campaign financing

In praise of Fidesz’s Machiavellian talents

Here is a good example of what I’m talking about. The electoral law that was originally submitted in September 2012 was immediately amended and in the following weeks the bill was changed several times. The process is not over. The Orbán government at the moment is planning to add another amendment to the already accepted text, and this may still not be the end of the fiddling with its provisions. It depends on what steps are deemed necessary to secure Fidesz’s advantage in the race.

Without going into all of the details of the law that naturally favors Fidesz-KDNP, here I will call attention to one new aspect of it. It is the generous campaign financing of any hitherto unknown or newly created party. This subsidy is different from the one million forints that will be given to every candidate of the established parties on debit cards issued by the treasury where recipients will have to give an account of their spending. The money that the government will give to these new parties, which Hungarians have already nicknamed “kamupártok,” meaning phony parties, will be in cold hard cash. The parties can just pocket the money. It seems that the government doesn’t care where these millions will go as long as a lot of people take advantage of a very enticing proposition.

Machiavelli2What does one have to do to become a party leader? One must have at least twenty-six good friends or, better put, business partners who are willing to declare themselves candidates in a given electoral district. Each candidate need collect only 500 signatures. That certainly shouldn’t be difficult. Once it has 27 candidates, the new “Swindlers’ Party” can have a party list, and from there on it will receive money that it can spend on anything it wishes, no receipts required.

Clearly this rather odd arrangement was devised by the Fidesz think-tank to benefit their own party. With this ploy they can splinter the opposition: there will be so many lines on the ballot in April 2014 that the already confused voters will be utterly lost. And some voters may feel that they should vote for their underdog friends. Thus, Political Capital and Transparency International suggested an amendment: money would be transferred to these new, possibly phony parties on debit cards and, just like more established parties, they would have to give an account of their expenditures.

The Orbán government, which usually ignores suggestions, especially those coming from NGOs, suddenly became interested. The Machiavellian campaign strategists saw an opportunity and decided to purposefully misunderstand the suggestion of Transparency International and Political Capital. Gergely Gulyás, the man who usually handles legal matters in the party, came to the conclusion that “it is worth considering an amendment that would regulate campaign financing in such a way that state subsidies will be issued not to those who present themselves as candidates but to those who actually finish the campaign.” Any candidate who doesn’t finish the campaign would have to return the money he received from the budget.

So, one could ask, what is so Machiavellian in this? Anyone who is following the party struggles on the liberal-socialist side should immediately realize why Fidesz is so eager to tighten up the rules. Although Ferenc Gyurcsány has been talking about designating candidates in all 107 districts, he hopes that by the end the democratic parties will be able withdraw candidates to maximize their chances. This amendment would mean that DK, MSZP, and E14 candidates would have to pay back millions of forints they received to finance their campaigns. The  money naturally would already have been spent and these parties, especially DK and E14, have meager funds with which to repay the government.

The innocent babes of Political Capital and Transparency International were flabbergasted but only remarked politely that “the politicians of Fidesz misunderstood” their suggestion. The planned amendment as described by Gulyás doesn’t solve the real problem. They also objected that their suggestions are being used “for measures that didn’t originate with them.” Surely, they don’t want to be responsible for an amendment that makes the opposition’s electoral chances even worse than they are now. The problems they originally called attention to are still there: these quasi-parties will receive their campaign financing in cash which, depending on the number of candidates, might be as high as 600 million forints. These “parties” will still not have to account for their expenditures. And naturally, these proposed measures don’t remedy the problem that while individual candidates will have to repay monies received from the government if they withdraw in favor of another candidate, these quasi-parties will be able to keep their money even if they don’t receive one single vote. In the rest of their communiqué they repeat their original suggestions.

Of course, crafty Gulyás and his ilk know exactly what they are doing. They weighed matters anew in light of Ferenc Gyurcsány ideas for a single list and acted accordingly. Their original scheme to  weaken the opposition by encouraging phony parties to enter the race will reap only modest benefits. But discouraging MSZP-E14-DK from cooperating by threatening them with the loss of millions and millions of campaign funds may be a real game changer.