Electoral irregularities and inequalities in the municipal election campaign
The Orbán regime has abused its institutional and informal power advantage more than ever before during the electoral campaign for the municipal elections held on 13 October. Fidesz politically cannot allow itself to lose control over multiple cities and Budapest districts. The municipal election is a challenge to the ruling party also because opposition parties are cooperating more effectively than in any election in the past ten years. At the same time, they miss important opportunities in mobilizing their voters against incumbent governmental candidates.
Even before this election, there have been several steps by the ruling party to reduce the chances of the opposition:
- The law on municipal elections was shifted towards a majoritarian system only a few weeks after Fidesz’s two-thirds victory in the 2010 general election (and a few months before municipal elections). The amendments provided a huge advantage to the relatively strongest force, while making the nomination system more rigorous, making newcomers’ entry to the political arena almost impossible.
- The one-party 2011 parliamentary electoral law containing the manipulated district borders prompted the first significant opposition movement.
- Again, just a few months before 2014 municipal elections, Fidesz modified the electoral rules, first of all in Budapest, based on the previous EP election results. For the very fragmented opposition forces the modification made it even harder to get in power in Budapest. In the meantime, nomination criteria were loosened as Fidesz’s strategy changed: they found that the more (both serious and sham) nominees run for the mandates, the less support is sufficient for Fidesz-candidates’ victory.
- Parallelly to the media expansion of Fidesz, the ruling party is turning more and more to smear campaigns against opposition actors. The victims are often winning civil lawsuits in courts months after the fact, but Fidesz-controlled media is successful at discrediting them in the eyes of a vast layer of the electorate during the campaign (e.g. as it happened with opposition politicians Gábor Vona and Péter Juhász).
- Before the 2018 general election, we had reached a new milestone: the National Audit Office (ÁSZ) levied such a heavy fine on Jobbik that questioned whether the party can survive and forced it to defend itself throughout the entire campaign, which put Jobbik at an irreparable competitive disadvantage.
Abuses and risks in the municipal election campaign
- The creation of fictive addresses for Hungarians living abroad (mostly those in neighbouring countries), allowing them to vote in municipal elections, has been a risk on previous occasions as well. The extent of this years-long process is unknown. But numerous news stories have surfaced that a significant number of Ukrainian individuals, among others, have registered as local inhabitants in settlements near Hungarian borders and even in Budapest. In April 2018, Political Capital, together with experts from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU), submitted a request for settlement-level name registry data for the previous two years. However, the Ministry of Interior has not yet complied with the request. HCLU sued the ministry for the data and won at a court of the first instance; after appeals, the case is awaiting to be tried in a court of the second instance. Until then, we can only guess how many fictive addresses have been created to abuse electoral processes.
- Certain practices of the police have also raised suspicions of electoral irregularities in this electoral campaign. In the period for registering candidates, a photo was leaked from the internal Facebook group of the opposition’s campaign staff in Budapest’s 8th district, which gave rise to suspicions that they might have copied electoral data from recommendation sheets and created a database with voters’ personal data. This became the leading news on all government-controlled media surfaces for a day. On the following day, the police searched the premises of the campaign office. There has never been an example of such a quick reaction from the police, especially not based on a photo that carries zero weight. The police did not react when there was strong suspicion of Fidesz-affiliated MPs using illegal databases.
- Since a considerable proportion of municipal governments are under Fidesz’s control, holding a simple campaign event can be an almost insurmountable challenge to the opposition. A legislative amendment in 2018 outlawed the practice of “wild campaigning”, meaning that it is illegal to stick campaign materials to lamp posts or firewalls without a permit. State-owned companies and local municipalities often turn to administrative methods to hinder the opposition. One of the extreme examples for this is Szekszárd, where the deadline for the administrative process is after election day. Meanwhile, they are very thorough at taking down any opposition campaign materials they find.
- The media is obviously playing into the government's hands. Bias in local self-governments’ journals is the norm. Electoral commissions rarely declare that the given municipality breached the law when it financed from taxpayer money the publication of a campaign material dressed up as an information booklet, which either did not mention the opposition’s viewpoint or only described it in negative terms. One of the wild examples of using local journals as a propaganda tool is the Bácskai Napló, where they even doctored photos, distorting the faces of all opposition candidates.
- The opposition is cooperating much more efficiently than they did in previous elections, there is only one opposition candidate facing Fidesz’s nominee in settlements where more is at stake (5 years ago, Jobbik and LMP had candidates besides that of centre-left parties in most places). Fidesz is trying to balance this in numerous localities by encouraging locally or nationally known figures to compete to confuse and divide the opposition. The most obvious example for this is celebrity Krisztián Berki’s decision to become a candidate for the lord mayorship despite the fact that he had had no political ambitions earlier, and the return of former socialist politician and inmate György Hunvald to his district as a mayoral candidate of a pseudo-NGO. There are more than 20 examples of such “curious” candidates dividing the opposition just in settlements with over 10 000 inhabitants, although Fidesz only has a vested interest in some of them.
- Disseminating imaginary, real or completely fabricated private information aimed at discrediting candidates has become an unprecedentedly frequently used campaign tool. Two examples are the sex videos of Fidesz-affiliated mayor Zsolt Borkai and Budaörs mayor Tamás Wittinghoff, an opposition candidate. The majority of such accusations have affected opposition politicians, which mainly surfaced in government-controlled media. Such methods were used already in the government’s smear campaign against Jobbik before the 2018 general election: János Volner was photographed with a female acquaintance of his, and then Jobbik chairman Gábor Vona was accused of being homosexual. The goal is exerting informational pressure on the opposition, blackmail, and fragmenting the opposition’s campaign. Opposition lord mayoral candidate Gergely Karácsony has been followed by paparazzi and “unknown individuals” regularly disturbed his campaign events. Finally, an edited tape that was presumably recorded illegally was leaked, on which Karácsony says damning things about his own allies. All this indicates that opposition politicians or at least some of them are under surveillance. The opposition, meanwhile, is unable, or unwilling to use these cases to mobilize its electorate.
- According to the Oxford Internet Institute’s 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation, Hungary and the Hungarian media space is a target of domestic state-led social media manipulation that utilizes both automated accounts (bots) and human operators in order to attack the opposition, distract from relevant problems related to the government and enhance already existing political, attitudinal divisions in the society. The Hungarian government’s manipulation strategies mainly resort to media manipulation, trolling, and malign content amplification. However, Hungarian efforts of this kind are characterised by a somewhat limited “human resources” capacity in the cyber space, as they generally employ small teams to influence electoral messages, but only during election campaigns. Examples for trolling behaviour in the municipal election campaign included events in Keszthely and Szeged. Fake social media accounts launched a coordinated campaign against a group of local citizens protesting an investment in Keszthely, while trolls supported the campaign of an “independent” candidate endorsed by Fidesz in Szeged. In Budapest, a pro-Fidesz activist infiltrated the closed Facebook group of the campaign team of the opposition’s mayoral candidate in the capital’s 8th district. Documents acquired by the troll were used by government-controlled media to harass the opposition candidate, András Pikó. This media campaign prompted the above-mentioned swift police investigation into the Pikó campaign’s allegedly illegal actions, for which authorities found no evidence, leading them to close the case.
This is a modified version of the original text, but the modifications did not affect the core content of the text.