Fair election? Not a chance

I think it’s time to talk again about the forthcoming election. Or, to be more precise, about the possibility that the current laws and rules and regulations will preclude a fair election. Senator John McCain might talk about international monitoring and Viktor Orbán might gladly agree: no observers will ever find anything wrong in and around the voting stations. The government prepared everything way ahead of time to ensure an almost certain victory for Fidesz. This election, as things now stand, cannot be fair.

One can start with the redrawing of the boundaries of the electoral districts which made sure that earlier socialist strongholds were diluted with areas that vote overwhelmingly for Fidesz. The new electoral system favors the monolithic, highly centralized Fidesz as opposed to the smaller parties of divergent political views that were forced to cooperate in order to have a chance. Then there is the generous government support for any candidate who collects a few hundred signatures to run in the next election. At last count there are 45 such parties already registered with the National Election Committee. Admittedly, these phony parties will take away only a few hundred votes, but in districts where the election is close between Fidesz and Összefogás (Unity) they may help the governing party.

And let’s not forget about the “foreign” vote, especially from Transylvania and Serbia. These new citizens can easily cast their ballots even by mail while the half a million Hungarian citizens by birth who are living abroad cannot do the same. The former are mostly Fidesz supporters while the recent emigrants are a more varied lot politically. Perhaps even the majority  of emigrants would vote against the current government because of their experiences at home which prompted them to leave. And let’s not forget about the Roma population which the government is planning to disenfranchise by urging them to register as members of a minority, an option that would allow them to vote only for the Országos Cigány Önkormányzat (National Gypsy Self-government), an arm of Fidesz.

But this list is nothing in comparison to some of the amendments and local ordinances that seem to be issued every time one turns around. From the start, campaigning was severely limited. For example, commercial television stations couldn’t  show political ads and on the public television stations they were greatly restricted. After pressure from the European Union, the Orbán government “generously” changed the rules: commercial stations could air ads but couldn’t charge for them. The European Union was satisfied. This is one of those occasions when one understands Victoria Nuland’s sentiments. How could they ever agree to this “compromise”? I don’t think that it will come as a great surprise that the commercial stations are not exactly rushing to offer their services. Why should they? Not only would they receive nothing for airing these ads but they would incur the wrath of a vengeful Fidesz.

Then came more restrictions on advertising on streets. In previous years smaller posters carrying the pictures and slogans of candidates could be affixed to electric poles, but now that practice is forbidden. Candidates can still put up huge billboards but again the number of surfaces has been greatly reduced, especially in Budapest where the Fidesz-dominated leadership approved a new ordinance regulating the posting of ads. Even if the opposition parties have the money they will have difficulty making themselves visible. As someone jokingly said, perhaps Összefogás (Unity) will put up posters in apartment staircases because the government and the Budapest city council haven’t yet thought about making them off limits.

And now comes the really clever move. While “political parties” find that their opportunities to advertise their program and their candidates are severely restricted, none of the restrictions apply to “civic organizations.” In reality, we should really talk about only one such organization: CÖF (Civil Összefogás Fóruma). Earlier I wrote about CÖF, an organization that came into prominence about a year ago when the first Peace March took place. The organization of these peace marches must have cost an incredible amount of money, which CÖF cannot account for. It is almost 100% certain that CÖF, through some intermediary, receives its entire budget of millions if not billions from the government. Civic organizations can advertise anywhere at any time. Even before the official election campaign begins, when theoretically at least no campaigning is permitted. In the last few months CÖF has launched two large campaigns. First, against Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány and, second, against Unity. They put up huge display ads everywhere, including the sides of city buses. Their latest move is campaign literature mailed to every Hungarian household (4 million) in which CÖF tells the voters why the “Gyurcsány coalition” shouldn’t have a second chance.

CÖF is certainly not short of funds

CÖF is certainly not short of funds

The final straw in this series of discriminatory practices was the news yesterday that the government’s slogan “Magyarország jobban teljesít” (Hungary is performing better), with which they plastered the whole country, from here on will be the slogan of Fidesz. The Hungarian government generously allowed the governing party to use its own campaign slogan. Actually, by today the story changed somewhat. According to the latest information, the Fidesz parliamentary delegation paid 200,000 forints (650 euros) for the right to use the slogan in an agreement with the Prime Minister’s Office signed in August 2013. In October the Prime Minister’s Office made a similar deal with Fidesz as a party, but the party didn’t have to pay anything. “Unity” is planning to go to court over this arrangement.

