A bit awkward: Fidesz caught red handed

Having lived in the United States for many years I find the Hungarian electoral laws very constraining. For instance, because of the very strict Hungarian privacy laws parties cannot maintain a database of their sympathizers. Every time I tried to explain to Hungarians the American system of "registration" the reaction was violent! In vain did I try to make clear that "registration" with a party doesn't oblige the citizen to vote one way or the other: the very idea that someone is keeping tabs on their party affiliation frightens Hungarians to death. As a Hungarian friend of mine just wrote to me, "the times of the cadre sheets" are not that far away, adding that in 1956 the very first acts of employees were to get hold of and destroy these detailed written documents about their political views. So, in a way I understand their reluctance to allow parties to maintain a database.

Perhaps the current laws would more or less work if one party in particular didn't act as if they were not on the books. Fidesz's campaigns greatly resemble American campaign strategies with one exception: they are legal in the United States but illegal in Hungary. That is a very basic difference. What Fidesz is doing under cover is illegal.

For those who are unfamiliar with the American system let me summarize it briefly. Only those who have registered are eligible to vote. Registration is a simple affair. One goes to town hall where he or she registers with the registrar of voters. In most states one has three choices: democratic, republican, or independent. One can change party affiliation at any time if one's sympathies shift. Thus in each community the two parties pretty well know their likely voting base. They know whom to approach with their election literature, whom to visit to ensure the largest possible favorable turnout, and whom to ask to put a political poster on their front lawn.

Moreover, the parties have volunteers at the polling places who keep track of who voted and who didn't. By three or four o'clock in the afternoon, the party activists start working the phones. A pleasant person reminds the lazy ones that it is getting late and he/she hopes they didn't forget what day it is. If the person says something about having difficulties getting to the polling place another party worker will pick him up and drive him to and from the polls. By the way, giving someone a ride to the polling place is also illegal in Hungary.

In Hungary those parties that obey the law don't have any idea whom to approach. They will send telephone messages to everyone in the telephone book whether it is a waste of time and money or not. Not so those, and the real culprit here is Fidesz, who have millions and millions of names and telephone numbers of their probable voters.

In past elections there were already accusations that Fidesz party workers were making notes while campaigning. They put together a list of all the residents in each apartment house and initially they rang every bell. In some places the reception was warm. In other cases the owner of the apartment slammed the door in their faces. Apparently, people observed these party workers making notations. Their suspicion was that they were sorting out people according to the reception they received. I'm pretty sure that the observers were right.

Well, now it is all out in the open because of the strained relations between Jobbik and Fidesz. We know that there are a lot of Jobbik sympathizers within Fidesz, and one of these people taped a pep talk given by Gábor Kubatov, Fidesz's director, to the activists. In it he described how well informed Fidesz was on all the details of the electorate's sympathies in the city of Pécs at the by-elections for mayor in May 2009. He boasted that the party knew the names, the age, the telephone numbers, the cell phone numbers, and the e-mail addresses of all Fidesz sympathizers as well as of those 15,000 "commies" who didn't vote for Zsolt Páva, Fidesz's candidate. All this must sound pretty frightening to those "commies" of Pécs who dared not to vote for Zsolt Páva. Especially if he or she draws a salary from the government–for instance, a teacher, doctor, or employee of the local government. In brief, a lot of people.

I'm certain that it was a Jobbik sympathizer who recorded Kubatov's talk because it was kuruc.info.hu, a far-right site closely associated with Jobbik, that put the tape on YouTube. Péter Szijjártó, who is never at a loss when something unsavory has to be explained away, came out with the really feeble explanation that this tape "is simply a desperate attempt of Jobbik and MSZP to discredit Fidesz" which follows the electoral laws concerning privacy to the letter.

My feeling is that if there is any fallout from this tape on the results of the elections on Sunday the beneficiary will be MSZP. MSZP is taking the case to court, and the MSZP propaganda has already begun taking advantage of Kubatov's carelessness. On the other hand, I can also imagine a scenario under which even fewer "commies" will go and vote because they will be afraid to be blacklisted. Then again, perhaps it will inspire MSZP voters to go out because after all they are already blacklisted by Fidesz party activists and their names are already on some kind of list in the vaults at Fidesz headquarters. On the one hand, on the other hand, on the third hand….

No more polling results can be published before April 11, but surely every pollster will be busy up to the very last minute. Perhaps after the elections we will be able to learn whether this incident made any difference or not.


  1. I doubt it will. Kuruc.info is a ranting, anti-semitic, homophobic, holocaust denying, racist pile of smut. This detracts from the credibility of the story, and in any case it is too late; two weeks ago it could have made a difference. Now, there is no time for it to fester.In any case, why would this change voter behaviour? MSzP voters will not vote for Fidesz anyway, Jobbik voters will not be damaged by a purge, and Fidesz supporters will be safe as it is.
    Though Kuruc’s lack of journalistic credentials makes it easy for Fidesz to dismiss it, the story is credible. Fidesz and their supporters have been ranting about a “reckoning” against commies for years. This cannot be achieved by legal means, even with a 2/3 majority. However, old fashioned Hungarian local little kings will be sure to put there new influence to use, and a list like this is a perfect means. I remember the last elections Fidesz supporters fearing for their jobs – without reason as it turned out. As there is no national database yet, the fallout is likely to be limited.

