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.
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.