In Hungary, Viktor Orban Showers Money on Stadiums, Less So on Hospitals
By Patrick Kingsley*
and Benjamin Novak- The New York Times
FELCSUT, Hungary — The Pancho Arena
stands about 20 yards from the country home of Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister.
The professional soccer stadium has a heated pitch, a museum, a spotless
medical clinic and 3,814 seats, double the population of the surrounding
In the same county, the biggest public
hospital, the St. George, is flagging. On a recent night in the emergency ward,
the women’s bathroom had no soap and the men’s room had no functioning urinals.
Two doctors struggled to treat an overflow of patients, with 30 still waiting
Gleaming soccer stadiums. Decaying
hospitals. The contrast reflects the priorities of Mr. Orban, who has
of Europe’s most powerful far-right leaders by presenting himself as a
nationalist champion of ordinary Hungarians and a scourge of European elites.
Yet ordinary Hungarians have suffered
most as the country has plunged in European health ratings and many doctors
have departed since Mr. Orban took office in 2010. Health care was badly managed
by prior administrations, but Mr. Orban has overseen a drop in government
health care funding as a proportion of national economic output.
At the same time, Mr. Orban pushed
through a program that has allowed businesses to divert at least $1.5 billion
in corporate taxes directly to sports institutions. The biggest recipient is
the professional soccer team that Mr. Orban co-founded. He uses the stadium’s
V.I.P. section to entertain state officials and wealthy business leaders —
raising questions about conflicts of interest, and corruption.
Hungary’s chief prosecutor, who decides
which politicians to investigate over corruption, has sometimes joined Mr.
Orban for matches at Pancho Arena. So have several of Hungary’s richest men,
including Lorinc Meszaros and Sandor Csanyi, who wield significant influence
across broad sections of the economy.
At another stadium, Mr. Orban sat with a
constitutional court judge, Istvan Stumpf, who at the time was reviewing Mr.
“Anyone who wants to get close to Orban
tries to do that through football,” said Attila Juhasz, an analyst with
Political Capital, a research group in Budapest. A stadium construction boom
fueled by the tax change, he said, was rife with corruption.
“There are massive amounts of money that can
be stolen,” he said.
While Hungary’s health care ratings have
dropped, the flood of money into sports has not improved its ranking in
“In the last eight years, across the
government, the system of checks and balances has been dismantled,” said Ferenc
Falus, a former chief medical officer dismissed weeks after Mr. Orban took
power in 2010. “And that has also happened in the health care system.”
Many clinics are understaffed,
lengthening waits and causing patients to visit emergency wards in desperation.
As the head of a major state-run emergency department in Budapest, Dr. Gabor
Zacher said his ward had 25 doctors instead of the 50 needed and 14 beds in
intensive care instead of 40.
Dr. Zacher, who resigned in protest last
summer from Honved Hospital in Budapest, said his department was underfunded by
$1.8 million, leaving no money for new equipment or staff. Several doctors work
up to 300 hours a month, he said, while some patients waited more than 10 hours
to be treated.
“It was too much for us,” Dr. Zacher
said. “I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror.”
Miklos Szocska, the junior minister who
was in charge of health care from 2010 to 2014, defended the Orban
administration, saying that new hospitals had been built, hospital management
had become more centralized, and some general practices had been combined to
create a more organized primary care system in some parts of the country.
Smoking has been banned in all public
places, and taxes on sugary foods have risen. Spending dropped only as a
proportion of national economic output, he said, and only because of the 2008
“You can’t talk about these things without
understanding what was happening to the Hungarian economy,” Mr. Szocska said.
Critics say Mr. Orban’s government has
never prioritized health care, even as Hungarian opinion polls show it is a
In fact, Mr. Orban has de-emphasized
health care in his government. He eliminated the Health Ministry, which was
subsumed into a “super ministry,” depriving the sector of a cabinet-level
He also has weakened oversight. The chief
medical officer, an independent state ombudsman, has lost resources. The Health
Insurance Supervisory Board, an independent body with a mandate to inspect
hospitals, has been disbanded.
