- In the first half of 2022, Péter Márki-Zay’s movement received almost HUF 2 billion from the United States. This sum is dwarfed by the numbers of the “nationalized” campaign of Fidesz, but it is a novelty in Hungarian politics. So far, no one has “covered their tracks” over half of their campaign having been financed via a “loophole” and from abroad – moreover, that the joint Prime Minister candidate made this information public.
- Márki-Zay argues that in fact two campaigns were run, one partisan and one civil – the latter having been financed by his movement supported from overseas.
- Beyond that, the story is intriguing: in addition to Fidesz’s American connections to the late Arthur Finkelstein and the Republican Party, there is now a Democratic group that cooperates with the opposition and even runs a joint company with the hinterland.
- How much did the Americans influence the opposition? Did they really push the ultimately ineffective anti-Putin campaign?
Several billion forints, offshore: we’ll tell the story of the hitherto unknown chapter of the opposition campaign, in which Budapest’s City Hall and a company called Datadat appear with great frequency.
Three days after the opposition rally in front of the University, on March 18, Péter Márki-Zay’s movement held a board meeting. According to that meeting’s minutes, the operational manager of the “Everyone’s Hungary Movement” (MMM), Sándor Vékás, informed the management that they had concluded a framework agreement with the Vienna-based Datadat GmbH for communications campaign and event organization, communications consulting, database construction, and provision of social-media based campaign organization.
Vékás was not able to tell us the total amount of the contract, but he spoke about an amount of around hundred million.
Datadat did everything,
he told 24.hu. “We are talking about hundreds of invoices, having received numerous orders.”
The Datadat group was a key player in the opposition campaign, something confirmed by Péter Márki-Zay. For example, Viktor Szigetvári—who is the co-owner of the aforementioned Viennese company—attended the morning management meetings. According to Márki-Zay, it was natural that Datadat became an integral part of the opposition campaign, as the company had worked with almost all parties before 2022. (Szigetvári did not wish to comment on the campaign.)
Datadat—as one member of the campaign team already explains—operated as a kind of agency within the opposition campaign. “We turned to them if we needed a video or a Facebook campaign, and they took it on, produced and delivered it.” Datadat also worked for some candidates, but there was also a case when they paid for the candidate for prime minister’s lunch—although this was the Hungarian “component” of Datadat, which is owned in part by former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai.
American owner close to Democrats
While Datadat is usually associated with Hungarian players, the Viennese company (contracted for the opposition campaign) is the owner of two concerns. The minority owner (AVSF GmbH) belongs to the former president of “Together,” Viktor Szigetvári, and Ádám Ficsor, who was formerly Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s chief of staff, and minister without portfolio in charge of civilian national security services in the Bajnai government. The majority ownership belongs to Higher Ground Labs Fund III LP, which is linked to the US Democratic Party.
Higher Ground Ground Labs is a progressive organization founded in the United States in 2017 with the express purpose of shaking up the shell-shocked Democratic Party with Silicon Valley-inspired digital knowledge and technologies following the election of Donald Trump, with the aim of mobilizing voters with democratic values to the greatest extent possible.
That’s why they create online platforms and conduct internet campaigns, among other activities. The heads of the organization are Betsy Hoover, Andrew McLaughlin and Shomik Dutta, who worked closely with former US President Barack Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential election campaigns. The organization has not revealed who provided it with the initial USD 1 million dollar fund, as reported earlier by Vox.
While 24.hu tried to find out who might be the ultimate owners of the company behind the organization specializing in big data, which was a decisive factor in the campaign on the opposition side, we came up empty handed. The main shareholder of Higher Ground Labs Fund III LP is a company registered in the state of Delaware, which is considered a tax haven, where data is not public, as limited liability companies registered there neither have to submit an annual report nor have to provide the actual owners or the names and contact information of the persons managing a company. One of the contacts for Higher Ground Labs Fund III LP is the aforementioned Shomik Dutta, whose website states that since its inception, Higher Labs has invested a total of USD 15 million in various startups that have supported the Democratic Party’s campaigning. Concurrently, their activities are apparently not limited to the American continent.