All in all, Fidesz will not have to pay much for its election campaign this year. The taxpayers will foot the bill for CÖF as well as for the slogan by which the Orbán government advertised its own fantastic accomplishments. The slogan, logo, and poster cost the taxpayers 150 million. This figure doesn’t include the fees the government paid for placing the self-congratulatory ad in newspapers and on Internet sites.

So, this is the situation at the moment. The reader can decide how fair an election we can expect on April 6.

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Paul
Guest

Why is it apparently beyond the wit of the EU observers to see all this?

Is there not some mechanism whereby (e.g.) a Hungarian voter could lodge a complaint with the EU along the lines of this article and force them to act?

in any normal European country, the citizens themselves would be up in arms about such obvious trickery and gerrymandering, but surely one of the EU’s jobs is to step in in cases like this where the internal opposition is powerless?

Sackhoes Contributor
Guest

” …Transylvania and Serbia. These new citizens can easily cast their ballots even by mail while the half a million Hungarian citizens by birth who are living abroad cannot do the same.”

Actually, this is not quite true. I am a Hungarian by birth and I will be voting by mail. Only people who maintain a permanent address in Hungary are required to vote at a consulate or embassy. Of course, technically there is no reason why everybody living outside Hungary could not vote by mail. The distinction is politically motivated.

Jano
Guest

Does anything stop Unity from forming a similar fake civil organization as CÖF? Not that the practice is not repulsive, but if these are the rules of the game currently, I don’t see why the opposition couldn’t strike back.

An
Guest

@Jano: They could, of course, they’d still have much less money to campaign with. COF is not only a fake civil organization, but also subsidized in some way by the government.

Pault2
Guest
Jano, it certainly could if it had 3-4 billion forints. Then it could compete with CÖF. That said the point is that the complete ‘civil society’ angle was neglected by the left when it is a huge issue in the US. Remember Fidesz is the best pupil of the Republican party, especially when it comes to campaigning and fighting against the adversaries. MSZP is probably the worst pupil of anybody. The Super PACs are nothing more than fake civil organization which support the campaign from “outside”. They are legally remote, but are an integral part of the political campaign. Also it has been a long tradition in the US to call a fervently anti climate change organization something like the Southern Family Association or a coal mining lobbying organization Organization for the Clean Environment to gain goodwill and dupe superficial readers (folks, it works). They know how to use ‘civil society’. 1. Fidesz conquered existing civil society organizations to siphon money out of them like from sports clubs and associations, but also to take over every conceivable positions of power and to prevent anybody else from having any such position of power, however small. 2. Fidesz also set up a… Read more »
petofi
Guest

“…but also an amateurism issue…”–I think not. I think there is an ethical issue here: not that
the left is more ethical, just that they would’t stoop to the outright unethical, borderline legal, tactics of Fidesz. To that extent, the left can be said to be morally superior to Fidesz…but then, just about any entity would be.

What is truly reprehensible is that Fidesz supporters either cannot distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or don’t give a fig about it. In Hungary, winning is everything…and the pleasure of rubbing the losers nose ‘in it’…Ahh, Hungaricum…the pride of the Middle Ages.

An
Guest

@Pault2: The idea to use “civil” organizations may have come from the US, but there is a significant difference. In the US Super PACs are used to circumvent campaign donation rules that limit corporate donations to the electoral campaign. In Hungary, COF is used to siphon taxpayer money to support the Fidesz campaign.

Max
Guest

The Death Star increasingly exerts its control over MSzP as well. Its latest victim is the opposition flagship daily ‘Népszabadság’.

Everyone should discuss this political surrender in the country, but noone seems to bother to dig deeper. Certainly not a word on this major development in Parliament or mainstream media:

http://vs.hu/oriasi-media-uzlet-0123/

whoever
Guest

Elections Department,
OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights
Ul. Miodowa
1000-251
Warsaw
Poland

