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Hungary held Europe’s most transparent elections last Sunday

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In an unprecedented move for an EU country, Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Hungary and the referendum that was held simultaneously were closely monitored by a full-scale observation mission of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and more specifically its Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and its Parliamentary Assembly. There were 316 observers from 45 countries in all, including 221 ODIHR experts accompanied by observers who came for varying lengths of time (observation began several weeks before the elections and is scheduled to end ten days afterwards, in particular to monitor the processing of election complaints), as well as 95 parliamentarians and staff of the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly.

Why such a mission?

The reason for such a mission was that the opposition’s six-party coalition that faced the government coalition (Fidesz-KDNP) in these elections had requested it. It argued that there was a real risk that these elections, called after twelve consecutive years with Orbán as the country’s leader (which is still four years less than Angela Merkel in Germany), would not be free and fair. However, it could be that it was just meant to make us think exactly that: since an OSCE observer mission is needed, there must be a problem with democracy in Hungary, right? Unsurprisingly, the Hungarian opposition’s request for an observer mission was actively supported by some 60 members of the European Parliament, an institution that is dominated by a leftist-liberal majority whose highly negative views of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary are all too well known.

To show it had nothing to hide, the Hungarian government thus invited the OSCE to send its observers.

A complementary observation mission mounted by conservative organisations

Fearing that the OSCE observer mission might lack impartiality towards Hungary, several European conservative organisations then decided to send their own observers. At the invitation of the Alliance for the Common Good, Polish, Bulgarian, Croatian, Ukrainian (the latter being absent at the time of the vote) and Spanish observers (from the organisation Abogados Cristianos) were sent by the Institute for Legal Culture Ordo Iuris, a Polish association of pro-family and pro-life lawyers that is very active in Poland and with international institutions. Other member associations of this conservative alliance also sent observers. These included the American organisation Judicial Watch, the Italian think tank Nazione Futura, and the Czech NGO Pro Rodinu. Also present were three observers sent by France’s Observatoire du Journalisme. Although smaller than the OSCE mission, this mission, which was also present before and after the elections, was able to visit a few hundred polling stations throughout the country on Sunday, 3 April, and also to witness the counting of votes sent by mail (by “external Hungarians”, i.e. members of Hungarian minorities living beyond the borders of present-day Hungary) as well as those cast at the ballot boxes on 3 April.

Moreover, any journalist and any NGO member could apply for observer status and enjoy the corresponding rights and privileges. This meant that there were hundreds of observers in addition to those attached to the two major observer missions described here.

Observation conditions praised by both missions

At their respective press conferences in Budapest on Monday, 4 April, the day after the elections, representatives of the two observer missions agreed that the observers had free and unhindered access to all the polling stations they wished to visit, and that they had been able to speak freely to members of the electoral committees, to voters, and also – including before polling day – to representatives of all of the institutions and NGOs with whom they wished to speak.

The “flaws” observed by the OSCE mission

The members of the OSCE mission did not observe any irregularities in the voting, except for a few minor procedural irregularities mostly related to the secrecy of the vote. They did, however, list what they considered to be “flaws” (the word used during their post-election press conference) that they felt called into question the fully democratic, honest and transparent nature of the elections. These “flaws” include the intensity of negative campaigning against the opposition by the government camp and state media, the blurring of the line between government camp campaign expenditure and government action, and the insufficient presence of women in the campaign, which OSCE mission officials believe led to a lack of “inclusiveness” that was detrimental to the full democratic nature of the elections. As a result, Kari Henriksen, a Danish member of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly who was the mission coordinator, spoke of the “absence of a level playing field”, while acknowledging that the vote itself had taken place under good conditions and that the candidates had been able to campaign freely.

The OSCE’s reservations not shared by the concurrent mission

The conservative organisations’ observer mission, however, did not share the above-mentioned reservations of the OSCE mission. It is also worth mentioning that a preliminary statement published by this concurrent mission before the elections was already critical of the OSCE mission’s perceived lack of impartiality. In its final conclusions, the conservative organisations’ observer mission notes, with regard to the conditions of electoral competition, that while the public media were undoubtedly on the side of the government in the election campaign, there are many private media in Hungary that are anti-government and pro-opposition, and thus balanced the media landscape and the possibilities of access to the media. As a matter of fact, according to a study from the third quarter of 2021, which is cited in the observer report and was mentioned during Monday’s press conference in Budapest, the “consumption” of pro- and anti-government media by Hungarians is fairly balanced. As for the negative character of the campaign, as the representatives of the OSCE mission also admitted at their own press conference, such negative campaigning existed in both directions (on the part of the government camp and the opposition) and Hungary is no exception in this respect. Finally, with respect to the blurring of the line between electoral campaigning and government spending, this second mission noted that the same blurring of the line also exists between opposition campaign spending and spending by mostly opposition NGOs, many of which receive foreign funding, including a significant number that receive funding from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Those NGOs also invested significant sums of money, in the millions of dollars, in the opposition’s successful campaign to have the referendum invalidated through boycotts or invalid votes (by answering both yes and no to the various questions, or even by writing vulgarities on the referendum ballot sheet, as reported to us by some election observers).

