Hungary’s parliamentary elections offered voters distinct alternatives and were well run, but while competitive, the process was marred by the pervasive overlapping of government and ruling coalition’s messaging that blurred the line between state and party, as well as by media bias and opaque campaign funding, international observers said in a statement this Monday.
The joint observation mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) 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.
The legal framework for the referendum held on the same day as the elections was largely inadequate for a democratic process and did not provide equal opportunities for referendum campaigns. Voters were not provided with objective and balanced information on the choices they had and their binding effect, which goes against established international good practice.
Following an inclusive candidate registration process, candidates were largely able to campaign freely. However, the campaign itself was characterized by a pervasive overlap between the ruling coalition’s campaign messages and the government’s information campaigns, amplifying the advantage of the ruling coalition and blurring the line between state and party.
“For voters to be able to make an informed choice, it is fundamental that contestants have equal access to the media and run informative campaigns rather than focus on polarizing messaging and personal attacks, as has unfortunately been observed here,” Kari Henriksen, special coordinator and leader of the short-term OSCE observer mission, said.
Election preparations were managed professionally and efficiently. The election administration, however, did not enjoy the full trust of all candidates. Some 8.2 million people were registered to vote. While political parties and civil society expressed confidence in the accuracy of the voter register, recent legislation weakened important safeguards, and different rules for out-of-country voting undermined the principle of equal voting rights for all.
“It was good to see that election day was so well managed. However, we also see many flaws in the election process, with numerous prior recommendations to strengthen legislation still unaddressed,” another observer, Mark Pritchard said.
The transparency and accountability of campaign finance were adversely affected by the lack of disclosure requirements, extensive, unregulated spending through third parties and limited enforcement of the regulatory framework. At the same time, the observation mission noted that widespread government advertisement campaigns paid from the state budget reinforced the main ruling party campaign messages, providing an undue advantage. While some election disputes were properly handled, in many cases no effective legal remedy was provided.
The report points out that Hungary’s media is sharply divided in an increasingly concentrated market. Ahead of the elections, biased and unbalanced news coverage permeated the public and many private media outlets, mostly to the benefit of the ruling party. Voters’ ability to make an informed choice was limited by this as well as by the absence of debate between the main contestants.
The international election observation mission to the Hungarian parliamentary elections and referendum totaled 312 observers from 45 countries, consisting of 221 ODIHR-deployed experts and long-term and short-term observers, and 91 parliamentarians and staff from the OSCE PA.
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