Three non-governmental organizations have teamed up in Hungary to determine how public funds are being used by political parties for the 2014 parliamentary election on April 6. International anti-corruption monitor Transparency International, Hungarian investigative journalism web portal Atlatszo.hu and Hungary’s public funds watchdog K-Monitor announced yesterday that they have launched Kepmutatas.hu, a website where the public can continuously follow how political parties are campaigning with public funds.
With still weeks to go before the election, the data processed by Kepmutatas.hu already shows some alarming trends. Ruling party Fidesz had spent more than HUF 2 billion by the end of February, almost three times more than the opposition alliance’s HUF 680 million. Far-right extremist party Jobbik had spent HUF 650 million and Politics Can Be Different had spent HUF 310 million. Currently, the data presented on Kepmutatas.hu does not reflect the amount spent by parties in March, therefore the totals are expected to grow.
Transparency International researches campaign finance in Hungary by analyzing virtually every tool utilized in the campaign process, including billboard advertisements, media appearances, direct marketing tools (standard mail, mobile phone text messages, telephone calls and personal visits) and events hosted by political parties. The anti-corruption organization also takes into account amounts spent on employing staff, contracting public opinions polls and promotional materials.
Fidesz spends more than everyone else, more than the legally permitted amount
Based on available data it is clear that Fidesz and pro-Fidesz governmental and civil organizations have collectively spent more than the legally permitted amount. Hungary’s new electoral laws set a per-party limit of HUF 1 billion for election campaigns, with no more than HUF 700 million of public funds to be used.
The pro-Fidesz election campaign receives substantial assistance from organizations operating in the guise of civil sector entities. One such organization is the Civil Unity Forum (Civil Osszefogas Forum, COF) which between November 2013 and February 2014 spent approximately HUF 570 million on the campaign. Such organizations attempt to maintain the appearance of independent civil organizations and are therefore referred to as “phony civil organizations”.
In addition to receiving substantial support from phony civil organizations, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party receives assistance from the government. The government slogan “Hungary performs better” was gifted to Fidesz in February. The slogan, its marketing materials and branding have alone cost the government HUF 540 million since November 2012.
In total, the cost of pro-Fidesz billboards paid for by both governmental support and phony civil organizations has exceeded HUF 1 billion. The cost of such forms of direct campaign support for Fidesz is therefore added to the total amount spent on behalf of its election campaign. Without factoring for the governmental support and phony organization support, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition has spent HUF 940 million according to data reviewed through to the end of February. This indicates that the limit of HUF 1 billion has been all but exhausted by the ruling party with more than a month to go before election day.
Loopholes in the law
Miklos Ligeti, Director of Legal Affairs for Transparency International, calls Hungary’s new campaign finance law “completely inadequate for bringing accountability to government corruption”. “Parliament has successfully enacted legislation allowing political parties to finance their campaigns with insufficient oversight in a manner that does not even require the parties to break the rules,” Ligeti says.
According to him, the new electoral law which came into effect on 1 January 2014 does not restrict the contracting of campaign-related activities, nor does it address the problem of financial commitments provided for pro-government campaign support.
Ligeti is also critical of the new law because it fails to address the boundaries of electioneering as practiced by governmental entities. Transparency in Hungary’s campaign finance system has also become obfuscated by legislation allowing state-owned companies not to disclose what they spend on billboard advertising.
He is concerned about the role played by television stations in the election campaign. In Hungary, public media outlets (referred to as state-run media in Hungary) maintain a significant pro-government bias. With the exception of one commercial television station (TV2) which broadcasted government advertisements using the same “Hungary is doing better” slogan used by the ruling Fidesz party in its advertisements, all other commercial television stations have avoided broadcasting any political advertisements.
The election law does not limit corrupt practices
The new law on campaign finance is troubling in its inconsistencies. Ligeti believes one positive aspect is the requirement for individual candidates to provide detailed financial reports of how they have spent the state-provided public funds during the course of their campaign. Another positive is that individual candidates failing to receive 2% of the vote in their respective electoral district must repay the public campaign funds. However, Ligeti believes these positive developments are largely offset by the fact that the parties themselves are not held to the same standards.
Transparency International has repeatedly warned of the risks presented by the new law. One such risk is the possibility of so-called “business parties” becoming involved in the election simply to receive public campaign funds.
To run a national list in the election a party must collect 500 signatures in at least 27 out of 106 electoral districts. Once this is done, the party will receive public campaign funds of between HUF 147 million and HUF 597 million depending on the number of candidates. Hungary’s State Audit Office is not required to audit how individual political parties use public campaign funds and may only do so if parties file a formal complaint. Transparency International believes the only positive aspect of the law governing campaigns is that print ads are to be openly tariffed and priced.
According to Transparency International Fidesz has benefited most from these areas of concern. For this reason TI believes the upcoming election can be considered a “free” election but definitely not “fair”.
The people believe parties are corrupt
Transparency International contracted with Psyma, a public opinion polling firm, to evaluate the public’s opinion of Hungary’s election campaign. Eight per cent of those polled expect a clean election, meaning that parties will only utilize legally permitted means of attaining victory. The public opinion poll also shows that the majority of respondents believe all parties are using illegally obtained funds to finance their campaigns.
Transparency International also contracted Ipsos, another public opinion polling firm, to research the methods of political campaign marketing. Ipsos’ research shows that Fidesz-KDNP obtained the support of 22 per cent of Hungary’s eligible voters by direct personal contact. The left-wing opposition alliance was able to acquire 12 per cent of eligible voters in this manner. Both Fidesz-KDNP and the opposition alliance are intensively engaged in the dissemination of campaign flyers that reach a total of one-quarter of Hungarians.
An anti-corruption program is desperately needed in Hungary
Transparency International, K-Monitor, and Atlatszo.hu have launched an anti-corruption platform and website www.EzAMinimum.hu (Ez a minimum translates to “this is the minimum”). The platform’s ideology is rooted in the desire to bring transparency and accountability to the use of public funds in Hungary – 25 years after the fall of communism. The organizations’ goals are to raise the awareness and support of decision-makers who are politically independent, and to enlist the support of the widest possible audience in civil society to bring the fight against corruption to the forefront of public issues that desperately need resolution.
The primary purpose of www.EzAMinimum.hu is to address and offer its policy recommendations regarding party and campaign financing, public procurement, declaration of assets by government officials, corruption and self-dealing, the managing of national assets, and issues of great import concerning the rule of law.
“The country has undergone significant changes over the last 25 years and its laws have also undergone significant changes, but nothing has happened in the interest of addressing the fight against corruption,” says Sandor Lederer, president of K-Monitor. Lederer believes that corruption has caused incalculable harm to the country’s social and economic environment, and it is for this reason that the fight against it needs to become the primary interest of all political figures. None of the political parties seeking a place in parliament should be allowed to deny the importance of addressing this problem, Lederer argues.
Tamas Bodoky of Atlatszo.hu says: “Atlatszo.hu will accept and review any reports of campaign anomalies as a matter of public information.” The investigative journalism website’s Editor in Chief added that all credible reports will be followed up by journalists.