Inequality in the Hungarian electoral law

Time to move from the past to the present. From Viktor Orbán’s personal enrichment to the much greater sins he is committing today. I would like to call attention to something that didn’t receive the attention it deserves in the Hungarian media: a small item in the new electoral law that makes it easy for new Hungarian citizens from the neighboring countries to vote while practically depriving about half a million Hungarian citizens who temporarily work abroad of the right to vote.

How can this be when we’ve heard so often from government politicians that there cannot be two different kinds of citizenship? The Hungarian government cannot grant citizenship to people of Hungarian heritage without giving them the right to vote even if they have never set foot in present-day Hungary. This argument, advanced by Fidesz and the Orbán government, makes some sense. But what kind of sense does it make that people from other countries who just received their citizenship can vote by absentee ballot while those who became Hungarian citizens by birth cannot? Because this is what is happening. And as with everything else, Viktor Orbán knows what he is doing.

On October 25 an article appeared in Népszava about a document the newspaper received that attests to the disparate treatment of new and old citizens living and working abroad. János Kiss from Romania who just got his citizenship and passport can sit in the comfort of his living room in Chicago and vote by absentee ballot. By contrast, József Nagy, who was born in Mátészalka and finished his schooling in Hungary and who also lives in Chicago, can vote only by traveling to the Hungarian embassy in Washington or one of the consulates in San Francisco and New York. Take your pick. The situation is just as bad in the United Kingdom where bona fide Hungarian citizens might have to travel from the northernmost point of Scotland to London to vote at the Hungarian embassy while their lucky new compatriots would have to go no farther than the closest mailbox.

According to the Central Statistical Office, 7.4% of Hungarians between the ages of 18 and 49 work abroad. These people have permanent addresses in Hungary. There are various estimates of the true number of people who have left Hungary to seek their fortunes elsewhere. We hear of 100,000 Hungarians living in London alone. Emigration to Germany has accelerated of late and the same is true about Austria. All in all, there might be as many as half a million Hungarians living abroad. Although theoretically these people can vote, in reality they are unlikely to go to the lengths necessary–often involving both time and money–to cast their ballots.

The decision to distinguish between new and old citizens is not a coincidence or an oversight. Viktor Orbán and his cohorts figure that the new citizens, who are intrinsically more conservative than the adult population of Hungary proper, will vote overwhelmingly for Fidesz. After all, they received their Hungarian citizenship from this government. They are not at all sure of the recent émigrés’ party preferences. They left the country either because they couldn’t find a job or because they found the atmosphere oppressive. Recent émigrés complain about the lack of meritocracy in Hungary which works against those without “connections.” If these people could vote by absentee ballot, who knows what the results would be. So, let’s make sure they don’t vote. I’m sure that’s how the argument goes in Fidesz circles.

After October 25 I was waiting with great interest for the reaction to Népszava‘s revelation. I was disappointed. There was not a word about this outrageous discrimination for quite a few days. At last on November 1 Hir24.hu came out with a four liner with the headline: “It will be mighty expensive for people working abroad to vote.” Surely, the reporter didn’t grasp the true significance of the provision. At the end of the article it was mentioned that, according to the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ), this part of the electoral law is unconstitutional.

TASZ may have found the provision unconstitutional but according to Róbert Zsiga, a Fidesz spokesman, the law did not change the voting status of Hungarians working outside the country. Prior to the enactment of the new electoral law Hungarians who were abroad at the time of the election could vote only at embassies and consulates. That is still the case. He forgot to add that in the past there was no such thing as absentee ballots for new citizens.

szavazas levelben TASZ

One vote two different ways? No! / TASZ

Századvég, the think tank that has been receiving billions of forints worth of government orders in the last three years, immediately announced that there can be no constitutional objections to the law. According to Balázs András Orbán, it would be possible to talk about discrimination only if some people in the same homogeneous group had different rights from others. But here we are talking about two groups with two different sets of rules.

I’m no legal expert, but I find this particular line of reasoning bonkers. So did TASZ, who summed up their reasoning in the headline: “Either to everybody or to nobody.” At the same time a Hungarian citizen, represented by TASZ, turned to the Constitutional Court for remedy. TASZ’s argument can be read here. As of today the Constitutional Court hasn’t responded to TASZ’s brief.

