The following is a translation of an interview published on index.hu on March 20, 2017.
- 23 national party lists were registered for the April 8 general election. Among the parties appearing on the ballot were many that we’d never heard of before. The leaders and candidates for these parties could not be contacted, and if the media was able to track them down, they were hiding out rather than campaigning.
- This is no accident: these candidates and parties do not wish to become a part of the political process, but are merely angling for hundreds of millions of forints in state funds. This was true four years ago and it’s true today, but election rules are still playing right into the hands of fake parties.
- But how can someone be a member of a fake party, or be a fake candidate? What is it like to experience this from the inside? One man, who was in a mid-level position in three fake parties, told Index how the system works in detail.
- András introduced us to the price of nominations and voting districts, the art of the “writers” who copy nomination signatures, the inclusion of friends and relatives into the scheme, and how different an election looks to those who see in it only the potential for profit:
Of course I didn’t knock on doors, we didn’t collect a single signature, we just copied them all.
András nearly laughed at my question when we began talking about how he’d become a district representative candidate in 2014. He tried in 2018 as well, with another party, of course, but this time he didn’t have an adequate database of signatures and voter information, and he lost his candidacy over a couple of signatures.
András wrote me an e-mail a couple of days ago. I’ve written extensively about the – to put it nicely – mishandling of signature collections, and about situations involving suspected fraud and fake parties whose goals are not to influence political events, but exclusively to make money.
András operated mostly at a middle-management level in several of these fake parties – which he himself describes as such – and now he is willing to describe how he spent those two magical weeks copying signatures; what has changed since the lies of 2014; and how they spent years preparing for the time when they’d finally be able to get their hands on the long-awaited, hundreds of millions in state funds.
András and his associates committed crimes. It is obvious that it was not some great change in conscience that inspired him to tell me all of this over an espresso, on the condition, of course, that his name and the names of the parties involved not appear in the story (András is not his real name). Still, András plans to leave the fake parties behind, but he wants it to be known how the two weeks of collecting nominations actually happens.
Whenever possible, I followed up on and checked the concrete information that András provided, but I will not relay some of the individual, easily identifiable parts of what he said. But it is worthwhile to get acquainted with the story, which reveals the goals, methods and pitfalls of operating a fake party.
One voting district for HUF 1 million
Would you like to earn a couple million in two weeks?
András’s friend Tibor contacted him four weeks ago with this sentence that seemed taken from a financial marketing textbook. It didn’t seem completely unrealistic. After all, Fidesz-KDNP, governing with a two-thirds majority, had fundamentally changed the election law in 2012 which practically invited profiteers to establish parties.
One of the biggest differences in the new election system was that a party that developed a countrywide list could receive substantial state support: from HUF 149 million to as much as HUF 597 million. And if the expenditure of these funds could be proved with an invoice, then the parties didn’t have to pay it back (this rule has now been changed, as we’ll see later). It wasn’t difficult to develop a countrywide list: an individual candidate had only to be placed in at least 27 districts around the country. In order to nominate a candidate, parties had to collect nominations and accompanying signatures from 500 voters within a voting district.
In the eyes of András, Tibor and many other fortune-seekers, the formula was simple: 500 signatures times 27 districts equals 13,500 signatures, which could result in them earning HUF 149 million. And if they were able to run candidates in even more voting districts, it could mean an additional hundreds of millions of forints.
András became interested in the plan, and with Tibor’s help, he found himself in the company of “gentlemen who are well-versed in election campaigns” who, weeks before the nominations, used lists and maps to explain a point by point strategy for how to develop a countrywide list. The goal was for there to be 27 individual candidates in nine counties and in the capital. For this, however, they had to split up the voting districts among themselves, and to organize the picking up, filling out, and submitting of the ballots, and the filling in of any possible missing information.
András – as with others in charge of voting districts – received an offer that said he’d receive as much money as how many districts as he could carry. The rate was variable, but everyone could negotiate the price. In 2014, András hadn’t negotiated how much he would receive for one voting district. They threw some numbers around since there was money to play with. By 2018 he knew that he’d get HUF 1 million per district.
The downside began to take shape around this time: payment would only be made after the two weeks of intense work. If it would be made at all. It was risky, therefore, to see if the required 27 voting districts would all pan out in the end. In a situation like this, of course, contracts couldn’t outline who was responsible for what work, and if payment was made ahead of time, the recipient could easily turn around and walk away, which would be a double failure since another person would then have to be found to take control of those voting districts. This happened more than once, András said, listing the risks.
We need a candidate. You’ll get 200,000 forints
András quickly realized that he couldn’t do this work alone, so he had to recruit assistants. For the first time, there was a need for people who would give their names to become fake candidates in some of the voting districts. They didn’t have to live in the given district, or even visit: it was enough simply to provide their personal information.
“I persuaded friends and acquaintances by saying that we need a candidate, just give your data and you’ll get 200,000 forints,” András said.
This didn’t turn out well, of course, when he was unable to pay, so by 2018 he could hardly find anyone he knew who was willing to go in on the fraud. In 2014 he’d been able to draw in members of his family to become candidates, which he was unable to do in 2018. He couldn’t even count on them to make nominations. The lack of candidates was so great in 2018 that he even considered picking a person at random to be a candidate from the voter information database he had.
I WAS IN POSSESSION OF A BUNCH OF DATA, SO COULD NAME A CANDIDATE, TAKE CARE OF ALL THE ADMINISTRATION, FORWARD LETTERS TO THE PARTY, AND THE PERSON WOULD NEVER KNOW,
András explained calmly. But there was always the danger of failure because, in case of a bad database (the voter who nominated the candidate dies, for example, or there was a change in their data like their address), the party fails in its nomination of a candidate.