Office: +48 22 520 06 00

Fax: +48 22 628 69 67

elections@odihr.pl

egon
Guest
I think there is an important issue to clarify. The elections are usually described by the terms “fair” and/or “free”. Now, my worry is that simply an “unfair” characterization will not have any real consequences. Simply because what is fair is pretty subjective, is in the eye of the beholder. Life is unfair, there can be a debate about something was fair or not. There is little sympathy for those who suffered because of unfairness, because everybody experiences it every day in some form. Once there is an “honest debate” about fairness then Fidesz’ narrative won, because nobody really cares about the substantive issues (e.g. whether some circumstance was really fair, what, to what extent was fair or not on the road leading up to the elections). Things will get legalistic about the meaning of fairness and all such debates were eventually won by Fidesz. I believe that the restrictive circumstances in Hungary, and Prof. Balogh’s post is just a short summary, by no means a comprehensive listing of the restrictions, reached a proportion where we cannot talk about free elections any more. It is an exceedingly myopic approach to characterize an elections “free” unless ballots were forged like in… Read more »
Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest
Paul : Why is it apparently beyond the wit of the EU observers to see all this? Is there not some mechanism whereby (e.g.) a Hungarian voter could lodge a complaint with the EU along the lines of this article and force them to act? in any normal European country, the citizens themselves would be up in arms about such obvious trickery and gerrymandering, but surely one of the EU’s jobs is to step in in cases like this where the internal opposition is powerless? If I’m not mistaken, every eligible Hungarian voter may bring – free of charge – these matters before the NVB as first instance, providing they do so very shortly after the fact. Then the matter may come to the regular courts and eventually the Supreme court. Since this is a parliamentary election, the ECHR (meaning the CoE, not the EU) has some jurisdiction too – but the Strasbourg court has always been extremely cautious about electoral disputes. The financing issues (CÖF and Fidesz using government funds or resources) may stand a chance before courts, which may end up in serious financial sanctions. Of course, by then the current majority will already have a new mandate,… Read more »
Paul
Guest

petofi :
“…but also an amateurism issue…”–I think not. I think there is an ethical issue here: not that
the left is more ethical, just that they would’t stoop to the outright unethical, borderline legal, tactics of Fidesz. To that extent, the left can be said to be morally superior to Fidesz…but then, just about any entity would be.
What is truly reprehensible is that Fidesz supporters either cannot distinguish between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ or don’t give a fig about it. In Hungary, winning is everything…and the pleasure of rubbing the losers nose ‘in it’…Ahh, Hungaricum…the pride of the Middle Ages.

The Devil always has the best tunes…

Bowen
Guest

There are now large posters of Antal Rogan (Fidesz MP) around the 5th district of Budapest, with the slogan ‘Hungary is getting better’.

These are campaign posters.

comment image

LwiiH
Guest

It seems that Fidesz has managed to grab all available advertising space in Budapest. Their posters are all over the place as is that great ad with the clown. I’ve not seen anything from any other political party aside from a very homey sunday lunch picture on a Jobbik billboard on the outskirts of Nyiregyhaza.

As for free elections well, you hear complaints about how districts have been divided just about every where so as a complaint, it maybe valid but it’s generally viewed a wining and that dilutes the message that the system is unfair. Boundaries are boundaries and they will never be fair so just get over it!

That said, the observer system IMHO is broken because it’s only looking for the obvious infractions that happen on the day of voting. Policing those infractions is important but Fidesz is smart enough to know that disguising their political campaign in the form of government propaganda combined with legally prohibiting the opposition from getting their message out will be as effective and will make it more difficult for the EU/observers to complain.

Bowen
Guest

Speaking of clowns, someone is being paid to dress up as a clown and follow Bajnai and his wife. This is kindergarten-level stuff.

comment image

HiBoM
Guest

I would strongly query the assertion that: “It is almost 100% certain that CÖF, through some intermediary, receives its entire budget of millions if not billions from the government.” Are you saying that the CÖF gets its money from the public purse? I stand to be corrected but know of no evidence that this is the case. It seems fairly clear to me that the money is coming from Fidesz (the governing party) via obscure intermediaries (and discounts via Simicska’s advertising monopoly). That is still disgusting.

Guest

Bowen, that clown was even in the M1 TV-news – an altercation with security stuff! In the end his parapluie was broken …

Wherever the money for CÖF and its ads is coming – they are obviously election oriented, so imho that is a flagrant violation of the rules re advertising! They are everywhere while nothing from the opposition is (yet) to be seen – it’s unbelievable!

FREE of Hunngary
Guest

Unfree

Who thinks it
that the elections
will be unfree?