Observers’ testimonies collected by the Visegrád Post

In addition to participating in press conferences organised by the OSCE and Ordo Iuris, we visited some Budapest polling stations ourselves and we interviewed observers who had taken part in monitoring of the elections all over the country. All confirmed that each polling station had an electoral committee composed of members of the opposition and the government camp, as well as a local government representative who was not affiliated with any party. All observers had a list of all the polling stations in the country and chose the ones they wanted to visit.

The greatest problem observed by the team of Russell Nobile, senior attorney at the US organisation Judicial Watch, was that in some polling stations the ballot sheet for the referendum was not automatically distributed with the ballot sheets for the parliamentary elections, and each voter was asked whether he or she also wanted to vote in the referendum. This irregularity was described by Russell Nobile as just an inconsistency and was more likely to disadvantage the government side. Few people were turned away, according to Judicial Watch (and other observers), and when the observers we interviewed had witnessed such situations, it was always because the voters were in the wrong polling station and were therefore not on a given polling station’s list (each voter having to show a proof of identity, as a given person could only be registered in one polling station). Such voters were then directed to the correct polling station.

Polish lawyer Jerzy Kwaśniewski, who is the head of Ordo Iuris, led nine teams of observers who visited polling stations throughout the country. In his own words, they found in these Hungarian elections confirmation that voting in Hungary is, as in several other Central European countries, rather better secured than in most Western European countries. Procedures are in place for all types of situations, including that of illiterate voters, who, as Kwaśniewski witnessed in person in one case, are accompanied to the voting booth by a member of the electoral committee linked to the opposition and a member linked to the government camp, in order to help them vote as they want to. Another procedure described by Kwaśniewski is that of the opening of a polling station, when the first voter of the day is invited to observe, in the presence of the electoral committee’s members, that the ballot boxes are empty, after which those ballot boxes are closed and locked.

As confirmed by all the observers to whom we spoke and who led teams that witnessed the voting, the opening of the ballot boxes and the counting of votes, representatives of both the government camp and the opposition coalition were present at all stages.

Italian journalist Daniele Dell’Orco (who writes for the newspapers Libero and Il Giornale), from the think tank Nazione Futura, also confirmed that his group had not found any irregularities in the elections. Despite the differences between Italy and Hungary in the way the vote is secured, in his opinion the balanced presence of representatives of the different parties at all stages seemed to provide sufficient guarantees to prevent fraud.

Frenchman Claude Chollet, from the Observatoire du Journalisme (Journalism Observatory), was accompanied by a journalist and a lawyer. They had been invited to act as international observers by their sister website in Hungary. They also noted a voting procedure very different from that in France, but were able to confirm that in each polling station there were always at least two representatives of Fidesz and two of the opposition, in addition to the head of the station, who is normally not affiliated with a party. Any cheating would be very difficult, since they monitor each other, explained Claude Chollet, who, with his team of observers, did not find any anomalies, although there were “oddities” like the one he witnessed himself, where a ballot box was brought to the home of a very old woman who was unable to come to the polling station. “Then there are three people”, he told us: “the one who carries the ballot box, one person from Fidesz and one from the opposition.”

According to Spanish lawyer Polonia Castellanos, the head of Abogados Cristianos, who had the opportunity to observe the Hungarian elections in 2002, it is clear that this year’s elections were much better protected against fraud than twenty years ago and even than in Spain today. This confirms the assertion made by Jerzy Kwaśniewski of Ordo Iuris that, in general, the electoral process in Central European countries, including Hungary, meets stricter standards than in Western Europe, let alone the United States.

Two possible frauds reported before the elections, but with no significant impact on the results

Two serious incidents were reported prior to the election. The first involved bags of ballot sheets found burned in Romania, in a region where there is a Hungarian minority entitled to vote by mail in the proportional representation list vote (of the 199 deputies in Hungary’s unicameral parliament, 106 are elected by a first-past-the-post vote in constituencies and 93 by a proportional representation list vote). On the ballots that were not completely burned, it could be seen that they were votes for the opposition, so opposition leaders and media outlets immediately cried organised electoral fraud. The pro-government newspaper Magyar Nemzet, however, claimed that the Telex article on the subject, which was the first to be published, had been pre-written in early February, as the article’s metadata seemed to indicate after it was published on the Internet. In any case, the usually massive vote of “external Hungarians” for Fidesz traditionally brings about two more deputies to the party. What use could it be under these conditions for Fidesz to burn the postal ballots in favour of the opposition?

The other possible fraud reported directly concerned the opposition, which was accused of using an illegally compiled database to contact voters in a massive and unsolicited manner by phone calls and text messages in the final stretch of the election campaign. But here again, in view of the results, and assuming that such a fraud did take place, it obviously did not have a significant impact on the elections.