Observations From the Hungarian Election on 3 April4 min read
From lampposts, walls and billboards in Budapest, the various candidates for the election to the Hungarian National Assembly looked down on people in the week leading up to the election. Some had seen better days, as they were covered with graffiti or torn down and laying on the ground. The face of the opposition leader, Péter Márky-Zay was staring back not only on the opposition’s own campaign posters but also from those of ruling party Fidesz, as part of a smear campaign linking him to previous prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. In the end, this proved successful, as Fidesz yet again gained a majority in parliament after the polls had closed on 3 April.
On election day, 42 international observers and eight coordinators from the Danish youth organisation Silba – Initiative for Dialogue and Democracy, were present, to observe the election. Founded in 1994 to support the newly emerged democracies in the Baltic States, Silba has since been on over 50 election observation missions to over 17 countries, including Georgia, Ukraine and North Macedonia.
In the week leading up to the election day, observers were trained and lectured on the political system of Hungary, as well as some of the main issues in the upcoming election and observer methodology. On election day, observers were deployed to polling stations across the country, as well as in the neighbouring countries. Observers were present in 12 different election districts in Hungary, as well as just outside of Budapest in Érd. Two were deployed to Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén, a county in the northeast of Hungary, and four in the eastern county of Hajdú-Bihar. There were also four observers in Bács-Kiskun, on the border with Serbia. Finally, there were four observers at the consulate in Subotica, Serbia, and four in Cluj-Napoca in Romania.
Quite early on, many instances were observed that challenged the quality of the election. On a number of occasions, observers noted several people going into voting booths together. While this in itself is not illegal, as it is often done to help visually impaired and those otherwise unable to cast their vote independently, the scale of this was concerning. These observations were also corroborated by observations from Hungarian civil society volunteers, part of the Clean Vote Initiative, who noted the same individual accompanying several different people.
Silba observers also paid attention to the lack of secrecy in polling stations, due to poorly constructed voting booths, and lack of space. Observers noticed that on several occasions people cast their vote in the open. This, in combination with the occurrence of numerous people in polling booths, challenges the right to a secret vote. While this right is not an aspect of the Hungarian election law, it is generally perceived as good democratic practice. The lack of secrecy may also enable vote buying, an issue that observers from the Clean Vote Initiative reported of occurring for 10 000 HUF and meat.
In some of the polling stations, the ballot boxes did not meet a satisfactory standard. The prime example of this comes from the premises of the civic organisation called the Hungarian national council of Transylvania, abbreviated to EMNT, where early voting took place. The ballot box at the NGO was a cardboard box, with a hole cut out.
Another concerning aspect was the amount of absentee voting. Again, in Cluj-Napoca, a government NGO worker came to drop off a number of absentee votes, of which he claimed were as many as 3000. The observers saw this happen on a number of occasions, albeit not on the same scale, but that one individual deposited several votes. While this in itself is not illegal, the lack of control measures to make sure how many votes are deposited and whose they are is worrying.
Late in the evening, Orbán declared an early victory. In his speech, he seems to have answered one of the key questions of the election campaign: the choice for Hungary between the East and the West. As he proclaimed his victory, he mentioned the Ukrainian President Zelensky, portraying him as part of the opposition which he had overcome.
Thus, while most of the observations above in and of themselves are not inherently endangering the state of democracy, the scope and lack of accountability indicate that the health of Hungary’s democracy, which has been under attack for years, was further damaged in this election. After the election in 2018, the ODIHR gave several recommendations to improve the electoral process in Hungary. However, none of these were met, and as Orbán now remains with a majority in the National Assembly, the future does not look hopeful for the improvement of electoral practice in Hungary.