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  2. I have been door to door canvassing in the UK elections and am always surprised at the amount of information we hold on the occupants. I find it slightly creepy that we know the names and voting intentions of people when knocking on their doors. Britain also has the largest number of cctv cameras observing citizens in the world.
    It is interesting that the thriving democracies seem comfortable with a higher level of information held about their citizens. Fidesz is certainly doing nothing that we are not doing here in Britain but I understand the reasons for Magyar distrust. That said there is a very big difference between use of that information for party purposes and use by government.

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  3. Door-to-door canvasing in the UK though was always about collecting the information to run the election day get-out-the-vote operation, i.e. which of a party’s supporters needed a lift, or a postal vote, and to identify who had voted among the supporters on the day. As a means of convincing the undecided it was hit-and-miss and pretty inefficient. The records were held by local parties and rarely carried over from election to election.
    The use of new technology poses more serious privacy issues. As the number of party activists and members has declined the parties have cut back on door-to-door canvassing and centralize the operation using telephone banks. A customer service database – used by any company with call centres to record case histories so they can be dealt with by different staff members – are used to record a party’s contacts with each and every voter (this is I assume what FIDESZ has; in the UK Labour started using this extensively in 2001, and the Conservatives are rumoured to have the most sophisticated database this time). The database record can then be used not only by local parties to supported the get-out-the-vote effort, but to customize mailshots and leaflets and e-mail contact with the identified voters. Given the nature and extent of the collected information, the privacy implications go way beyond those in any traditional face-to-face campaign.
    This changes the nature of campaigning. In 1992, within 48 hours of the beginning of the campaign in the West Midlands town where we were working, we had posters out and displayed by all our supporters. Since 2001, one rarely now sees private individuals displaying posters. This centralization brought on by new technology has gone hand-in-hand with the dispowerment of members and a narrowing of the funding base (the Conservatives’ voter contact operation is funded this time largely by one billionaire tax exile).
    One clear lesson to Hungary is that if people don’t join parties in large numbers, and work for them, and support them financially, then those parties will be captured by big money, will use the media, and other kinds of invasive techniques to persuade people to vote for them.

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  4. Phil Sage: “Fidesz is certainly doing nothing that we are not doing here in Britain but I understand the reasons for Magyar distrust. That said there is a very big difference between use of that information for party purposes and use by government.”
    Yes, this is the trouble. Given the Hungarian situation one cannot be at all sure that Fidesz will not use this information for very wrong purposes. By now I have Kubatov’s complete text and I will translate it for you today. It sounds pretty frightening.

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  5. In the US (at least in some states) registration is made even easier by agreeing to register while applying or renewing a driver’s license.
    Adding a party affiliation to one’s registration (purely voluntary and can be changed any time by mail) has one important benefit: the right to vote in a primary election. While the exact rules vary from state to state, in many states only those can cast a ballot in a primary who are registered in the party. In New York State, for example, one must have been reistered with a party for at least one year to vote in that party’s primary. This is to exclude those who – regardless of true party affiliation – would switch just to vote for or against a single candidate.
    Primary elections are a bigger deal than many would think: just recall Hillary Clinton loosing the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama in the primaries. It is a democratic process WITHIN the party to name it’s candidates – something missing in Hungary.

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  6. “Yes, this is the trouble. Given the Hungarian situation one cannot be at all sure that Fidesz will not use this information for very wrong purposes. ”
    Always that same, old, irrational fear. One thing is a civil concern for privacy. If the database is accessible by anyone, and its possible to miss-use it, then the concern is rightful. But to envision some kind of retaliation against voters, is just irrational. If Fidesz wins by around 50%, then what? You think every Fidesz voter will go out and beat the other voter who didn’t vote for Fidesz? The 3 million voters will beat up the other 3 million, based on Fidesz’s database? Ridiculous.
    MSZP’s voter database, showing option to search for opposing voters, documented:
    An MSZP politician speaking about how he got new voters who were known not to be MSZP voters previously:
    One thing is sure, from now on, MSZP and Jobbik are moving together.

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  7. Steve: “You think every Fidesz voter will go out and beat the other voter who didn’t vote for Fidesz?”
    No, but I’m sure people would be less fearful if FIDESZ gave a public pledge that no-one named as a FIDESZ opponent in their database will lose their job in the next four years, nor suffer any discrimination in the issuance of government monies or contracts. And then promise that they would place their database under independent supervision, and would guarantee to remove the records of all those names who had not explicitly consented to be there. This would be the obvious thing if they were interested in beating back the “irrational fear”. But, I’m not going to hold my breath.