Márki-Zay: Opposition’s database of one million handed over to Datadat
Péter Márki-Zay has stated that Datadat also constructed the micro-donations interface through which around HUF 400 million in domestic donations came to his campaign/movement. He added that MMM had provided its own database, comprising 50-200,000 individuals, to Datadat, as the six parties had. “The parties had a database of nearly 1 million and used it in the campaign via a joint decision by the six parties.”
Upon our inquiry, Datadat did not deny that they had received the parties’ databases. However, they emphasized that this data was never in their possession: “On behalf of our customers, we stored and processed the database owned by them as data controllers and data processors. They added: “The database previously handled by us as a data processor has been completely erased according to both our customer’s instructions and the data protection declaration.”
Who gave the money is a mystery
The story of the American side of the opposition campaign is quite complex, both in time and space. Let’s start with the funding. The overseas thread was not only important for the opposition side of the campaign, but also for raising funds. Péter Márki-Zay told 24.hu the following about the cornerstones of the campaign:
- The total cost of the opposition campaign was around HUF 3.5 billion.
- Out of that, the six parties covered HUF 1–1.2 billion in total, which the organizations had received as state support for the joint list and individual candidates.
- Everyone’s Hungary secured the remaining amount, i.e. about HUF 2.2–2.4 billion.
- The latter item came together from several sources, with substantial and very small micro-donations also having been received.
- And there was HUF 1.8 billion sent to MMM, which came from Action for Democracy (AFD), an organization founded in February of this year.
For the time being, that organization does not appear in the US national registry, which could be explained by slow processing, but the organization’s registration number and address in Chicago were sent to 24.hu. AFD is key to the story, and although it has denied in a statement that it had financed the opposition’s campaign, it is clear from the figures above: without the organization’s contribution, Márki-Zay and the others would not have been able to finance such a campaign, given that the MMM’s first annual budget totalled HUF 2.5 billion, of which AFD chipped in HUF 1.8 billion.
But from another aspect, AFD’s explanation that it had nothing to do with the opposition’s campaign raises questions. The Hungarian leader of the organization, Dávid Korányi, previously admitted that the Hungarian election had provided inspiration for the organization’s formation, and in relation to its operation, he emphasized, “We are trying to strengthen democratic forces in battlegrounds where elections are taking place, including Hungary.” In other words, in March, the AFD executive described the organization as one specifically focused on elections.
However, it is not known where the amounts sent partly before and partly after the election on 3 April come from, i.e. who donated to AFD—the organization only revealed that the money came from Hungarian citizens living abroad.
But in order to understand what was an increasingly influential American thread for the domestic opposition, we have to jump back to 2018.
The overseas connection
The story begins with the fact that after Viktor Orbán’s success in securing a two-thirds majority for the third time, several well-known and less well-known former left-wing politicians and backers expressed the need to refresh the domestic opposition from an intellectual, technological and material standpoint—without doing so, Orbán was incapable of being unseated.
Several of our opposition sources have listed the owners of the Datadat group, such as Gordon Bajnai, Ádám Ficsor, Viktor Szigetvári, who left the front line of politics after the destruction of the “Together” party (Együtt) in 2018 (previously working on MSZP campaigns and alongside Gyurcsány and Bajnai), and sociologist Tibor Dessewffy, former head of the Demos Foundation. Bajnai, incidentally, through his company EBIT Consulting, has been the owner of the Hungarian companies Datadat Professional, Datadat Research, and Datadat HR for many years.
According to our sources, Bajnai has serious business and political relationship capital in the West, and he is able to mobilize this in order that—as an opposition politician put it to our news site—”things go in the right direction in Hungary.” Bajnai’s Homeland and Progress (“Haza és Haladás”) Foundation also benefited from HUF 100 million in support from the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank linked to the Democrats. The overseas connection was realized in a company form through Datadat in Vienna.
At the same time, the former prime minister categorically denied to 24.hu that he had played such an international “money-raising” role in the opposition campaign.
I do not deal with fundraising or mediating for political parties and players, either at home or abroad. I supported the campaigns of some opposition candidates through personal donations of a few million forints from my savings through public micro-financing channels,
Bajnai self-deprecatingly remarked to 24.hu that “given the results, the effectiveness of these subsidies can be said to be quite low.” He added that in recent years, he had helped opposition figures he considered credible by offering his opinion on the campaign, governance, especially foreign and economic policy, if asked.