Nádas
Guest

I don’t know why Fidesz even bother to further ridicule Gyurcsány. He is already the most hated man in Hungary. Those who worship Orbán hate Gyurcsány for obvious reasons. Those who detest Orbán blame Gyurcsány for Fidesz’s overwhelming victory in the last election. The best thing he could for the country would be to step back, sit down, shut up, and offer advice when and where needed, and campaigns funds from his considerable personal fortune.

Hilm
Guest

LwiiH and wolfi:

all outdoor media space (billboards) is owned by Simicska companies. That is a fact.

Legally the Simicska companies actually lease some space (from the state-owned MÁV for example), but as a matter of private law, Fidesz controls all outdoor media surface. As a result Fidesz alone decides who will advertize on billboards in Hungary. (As was mentioned, advertizing on electrical poles is restricted to the municipalities which are controlled by Fidesz and spend taxpayers’ money).

The giant temporary posters on entire fronts of buildings (as in the illustration) are a different issue, those are ad hoc spaces and depend on the will of the particular condo (majority vote) and on the local municipality if they allow it.

Guest

There’s (again) a very scathing report on the Hungarian government’s activities re the Holocaust, WW2 etc in our German SPIEGEL:
http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/holocaust-gedenkjahr-in-ungarn-beginnt-mit-antisemitischen-skandalen-a-952066.html

Very good!

HiBoM
Guest

Eva, CÖF gets some money from the state as a registered civil organisation. But I see no reason to believe it gets any more than a small fraction directly from government. The rest is clearly coming from Fidesz’s own financial networks (which makes CÖF all the more immoral)

nollan
Guest

Nádas — why would Fidesz not do it? Fidesz has the money and the ad space. It’s a no brainer for them to hit Gyurcsány. You also have to understand that Gyurcsány defeated Orbán, who since that day in 2006 (the television debate) has never dared to openly have a debate with anybody, especially not with any political candidate. You should not underestimate the trauma Gyurcsány caused to Orbán. I do not think many people blame him for Fidesz overwhelming majority (although perhaps he deserves some), especially as many normally undecided, not party-loyal voters actually voted Fidesz in 2010 in the – naive – hope that with such majority Fidesz would finally make Hungary a better place as – these voters thought – Fidesz would not be restricted by 2/3s laws. Instead, Fidesz betrayed that trust and used its powers solely to entrench its power and enrich its own politicians.

nellal
Guest

Nádas — why would Fidesz not do it? Fidesz has the money and the ad space. It’s a no brainer for them to hit Gyurcsány. You also have to understand that Gyurcsány defeated Orbán, who since that day in 2006 (the television debate) has never dared to openly have a debate with anybody, especially not with any political candidate. You should not underestimate the trauma Gyurcsány caused to Orbán.I do not think many people blame him for Fidesz overwhelming majority (although perhaps he deserves some), especially as many normally undecided, not party-loyal voters actually voted Fidesz in 2010 in the – naive – hope that with such majority Fidesz would finally make Hungary a better place as – these voters thought – Fidesz would not be restricted by 2/3s laws. Instead, Fidesz betrayed that trust and used its powers solely to entrench its power and enrich its own politicians.

An
Guest

@HiBoM: Where do you think all the money from corrupt deals are going? Because not all that money ends up in the pockets of individual cronies… some of it flows back to party funds.

An
Guest

@HiBoM: This is quite telling, too

“the president of CÖF, László Csizmadia chairs the state-run National Cooperation Fund as well, which is responsible for distributing state subsidies for nonprofit organisations. Under Csizmadia’s chairmanship, government-leaning nonprofit organisations gained more state subsidies than the ones which are most respected in their profession with their work, competence and sometimes criticism.”

http://www.atlatszo.hu/2012/12/07/anti-bajnai-campaign/

An
Guest

@HiBoM: And this one, in Hungarian (on how Fidesz-loyal “civil” organizations get state funds.
http://www.atlatszo.hu/2012/10/22/itt-a-civil-tamogatasok-listaja-a-kormany-mellett-demonstralni-meno/

HiBoM
Guest

An, when I read the sentence “it is almost 100% certain that CÖF, through some intermediary, receives its entire budget of millions if not billions from the government”, I felt and still feel that this is misleading. The truth, surely, is that “CÖF gets a very considerable amount of money from Fidesz, which gets a very considerable amount of its money by stealing from the state.” I’m sure this is what Eva meant but that is not the sense of her original sentence. IMHO

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