The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that Hungary’s general elections scheduled for April 3 should be monitored by a full-scale international election observation delegation. The unusual recommendation for a European Union member country comes after political analysts warned of the risk of rigged elections in the country, claims that were strongly refuted by the government.
Hungarian general elections set for April 3 promise to bring a closely fought battle between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party and a united opposition alliance. Orbán, who has been in power since 2010, has been criticized by European institutions, the country’s opposition forces and political analysts for eroding democratic institutions and weakening the rule of law. The European Union plans to tie the payment of development funds to the rule of law in Hungary and the European Court of Justice is expected to issue a decision on Feb. 16 on the challenge to the plan filed by Hungary. Orbán’s government is contesting the mechanism that can bring financial penalties against countries that violate rule-of-law standards.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE), the world's largest security-oriented intergovernmental organization overseeing issues such as arms control, promotion of human rights, freedom of the press, and fair elections, said that it would ask participating states to send 200 short-term observers to follow election day proceedings in Hungary. The mission would also include 18 long-term observers and a core team of analysts. “Preparations for the elections are taking place amid an increasingly politically polarized environment. Interlocutors from the opposition parties and civil society organizations (CSOs) noted a general deterioration of conditions for democratic elections, and concerns over the independence of judiciary and freedom of the media,” the organization wrote in a report.
The announcement comes after members of the European Parliament asked the OSCE to send a full-scale mission to Hungary, saying “all share the concern that the elections might not be held to the highest democratic standards.”
Commenting on the previous national election held in Hungary in 2018, the organization highlighted that “intimidating campaign rhetoric limited space for substantive debate and diminished voters’ ability to make an informed choice” while government information campaigns had “significantly compromised” the contestants’ ability to compete fairly. The OSCE labeled Hungary’s 2018 parliamentary elections “free but not fair.”
According to Daniel Hegedüs, Transatlantic Fellow for Central Europe at The German Marshall Fund of the United States, the EU must be prepared for a possible rigged election in Hungary. “The April 2022 Hungarian parliamentary election offers a fair chance for voters to get rid of the government of Prime Minister Orbán, the EU’s longest-serving illiberal strongman, whose 12-year long rule has transformed a democracy within the EU into a hybrid regime. But this can only happen if the election is conducted in a fair and democratic manner” Hegedüs wrote in an opinion piece published on the Euro News website. The analyst warned that two important aspects of Hungary’s autocratisation were overlooked by the EU: the gerrymandered electoral system and the biased media environment, which gave Orbán’s Fidesz party a strategic advantage. An increasing number of irregularities from one election to the next undermine the integrity of the electoral process, Hegedüs wrote.
Hungary’s united opposition alliance is measured neck and neck with Fidesz in the polls. The six-party opposition bloc encompasses the Democratic Coalition, the Socialists, liberals and the formerly far right, now center right Jobbik. The prime ministerial candidate is Péter Márki-Zay, a Catholic conservative and father of seven, who in 2018 was elected mayor of the town of Hódmezővásárhely, ending 18 years of Fidesz rule there.
Hegedüs wrote that due to the “gerrymandered nature of the electoral system,” the opposition needs three to five per cent more votes to gain a majority in the Hungarian parliament. “It is widely expected that in 10 to 15 marginal districts, the difference between the two sides may be fewer than 1000 ballots cast. Due to the closeness of the race, these election-day irregularities will matter,” the analyst noted, calling on the EU to consider a contingency plan in case Orbán does hold onto power through a rigged election.
Cynical and absurd accusations
The Hungarian government denies all criticism of having eroded democratic values and having altered the election system in its own favor. Zoltán Kovács, Secretary of State for International Communication and international spokesman of the Hungarian government, labelled the stories about the possibility of election irregularities and rigged elections “cynical” and “absurd.” “Prime Minister Orbán and the ruling alliance are running on a long list of achievements in office. Voters will reelect him, I predict, because he has taken the country forward and delivered real results for Hungarians,” Kovács wrote in an opinion piece published on the website of Euro News. The politician highlighted the economic achievements of the Orbán government, including unemploymentof under 4%, and GDP growth nearing 7%.
Kovács argued that the argument of Orbán’s critics – namely that the election cannot be free and fair because the electoral districts have been gerrymandered – is “an entirely baseless claim.”
“More discriminating readers and European decision-makers, should exercise skepticism toward such far-fetched claims and ill-advised calls for intervention. … When Prime Minister Orbán is reelected, as I predict he will be, it will be because of broad voter support for his achievements in office: economic recovery during the pandemic, jobs, growth, tax cuts and affordable energy prices,” according to Kovács.
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