With the exception of DK the opposition parties somehow managed to miss the news of this gross discrimination. DK submitted an amendment to the electoral law on December 4 which would give all Hungarian citizens living abroad the right to vote by mail. Csaba Molnár, deputy chairman of DK, also approached the new Fidesz-appointed ombudsman, who has the right to turn to the Constitutional Court with cases raising constitutional issues. Molnár received a letter about two weeks later from the ombudsman, László Székely, who naturally found nothing wrong with this provision of the Fidesz electoral law and therefore refused to ask the Constitutional Court’s opinion on the matter. According to Székely, as long as all citizens have the right to vote, the “method of voting is not a constitutional matter.”

So, this is where we stand. It looks as if the Hungarian opposition must turn to international organizations, for example, to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe or to the European Court of Justice. An opinion piece written by a lawyer, László Szlávnits, suggests that if there is no remedy to this incredible provision of the electoral law the opposition should seriously consider boycotting the elections.

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27 comments

  1. “According to Balázs András Orbán, it would be possible to talk about discrimination only if some people in the same homogeneous group had different rights from others. But here we are talking about two groups with two different sets of rules.”
    Well, according to my estimation in this case we are talking about at least 57 different groups, of course, they should have different rights!

    Let’s see:
    There are the blond ones, the brown ones, the fat ones, the slim ones. Then the ones with blue eyes, then some brown ones. Then comes the tall ones, short ones, the flats, the rounds… You got the point?

    Great!

    One common denominator somehow slipped the attention of the esteemed Balázs András Orbán: they are all the citizens of the very same country, the name Hungary!

    Now, how to solve this problem?

  2. There will be additional tricks too.

    1.
    A lot of Transylvanians and Serbians will be registered in close-to-call electoral districts in Hungary as residents. They will be bussed inside Hungary before the elections.

    Say, a Budapest or Szombathely district has a close race. According to the new rules. It is enough to transport a Transylvanian to Debrecen, s/he can cast the vote there for her/his vote of registration in Budapest or Szombathely.

    The opposition parties should demand to see the list of new residents in their districts from the EACH fidesznik local government EVERY week before the election to spot the not bona fide residents.

    2.
    Possible repetition of the 1947 “blue slip” method. Transportation between districts. (This is easier to spot)

  3. Of course, when the Fidesz-paid counter-demonstrators show up with geese at Bajnai rallies, they also try to imprint into the Hungarian subconscious that Bajnai might be Jewish (he is not).

    This is a subtle anti-Semitic trick applied by Fidesz advisers.

  4. @Stevan

    Olga wanted to become an actress in her youth (I heard this personally from herself) – that is why you can frequently spot prima donna attitude in her interviews

  5. Stevan, I am so sorry for you. Re Olga Kálmán you are missing one of the most fun things in politics because you don’t understand irony, an important and often very effective device to ridicule something that needs to be ridiculed. Is that interview the only thing you ever saw her do? Or you did but didn’t notice her in Hungary unparallelled skill in asking the most penetrating and important questions from her subjects based on her exceptional preparedness? Even if she had committed an error there, and I don’t believe she did, do you think it’s fair to condemn her totally, based on one instance? Olga Kálmán was, and remains my hero, and I hope that you will realize that you overreacted.

  6. This discrimination against Hungarians working/living abroad is really abominable! In a really democratic country the courts would immediately have abolished that – having to travel to a consulate/embassy hundred of miles away …

    Not too much OT:

    Many of our acquaintances (the masseuse, the hairdresser, the cook, the waitresses …) have left for the winter season to work somewhere in the Alps – of course they’ll return only after the end of the season i e after Easter. So no chance for them to vote on April 6 of course …

  7. As a genuine and committed vegetarian I can understand why Mr. Hernad would be upset about the Olga Kálmán interview. She was, however, engaging in a journalistic game played in Hungary called “Throw the Government Dog a Bone” – now she won’t be able to be accused of never “going after” opposition politicians with the same vigor as she does government spokespeople. You can see the FIDESZ troll crowd finds her so infuriating. Well done, Olga!