State doctors and hospital directors have
been barred from speaking out about problems. They are instructed to publish
weekly examples of positive developments.
Mr. Orban’s party, Fidesz, has siphoned
state health care funds toward private companies with links to the government,
just as it has done in nearly every sector of the economy.
And at least one of the private companies
receiving health care contracts has diverted tax money to Mr. Orban’s own
An ardent soccer fan, Mr. Orban helped
start the foundation that owns the Pancho Arena and the team that plays there,
Puskas Akademia FC.
Even though his home is a one-minute walk
away, he has a designated parking spot steps from the entrance and routinely
uses the V.I.P. section as a salon where his closest allies can meet and show
In 2011, Mr. Orban’s government approved
a program that allows corporations to divert part of their pretax profits to
sports federations and clubs. Government officials said the policy was intended
to encourage spectator sports and healthy living.
But government watchdogs say the program
has diverted $1.5 billion that could have been used on public services,
including health, and that the program is vulnerable to corruption.
Transparency International Hungary, an
anticorruption monitor, estimates that from 2011 to 2017, roughly 13.5 percent
of all corporate tax revenue was redirected to sports. Of the six spectator
sports federations eligible for the program, five are led by current and former
Fidesz party officials.
The biggest beneficiary is soccer — and
Mr. Orban’s team has received the most money, about $83 million, according to
“The basic architecture of this scheme is
to divert substantial public revenues to sports organizations with political
ties for the purpose of spending without any public oversight,” said Miklos
Ligeti, the legal director for Transparency International Hungary.
And just as Mr. Orban’s policies have
enabled private companies to divert profits on public contracts to sports, so
have some companies with ties to Fidesz amassed health care contracts.
Emails sent to Csolnoky Ferenc Hospital
in western Hungary, just months after Mr. Orban entered office in 2010, offer a
glimpse of this process.
That September, the management at this
provincial hospital, owned by a Fidesz-run council, was instructed to establish
a secret email account hosted outside the hospital servers.
Anonymous messages sent to that account,
recently seen by The New York Times, instructed the hospital leadership to
invite a pair of related consulting companies to manage a multimillion dollar
The two firms — Vital Management and
Value Added Solutions Consulting — are both jointly owned by a business partner
of one of Mr. Orban’s oldest friends. They won the renovation contract.
Although the two consulting companies had
rarely worked for the government, for the next four years they won more than 30
project management contracts at 18 state hospitals and health agencies, mostly
funded by the European Union, according to data collated from the Hungarian
government’s public procurement database.
This work paid them the equivalent of
nearly $5 million, and gave them oversight over construction budgets worth at
least $200 million.
In a statement, Vital Management, which
now owns Value Added, said it had won these contracts fairly and denied any
Gabriella Nagy, who oversees
investigations into public procurement at Transparency International Hungary,
said the awarding process reflected “a well-known method to funnel E.U. money
to business entities close to the governing party.”
Once in control, the winning companies
can exert significant control over which construction firms and equipment suppliers
get work funded by the project budget.
“They do so by shaping the financial and
technical requirements for the bidders in a way that only the favored company
is able to meet them,” Ms. Nagy said.
Swietelsky, a joint winner in 2013 of a
hospital renovation project worth $3.7 million, was part of a conglomerate that
would, less than two years later, transfer 300,000 euros, about $334,000, to
Mr. Orban’s favorite soccer team.
Mr. Orban has defended the “special
attention” he gives to sports.
“I am convinced,” he said in January,
“that for raising children, caring for families and their unity, and for
health, sports is the most important area in Hungary today.”
A version of this article appears in
print on Oct. 27, 2019, Section A, Page 8 of the New York
edition with the headline: Under Hungary’s Leader, Stadiums Glisten
as Hospitals Decay.
Patrick Kingsley is an international correspondent for
The New York Times, based in Berlin. He previously covered migration and the
Middle East for The Guardian. He was named Foreign Affairs Journalist of the
Year at the 2015 British Journalism Awards, and is the author of two books:
“How To Be Danish,” an exploration of contemporary Danish culture, and “The New
Odyssey,” a portrait of the European refugee crisis.