A special version of a stolen election – the case of Hungary

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Hungary’s recent general elections present a different picture from the classic images of stolen polls characterised by ballot stuffing and large scale fraud. Instead, they are marked by an absence of a level playing field and systematic abuse of democratic institutions, argue experts from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ).

Stefánia Kapronczay is the Executive Director of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union Hungarian human rights NGO. Dániel Döbrentey is a legal expert and programme coordinator at HCLU.

Ballot stuffing, centrally organised and large scale fraud, tampering with data in the IT system – this is how we usually imagine a stolen election. We argue that Hungary’s most recent polls present a different version of a stolen election: an unlevel playing field fueled by systematic abuse of democratic institutions and anti-democratic regulation, fraud and abuses built on systemic vulnerabilities within society and the lack of meaningful legal remedies.

In this article, we summarise the experiences of our Electoral Rights Programme (running since 2014) and the Clean Election campaign coming together for the 2022 elections. Under this coalition, activists and lawyers worked to prevent and document fraud on the ground during election day.

In Hungary, the high-profile, systemic abuses start happening well before election day. The legislative, institutional, and state influenced market environment creates an extremely unlevel playing field.

There have been numerous articles about the anti-democratic rules of the  Hungarian electoral system and the state of the free press. We highlight some telling examples of how public money and resources are used for partisan purposes.

State resources are used extensively to support the governing party’s election campaign. Although candidates nowhere campaign on a strictly equal footing, in a democratic country, it is not permissible for public bodies to engage in campaigning.

However, in Hungary, as state bodies are not subject to the rules on electoral campaigning, it is formally legal to do so. For example, the Hungarian government’s posters before the campaign can share the wording of the Fidesz later campaign posters.

The former informed Hungarian citizens that Hungary goes forward, not backward and campaign posters read. Let’s go forward, not backward.

Before previous parliamentary elections, it was regular for the government to launch an “information” campaign shortly before the official campaign, followed by a Fidesz campaign that strongly rhymed with the former.

During this campaign, citizens received Fidesz party messaging to their email addresses collected for the purpose of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

The opposition’s prime minister candidate got five minutes of airtime on public service television during the entire campaign.

At the same time, the Hungarian taxpayers spent an enormous €340 million in 2022 on public service media. According to the Media Act, the purpose of public service media is to provide “balanced, accurate, thorough, objective and responsible news and information”, “to reconcile individual differences of opinion, to debate community issues and to contribute to the free expression of opinion based on reliable information”.

On the day the six-party opposition’s candidate for prime minister used his five minutes, the prime minister’s speech commemorating the March 15 revolution was repeated nine times. Apart from this, opposition politicians have no chance of appearing on public service media. If their names and parties are mentioned, it is in misleading or downright false statements.

Election fraud and abuses surrounding election day are deeply rooted in the systemic vulnerability of people and thus also originate well before election day.

While the election is not ‘rigged’ at the polling stations or during counting, fraud and abuse occur with shocking openness around some polling stations, especially in small localities.

Numerous reports from activists and videos show that it is not an urban legend to buy a vote for a few thousand forints (€15-30) or to (micro)bus voters.

Activists and lawyers have experienced first-hand the real-life convoys of voters being carried to the polls or being instructed in a small shop that a vote for the right candidate and photographed is worth €30.

The activists and lawyers of the Clean Election Coalition from ten counties have reported severe and observed election fraud.  Vulnerability due to deep poverty and dependency on the municipality’s power-play an essential role in sustaining this type of abuse. To eliminate this would require serious political will and carefully designed policy plans.

The lack of adequate legal remedies aggravates the problems above. Do not be fooled that the vote did not have to be repeated anywhere: this does not mean that everything was lawful on 3 April.

Legal action against fraud and abuse is only successful in exceptional cases. A failure to establish electoral fraud often simply means that the complaint did not meet the absurdly high bar for sufficient evidence and formality required or that the fraud was not large enough.

The overwhelming majority of complaints are scrapped because of technicalities. The most absurd in our experience is when negative proof is expected. Many people did not receive their mobile ballot box and missed out on voting. Their complaints were rejected because they did not prove that they did not receive a ballot box. Even if a violation is found, the vote shall only be repeated if it had a material effect on the outcome.

On the national level, the lack of institutional independence results in lacking redress to unlawfulness. In the National Election Commission, members appointed and delegated by the governing party (and their parliamentary majority) have an absolute majority.

Thus it is no surprise that the Commission issued decisions favouring the governing party’s political interest. The most shocking example is the case of reported and documented election fraud beyond Hungary’s borders.

The discriminatory nature of voting from abroad has long been an issue. However, after this election, we can safely state that postal voting is unsuitable for the secure exercise of rights.

There were reports about postal ballots being burned in Transylvania and activists from organisations with close ties to the government delivering ballot papers instead of the post in Vojvodina.

Instead of taking these cases seriously, the National Election Commission simply ruled that it had no means to enforce the election law outside the borders of Hungary.

The same body then determined the result of postal voting – according to this, 94% of mail votes supported the governing parties. To add insult to injury, the Supreme Court had no issue with the state body supposedly ensuring the fairness and legality of elections ruling. It essentially has no control over the security of a significant number of votes.

A stolen election can take various forms, not just the kind taking place on election day. We must find ways to tackle these to continue our work for fair and free elections.

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