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  8. @Mark
    The government is over-spending, and there are a number of government branches which needs to be reduced. As Jarai put it, it may be as much as 1000 billion HUF in redundancy. So first of all, i don’t think they can promise that no one will loose their job. And lots of those well paid government jobs are indeed linked to socialists. In the last weeks a couple of those well-paid, but doing no actual work jobs came to light. So, yes you may be right, some people may be fired from their jobs. Cleaning the government of corruption. But the voter database surely has nothing to do with it. It sure is inaccurate, not suited to pick off specific corrupt individuals sitting on redundant/non existent jobs.

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  9. Well Steve, you’ve proved my point. The fear isn’t “irrational”; it is founded in some kind of reality. When they cleanse the public sector are they going to do it rationally, or are they going to be tempted to use that nice, big, expensive (but illegal) database they’ve been spending so much time and money on – especially given that their own party director thinks it identifies all the “commies” so precisely?

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  10. Fidesz has strange ideas about secrecy of voting, e.g. take how Mr. Sólyom was elected as president:
    ‘In the first round of voting, Fidesz decided not to vote to see how many votes Szili would receive. In the second round, MPs took pictures with mobile phones at the polling booths and sent them to the fraction leaders to confirm that they stayed within the camp. The independent right-wing candidates even took a group photo as they cast their votes for Sólyom.’

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  11. As for driving voters to the poll, that rule seems ridiculous. I think it stems from how Communist supporters were transported around the country in 1947:
    The system of ‘blue chits’ providing absentee voters with extracts from the electoral role allowed Communist activists to travel round casting votes in as many as a dozen different places.

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  12. Kofa: “As for driving voters to the poll, that rule seems ridiculous. I think it stems from how Communist supporters were transported around the country in 1947.”
    It is interesting in that the “blue ticket” was a way of allowing voters to cast a ballot who were away from home on polling day, giving them a document that showed they were entitled to vote away from home. Interestingly, current Hungarian law has a slightly more robust version of the same system:
    I think the regulation against driving people to the polls is a safeguard against “undue influence” by a candidate, and is an extension too of the various anti-corruption rules that prevent candidates or their agents buying voters drinks, for example. I think it is a matter of where the line is drawn – in the UK candidates or their agents supplying free food and drink is absolutely illegal, but all parties give their supporters lifts to the polling station. Hungary has chosen to draw the line more strictly, and it also has alternative provisions – the “moving ballot box” for those who cannot get themselves to the polling place, that just don’t exist in the UK.

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  13. @Steve. “I don’t think the poor and old “commie” pensioners of Pecs are the same people sitting in expensive government jobs.”
    We’re not (only) talking about “expensive government jobs” here. We’re talking about ANY kind of government or state funded position here, at ANY kind of administrative level. So that includes teachers, local council civil servants, who will start worrying about their future. Some will lose their obs, others will lose their chances for promotion, others will be “turned” into loyal Fidesz henchmen. That is how clientalism works in Hungary.

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  14. The “moving ballot box” is a pretty good idea, if done properly.
    I remember that nobody was ever being 100% that those who were being driven to the polls would actually cast their vote for their chauffeur’s party. Most of the time, we thought they would, but it could never be guaranteed.
    The other aspect is that the electoral system in the UK makes it possible to have at least a partial canvass of marginal/target areas, as only some areas are “up for grabs” at any one time. So there’d be no need for the Tories to canvass the whole of the New Forest, just to keep some kind of tabs on the few areas with higher Lib Dem or Labour vote.

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  15. @PassingStranger
    Yes teachers are very sensitive to loosing their jobs. They are (and ever were) the people most susceptible to political pressure. But right now their situation is so desperate, that the most promising political party for people even of leftist view is Fidesz. And its perfectly ok, this vote is not about left and right, but about getting rid of the corrupt and selfish beast that MSZP has become.
    Probably people from western Europe don’t notice, but in Hungary there is difference in someone being of leftist view, or having roots in the old communist regime, which currently represents itself as the corruption network of MSZP.
    I have high hopes for LMP, the new “clean” left/liberal/green party. I hope they don’t make the mistake of getting too close to MSZP and the remnants of SZDSZ. If they get “tainted” with those, they will go the same fate.

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  16. whoever: “I remember that nobody was ever being 100% that those who were being driven to the polls would actually cast their vote for their chauffeur’s party.”
    Of course, and there were the – I assume apochryal – stories about the Labour voters being driven to the polls by the Conservative voters because their cars were nicer!
    whoever: “The other aspect is that the electoral system in the UK makes it possible to have at least a partial canvass of marginal/target areas, as only some areas are “up for grabs” at any one time.”
    Yes, and in the days before sophisticated databases were introduced, normally a party knew where its voters were from what their tellers at election counts told them about how each polling place voted. And where they didn’t have these, in the UK the type of housing on a street is a pretty reliable guide to how many Labour or Conservative voters live on it.

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  17. whoever: “polls are showing something like a late surge to the LMP in the last couple of weeks.”
    Just wait until these super liberals who think that politics can be different hear that beside the Fidesz delegate only the LMP member of the National Election Committee voted against the decision to initiate proceedings against Fidesz because of the Kubatov tapes.

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