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Charges of cronyism, lack of transparency blemish lease of state farmland in Hungary

Gergely Bocsodi's family has been farming in this central Hungarian village for six generations but he fears there may not be a seventh, as the region is caught up in a once-in-20-years land grab.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his conservative Fidesz party are being accused of broken campaign promises, cronyism and shady deals in which friends, relatives and political supporters have snapped up valuable long-term agriculture leases on state lands, cutting out many small local farmers.

"There is huge anger and emotion," Bocsodi said. "It is not easing."

Ahead of the 2010 election, the right-wing Fidesz party had promised farmers and young families access to state lands, one of the vows that helped them win in a landslide.

In Kajaszo, however, there were no locals among the winners of the land lease tenders. Instead, all the available state land around the village went to two groups, including a company linked to the mayor of Felcsut, Orban's hometown.

Fidesz won a two-thirds majority in 2010, amid a recession and deep resentment over eight years of Socialist Party mismanagement. Orban has since reshaped the country with a new, strongly conservative constitution, allowing him to concentrate power and exert greater political control over a wide range of institutions, from the media to the central bank.

Yet discontent with the government is rapidly growing, as austerity measures announced with ever-increasing frequency and lowered growth projections have called into question his government's unusual economic policies.

Charges of cronyism have been leveled against virtually all Hungarian governments, but the land lease scandal seems to be snowballing.

Bocsodi and his parents grow sunflowers, corn, wheat, and other crops on 50 hectares (124 acres) they own in this small village on the edge of the M7 highway, which connects the capital of Budapest to Lake Balaton, Hungary's prime summer resort.

They had been hoping to lease another 70 hectares of state farmland in the area — enough to allow 28-year-old Gergely to strike out on his own.

"Around here, not a single local farmer was able to secure any land," Bocsodi said as he took a break from tilling with his tractor, preparing to plant autumn wheat.

Since the leases are for 20 years and there is no more land available around Kajaszo, 38 kilometers (24 miles) southeast of Budapest, Bocsodi's future is uncertain.

"I don't understand why the contracts are so long," Bocsodi said. "I would like to stay here. My life is here."

About 20 people staged a symbolic occupation Wednesday of one of plots leased to outsiders. After a tractor turned over a strip of soil, the protesters planted wheat in the fresh grooves and set up signs saying "Territory taken over by the farmers of Kajaszo."

"The situation is similar everywhere," said Maria Tamasi, an advocate for small farmers who took part in the protest. "Other farmers can't obtain lands in their villages, either, and if they see that a few farmers have the courage to do this, they will, too."

One of the most vocal critics of the government's land-lease policy is Jozsef Angyan, a Fidesz parliamentary deputy who resigned as state secretary at the Agriculture Ministry this year. He has compiled detailed reports on the land-lease contracts in three counties, including Fejer county where both Kajaszo and Felcsut are located.

According to Angyan, 59 percent of the state land leased recently in Fejer county, including the biggest and most valuable plots, have gone to just two groups.

Angyan does not speak to the foreign press, perhaps weary of being branded a traitor, as some government critics have been.

"For the time being, I want to continue the struggle among my own," Angyan told The Associated Press when approached in parliament.

But last month at a farmers' meeting in Kajaszo, the 60-year-old agricultural engineer did not mince words.

"Don't be mad at me. I was conned, too," Angyan said. "It's a scandal that the locals did not get even an ounce of land."

His successor at the Agriculture Ministry, Gyula Budai, has rejected criticism of the tenders and promised that reviews beginning in 2013, a year after the first leases were awarded, would weed out any irregularities.

"I myself, as government commissioner, as well as the ministry, reviewed the Kajaszo land tenders and no legal problems surfaced," Budai said.

Opposition parties have repeatedly drawn attention to the issue.

"We would have liked to see transparency in these land-lease tenders and have the evaluation criteria be made public for everyone," said Rebeka Szabo, a lawmaker with Politics Can Be Different, a small opposition party.

According to the head of National Land Management Organization, which organized the tender process, the complaints are being made by sore losers.

"We've granted leases to 21,000 hectares (52,000 acres)," said Robert Sebestyen after a ceremony in the village of Gomba where local farmers did get some plots. "Some people who did not win are unsatisfied."

Despite his disappointment, Bocsodi still hopes that one of the Kajaszo leases, which may have not met all the requirements, will be voided.

"I trust that part of the land will be tendered again and we will get a new chance to compete," Bocsodi said. "This is where I would like to make a living."