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1st Jul 2022

Opinion

Hungary monitors not enough to stop first 'rigged' election in EU

  • Biased electoral and campaign rules and election irregularities may provide Viktor Orbán with enough of an advantage to remain in power (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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Recent weeks have seen the opening of a new front in the struggle around the decade-long autocratisation of Hungary.

While the quality of democracy has starkly fallen since prime minister Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010, criticism from international partners — especially the European Union — has centred around the issues of rule of law, media freedom, systemic corruption, and the suppression of independent civil society and vulnerable groups like the LGBTIQ+ community.

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Although Europe's main election watchdog, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE-ODIHR), raised significant concerns about the democratic character of Hungary's 2014 and 2018 elections, the electoral dimension of such autocratisation remained a rather peripheral issue in the international discussion about Orbán's illiberal regime.

Now, this long-established complacency appears to be changing at a rapid pace.

With opinion polls between Hungary's incumbent Fidesz party and its challenger, the united opposition list, showing them neck-and-neck, Hungary's key EU and Nato partners are acutely aware that the skewed characteristics of the Hungarian political regime (like the biased electoral and campaign rules, and media landscape, as well as potential election-day irregularities) could determine the outcome of the race.

The political playing field has always been skewed in favour of Orbán's Fidesz ever since 2010, a key characteristic of the regime type scholars call competitive authoritarianism.

OSCE-ODIHR election observation missions labelled the 2014 Hungarian elections as "free but not fair" and complained in 2018 about "the pervasive overlap between [Fidesz]-party and state resources."

Nevertheless, due to the overwhelming popular support Orbán enjoyed on those occasions, these biases were largely disregarded by the EU institutions and international partners - who concluded that Orbán would have comfortably won, even in free-and-fair elections.

By contrast, due to the currently fiercely competitive head-to-head race in the country this time around, such biased electoral and campaign rules and election irregularities may provide Orbán with enough of an advantage that might allow him to remain in power.

Against this backdrop, the OSCE-ODIHR, unsurprisingly, recommended the deployment of a full-scale election observation mission (EOM) to Hungary, asking OSCE member states to second 200 short-term and 18 long-term observers to provide a comprehensive monitoring of the campaign period and the election day procedures.

The official request of a full mission is an important step toward guaranteeing the integrity of Hungary's upcoming 3 April elections and it is highly welcome.

At a minimum, a full-scale mission will ensure that there is systemic and trustworthy documentation of the election, including potential irregularities as well.

Previous research has also shown that the presence of additional international observers can help discourage election malfeasance.

Good - but not enough

However, the mission to secure the integrity of the Hungarian parliamentary elections is still not complete.

For example, last year in Bulgaria, the ODIHR recommended the deployment of a full election-observation mission, but ultimately had to proceed with a limited mission that did not include short-term observers. One obvious reason for this was the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another reason was that EU member states were reluctant to send election observers to conduct election-monitoring in another EU member state.

The reason for that reluctance is simple. While over the past couple of years, and especially since the attack on the Capitol Hill, EU countries repeatedly demanded the US address democracy-related issues with self-reflection and humility, the same self-reflection and humility is largely missing when EU players address obvious challenges to democracy in EU member states.

The lacklustre reaction of EU members to the autocratisation of Hungary and Poland is evidence of this. The obvious neglect of the ODIHR recommendation in the case of Bulgaria provides yet more evidence.

It would be a tragic mistake if member states, and other Western OSCE members, like the US and Canada, failed to adequately support ODIHR's request for an election observation mission in for Hungary.

Not only could this lead to the first, significantly rigged elections within the EU, but it would also seriously undermine the credibility of the European Union and president Joe Biden's democracy summit and agenda as well.

Western allies also have to send election observers in significant numbers to the OSCE-ODIHR mission in Hungary. If they stay away, the mission will be a missed opportunity, forcing ODIHR to proceed with a limited mission like in the previous Bulgarian case

Widespread international scrutiny is important, not only for securing the integrity of Hungary's upcoming elections, but for restoring EU member states' credible and unbiased commitment to democratic standards too.

Author bio

Daniel Hegedüs is transatlantic fellow for central Europe at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. David Levine is elections integrity fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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