Friends of Orban

Tens of billions of forints in contracts awarded to pro-government think tanks

The Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister launched a call for tenders at the end of June for government policy advice until the end of 2026. Only two pro-government players applied for the tender: the Századvég Group Foundation and two companies close to another government friendly think thank, Nézőpont. Századvég Group won the almost 24 billion HUF consultancy contract at the end of October. However, Nézőpont can’t complain either, as they recently won a 22 billion HUF contract.

As the municipal and European Parliament elections approach at the beginning of June 2024, sovereignty has become the central theme in the communication of the Hungarian ruling party, Fidesz. For weeks, PM Viktor Orbán and Fidesz politicians have been stressing the importance of national sovereignity. Of course, this is only meant to ensure that ‘Brussels’ does not interfere in their actions, but they do not seem to have a problem with pro-party organisations parroting the government’s messages without criticism – at public expense.

Pro-Fidesz think-tank Századvég celebrated its 30th birthday in mid-November. Several Fidesz politicians attended the celebrations, and the star guest of the evening was Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself.

The friendly relationship is not surprising, given that the owner of the think-tank group is Gábor Fűrész, who is regarded as a close associate of Árpád Habony: he used to run a joint company with his friend Kristóf Szalay-Bobrovniczky, now known as the Minister of Defence.

Advice for HUF 7.5 billion a year

However, the harmony between the government and Századvég is not just about big smiles and loud speeches: the cooperation is sometimes lavishly greased with taxpayers’ money.

As we gathered in 2016 after Fidesz came to power in 2010, the Századvég Group was swamped by tenders: in the six years since it came to power, it has won a total of HUF 12 billion worth of public procurement contracts, either alone or as part of a consortium. Public contracts have been falling to the government-affiliated organisation ever since.

This time, a member of a group of think tanks belonging to the Fidesz government has won a public procurement contract probably larger than ever before. The Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, led by Antal Rogán, issued a tender for “Government policy advice (2023-2026)” at the end of June this year, which was awardedd at the end of October

to the Századvég CFoundation with a net bid of HUF 23.8 billion.

The contract is for 40 months, until 31 December 2026 at the latest, but can be extended once for a further six months. The Századvég Foundation has undertaken the tasks requested by Rogán’s ministry for a net amount of HUF 7.47 billion per year, which is made up of several parts.

For example, they have to carry out several studies of varying lengths, a “large sample, highly representative population survey” and an EU survey, and then “expert advice” based on the studies and surveys. There are not many surprises to be expected as regards the results of the opinion polls, because somehow the results of Századvég always come out exactly as the government says.

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“Challenges and Values – Results of Project Europe Research in 2022” conference at Várkert Bazár on 31 January 2023 (photo: Századvég/Facebook)

Nézőpont would have been more expensive

There was one other bidder for the tender, CEPER Central European Perspectives Zrt. and Nézőpont Intézet Kutató Központ Kft., but their bid was not even evaluated by the Prime Minister’s Office because it was more expensive than Századvég’s. The two companies are linked by one person: the owner of Nézőpont Kft., Nézőpont Group Zrt. and its managing director, Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, who is also the sole owner and CEO of CEPER Zrt.

Nézőpont is very similar to Századvég: Nézőpont is also an institute that is rich in state contracts, repeats the government’s position, takes photos with Fidesz politicians, and backs up Viktor Orbán’s words with its analyses and opinion polls. The organisation celebrated its 15th birthday at the end of November 2021, where it was honoured by the Fidesz elite and the guest of honour was, of course, the Prime Minister.

The good relationship here is no coincidence either: the owner of the Nézőpont Group is Tibor Győri, an old confidant of Viktor Orbán, who was considered to be the man behind Lajos Simicska, known as Fidesz’s money magician.

Media monitoring for HUF 22 billion

Although this time Nézőpont firms lost out to Századvég, an earlier tender of the Prime Minister’s Office had just ended in the opposite result. In early November 2022, Antal Rogán’s ministry launched a public tender for the “Government media monitoring service (2023-2026)”, the results of which were published in early January this year.

According to the official information, two bidders competed for the 48-month job: the Századvég Public Knowledge Centre Foundation (which has now won the HUF23.8 billion tender) and a company from the Nézőpont Group:

Observer Budapest Médiafigyelő Kft. won the tender with a net bid of HUF 22.2 billion.

Nézőpont Group bought the company from IKARIA Holding GmbH of Vienna in 2018, when Observer had annual revenues of HUF 673 million. The real explosion came in 2020 when the company won the public tenders: since then, the company has been generating a stable net turnover of HUF 2-3 billion per year, with a profit of between HUF 180-260 million in the last three years.

One of the Observer’s first government contracts was a three-year, net HUF 5 billion media monitoring contract in 2020. In the Prime Minister’s Office’s current 22 billion tender, Observer will have a subcontractor, according to its bid: the perspective expert Ágoston Sámuel Mráz’s own company, CEPER Zrt – the same one that bid for the consulting work for Rogán’s ministry with Nézőpont Intézet Kft, but lost out to Századvég Foundation.

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Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, Head of the Nézőpont Institute, speaks at the presentation of the analysis “Press Freedom in Hungary 2023” in Budapest on 9 March 2023. Photo: Tibor Illyés/Mti.

Before Nézőpont bought Observer, another company, Médianéző Kft, won government media monitoring tenders. From 2019, however, government contracts dried up – since Observer, which had been acquired in the meantime, won them – and as a result, the turnover of Médianéző plummeted, and it was closed down this year.

Translated by Zita Szopkó. The original, more detailed Hungarian version of this story was written by Katalin Erdélyi and can be found here.