Regarding Datadat, it was already active before the 2019 municipal election, and the relationship with DK was particularly good. Ferenc Gyurcsány’s chatbot, for example—noted Átlátszó—was their work. 24.hu has learned that the company also helped Gergely Karácsony’s 2019 campaign, and it was that victory that sparked the hope of many that the Párbeszéd politician was capable of beating Fidesz, not only in Budapest, but also nationally. (In response to our inquiry, Datadat wrote that in order to protect the interests of their partners, they could not answer our question about whom they worked with in the 2021 primary election nor earlier in the local government election.)
The Karácsony project collapses, but his consultant arrives
Karácsony, however, shied away from the role of challenger, making it clear several times before the primary election that he did not want the role of prime minister candidate, not even the target on his back. However, according to our sources, he was urged to stand in because he had the best chance of beating Orbán.
It is not known what finally convinced the mayor, in any case, but the Karácsony project collapsed badly after the first round of the primary election, partly because of the mistakes of the mayor’s campaign, and partly because Karácsony could not stand the way Péter Márki-Zay delayed his own promised withdrawal. But maybe not because, as one of our sources put it, “in the end it just turned out that Gergő didn’t really want this whole thing, he wasn’t into it.”
Despite this, the Karácsony campaign did not suffer any shortage, especially when it came to finances. An abruptly founded, now inactive organization backed it with nearly a quarter billion forints. (Read about this and other questionable financial details in our sidebar.) After Karácsony finally conceded in favor of Márki-Zay, the mayor of Hódmezővásárhely felt that the support that had pushed the mayor to the second round was on his side. And after Márki-Zay defeated Klára Dobrev, thus becoming the opposition’s candidate for prime minister, Karácsony’s town hall advisor Dávid Korányi (who had also been an advisor to Gordon Bajnai) showed up at Márki-Zay’s campaign, promising to collect American funds for MMM. And this help was much needed.
Hundreds of millions – from confusing sources
A now-forgotten actor in the primary election was the Ninety-Nine Movement Association (Kilencvenkilenc Mozgalom Egyesület), which promoted Gergely Karácsony’s politics: for example, it advertised the mayor on Facebook for more than HUF 100 million. According to its latest report, the organization received more than HUF 260 million in support last year (while it had only been founded in the summer), it is still not known exactly from where. The organization responded to our question as to whether it had received funding from overseas, writing that most of the HUF 260 million had come from donations collected at their events—which means that within just a few months of campaigning they were able to collect twice as much in donations as Fidesz did in an entire year. (For a while, Action for Democracy indicated on its website that it supported the Ninety-Nine Movement, but later retracted that connection. Since the American organization was founded just this year, it could hardly have legally supported an organization that had only become active last year, after Karacsony’s withdrawal.)
Obscure money continued to circulate on the opposition side, about which we show a few examples. According to Facebook data, a group called “Amplifier” (Erősítő) advertised government-critical articles from independent newspapers and opposition propaganda sites for a total of HUF 271 million, while the website has no masthead, and there are absolutely no ads on it. The only thing known from the information provided is that Amplifier is operated by Amplify APP, which is a company registered in an apartment complex in Estonia, and it happens to be represented by Tibor Dessewffy, one of Datadat’s owners. Datadat has subsidiaries in Estonia, which is why we asked Amplifier if Datadat was behind their very significant Facebook spending, but they denied it. However, they did not reveal where the HUF 271 million in ad spend had come from.
According to Facebook data, ezalenyeg.hu, which produces opposition propaganda, spent HUF 227 million on ads, but when we inquired, this portal also denied that Datadat had backed it. The owner of the company putting out the publication, Zoltán Páva, a former socialist politician who was one of those monitored by Pegasus spy software, has not previously revealed where the company’s income of hundreds of millions of forints come from. Incidentally, ezalenyeg.hu spent the most in the 2019 local government election campaign on Facebook—from what source is a mystery.
Money promised but nothing asked for in return?
