Hungary’s Battle of the Billboards

Milos Stanic

Who’s pulling the strings on advertising hoardings as Hungary looks ahead to next year’s election?

A year before Hungarians go to the polls, electioneering is already in full swing – and judging by the signs on city streets, campaigning has never been dirtier.

On a recent trip to Hungary to investigate public health issues, I was struck by the negative advertising used by Fidelitas, the youth wing of the ruling Fidesz party led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The southern town of Baja is a tranquil place with picturesque 19th-century architecture. It’s just one of many towns and cities where Fidelitas has bought hundreds of billboards to plaster with posters.

Their goal seems clear - to discredit major political opponents. The message is: “Opposition politicians are puppets controlled by billionaires.” (Their hoardings fail to elaborate with proof of this conspiracy.)

One sign shows US billionaire philanthropist George Soros as a puppeteer pulling the strings of Laszlo Botka, a prime ministerial candidate for the Hungarian Socialist Party. A third-term mayor of the southern city of Szeged, Botka usually scores second in opinion polls for next year’s vote, making him a prime target for Orban’s youth organisation.

A roadside billboard in Baja depicts US-Hungarian financier George Soros as controlling the strings of Laszlo Botka, a socialist candidate in Hungary’s 2018 election. Photo: Milos Stanic

On the unhurried streets of Baja, Soros and Botka aren’t the only ones depicted as being “controlled” by billionaires.

Another billboard shows Gabor Vona, leader of the far-right Jobbik party. His strings are pulled by none other than Hungarian oligarch Lajos Simicska.

Jobbik, it seems, is turning more towards the centre as it tries to garner wider support. In opinion polls, the party is almost always tied with the socialists. That’s enough to put them in Fidelitas’ crosshairs.

Billboards showing Soros and Simicska may not do the trick alone, so Fidelitas has come up with a bright idea: why not lump them together in the same picture? That’s exactly what they’ve done in Baja.

But billboards by Orban’s young supporters are just a taste of the war of words against Soros, the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist.

At a bus stop in Budapest, a freshly minted campaign by the government has Soros grinning on a billboard. The accompanying text says: “Don’t let Soros laugh.”

The campaign has an interesting back story, since neither Simicska nor Soros were Orban’s enemies in the past.

The prime minister has found a lot of political capital in taking on Soros in recent years. Since coming to power for a second time in 2010, Orban has criticised Soros-funded civil society organisations, accusing them of opposing his tough policies on migration. Presenting himself as a defender of the national interest against foreign meddling, he’s gained wide support among Hungarians.

Once upon a time, Orban could only be grateful to Soros; his own studies in Oxford were supported by Soros-funded scholarships. Nowadays, Orban is trying to put a padlock on the Central European University in Budapest, founded by the billionaire.

A move to try to shutter the university sparked demonstrations earlier this year, bringing thousands onto the streets of Budapest.

Like Soros, Simicska wasn't portrayed as a puppeteer until a few years ago. The Hungarian oligarch is actually a high school and college friend of Orban, and used to be treasurer of his Fidesz party. Their friendship soured in 2015 when Simicska, who owns quite a few media outlets in Hungary, accused Orban of wanting to shut down independent media through legislation to tax advertising.

Simicska, one of Hungary’s richest men, said his media “will fight that and will not give a damn about what Orban says“. And with that, he became an enemy.

Meanwhile, Fidesz and Fidelitas aren’t the only ones putting up attack-dog ads. Even the liberal green party Lehet Más a Politika (LMP) is at it.

The greens want a referendum on the planned expansion of a nuclear power plant through a Russian loan of 12 billion euros. They say the deal was made in secret and exposes Hungary to Moscow’s influence.

Over the past few weeks, new billboards have sprouted up along the roads of Budapest – this time paid for by the LMP. They show the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin, tinted orange against a green background. “Putin decides your future,” the text reads, with a call to sign a petition for a referendum.

Milos Stanic is a Serbian journalist who specialises in crime and corruption. For the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, he is investigating public health issues in Serbia and neighbouring countries.

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Miloš Stanić

Miloš Stanić is a Novi Sad-based journalist for Serbian daily Blic and a contributor to VOICE, a centre for research and analysis in Vojvodina.