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26th Sep 2022

Hungarian election will need scrutiny 'at all levels'

  • Twenty NGOs and 62 MEPs sent separate letters to the OSCE for a full-scale mission to Hungary saying it will be a "stress tests for democracy in Europe"
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The Hungarian general election in April should be overseen by a full-scale electoral-observation mission, amid fears that prime minister Viktor Orbán is skewing the vote in his Fidesz party's favour.

If the call by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is taken up by Hungary, it would mark only the second such mission in the EU after Bulgaria received similar scrutiny in 2013.

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The branch of the security-oriented intergovernmental organisation that focuses on elections, the Warsaw-based ODIHR, published its preliminary assessment on Friday (4 February) recommending deployment of a mission with 18 long-term observers and 200 short-term observers.

Scrutiny was needed "at all levels" of the work of the election administration including "voter registration, the campaign, including possible voter intimidation and vote-buying," the report said.

Media coverage, the transparency of campaign finances and the effectiveness of the complaints and appeals process were other issues of concern, according to the report.

The move came after 20 civil society organisations and think tanks, 62 MEPs from 19 countries and five different political groups - from the centre-right to the far-left - wrote separate letters to the OSCE demanding a fully-fledged election observation mission to Hungary.

A fully-fledged observation mission takes longer and have a bigger staff in comparison with the standard and limited teams usually sent to EU countries.

In line with OSCE rules, the Hungarian government would have to invite the observers; OSCE member countries would recruit and send the observers, and they foot the bill for the mission.

"We are glad if international organisations have opinions. We read them. If there is something worth considering, we will consider it," the Hungarian government told EUobserver in a written statement in advance of the OSCE announcement. "We reject that the elections should be examined from a political perspective," it added.

'We read them'

Hungary has been under EU scrutiny for violating the rule of law and democratic principles since 2018 - but the EU has made little progress in heading off the problem.

Orbán is accused of steering his country's democratic backsliding in an effort to solidify his already decade-plus grip on power. His Fidesz party will face a united opposition in the 3 April election. But Fidesz wields a formidable electoral machine.

In 2018, Fidesz won its third consecutive two-thirds majority in parliament, on only 48 percent of the popular vote, due to the distortions built into the electoral system. In 2014, when it also secured a two-thirds majority in the parliament, it received 44 percent of the votes.

"The Hungarian elections will be among the most important stress tests for democracy in Europe and the EU," the NGOs warned in their letter to OSCE.

The OSCE already concluded, after the 2018 general election, that "intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing constricted the space for genuine political debate, hindering voters' ability to make a fully-informed choice."

A "ubiquitous overlap between government information and ruling coalition campaigns, and other abuses of administrative resources, blurred the line between state and party", the OSCE said, setting out 26 recommendations.

"The government has not implemented any of them [OSCE recommendations]. This behaviour is what justifies the call for a full-fledged mission," said Róbert László from the Budapest-based Political Capital think tank, which also signed the request for a full-scale OSCE mission.

Even so, László warned against over-simplified interpretations of terms such as free-and-fair elections, because there are many factors that can distort the outcome.

"Until there is a chance for the government to be changed, we cannot say it will definitely not be free or unfair, even if the playing field is very much not equal, and government-change is made extremely difficult," he said.

'Heartbreaking'

But civil society groups made clear in their letter that the climate for free and fair elections had deteriorated further since the last round of elections in 2018.

They pointed to gerrymandered voting districts, concerns about ballots cast by Hungarians living abroad, and campaign resources that benefit the ruling Fidesz party.

Sam van der Staak, head of the Europe programme of International IDEA, a Stockholm-based international organisation promoting democracy, told EUobserver the issue is not so much Hungary's electoral legislation but how the Hungarian government has "by stealth" taken over institutions.

He pointed out that the Fidesz government abuses state resources by handing out increases in pensions and public salaries ahead of elections, controlling the election committee and exercising influence over courts.

"The whole idea of this democratic backsliding, they do so below the radar, they take over where no one is looking," said van der Staak. On "the surface they stick to the law, but cross all the ethical lines."

Another signatory, French Green MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, who is also in charge of Hungary's democracy file in the European Parliament, told EUobserver that the "grave situation" in Hungary made the mission necessary.

"It was heartbreaking and disturbing to write this letter [to the OSCE], but we consider that the elections are in danger," Delbos-Corfield said.

A particular concern is the media landscape, which is dominated by pro-government propaganda, she said.

"The oppressive atmosphere has consequences," she said. The opposition will have "no space" and "there will be propaganda and disinformation."

Under attack

The Hungarian government sees a foreign attempt to intervene in the elections.

"The MEPs' letter is, of course, full of distortions and indecent criticism of Hungary," the government statement said. The "European left" wanted to "influence the outcome of the vote," it said.

Hungary's "sovereign policy based on Christian, traditional values" is under attack, foreign minister Péter Szijjártó said in a recent interview with pro-government Magyar Nemzet.

The "liberal mainstream" was doing "everything in their power to remove us" - including pressuring the OSCE to deploy a full-scale observation mission.

Zoltán Kovács, the government's chief international spokesperson, recently told Euronews that warnings of a "rigged election are merely advocacy journalism at work."

Election observation experts shrug off those contentions.

The missions are "based on a comprehensive methodology that has been developed over many years and is used everywhere we observe," ODIHR's spokesperson Katya Andrusz told EUobserver ahead of the publication of Friday's assessment.

"It's important to understand that as observers, we are politically neutral. We aren't concerned with who wins elections, but how they win, that is to say with the process itself," she said.

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