election of 2014

Free and fair election? It doesn’t look promising

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.

The "independent" Civil Összefogás Forum's billboard that says: "They don't deserve another chance"

The “independent” Civil Összefogás Fórum’s billboard: “They don’t deserve another chance”

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.

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The latest Medián poll: Left-liberal voters want a united front

The democratic parties got a lot of bad news today. Two polls came out, and both show a growth in the popularity of Fidesz and less dissatisfaction with the performance of the government. At the same time, support for the opposition parties is stagnant. The democratic opposition has to rethink its strategy if it is to have a chance of standing up to the Fidesz electoral onslaught we all expect. The setup that was worked out by MSZP and Együtt 2014-PM isn’t attracting voters.

The Tárki poll shows a considerable strengthening of Fidesz support. According to the poll, Fidesz has the support of 50% of active voters. That means that, given the peculiarities of the new Hungarian electoral system, if the elections were held this coming weekend Fidesz would again achieve a two-thirds majority in the new smaller (199-seat) parliament. Among the same group MSZP has the support of 20% and E14 only 6%. That means that E-14 wouldn’t even manage to get into parliament because as a “party alliance” it needs 10% of the votes to be eligible for parliamentary representation. DK has 4%, 1% shy of the necessary 5% to become a parliamentary party.

In case someone thinks that Tárki is apt to overestimate Fidesz’s strength, Medián’s poll, also released today, confirms Tárki’s findings. Based on Medián’s latest poll, Fidesz would win big at the next election. A two-thirds majority is guaranteed. Medián figures 139 parliamentary seats out of 199. According to their model, MSZP-E14 is currently running 9% behind Fidesz. They would need another 450,000 voters in order to win the election.

Medián also asked potential voters about the state of the opposition. The details of the poll are still not available, but I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy of the article that will appear shortly in HVG. The title of the article is “Kétséges együttes,” a clever wordplay that is difficult to translate. In plain language, those questioned have doubts about the agreement Bajnai and Mesterházy signed.

What is it they don’t like? Almost everything. The great majority of voters who support the democratic parties are not satisfied with the MSZP-E-14 deal. They don’t like the fact that the two parties decided on separate party lists. They also dislike the arrangement whereby the two parties divided the 106 districts between themselves.

Medián conducted personal interviews with 1,200 people between September 6 and 10. Only 23% of those interviewed were completely satisfied with the arrangement while 22% were totally dissatisfied; 41% said that the agreement is good but that it could have been improved by having a common list and a common candidate for prime minister. Even supporters of E-14 are not totally satisfied, although one would have thought that they would be pleased with the agreement that greatly favors their party. Only 37% of them are totally satisfied with the agreement as opposed to 26% of MSZP supporters.

As for the person of the potential prime minister, the supporters of the democratic parties still prefer Bajnai as they did earlier, but the difference in popularity between Bajnai and Mesterházy is smaller today than it was in July.

Median gyurcsanyPerhaps the most interesting question posed in this month’s Medián poll concerned the left-liberal voters’ assessment of Ferenc Gyurcsány. The question was: “There are those who claim that for the replacement of the Orbán government every opposition force is needed including Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, the Democratikus Koalíció. Others maintain that Ferenc Gyurcsány is so unpopular that many people would rather not vote because they wouldn’t want to vote for a political alliance in which he is included and therefore it would be better if the parties’ collaboration would exclude him. Which viewpoint do you share?”

Support for the first viewpoint is colored in orange on the chart, support for the second in blue, and “no opinion” in light orange. The first line represents the replies of MSZP voters, the second E14 voters, the third “all left-wing voters,” the fourth “without a party,” and the last those who will most likely vote but who at the moment are unsure of their party preference.

I think this poll somewhat favors DK, although some people might counter that DK’s inclusion wouldn’t garner a lot of extra votes because his support is the lowest among those without a party. But considering Medián’s finding that support for MSZP-E14 hasn’t increased since an agreement was reached between the two parties, they probably don’t have anything to lose by including DK in a joint effort. I suspect that the potential upside reward outweighs the downside risk.

And if I were Bajnai and Mesterházy I would seriously reconsider the present arrangement of having two or three party lists. The majority of their voters prefer one common list and common candidates. They could run as a coalition called, for instance, Democratic Front or Fórum. And yes, one common candidate for prime minister candidate is a must. If they are serious about removing Orbán and making an effort to restore democracy in Hungary, they must come up with a winning strategy. Truly combining their efforts in a united front is what their voters want them to do.