“We’re looking at ability of candidates to compete on an equal basis and ability of voters to make an informed choice.”
– Douglas Wake, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR)
Hungary’s 2018 general election was properly administered but patently unfair according to preliminary findings and conclusions issued today by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights’ Limited Election Observation Mission to Hungary.
At a press conference held in Budapest Monday afternoon, the head of the ODIHR mission, Douglas Wake, read aloud the following Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions:
The 8 April parliamentary elections were characterized by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis. Voters had a wide range of political options but intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing constricted the space for genuine political debate, hindering voters’ ability to make a fully-informed choice. The technical administration of the elections was professional and transparent.
Fundamental rights and freedoms were respected overall, but exercised in an adverse climate. Access to information as well as the freedoms of the media and association have been restricted, including by recent legal changes. While the electoral legal framework forms an adequate basis for democratic elections, recent amendments were a missed opportunity to hold inclusive consultations and address prior ODIHR recommendations.
The election administration fulfilled its mandate in a professional and transparent manner and enjoyed overall confidence among stakeholders. The appointment mechanism for the election administration at all levels offers a reasonable basis for independence and impartiality, but the lack of clear selection criteria and the absence of inclusive public consultation on nominees detracted from the overall confidence. Positively, special efforts were made to ensure the full participation of persons with disabilities in the electoral process.
There is overall trust in the accuracy and inclusiveness of the voter register. A total of 8,312,264 voters, including over 435,000 voting from abroad, were registered for the elections. Concerns were raised that the use of two different voting procedures for out-of-country voters challenges the principle of equal suffrage and that the distinction was based on partisan considerations.
Following an inclusive candidate registration process, 23 party lists with a total of 1,796 candidates, were registered for the national proportional contest and 1,643 candidates were registered for the single-member constituency races. Some 30 per cent of all candidates were women. While there was a large number of contestants, most did not actively campaign, ostensibly registering to benefit from public campaign finance or to dilute the vote in tightly contested races.
The campaign was animated, but hostile and intimidating campaign rhetoric limited space for substantive debate and diminished voters’ ability to make an informed choice. The ubiquitous overlap between government information and ruling coalition campaigns, and other abuses of administrative resources, blurred the line between state and party, at odds with Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) commitments.
Public campaign funding and expenditure ceilings aim at securing equal opportunities for all candidates. However, the ability of contestants to compete on an equal basis was significantly compromised by the government’s excessive spending on public information advertisements that amplified the ruling coalition’s campaign message. With no reporting requirements until after the elections, voters were effectively deprived of information on campaign financing, key to making an informed choice and overall transparency.
Media coverage of the campaign was extensive, yet highly polarized and lacking critical analysis. The public broadcaster fulfilled its mandate to provide free airtime to contestants, but its newscasts and editorial outputs clearly favored the ruling coalition, at odds with international standards. Most commercial broadcasters were partisan in their coverage, either for ruling or opposition parties. Online media provided a platform for pluralistic, issue-oriented political debate. Defamation remains a criminal offence and pressure on journalists was observed.
Women remain underrepresented in political life and there are no legal requirements to promote gender equality in the electoral context. Although one major party placed a woman at the top of the national list and some parties addressed gender-related issues in their programmes, empowerment of women received scant attention as a campaign issue, including in the media.
Measures to enhance minority participation in the electoral process are foreseen in the legislative framework. All 13 recognized national minorities registered their national lists and some 60,000 citizens registered as minority voters. The Roma were subject to derogatory comments in the campaign. Further, the dependence of many Roma on the locally-administered public works scheme made them vulnerable to intimidation and vote-buying.
Contrary to OSCE commitments, citizen election observation is not permitted. Legislative constraints and intimidating rhetoric by the government stifled civil society’s involvement in election-related activities, limiting the public’s access to non-partisan assessment of the elections. The legislation provides for international election observation at all stages of the process.
The right to seek an effective remedy for electoral violations is inclusive and was generally respected. All disputes were reviewed expeditiously and largely within legal deadlines. However, there was no guarantee of a public hearing at any level of the dispute resolution process and procedures for review did not allow for genuine input from NEC members. The NEC reviewed 464 complaints, of which 308 were dismissed due to a strict application of formal requirements.
In the limited number of polling stations visited, election day procedures were generally conducted efficiently and in line with the law. Election staff were knowledgeable and operated transparently.