European Union must support Hungarian civil society to strengthen democratic institutions and fair elections
The parliamentary elections in Hungary once again showed that democratic institutions in the country are at risk. International observers from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), as well as the NGO-observers from the European Network of Election Observation Organizations (ENEMO) attested the lack of a level playing field for election contestants and the blurring of lines between the state and the ruling coalition led by Orbans’ Fidesz party. Many key ODIHR recommendations have not been implemented by the Hungarian authorities over the years. The freedom of expression, access to information, freedom of association have been further restricted and the independent judiciary weakened.
The clear advantage of the ruling coalition was secured through an unprecedented level of political control over the media in an EU state, including the state captured public media, which served as a propaganda tool for the ruling party. . The fact that this election campaign was interrupted by the Russian aggression against Ukraine also led to ruling party propaganda about the war dominating the pre-election discourse, which was additionally used to discredit the opposition. According to the OSCE ODIHR, “The bias and lack of balance in monitored news coverage and the absence of debates between major contestants significantly limited the voters’ opportunity to make an informed choice.” The misuse of state resources, the uneven approach towards voters abroad, the lack of transparency and accountability of campaign finances as well as insufficient rules regarding election complaints further affected the fairness of the process.
Furthermore, ENEMO observers note that “civil society organizations critical towards the Government are often targets of hostile rhetoric that aims to discredit their work. These practices are shrinking the space for the work of civil society organizations.“ In particular, the law on “foreign agents”, often used in authoritarian states to stigmatize citizen initiatives, is misused by the Hungarian state to discredit non-governmental organizations in the eyes of Hungarian society.
Hungarian electoral law does not allow domestic civil society organizations to observe the elections, which is at odds with the OSCE commitments and long-standing ODIHR recommendations. According to EPDE’s findings, “In anticipation of the OSCE ODIHR mission’s criticism of the elections, the Hungarian authorities – for the first time in the political history of the EU – decided to invite openly friendly politicians, journalists, and civil society activists that would endorse the elections and, thus, try to counterbalance the expected OSCE’s criticism.”
Despite the increasing restrictions, the recent elections have been accompanied by a significant engagement of Hungarian civil society. Hence, several domestic NGOs conducted diverse awareness raising and voter education campaigns and engaged in so-called street observation to monitor potential cases of organized voting and vote buying outside the polling stations. The Clean Vote (Tiszta Szavazás) program and the Hungarian Civic Liberties Union (HCLU) collected evidence of multiple attempts at electoral fraud on Election Day, facts of illegal transportation of voters, and numerous complaints have been filed concerning potential abuses in polling stations. The EPDE member Unhack Democracy and other organizations, including 20K2022have provided online and offline trainings for precinct election commission members, contributing to the recruitment and training of approx. 20,000 members of the precinct election commissions. Yet others monitored different aspects of the election process and offered legal consultation to the citizen election observer groups despite limited financial and human resources.
The enormous involvement of civil society in defending democratic institutions in Hungary must be supported by the international community. The European Union should work out a model of strategic and long-term financial support for civil society organizations in Hungary in order to ensure their further operability and effectiveness.
At the same time, the European Union should not make further financial support for the government in Hungary available, especially in the framework of the post-pandemic recovery fund, unless progress is made in restoring the rule of law, fair elections, and support for democratic institutions in the country.