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Hungary heads to the polls. Is it a 'free but unfair' election? (+video)

Opposition leaders say that the ruling Fidesz party has stacked the deck in its favor by changing electoral systems and campaign laws to box out rivals to power.

Hungary goes to the polls
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Hungarians head to the polls today in a crucial race that could lead Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to another landslide victory.

But if you've only been watching the campaign unfold on television and in Hungary's streets, you might be surprised to learn there's any contest at all.

Opposition figures charge that Hungary's ruling Fidesz party has unfairly shifted the playing field by changing the polling system in its own favor and by inhibiting opposing parties' ability to get their message out to the media. As a result, the already trailing five-party opposition coalition has found itself unable to make up ground on Fidesz, in what one opposition leader, Gordon Bajnai, calls a “free but not fair” election.

Winner take all

Polls suggest the ruling Fidesz party and its coalition partner the Christian Democrats have all but secured a win, with 47 percent support among decided voters compared to 23 percent for the leftist opposition alliance in the latest survey released this week. The far-right Jobbik party’s numbers have been steadily climbing and now stand at 21 percent.

What is less certain is whether Mr. Orbán will reclaim his two-thirds majority in parliament, a key element in his party’s governance over the past four years. It allowed Fidesz to pass legislation without requiring support from the opposition, and the government did not hesitate to use this advantage. Parliament passed more laws between 2010 and 2014 than any other cycle since Hungary’s democratic transition and about 50 percent more than between 2006 and 2010.

But the opposition claims some of the new election rules Fidesz passed have given the party an unfair advantage.

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The opposition accuses the government of gerrymandering newly redrawn districts, which accompany a reduction of members of parliament from 386 to 199.

The government also passed a winner-take-all, simple plurality voting system which favors the largest party: in this case, Fidesz. Government spokesman Ferenc Kumin said the advantage of this system is that it can “produce a healthy majority for forming a government which is a fundamental condition for political stability.”

But the adoption of the new system, combined with the alleged gerrymandering, has some worried Fidesz can win the highly coveted two-thirds supermajority again without a majority of votes.

A message monopoly?

Further, Hungary's new campaign financing and advertising rules "are limiting the opposition parties’ access to the media and advertising capacities in the country,” says Mr. Bajnai.

Campaign commercials on private media have been largely absent, due to a rule introduced by Fidesz that private channels must air any political ads for free, with equal time given to all parties. With 18 parties running, for-profit channels have been unwilling to donate airtime.

“This is the first time since there is commercial television in Hungary that there are no election advertisements on television,” says Gábor Tóka, political science professor at Budapest’s Central European University.

However, private media has run so-called “government information adverts” which tout Hungary’s improving performance record. They were paid for by the government, but used Fidesz’s campaign slogan “Hungary is performing better.” In March, the supreme court ruled private broadcaster TV2 violated campaign rules by broadcasting these ads because they were too similar to Fidesz adverts. The government subsequently agreed not to use the ads again.

Transparency International and two Hungarian organizations estimated the government ads to be worth $2.4 million. If this cost and the cost of an anti-opposition advertising campaign by a pro-government civil group are included, Fidesz has spent double its campaign spending limit, the organizations said.

Mr. Kumin dismissed this calculation as “misleading,” saying government spending on informational adverts cannot be considered party campaign spending.
The opposition also accuses Fidesz of using its connections with media companies to buy up much of the available and most visible advertising space, leaving little room for opposition ads.

Again, Kumin dismissed these claims. However, a visual count by the Christian Science Monitor of political ads on Andrássy Avenue, one of the busiest and most affluent areas in Budapest, showed Fidesz’s dominance of commercial ad space.

The ruling party’s billboards were found on 26 paid-for advertising spaces, compared to none for opposition parties. The opposition coalition’s posters slightly outnumbered Fidesz on free advertising space provided by the local authority and available for use by all political parties, which routinely plaster over each others’ posters.

Orbán delivers

But even if the opposition's allegations are true, it still has fallen short of appealing to the average voter. And Fidesz, with its supermajority, has been able to deliver, according to Krisztina, a teacher who would only give her first name.

“We have a small child and [Orbán’s] the one who supports families and children,” she says at one of Orbán’s final campaign stops in Győr, western Hungary, just days before the election. “I can work now and also get the [childcare] benefit [for] my child. That wasn’t like that earlier, you had to choose whether you want to stay at home and get the benefit or go back to work. Now you don’t have to choose.”

Krisztina says the country is “definitely” better off now than four years ago. Orbán’s appeal to the average voter is something the leftist opposition has been unable to replicate.

Instead, their campaign has been derailed by the resignation of former Socialist deputy leader Gábor Simon in February after reports that he had about $1 million worth of undeclared assets in a foreign bank account.

“[Orbán is] the only one who can offer hope and a future for this country,” Krisztina says.

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