In the end, András didn’t do this only because he found people he could persuade with good money (and the promise of even better money) to give their names to a candidacy. András himself became a candidate in 2018 in one of the voting districts, just in a different party than in 2014.
They prepared for four years with one fake party, before running with another one
It is worth pointing out that András, to whom it never even occurred to be a politician, was in several parties. He became a candidate in 2014 but missed out on the big money after failing to set up a countrywide list. András says there’s a big risk because even if he does his work well and sets up the voting districts properly, if the others get sloppy and don’t hand down the nominations correctly, then the 27 districts don’t come together and everybody misses out on the money.
Based on their experiences from 2014, they wanted to hit the 2018 elections with thoroughly developed strategies. A few allies had remained among the known fake party actors from 2014. While there are rumors that the big parties are using the fake parties for political purposes (for example, that they are beneficial to Fidesz for dividing the opposition), the fake politicians’ goal was only to make money. They planned point by point who was going to do what during the magical two weeks when they had to collect the nominations. They had learned in 2014 that everything depended on logistics and organization.
Meanwhile, one minor disturbance did occur. Last year, Parliament changed a law with the intention of discouraging profiteers from setting up fake parties. The new rules, now in effect, dictate that state support for party lists must be paid back by the nominating organizations if they do not reach 1% support in the elections. According to András, everyone reacted very quickly to this.
THE SOLUTION IS SIMPLE: THE FAKE PARTIES MUST BE ATTRIBUTED TO PEOPLE THAT NAV CAN’T TOUCH. HOMELESS PEOPLE OR THOSE THAT LIVE ABROAD, FOR EXAMPLE.
And that’s what they did.
That is, the change in the law didn’t really cause a big problem. The distrust between them presented a much greater danger to their grand common plan. This was the downfall of the second fake party that András participated in: he and Tibor left the party because of a financial disagreement and joined another one, András’s third.
There’s some kind of art in the work of the writers
The 10 million forints András was hoping for in exchange for taking on ten districts was hovering before his eyes. Because he switched fake parties, he had to re-plan and reorganize everything, but he quickly found colleagues that are referred to as “writers” in fake party parlance. Their job is to sit in an office from morning to night and copy, copy, copy.
András says the work is not as easy as it sounds. If they err on the safe side, at least 600 nominations have to be delivered for every voting district, and as many names, addresses, and ID numbers have to be extracted and copied. And, of course, signatures must be forged. They must also make sure that the same writer doesn’t enter all the data on a paper, and that they regularly switch pens.
How quickly the writers can proceed is unpredictable. Ideally, two writers can do one voting district in a day, but not always. The task is simpler if the database is in digital form, and more difficult if they have to decipher manual handwriting.
What’s written here, Pécsi or Récsi? It’s sometimes useful to write the name illegibly, there’s some kind of art to it.
András pulls out his telephone and shows me what kind of materials the writers work from. In one e-mail there are photographs of nomination forms from four years ago. In another, there are neat, well-kept tables. András couldn’t, or didn’t want to tell me where they came from. Both of them, of course, could only have been obtained illegally.
Nomination forms were photographed in front of the election office
András says that in 2014, they were initially paying for nominations. In the beginning the rate for a ballot containing eight names was 1,000 forints, then it was reduced to 500 forints, and by the end, a barter system had become the norm: one nomination could be exchanged for copying another nomination. “Everybody gave them and took them. It even happened that we received our own ballots back.”
It was an accepted custom that when they met with a “colleague” from the fake party in the election office, they would photograph each other’s ballots in front of the building. It would be useful if it were necessary to substitute missing data, and it could be set aside for 2018 as well.
Those with the most foresight had put aside a basic database for the current election – only with data that was four years out of date. András explained that the election offices refused to register far more candidates this year than before because many people, including his team, submitted data from 2014. They didn’t know who had died, or who had moved away, which made the nomination of candidates unpredictable. One of their databases was half invalid.
But András and the writers planned the two weeks very well. He departed on the morning of February 19 and drove around to all the country’s election offices. Meanwhile, the writers were copying away in a closed room. Sometimes he would pop in to speed up the process.
In the end, however, he was disappointed. The election offices rejected his candidates one after another because there were simply not enough valid nominations. There were only a couple of days left to find substitutes, and the task seemed insurmountable.
HOW COULD ANDRÁS GATHER 100-200 SIGNATURES IN THE COUNTRYSIDE IN ONLY TWO DAYS, ALL AT ONCE, WHILE HE HAD ONLY EVER BEEN IN THOSE REGIONS TO RECEIVE AND SUBMIT THE BALLOTS?
“It would have worked if we’d prepared better,” András said of the bitter lesson, a bit jealous of those fake parties that had succeeded. According to Saturday’s decision by the National Election Committee (NVB), 23 countrywide party lists were registered, and among them, there are several parties which we’ve never heard of and probably won’t in the future. The NVB refused to register 19 party lists, which shows that quite a lot got caught in the filter.
András didn’t earn a single forint from this year’s fake party scheme. He lost money on gasoline, and he paid HUF 5-10,000 each to seduce his friends and writers into his plan. He doesn’t want to try again in 2022 because he says the rules will be even stricter by then, since “all this fraud is so obvious now.”
When I asked him whether he’d ever like to become a politician now that he’s gotten into politics, was a candidate, and joined three parties, he said:
“Of course not, I was the candidate for a 100% fake party, I really just needed the millions.”