It was on August 6, 2011 that I reported on Hillary Clinton’s apprehensions about the state of democracy in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. She talked about the two-thirds majority that “offers the temptation to overreach. It can … allow for important checks and balances to be swept aside, and valid objections from citizens to be ignored.” This is why “the United States and other friends” are urging Hungary to pay special attention to the drafting of the cardinal laws. “The most important of these will pertain to an independent media and judiciary, and free and fair elections. The system cannot be permanently tilted to favor one party or another.”
Elsewhere, also during the same trip to Hungary, in a conversation with leaders of the opposition she reiterated that holding “free and fair elections” is a prerequisite of democracy. If that principle is violated, we can no longer talk about a free and democratic society. She practically told the opposition leaders: let’s see what happens. Until then, we cannot do anything.
Well, the national election will be held on April 6, 2014, and it can easily happen that it will be anything but fair. It will be a system that is “tilted to favor one party.” Foreign observers will most likely not find wholesale cheating, although even that possibility cannot be entirely ruled out, but the constantly changing laws over the past year or so are destined to tilt the playing field in favor of the governing party.
Here are a few worrisome signs that Viktor Orbán is planning to determine the outcome of the election through rules and regulations that are disadvantageous to the opposition. Let’s start with the introduction of a system that forced all the opposition forces to form a united front against one highly centralized and monolithic party, Fidesz. Getting the divergent parties to agree to a common platform took a long time and gave an undue advantage to Fidesz. Second, the redrawing of the electoral districts greatly favors Fidesz. Third, according to the Hungarian constitution the president alone can determine the date of the election within a certain time frame and naturally János Áder, a former Fidesz politician, picked the earliest possible date, which favors the government party. He did that despite the fact that a later date would have allowed the government to hold the national and European parliamentary elections at the same time. Another reason for not holding the two elections simultaneously was Fidesz’s desire to have a low turnout at both elections. A low turnout favors Fidesz.
Then came all sorts of new rules and regulations that make campaigning very difficult, especially for the opposition. Fidesz has an enormous cache of most likely illegally acquired funds in addition to the incredible amount of money the government spends on advertising itself. The government, again illegally, gave millions and millions of forints to CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fórum), an allegedly independent organization that is behind the pro-government Peace Marches. As I mentioned a few days ago, such a demonstration is planned for March 29, a week before the election.
Ferenc Gyurcsány’s presence in the united opposition obviously came as an unpleasant surprise to the Fidesz leadership and they immediately moved into high gear. CÖF, on government money of course, put up huge billboards attacking the leaders of the opposition. On the billboard one can see mug shots of Attila Mesterházy, Gordon Bajnai, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and of all people, Miklós Hagyó, former deputy mayor of Budapest whose case is still being decided in court. Next to Gyurcsány there is a clown embracing the former prime minister. This is clearly a campaign poster although the campaign officially starts only on February 3. One hundred right-wing “intellectuals” also signed a letter addressed to Attila Mesterházy “demanding” the removal of Ferenc Gyurcsány from the ticket. They are worried about the good reputation of the renewed socialist party. My heart goes out.
Campaigning is severely restricted. Originally, parties could advertise only on the public television and radio stations and to a very limited extent. During the whole 50-day campaign period, all parties together can have only 470 minutes of advertising time, less than eight hours. In the original electoral law parties couldn’t advertise at all on commercial television stations, but because of pressure from Brussels the government generously changed the rule. They can advertise on commercial stations, but the stations must offer their time slots gratis. At the same time government propaganda is pouring out on both the public television and radio stations while news about the views of the opposition is practically nonexistent.
Just lately the government came out with another brilliant idea to keep the electorate as ignorant as possible. Until now citizens who were annoyed with the barrage of commercial advertising in their mailboxes could remove their names from such targeted lists. The government decided to extend this option to political advertising as well. Each adult citizen will receive a questionnaire in which he may express his wish to be left alone. That is, he can say that he doesn’t want campaign literature appearing in his mailbox that is addressed to him as an individual. The government party doesn’t have to worry about such restrictions; it has the money to send out campaign material to all eight million voters by simply dropping its ads into every mailbox. This is permissible because individuals aren’t being targeted; everyone is being treated equally.
The latest is that no campaign material can be placed on electric polls, above public roads or along highways, and within 100 meters of a highway. TASZ, the Hungarian equivalent of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, and the Károly Eötvös Institute, a think tank of legal scholars, protested, claiming that this new rule severely restricts the freedom of speech and therefore is unconstitutional.
And there’s another way the playing field isn’t level. Voters living in the neighboring countries can vote by absentee ballot while Hungarian citizens who were born in the country but temporarily work abroad must cast their votes in Hungarian embassies and consulates, which might be hundreds and hundreds of miles away from where they live and work. Clearly, Fidesz hopes that the new citizens, in a show of gratitude, will vote for the government party while it fears that the new emigrants have a less charitable view of the political situation created by the Orbán government.
Another outrage is the new law that deprives those who declare themselves to be a member of a minority of their right to vote for a party. There is only one large group where this new rule can have serious ramifications, the Roma, who make up approximately 8% of the population. Aladár Horváth, a Roma activist, alongside of other ethnic leaders, has been working very hard to persuade voters not to sign up as members of the Roma minority. It seems that their message is getting through. Until now only 57 Roma have declared their intention to vote for the official Roma ticket, which is part and parcel of the Fidesz machine.
All in all, I would be curious what Hillary Clinton’s opinion is now of the state of affairs in Hungary. Does she think that Hungary can have a free and fair election in which “the system [is] not permanently tilted to favor one party or another”? Speaking for myself, I don’t think so.