    As for the citizenship issue, we need only remember the FIDESZ stance on citizenship for Transylvanian Hungarians back in 1999. After the opening of a Hungarian consulate in Koloszvár Hungarian Transylvanians were not granted citizenship, but only “Hungarian Cards” that allowed the holder to enter Hungary to work for a three month period, and he card restricted the amount of multiple entries into Hungary. My friends in Transylvania continued to enter Hungary on their Romanian passports without restriction. It was only after they were defeated by the Socialists in 2002 that FIDESZ began campaigning for full citizenship for Transylvanians, using the issue as a wedge to smear the MSZP and SZDSZ coalition as “anti Hungarian” and pretty much sealing up support for FIDESZ in the Szekely regions where people pretty much got all their news from DunaTV at that time.

  8. ObserverM (Louis Munkachy) :
    Stevan, I am so sorry for you. Re Olga Kálmán you are missing one of the most fun things in politics because you don’t understand irony, an important and often very effective device to ridicule something that needs to be ridiculed. Is that interview the only thing you ever saw her do? Or you did but didn’t notice her in Hungary unparallelled skill in asking the most penetrating and important questions from her subjects based on her exceptional preparedness? Even if she had committed an error there, and I don’t believe she did, do you think it’s fair to condemn her totally, based on one instance? Olga Kálmán was, and remains my hero, and I hope that you will realize that you overreacted.

    Humaneness

    I’ve been faithfully watching Egyenes Beszéd nightly for a year now. I too admire(d) Olga, and to some extent still do. I appreciate jokes and irony at the expense of suffering geese as much as I appreciate it at the expense of suffering gypsies or jews. And her insensitivity was not mitigated in the least by her remark that the on-camera treatment of the geese by the Fideszniks was no worse than how her mother treated geese. And the ridicule of the simple, decent man who raised his voice on behalf of the geese was also an extremely ignoble “joke.”

    I also have to add that lately I have found Olga becoming increasingly imperious and irritable. I don’t know how she was in the more distant past, but either the work is getting on her nerves, or her role is going to her head. On balance, there’s no question that she’s a greater asset for the (1) (slim) prospects of democracy and justice in Hungary than she is a liability for (2) suffering creatures in general, but to me, (2) is just a particular case of (1), and a particularly telling one. So I no longer have full confidence in Olga. (Nothing that a truly sincere realization and public apology could not restore, however; in fact if she were up to that, it would double my prior admiration.)

    (This is perhaps an especially appropriate day to mention this from here in Montreal, it being Anti-Fur day : <strong)Please don’t click on the link unless you are prepared to see a very graphic image of the kind of thing that Olga’s joking makes light of. I am heading for a protest at 1 pm today. Please, no replies to the effect that brutalizing geese is not the same thing as ripping the skin off other animals. As GB Shaw said; we’ve established the profession, we’re just haggling about the price. Atrocity is atrocity, whether anserine, passerine or pannonian.)

  9. … but I totally agree. This 10 minutes on ATV wasn’t the shiniest moment of the Hungarian free press. Seeing this garbage on TV 6 months before the elections is disheartening.

  10. Meanwhile on Planet Hungary …

    Our very own Gyorgy Matolcsy, Orban’s financial court jester is active again.

    Matolcsy called for the resignation of Olli Rehn (European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs). He also demanded that the major rating agencies immediately start negotiating (!) the upgrade of Hungary’s credit rating.

    The Euro immediately rose above 300 HUF.

    (No. I did not quote from the Onion. He really said it.)

  11. Let me remark that there are 4 different voting rights in the new Fidesz system:

    1. Hungarians living in Hungary: they can vote for one party & for one individual representing their district.

    2. Registered members of non-Hungarian ethnic groups living in Hungary: they can vote for a representative of their ethnic group & for one local representative. THey cannot vote for party lists.

    3. Hungarian living or working abroad who are still registered as living in Hungary. Most of them practically cannot vote at all.

    4. Ethnic Hungarians, who live overwhelmingly in neighboring countries. They are the only ones who can vote by mail, but only for a party list

  12. @Stevan Harnad. The topic of this post was “Inequality in the Hungarian electoral law”. This doesn’t exclude commentaries about humaneness. But to complain about Olga Kálmán is – as you rightly mentioned – not only OT, it is also unfair. She is almost the only opposition tv personality that does a good job, day after day.

