still sitting in this system,” Hadhazy said.
--With assistance from Zoltan Simon.
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