Fidesz’s landslide election win isn’t in dispute. Almost everyone agrees that under whatever electoral system, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán would have still won, and won by a large margin. Miklós Ligeti of respected non-governmental organisation Transparency International also agrees. What Ligeti does dispute is the fairness of the election. In a frank interview at his Budapest office, he gave The Budapest Times a damning and sometimes frightening assessment of the Fidesz campaign, and the dangers to Hungarian democracy.
There have been suggestions of foul play regarding political campaign finance. Why has there been no large public outcry?
Actually, Transparency International (TI) was the organisation which initiated the public outcry. We should make clear, however, that the issue is campaign finance, not party finance. I think it is important that people make a distinction between them. Our investigation focused on campaign finance and it concluded that the changes to the campaign system were directed so as to favour the incumbent governing party. We also identified the potential for a situation where the elections would be free but not fair.
How did you come to this conclusion?
Campaign financing was as obscure as it was previously when there was no legislation governing it, aside from a provision in the law which allowed HUF 1 million of funding per candidate for an election campaign. TI along with Freedom House and other non-governmental organisations pursued an assessment project to find out the actual spending of parties in the 2010 election campaigns. When the previous rules were applied in 2010 we came to the conclusion that spending was instead of HUF 1 million per candidate as allowed, around HUF 3-4 million. Even though we made our findings public and worked hard to address the general public and also politicians to tackle this issue they didn’t care. You could say that all the political parties had their own interest in maintaining this status quo because they all got their share of the financial pie.
Have things changed since the last election?
In 2013 a new law was introduced. It was an individual MP bill, which in a Hungarian context is a very unusual way to bring in new legislation. This is often used to circumvent public consultation, social reconciliation and expert analysis. This new law solely addressed the national election campaign. European Parliament elections and local municipal election campaigns were not addressed. A new element, which we felt was a positive idea, was to introduce a publically funded campaign system with a maximum of HUF 1 billion spending per party. TI always said that it would make campaigns cleaner and more open if public money was used, however we also called for the money to be used in a transparent way with full audits and checks. What actually happened was that the law separated the finance of individual parties and that of candidates. The individual candidates get a moderate share of campaign finance, that is HUF 1 million, and have to fully account to the State Treasury. This funding comes on a debit card which is issued by the State Treasury, so all transactions can be followed and monitored because there is no liquid cash involved; as opposed to the party funding system where they get a major share, from HUF 150 to 600 million, a huge sum of money in a Hungarian context. This money is transferred solely as an in-cash contribution and even small parties that don’t get many votes can take this money. Even parties which do not get a single vote don’t have to return this generous state donation. The only check on this is by the State Audit Office, which is obliged to run an analysis on this funding, but we have reason to believe that the audit office probably won’t compare any of the party spending statements to reality. If there are questionable, or seem to be questionable, transactions it will most likely remain unsanctioned. Moreover, the law fails to address the phenomena of misusing civil society and government presence in the campaign of governing parties. An NGO called Civil Cooperation Forum (in Hungarian, Civil Összefogás Fórum or ‘CÖF’) seemed to be a government-organised one and it massively campaigned for Fidesz. Even the government released a series of advertisements and billboards, seemingly to inform the general public over Hungary’s “better performance”, but it was hard not to recognise that this was a pro-Fidesz campaign. Now under the current legislation this spending shall not be either disclosed or deducted from the maximum allowed spending of parties concerned.
Now that the election is over the PM has said we should move on from questions about the campaign and the election and get on with the job in hand. What’s your response to this?
