The parliamentary elections in Hungary on Sunday were well run but the line between state and party campaigning was blurred, according to the preliminary findings of elections observers.
After 99 % of the votes were counted, the incumbent government party, Hungarian Civic Alliance or Fidesz under Prime-Minister Victor Orban, had received 53,6 % of the votes against 34,7 % for the opposition alliance United for Hungary of six diverse parties under economist Peter Marki-Zay. A third far-right party, Mi Hazank (Fatherland) received 7 % of the votes.
Victor Orban, running on a nationalistic programme based on conservative Christian values, assured the voters that he was the best person to protect Hungary's interests against the EU bureaucracy. “If Orban would have been so unpopular as the opposition claimed, he wouldn’t have won the elections,” a Hungarian expat visiting Budapest told The Brussels Times.
Peter Marki-Zay, the opposition leader, did not make a good impression in media, according to the expat. He changed his views from one day to the other day and kept insulting parts of the electorate.
Normally, the European Commission congratulates the victor in elections in EU member states and looks forward to work together with the new government. At yesterday’s press conference in Brussels (4 April), a spokesperson of the European Commission declined to comment on the outcome of the elections and did not confirm whether Commission President von der Leyen had congratulated Orban.
Relations between the EU and Hungary are tense because of rule of law issues and the trend towards “illiberal democracy” in the country. The European Commission adopted last month guidelines on the rule of law conditionality mechanism which aims to protect the EU budget against breaches of the principles of the rule of law.
Previously, European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in mid-February that the conditionality mechanism was adopted by the EU on an appropriate legal basis and dismissed the actions brought by Hungary and Poland against the mechanism. But the Commission has been reluctant to activate the mechanism before the elections in Hungary, fearing that it could be seen as an interference.
“Viktor Orban built his empire on EU money,” German MEP Daniel Freund (Greens/EFA) told The Brussels Times. “Uninterrupted EU funds played a big role in yesterday's results. The EU-Commission has run out of excuses to not take action against the corrupt and autocratic state Orban has built. The rule of law mechanism has to be triggered immediately."
The Hungarian elections have disclosed several flaws and shortcomings in the election process but the Commission spokesperson declined to comment on whether and when the conditionality mechanism might be triggered against Hungary.
Impact of war in Ukraine
As already reported, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Viktor Orban to his victory in the elections, expressing hope for stronger ties between Moscow and Budapest.
According to Ukraine’s President Zelensky, the Hungarian Prime-Minister is the only leader in Europe who openly supports Putin. While Hungary has joined the EU in imposing sanctions against Russia, it would likely veto any sanctions against the import of natural gas.
According to UN figures, Hungary has by now received 400,000 refugees from Ukraine. It refuses to allow transport of weapons to Ukraine through its territory, claiming that it might lead to Russian counteractions which would endanger the Hungarian minority in the country.
The 199 members of the Hungarian parliament are elected under a mixed system where are 106 are elected in single-mandate districts and 93 are elected from closed candidate lists in a nationwide proportional contest. The party which receives most votes in the district elections secures a two-thirds supermajority in the parliament.
Since coming to power in 2010, Fidesz has held a two-thirds parliamentary majority for most of the period, meaning that it can ignore the opposition and decide on its own on changes of the constitution. On Sunday, Fidesz increased its supermajority from 133 to 135 seats. Only in the capital, Budapest, did the opposition receive a majority with a small margin.
For the first time, a national referendum was held on the same day, with four questions related to the controversial ‘child protection’ law from last year. In a small victory for the opposition the referendum was deemed invalid since less that 50 per cent of all registered voters had cast valid ballots.
Non-compliant with international standards
At the invitation of the Hungarian authorities, an international Election Observation Mission was deployed jointly by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). The team consisted of a large number of long-term and short-term experts, headed by former Canadian ambassador Jillian Stirk.
The purpose of the mission was to monitor all aspects of the elections and to assess whether the elections complied with OSCE commitments and international standards. Following a press conference in Budapest on Monday, it published a report on Preliminary Findings and Conclusions. The final report is due in two months.
The team found that the legal framework forms an adequate basis for democratic elections to be held, but a number of key aspects fall short of international standards. Election day passed peacefully, with observers assessing the process as well-organized, orderly, and smooth. At the same time, the secrecy of the vote was often compromised, particularly in overcrowded polling stations.
“While it was good to see that yesterday went smoothly in most polling stations across the country, an election is far more than voting day,” commented Jillian Stirk. “Numerous shortcomings already became clear in the period running up to the vote, from the biased media through to the all-pervasive linkage of state and party.”
The media situation in Hungary has raised serious concerns and has been described as “media capture” which puts the “fairness” of the elections in doubt. The government claims that the opposition has its own media and that it has rejected invitations to participate in debates in public media.
A controversial element was the creation in 2020 of a conglomerate of pro-government media called KESMA after its acronym in Hungarian. KESMA gathers the ownership rights of more than 470 different Hungarian media outlets.
“We also observed that women were underrepresented in the campaign, as well as in political life overall,” added Kari Henriksen, special co-ordinator and leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission. Less than 20 per cent of all candidates were women, according to the preliminary report.
At the press conference, the election observers declined to judge whether elections were “free and fair” and focused on the overall election process. However, many of previous recommendations have not been implemented by the Hungarian government and it remains to be seen in the final report if the sum of all observed shortcomings compromise the legitimacy of the elections.
The Brussels Times