The Hungarian General Election takes place on Sunday April 6. The spotlight has been on the far right party, Jobbik, which will be fielding a national list at the polls and says it is seeking an outright victory (pun intended).
However it is extremely unlikely that Jobbik would win but instead the odds are Fidesz will be returned to power. The left alliance led by the socialists MSzP and including the country’s liberals obviously is fighting to prevent that from happening. Yet a victory for the left would be to slash Fidesz’s current massive majority, which has seen it abuse Hungary’s democratic and civil rights and indeed to mimic Jobbik in its populist statements and actions. This has caused outrage in Washington and EU capitals.
Hungary’s general election campaign might be free but it will be far from fair. This has been highlighted this week after a report from Transparency International Hungary (TI), K-Monitor and Atlatszo.hu. They have united their efforts to find out how much parties are spending on their campaigns.
At their press conference on Monday in Budapest, they have introduced the website kepmutatas.hu (Hungarian for hypocrisy), where the public can continuously follow how much each party is paying for their campaign.
In a statement they pointed out: “It is already blatantly obvious that the Fidesz-KDNP party (with the help of the Civil Alliance Forum /CÖF/ and the government) will exceed twice the campaign spending limit of one billion forints prescribed by legislation. However, it looks like this excessive spending will go without any consequences.”
The election campaign has over two weeks to run but it is already clear that until the end of February, Fidesz spent more than 2 billion, the left-wing Kormányváltás (Hungarian for ’change of government’) 680 million, while Jobbik 650 million and LMP 310 million forints. The TI, K-Monitor and Atlatsozo.hu figures do not contain all the spending of the parties occurred in March, so numbers will grow further in the run-up to the elections.
The spending limit set by law is 1 billion. TI’s programme for the assessment of campaign spending examines all means of campaigning, by monitoring public billboards, media advertisements, direct marketing tools (postal letters, SMS messages, phone calls, personal contact), and also party events. The anti-corruption organisation also calculated the expenditure of parties on their campaign team, opinion polls, and promotional items.
TI says it is clear from the figures currently available that Fidesz has already exceeded the legally prescribed limit, if the governmental and civil advertisements supporting the party are taken in to account. Parties may spend 1 billion forints on their campaigns, of which 700 million forints may come from public funds.
The campaign of governing parties is also aided by advertisements of pseudo NGOs (the so-called GO-NGOs), such as the Civil Alliance Forum (CÖF), which on paper is independent from any political force, but is in reality blatantly campaigning in support of Fidesz. According to TI’s calculations, the price of CÖF’s campaign between November and February amounted to 570 million forints.
Not only pseudo-non-governmental organisations, but also the government itself is sponsoring Fidesz’s campaign. The government gave Fidesz a gift of 540 million forints, as this is how much the 'Hungary is performing better' campaign and the campaign advertising the utility price cuts that lay the foundations of the governing party’s election campaign have cost since November.
The billboards commissioned by GO-NGOs and government have so far cost altogether about 1 billion forints. As these support directly the campaign of Fidesz, TI added this amount to the party’s campaign expenses. But even without the campaign costs of CÖF and the government, Fidesz-KDNP's campaign costs have already reached 940 million, which is very close to the legally allowed limit of 1 billion, even though elections are still more than one month away.
Miklós Ligeti, TI's Legal Director stated: The new legislation on campaign financing is not suitable for eliminating campaign-related corruption. The parliament managed to adopt regulations, which the parties do not even have to break, if they want to spend unchecked on their campaigns".
Ligeti explained, the new legislation that entered into effect on January 1st does not prohibit the outsourcing of the campaign, that is, it does not deal with the spending of NGOs with close ties to parties, and does not limit government campaigning in any way. Under the legislation, the tariffs of public billboards do not need to be disclosed, which immensely contributes to the lack of transparency in campaign finance. Political advertisements in electronic media are free of charge, a step forward TI would theoretically welcome, but the way this regulation is put into practice annuls all its advantages. There are signs that commercial TV channels do not want to deal with the advertisements of political parties (with one major commercial channel only broadcasting government advertisements), and in addition, public media is heavily biased towards the government parties.
A further incomprehensible element of the regulation on campaign financing is that while independent electoral candidates - rightly - have to account for all public subsidies to the last forint, and if unsuccessful, will have to repay these, political parties have no such obligation. As TI warned several times in the past, there is a possibility that several parties only participate in the election to gain access to the generous allowance ensured by the state. For parties to have a nationwide candidate list, they need to collect 500 signatures in each of the 27 constituencies, and in return they are entitled to almost 149 million forints in public subsidies, which amount - depending on the recommendations collected – may climb as high as 600 million forints. In addition, the Hungarian Court of Auditors does not investigate the spending of unsuccessful 'sham parties' ex officio, but only in reported cases. The only positive element of the new legislation on campaigning is that the tariffs of political advertisements in the print media are made public.
So far, the experience with TI’s campaign monitoring suggests that Fidesz makes the most use of the loopholes of the campaign financing regulation. As a result, TI believes that the elections will be free, but not fair on many points.
And of course the free does not apply in the financial sense.
(One Forint is equal to around 0.0027 Sterling, 0.0032 euro and 0.0047 US$)
(The above article was published in the London Progressive Journal on March 18 2014)