Well, the law we are currently speaking of was really to be applied for a single event, the national election, and it won’t be applied again until 2018. However, as mentioned before there is no legislation for the campaign finance for EU Parliament elections or the upcoming municipal elections in October. TI has said before publicly that we don’t believe the State Audit Office has ever had the ambition to perform a real investigation, to learn where money comes from, what it’s being used on and what are the exact figures of spending. We claimed that the State Audit Office had a formalistic approach to auditing campaign finance, a criticism the State Audit Office seemingly disclaimed by saying that they did a comprehensive documentary analysis of parties’ campaign expenditure. They didn’t want to enter into a debate about what was the difference between a documentary check and a formal analysis. This very generous and vaguely audited subsidy is just going to act as an invitation for more and more parties to form and get the state finance! We had this in the campaign: 31 party lists were submitted and 18 were registered. A number of sham parties operated in this election, took the subsidies and did not get any tangible contribution from the voters. We tried to assess their presence in the campaign and we really couldn’t find almost anything, most of them spent around HUF 1 million but they received HUF 150 million from the State Treasury and they don’t need to return it. The law also states that if a party doesn’t get a mandate then they won’t open an official investigation into where the funding went – unless another political party reports them. In this instance it would be up to the State Audit Office to determine if the report is legitimate and if it should be investigated further.
What is your conclusion as regards overall spending?
Although our analysis is still ongoing it indicates that Fidesz over-stepped the spending limit of HUF 1 billion and actually spent two billions. If we include the government presence and NGOs involved in the campaign, Fidesz total spending exceeds HUF 3 billion.
The MSZP party also overspent in 2010. Did they do the same this time?
Yes, according to our findings the left-wing alliance (including the MSZP) appears to have spent HUF 1.3 billion instead of HUF 1 billion, as allowed. Jobbik seems to levitate around the spending limit prescribed by the law, meanwhile LMP is well under the spending limit, so far. These are interim findings and we expect further increases as we calculate more and more details still coming in.
How did Fidesz spend such a huge amount of money?
It seems that government-organised NGOs did a lot of negative campaigning against the opposition, whereas the government and Fidesz released all the information with a positive incentive message. For example, “Hungary is performing better”, “We are further cutting utility prices “. Parallel to this the government-friendly organisation CÖF broadcasted messages calling left-wing opposition “criminals” on billboards representing their leaders in a mock criminal scene like “Most Wanted”. We estimate that the government’s campaign present to Fidesz and the contribution of sham NGO CÖF together are worth HUF 1 billion. But Fidesz in itself seems to have excessively spent on public billboards and on direct campaign tools, such as opinion polls and fliers.
Do you think if the election had been totally clean and transparent the result would have been much different, with Fidesz support so high?
Even though TI does not examine the effectiveness of campaign tools, we have no reason to doubt what many political analysts say, that Fidesz would have won the election even under the previous electoral system, but maybe they would have not won the two-thirds majority. But we don’t know that. I think they used all the cunning tools they had to secure the largest possible win. Changing the constituencies by gerrymandering, and of course these dwarf parties. These very small parties took about 3.6% of the vote, not much but as governing parties by and large always have a more disciplined voter base, this was a loss on the opposition side. Making media commercials free of charge discouraged private channels from promoting election broadcasts. Why would they waste their most valuable airtime to show free election messages? So only public service media was used in the election campaign and this media is very biased towards the government. Essentially it is a propaganda channel.
Fidesz deny this is the case, in fact senior figures we have spoken to say this controversy is a political attack, not a legal one. How does TI respond to these claims?
Well, TI is not a witness protection or a pro-bono legal counselling service, we’re fighting against corruption. We were dismayed when we criticised the re-writing of the whole public theatre, even though we only criticised those topics which touched on the anti-corruption sphere and the performance of the government. We also judged the previous, socialist-liberal government to be disappointing in regards to their anti-corruption performance, which was always badly lagging behind expectations. What we found critical was the fact that the presentFidesz-majority government went unilaterally when they changed the system without consulting anybody else, not even the opposition. So we never let non-professional considerations influence our opinion, nor is there any space for political bias in our judgments.
Why should Fidesz have consulted the opposition when they had a clear two-thirds majority from the people?