At the end of last fall, the opposition’s campaign stopped for many weeks, and until the end of December, they concentrated on organizational tasks: building and organizing the campaign team, looking for a central office, writing the program, as internal tension was rising among them. (An article from January about these processes revealed that Datadat had also joined the opposition campaign.)
In addition to the case of the seventh faction, personal and political problems have also developed in recent months that have not been made public until now.
One of the key members of the campaign staff said: “we were incredibly behind in raising funds. We knew that the parties’ money would not be enough, because only a low-cost campaign would result from the party’s coffers.” At the end of last fall, they tried to involve non-Fidesz members of the Hungarian Forbes rich list in financing the opposition campaign, but this idea quickly failed. “There were applicants who promised American money, but nothing came of that either,” said a member of the central campaign team.
Then Karácsony’s advisor emerged. According to several of our sources, Dávid Korányi appeared in 2021, but according to Márki-Zay, only in 2022, promising American support. As an advisor to Gergely Karácsony in the City Hall, and with a remarkable career behind him, Korányi required no introductions. In addition to his functions in various think tanks and a UN organization, Korányi received the most recognition after the Financial Times published an article which reported on a “reality game” he invented. It involves players putting themselves in the shoes of politicians when they must handle conflicts and solve crisis situations. The purpose of Korányi’s game called Newsgamer, is to give players a better understanding of how complex and challenging the work of politicians is. (We contacted Dávid Korányi, who did not wish to address the subject for now.)
One of Korányi’s innumerable positions is in the Hungarian branch of an EU think tank (European Council on Foreign Relations), of which György Soros and his son are members, along with Klára Dobrev and the Orbán government’s former ambassador to Washington, Réka Szemerkényi, while Gordon Bajnai is its leader.
According to our information, Korányi, who basically lives in New York, approached Márki-Zay with the prospect of an American organization supporting the latter’s movement with fundraising. After the candidate for prime minister indicated his openness, Korányi promised to bring him together with the leaders of the newly formed organization, so that Márki-Zay could introduce himself and talk about his movement. This event eventually turned out to be an online conference discussion, in which Péter Márki-Zay explained his organization’s goals, their Western values, the corruption situation in Hungary, media relations, and the state of the rule of law. Present on the conference call were Kati Marton, an American journalist and writer of Hungarian origin, former employee of ABC News and Human Right Watch, author of several books on the Holocaust, as well as historian-journalist Anne Applebaum, wife of Polish MEP Radoslav Sikorski, and regular contributor to the Washington Post, according to Márki-Zay. A few days ago, Kati Marton told hvg.hu that she did not know Márki-Zay.
He emphasized to 24.hu:
Neither then nor later did the foundation make any requests to the movement.
The former candidate for prime minister does not remember any request or promise having been made regarding how much money Korányi and his associates were to collect. In addition to the aforementioned individuals, the foundation’s management includes several world-famous authors, such as philosopher-writer Francis Fukuyama, historian Timothy Snyder, and former British Labor Party politician David Miliband.
The parallels to Hungary’s “CÖF”
The parliamentary election campaign was already underway, when Action for Democracy and the Everyone’s Hungary Movement had concluded the contract for fundraising (according to the document, the organization solicited funds until June 30). Overly ambitious objectives were included in the contract according to which, one of AFD’s goals is to support civil organizations, with particular attention paid to promoting the values of “rule of law, democracy, and Euro-Atlantic commitment.” While not many more specifics than that appear in the document, Márki-Zay also mentioned the strong anti-corruption and anti-war sentiments from the United States.
At first, the opposition saw opportunity in the Russian-Ukrainian war, but by the end of the campaign it had turned into a nightmare. Before the invasion, they knew what not to say, yet political gaffes emerged, which may be responsible for Fidesz having maintained its two-thirds’ majority. Why did it happen like this? Begging, cursing, hysterics, outbursts: we immersed ourselves in the world behind the scenes of the opposition campaign.
According to our information, the two organizations negotiated repeatedly on how to include the financial support in a contract, and this took quite a bit of time. As Márki-Zay said, “quite a few lawyers worked to ensure that everything was legal, and nothing prohibits our organization from accepting money from abroad.” He also explained that if the Civil Unity Forum (CÖF), which became known as the organizer of the so-called Peace March, could put up political-themed posters, then another civil organization could do the same.