    Animal rights, vegetarianism, veganism, eating meat, etc. all belong to a different agenda. To follow that agenda on this blog is actually highjacking it.

  13. Two notes to the topic:

    1. I spoke with many Hungarians from Transylvania and what I heard almost unanimously was that they would never forget that the MSZP government decided against giving them Hungarian citizenship while the FIDESZ government decided to do it. Thus an overwhelming vote for FIDESZ among the Hungarians in Romania is highly probable.

    2. Even if the law were to change, requiring Hungarian citizens from Romania to vote at a Hungarian consulate, the effort required cannot be compared to the effort by someone living in Chicago to do the same. There are two Hungarian consulates in Transylvania (one in Cluj/Kolozsvar and one in Miercurea Ciuc/Csikszereda) and one in Bucharest. In addition there are other offices (Magyar képviseleti irodák) where I assume one could vote (in Timisoara/Temesvar, Oradea/Nagyvarad, Targu Mures/Marosvasarhely and Sfantu Gheorghe/Sepsiszentgyorgy). Most Hungarians from Transylvania can reach one of these places in less than a couple of hours of driving or taking the bus or train.

  14. “Even if the law were to change, requiring Hungarian citizens from Romania to vote at a Hungarian consulate…”

    Surely this isn’t the change that’s required? Giving ALL Hungarian citizens outside the country the right to a postal or proxy vote would be the solution. That’s how it’s done in the UK (even if you are out of the country on holiday at the time of the election), and I assume the same is true of most democratic countries.

  15. « According to Székely, as long as all citizens have the right to vote, the “method of voting is not a constitutional matter.” »

    Modern constitutions don’t work that way. The method of voting may not be a constitutional matter per se, but inequality between citizens when it comes to exercising their right to vote certainly is. The law can certainly establish different voting methods for different groups of citizens, but the privileges eventually granted to some groups have to be justified on legal or practical grounds.

    And clearly, there is absolutely no justification when it comes to voting for distinguishing between citizens based on the way they acquired citizenship… unless of course you include Trianon revisionism in the Constitution?

  16. Paul :
    “Even if the law were to change, requiring Hungarian citizens from Romania to vote at a Hungarian consulate…”
    Surely this isn’t the change that’s required? Giving ALL Hungarian citizens outside the country the right to a postal or proxy vote would be the solution. That’s how it’s done in the UK (even if you are out of the country on holiday at the time of the election), and I assume the same is true of most democratic countries.

    I don’t disagree with you, after all we have the same system in the US. The reason I mentioned the change was that this was the allowed method of voting for expat Hungarian citizens before the special rules for this group were instituted.

  17. A bit OT:

    Orbán’s course seems to work again. Just after he said he wanted to have tighter connections to the Ukraine it looks as if Janukowitsch (that’s the German spelling) is having big problems right now …
    And Cameron, Fidesz’s best friends in the EU also doesn’t look to good …

  18. Hello, comrades.

    The point is that

    (i) Hungarians from the neighboring countries will have very small impact on the election. Best case, if really all of them go and _all_ vote for FIDESZ, this will be 1% of the seats. Do you get it?

    (ii) The difference between a Hungarian citizen in Transylvania and ones from Hungary is the following. The ones in Hungary vote for a party and vote for a local representative. The ones from Transylvania do not vote for a local representative. Thus, the voting papers of the Hungarians from Hungary are different. They vote for a local representative and their votes have to be counted into the results of the small electoral districts. I do not know whether you get it: it is very difficult to administer that XY from Papua New Guinea voted for Bela Kovacs in the 23th electoral district of Hungary that is a much smaller unit than a district of Budapest.

    (iii) Please note. Among the people who are abroad, the popular parties are FIDESZ and Jobbik, as left-wing voters do not vote due to the “great” left-wing campaign of the recent years. In general, the popularity of MSZP among people below 30 years is zero. Clearly, it looks like, even Soros thinks that FIDESZ must be overtaken by Jobbik. So if there are tricks, that I seriously doubt, then these are against Jobbik.

  19. petofi :
    Foolish, foolish simps of Magyarland–you’re going to seek for logic in the mind of Orsos?

    Great, here is a racist. How is that possible?

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