Two-thirds is a major responsibility. Fidesz couldn’t withstand the temptation and they held responsibility for “re-mastering” the public arena. Fidesz made a number of single-sided changes, they didn’t consult experts and in many cases what they did ran contrary to European standards and domestic constitutional traditions. Fidesz wanted to make things operational, to make things move faster, to be hard-handed and determined to go along their path. From the very first moment they used legislative tools to back their own people up – to favour their own clients – and they changed the old Constitution on a daily basis. The new Constitution which they introduced witnessed five amendments already, even though it was supposed to be a long-lasting modern Constitution. TI wasn’t concerned primarily with these political changes, just the ones that affected the anti-corruption sphere. We doubt if those state institutions designed to control the government’s power are still independent and autonomous. By the end of the last session of Parliament the edifice of the checks and balances had been disrupted, their institutional capacity to build equilibrium in public life weakened.
What practical methods do you believe they used to achieve this?
A number of intentionally designed moves. First, the government packed independent institutions by appointees and nominees with a questionable professional career but with clear political background. This happened to the Constitutional Court, the media board, the State Audit Office, the Office of Judicial Administration. They are all headed by pro-Fidesz people, in some cases former Fidesz MPs! How can we expect these people to be unbiased, impartial and independent? If that doesn’t work they use stronger methods; take for example the Constitutional Court, which suffered a major shrinking of its jurisdiction as a result of which constitutional review of laws on taxes and social contributions is virtually eliminated. Some of the Fidesz-appointed Constitutional Court justices, two among them former Fidesz MPs, are elderly and couldn’t fully serve their 12 years of office term due to the mandatory retirement age at 70. The government removed the age limit so that they could remain in office. The only requirement for these justices was that they were under 70 when they assumed office. This means that even elderly justices of the Constitutional Court will serve their 12 years and leave office when almost 80, a very unusual solution in Hungary.
So essentially what you are suggesting is that Fidesz has constructed a de-facto “upper house” of government via appointing their own loyalists to public institutions?
Yes. And this is different to the House of Lords in the UK for example, which has a function within your democracy and system of governance and of course they are not giving final adjudication on decisions, as opposed to for instance our Constitutional Court which has the final say in constitutional and legal issues. The same thing happened with the prosecutor general who was elected via two-thirds for a term of nine years. The law says that the new prosecutor general can only be elected with two-thirds, and if there’s no two-thirds then the one who is currently in office remains in place. This is virtually a life tariff for the prosecutor general.
What about the local law courts?
The government hasn’t managed to assume control over the law courts. There is no evidence that in the recent years the verdicts would have been favouring Fidesz. It’s a very large widespread system with thousands of judges, and this makes it very hard to control. But the government lowered the retirement age for law court judges from 70 to 62, which was found unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court at the time and also by the European Court of Justice. The majority of the judges with an administrative leadership role were then removed because they were over the 62 age limit. Many feared that new appointees were going to be pro-government but they’re not, and the courts have retained a large proportion of their professional independence. So when we claim that the government is tailoring the entire edifice of the legal and political system to their design, the last line of defence is the judiciary, which still has the power to effectively say no to government.
National Election Office brushes off vote criticism
Now that the 6 April election has ended in a convincing win for the Fidesz party and the dust is starting to settle, there are still some unanswered questions in the minds of Hungarians, and despite the clear and obvious victor we’re yet to be given a definitive final count of the votes.
“The ballots of absentee voters and the ballots cast at 97 foreign representations had to be transported [back to Hungary] where the ballots were distributed according to 106 constituencies,” says Dániel Listár, spokesperson for the National Election Office (NVI).
“Counting the votes took place on Saturday at the local election offices. Afterwards it is possible to put forward legal remedies (if any), and the final result must be set out by the National Election Commission by 25 April.”
Queues in some districts, including several in Budapest, meant that some people did not get a chance to vote despite extensions to the cut-off. However, according to the NVI there are no plans for longer voting hours, or extensions, in future elections. Listár suggested that “local election offices should find larger rooms for absentee voters to avoid queues”.
What is also certain is that there will be no time for reviews or changes to the voting system before the European Parliament elections on 25 May. The NVI will analyse the findings from both elections before putting forwards its recommendations.
Criticism of the Hungarian electoral process by the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe, which concluded that the election was “free but not fair”, was met with a rebuff by the NVI. Listár concluded: “The OSCE reported positively about the work of the National Election Office and other election bodies, saying that the elections were efficiently administered.”