Victor Orban during a debate in the European Parliament on the political situation in Hungary, January 2012 © European Union 2012 EP/Pietro Naj-Oleari

Good Voters and Bad Voters

Why some votes will not count in Hungary’s elections and why the BTI 2014 has classified the country as a “defective democracy.”

Since it took office in Budapest and gained a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament, the right-wing conservative FIDESZ government has acquired the nickname of “legislation factory” – and rightly so. The Orban administration pushed through a very large number of changes to the law and with amazing speed; from criminal law to media law, it left no branch of the law untouched. The constitution alone has already been amended five times during this legislative term. Electoral law also underwent an extensive revision, unleashing a storm of criticism.

Hungary’s next round of parliamentary elections is scheduled for April 2014. Critics are accusing the government of using the new voting laws to keep potential supporters of the opposition away from the polls.

In March 2013, the government passed a change to the electoral process to allow citizens who are outside of the country on election day to cast absentee ballots. One might think this applies to all Hungarians living abroad. But it’s not that simple. When it comes to voting, it seems not all Hungarian citizens have the same rights. Some of them will in fact be able to cast postal ballots, but hundreds of thousands of them will be denied this right.

The reason is that the law creates two groups of Hungarians living abroad: “good” voters and “bad” voters. The good ones get counted, but the bad ones get tossed.

Last summer, thanks to an initiative by a representative in the governing party, the parliament let through a tiny change to the law. As is so often the case, they did not bring it up for discussion with the Hungarian public beforehand. The change requires Hungarians with a permanent address in Hungary to vote in person; they are not allowed to cast an absentee ballot. Why might such an initiative have been introduced?

In 2011, the nationalist-minded FIDESZ government gave dual citizenship to all “ethnic” Hungarians who were shut out of their motherland as a result of changes to the country’s borders following World War I. These new citizens, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands, were grateful to the Orban administration because a Hungarian passport gave them the freedom to move from Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and other places outside Hungary’s borders to anywhere in the EU. Their new citizenship also gives them access to Hungarian social benefits, which are often much more generous than those in neighboring countries. These new citizens have a Hungarian passport, but they do not customarily have a residence or permanent address in Hungary. According to the new change in the law, they will continue to be able to cast postal ballots this April. Political observers consider these voters to be traditionally conservative and, most of all, loyal to the government. As a result, many observers assume that they will probably vote for the current governing party, FIDESZ.

And the other segment of Hungarians abroad? The number of people leaving Hungary for economic reasons has been rising continuously for the past two to three years. Unemployment, a lack of social policy and high debt have already driven half a million of them westward. Many of them are disappointed with what the current government is doing in Budapest. No one can say exactly how these voters will behave, but most experts see them as a potential threat for the current government, one that could punish FIDESZ at the polls. However, now that the electoral process has changed, they need to clear several hurdles before they can even get to the polls. The option of a postal ballot was taken from them during the summer even though they are Hungarian citizens who will be residing abroad at the time of the elections. They are required to cast their votes in person, either in their constituency or at a Hungarian mission abroad.

This distinction between first and second-class Hungarians abroad has confounded many of those people it affects and led many of them to ask how something like this could happen in a country governed by the rule of law. The high cost of traveling to Hungary or to a Hungarian embassy will keep a significant number of registered voters from participating in the election.

The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) has filed suit against the new voting law in the name of an individual living abroad. The man lives in the UK and will have to spend an entire day on the road if he wants to take part in Hungary’s parliamentary elections. After all, Hungary’s only embassy in the UK is in London. According to Dániel Máte Szabó, a project manager at the HCLU, the law is discriminatory because it excludes a group of citizens from casting absentee ballots simply because they have a permanent address in Hungary. To enjoy the right of voting by post, they would have to de-register their address in Hungary. It is a high bureaucratic hurdle and absolutely inappropriate for people who are only abroad temporarily, such as students and workers, and it has far-reaching consequences.

Anyone who de-registers their address in Hungary must give up their Hungarian ID card. Doing so also removes their name from the population register. People with children face an endless bureaucratic war with the youth welfare office because Hungarian law says children can only emigrate after receiving authorization from that office – even if they are emigrating with their parents. To get the office’s authorization, parents need to file an application and submit multiple pieces of evidence from abroad. This absurd regulation violates European law, but who cares. It’s not for nothing that the Bertelsmann Transformation Index 2014 demotes Hungary to a “defective democracy” in its comparison of 129 developing and transition countries.

On 27 January 2014, the constitutional court in Budapest agreed to hear the case of the Hungarian man living in the UK. But Szabó does not believe there is any chance that the court will reach a decision before the parliamentary elections in April. The constitutional court is not required by law to come to a judgment within a certain period of time. It only needs to deliver its judgment within a “reasonable” period of time.

Given that the constitutional court has recently been restructured – with additional judges who are loyal to the governing party – and limitations have been placed on its competence, critics believe it will take a long time to reach its decision. It is very likely that Hungarians with permanent residence in Hungary and temporary residence abroad will have to travel long distances and bear considerable expense to take part in the elections, while the other, “better” Hungarians abroad will be allowed to conveniently cast their vote by post.

Is this unequal treatment unjust? If the constitutional court decides it is, and if it reaches this decision after the April elections, the new parliament in Budapest will have been elected on the basis of a flagrant violation of the law. Its legitimacy will suffer greatly as a result.

Gabriella Balassa is a TV journalist for the German public broadcaster ARD, among others. She has worked on the Secrets of Transformation multimedia series, a joint project of Deutsche Welle and the Bertelsmann Stiftung. The series examines the winners and losers of transformation.

Translated from the German by Douglas Fox

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