However, MMM contributed much more to the opposition campaign than posters, and its leader was the joint prime ministerial candidate of the six parties.
One campaign, two campaigns
All this adds up to a great portion of the work and activities having actually been offloaded to an organization that does not fall under the scope of the law governing political parties. Current Hungarian laws assume that parties pay for the campaign, and the regulations applicable to them are quite strict. It describes in strict detail from whom and how much donations can be accepted: for example, they are prohibited from abroad, as well as from domestic companies. At the same time, a private person can make a donation, but if the amount exceeds HUF 500,000, the person’s name must be made public. We wrote about the interesting aspects of this in connection with the “Our Country” (Mi Hazánk) party:
At the same time, the regulations on non-governmental organizations are quite broad, and moreover are not subject to such strict control as political organizations that receive state support, in fact the State Audit Office (ÁSZ) does not automatically audit parties that do not receive state money, even if conspicuously generous donors, about whom nothing can be ascertained beyond their names, appear to be backing them.
Namely, the law does not prohibit “creative” financing solutions, but that stance raises moral predicaments beyond the law’s literal text. The staff of the opposition was well aware of this, as a left-wing figure told our paper,
We were of the opinion that what Fidesz is doing, for example with CÖF, we can also do.
That is why the key issue is how campaign expenditures are classified. During the risk management, our source said, special attention was paid to ensure that no money came from the MMM site to finance a campaign tool that had a party logo, because it could easily be sanctioned, but SMS campaigns, Facebook ads, and billboard campaigns without a party logo could come from the coffers of Márki-Zay and company, as could the rental of the opposition campaign center, and expenses related to Datadat.
Fidesz’s historic victory not prevented
Several of our sources now consider Márki-Zay’s “self-confession” at the end of the summer to have been a serious mistake, but according to our information, there was even tension among AFD’s advisers because of this: there was no necessity in revealing the specific details of the solution that had drifted into the gray zone by publishing the movement’s full financial accounting. At the same time, Márki-Zay considers it a great achievement that these details of the opposition campaign have become public, which prove that they were not financed by black money. According to him, “In the past 32 years, no political party has done this in Hungary, and it is also a milestone that hundreds of millions of forints were collected from Hungarian micro-donations.”
A representative of the opposition parties now fears that if someone is punished for this, it will not be Márki-Zay’s movement. A previous case involving political party Jobbik’s billboards showed that the state can also impose a significant penalty due to a “discount” from a private company – at that time the businesses of oligarch Lajos Simicska provided Jobbik with cheap advertising space.
At the same time, despite the capital injection and presence of America, Fidesz-KDNP achieved the greatest electoral success in its history on 3 April, as never had so many voted for the parties—true, according to one estimate, the ruling party spent 10 times more on the campaign than the opposition.
How much did the Americans influence the campaign?
Several experts from abroad participated in the opposition’s campaign. Among them, the best-known name is Ari Rabin-Havt, belongs to the left wing of the Democratic Party, who worked as deputy campaign manager for Bernie Sanders, and recently wrote a book about it. Our source in the campaign team recalled Ari Rabin-Havt’s idea, for example, of having a rhombus-shaped stage at the March demonstration.
From the campaign’s perspective, much more decisive than that was the subject of the war, which was partly “pushed” by the American advisers, according to MSZP’s Ágnes Kunhalmi, and corroborated by Péter Márki-Zay. He remembers that “in response to the war narrative favorable to Orbán, the American advisers suggested criticizing the close relationship between Orbán and Putin, but the decision regarding this was that of the Hungarian campaign team. No external orders or instructions influenced the criticism of Orbán’s war rhetoric, in the same way the Fidesz pedophiles or the attack on Orbán’s migrant resettlement had nothing to do with the support coming from America,” claims Márki-Zay.
As written in a previous article, the Russian-Ukrainian war became such an important topic in the election that it even shocked the opposition politicians. And they viewed how badly they came out of it as devastating, even though the staff still saw the war as a serious political opportunity at the end of February. “Evil Putin seemed like a framework for telling the story of the last 12 years,” said one participant in the opposition campaign.
Ildikó D. Kovács contributed to preparing this article. Translation by Drew Leifheit.