Hungary’s elections: free but not fair

Hungary’s elections: free but not fair

On April 6, Hungarians go to the polls in the seventh free elections since the change of regime in 1989-1990. But this election is different. In 2010 Fidesz – the ruling centre-right party – won more than two-thirds of parliamentary seats, giving it the power to reshape the entire institutional framework, including the rewriting of the country’s constitution.

Although the European Union and a great number of Hungarian and international institutions have criticised its actions, Fidesz has managed to change the political landscape in Hungary to consolidate its grip on power.

Fidesz decreased the number of parliamentary seats from 386 to 199 and introduced single-round balloting. It redrew constituency boundaries in what some election experts describe as “gerrymandering,” by splitting constituencies with a leftist majority and merging fragments with voting districts of a right-leaning population in order to dilute the opposition vote.

It also rewrote the law on campaign financing which, instead of making the process more transparent, actually makes it as vulnerable to corruption as it was before. For a long time, political parties and business groups have been forming unhealthy alliances where neither the source of party funding nor how donations are spent is transparent.  

Getting around the rules

Transparency International Hungary and other partner organisations are monitoring the campaign spending of all the major parties (see graph below). This was also done in 2010, when the two biggest parties, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and Fidesz, both spent approximately three times more than what the law at that time would have allowed.

This time, as of the end of February, Fidesz spent more than 2 billion HUF (US$9.6 million), more than the spending of the next three next highest spending opposition parties combined. The official spending limit is HUF 1 billion (US$4.5million), of which 700 million HUF (US$3.2 million) can come from state sources.

Fidesz was able to spend more than the legal limit by outsourcing part of its campaign, something that the new campaign finance law does not prohibit.

A non-profit organisation called Civil Összefogás Fórum (Civil Alliance Forum), similar to a political action committee or PAC in the United States, was established to campaign for Fidesz. Other parties do not have such organisations.

Fidesz also benefited from a HUF 540 million (US$2.4 million) state-funded campaign – “Hungary is performing better”– that trumpeted the government’s achievements and reduction in utility prices during the campaign period. Fidesz is not the first party in power to use state funds in this way; the previous socialist governments did the same.

The fact that Transparency International Hungary included these two items in its estimate of campaign spending has been criticised by Fidesz and pro-government media. 

These are just two instances of how the incumbent party has benefited in the current campaign. There are more, including skewed regulations with on billboard advertising that favour Fidesz. The net result is that the forthcoming election will be free but not fair.

A balance of power

Transparency International Hungary commissioned a poll that showed that only 8 per cent of people expect a legally clean campaign. The majority of the public thinks that both the left-wing alliance (62 per cent) and Fidesz (55 per cent) use funds from corrupt sources in their campaign.

The problems with campaign financing are a clear illustration of the wider problem of what can be termed a managed democracy in Hungary. The current government has eliminated almost all checks and balances in the public sector that could constrain its power. It has centralised political and economic power. Rent-seeking – making money through political connections rather than market performance – is widespread. Eventually this will hurt growth, competitiveness and prosperity.     

Any new government must re-instate the checks and balances that control state institutions. If that does not happen, it is unlikely that future elections in Hungary will be fair.

To read more on this issue on Transparency International Hungary’s website, click here.

For any press enquiries please contact press@transparency.org

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