In Hungary, Viktor Orban Remakes an Election to His Liking

BUDAPEST — During the dark winter of the 2020 coronavirus wave, the Hungarian government set up a website so anxious residents could sign up for the news on the pandemic. For months, the system sent out updates about the virus, testing and where to get vaccinated.

But last month, long after the vaccination drive had peaked, the system blasted out a very different type of alert: an email claiming, falsely, that opponents of Prime Minister Viktor Orban were agitating to drag Hungary into the war in Ukraine.

“This is cheating,” said Klara Dobrev, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament and one of those accused in the email. “Using public money for obviously party propaganda? This is obviously election fraud.”

In more than a decade in power, Mr. Orban has not hesitated to use the levers of government power to erode democratic norms and cement one-party rule. He has rewritten the Constitution, remade the courts and used state-run and privately-owned television stations — even school textbooks — to advance his agenda or push misinformation about his rivals.

He has always justified his brand of what he calls “illiberal democracy” by pointing out that, like other European leaders, he has won free and fair elections. Now, though, as he stands on Sunday for re-election against an unexpectedly organized opposition, Mr. Orban is using the power of his office to shape the contours of the election more to his liking.

He has unleashed a fresh round of election law changes that benefit his party. He put an inflammatory but ultimately symbolic L.G.B.T. referendum up for a vote, a move that is likely to rally his most strident supporters. And he legalized the registration of voters outside of their home districts — a common practice, until now criminal, that is known as “voter tourism.”

All of that is playing out in a media echo chamber, since Mr. Orban has cemented control of public television to the point where stories, photos and guests are handpicked to align with his talking points. Many of the largest independent news outlets have been taken over by Mr. Orban’s supporters.

The situation is considered so extraordinary that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental organization, is sending observers to monitor the elections. It is only the second time in the European Union’s history that the group has started a full-scale monitoring operation on an E.U. member.

“We are very, very far away from a fair electoral environment,” said Robert Laszlo an election analyst with Political Capital, an independent Hungarian policy center.

Mr. Orban, a canny political survivor who relishes a fight, has given no indication he is worried about the election monitors or the outcome. “I can’t remember the last time the stars aligned so well, 19 days before an election,” he declared at a rally this month.

When The New York Times asked Mr. Orban’s office for a comment on the election law changes, Rajmund Fekete, the chief of staff for the spokesman, replied in an email that they did not plan to comment and would respond “with other means.” He would not elaborate.

Hungary’s elections come at a challenging moment for democracy worldwide, as governments chip away at bedrock principles like academic freedom, free speech and judicial independence. Mr. Orban, who is seeking his fourth consecutive term and fifth overall, has become a hero among many American conservatives, who are also locked in their own fights over voting laws and access to the polls.

When it comes to election fairness, Hungary now more closely resembles the Soviet era than the free elections that followed the fall of Communism, according to the Swedish nonprofit group V-Dem, which rates countries on a host of democratic indicators.

“Election fraud doesn’t start at 7 a.m., when the polls are open,” Ms. Dobrev said. “Election fraud has been going on in Hungary for years.”

In the tiny village of Kispalad, at the northeastern tip of Hungary along the border with Ukraine, the mayor summoned a local woman to the town hall to sign some papers. It was mid-2014, and the mayor, a member of Mr. Orban’s party, was locked in a tight re-election race.

The woman, Jozsefne Sanko, was a seasonal cucumber-picker and would soon be out of work. If Ms. Sanko signed the papers, the mayor said, she’d be guaranteed public-assistance jobs for her and her family.

“There is no work around here,” her son Adam Sanko said in an interview. “So my mom signed the papers.”

In signing, Ms. Sanko attested that 135 Ukrainians lived in her tiny home. That made them eligible to vote in Hungarian elections.

The mayor’s offer was part of a common tactic in Hungary called voter tourism, which allows nonresidents to register using addresses in Hungary. On Election Day, they cross the border by car, bike or bus, then vote and return home.

Until recently, voter tourism was a type of fraud. Ms. Sanko and the mayor received fines in 2020 after what she had done became a local scandal.

But Mr. Orban has legalized the practice for the upcoming election. He is popular in these rural villages, but since the government refuses to make historical voter data public, it is impossible to know whether voter tourism has changed the outcome in any of these small districts.

Mr. Sanko believes it can. In every election, he said voters arrive from out of the country with lists of names they are expected to vote for. “Now, this is totally legal,” he said.

Voter tourism also has something of a mail-in equivalent.

Hungarian citizens can mail in their ballots, but only if they do not have a residence in the country. That overwhelmingly applies to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries like Romania and Serbia, a constituency whose votes Mr. Orban has courted for years.

By contrast, roughly 100,000 Hungarian citizens live in the United Kingdom, a more left-leaning voting bloc that includes students and foreign workers. But voters in Britain must travel in person to London or Manchester to cast ballots. Mr. Orban’s government has rejected calls to open more polling places.

To understand one of the ways Mr. Orban has reshaped democracy, consider this: When his political party, Fidesz, won the last two national elections, it received less than half the votes, yet still secured a two-thirds supermajority in Parliament. The supermajority has allowed Mr. Orban to ram through changes to the Constitution as part of his illiberal agenda.

The explanation lies in Hungary’s complex electoral system: The country is divided into 106 districts, each of which elects a member to Parliament, much like members of Congress are seated in the United States. But then another 93 seats are awarded to political parties based on a unique formula.

Mr. Orban changed that formula for handing out seats in dramatic fashion to benefit Fidesz. Parties that win big in the district elections can get extra seats — a move that is expected to pad Fidesz’s winning margin in Parliament if it realizes big wins in gerrymandered districts.

He has also made it harder for small parties to get any seats at all under the formula. But to counter him, Socialists, Greens, centrists, fiscal hawks and Christian conservatives have united behind the economist Peter Marki-Zay in a long shot bid to beat Mr. Orban, or at least shatter his supermajority since Mr. Marki-Zay has a six-party coalition behind him.

Mr. Laszlo, the independent election analyst, estimates that because of the gerrymandered districts and new election rules, the opposition will need to win by as much as six percentage points to unseat Mr. Orban.

“There’s a debate among the opposition on whether you should even take part in the election, whether you legitimize it by taking part in it,” said Gergely Karacsony, the mayor of Budapest and a leading opposition politician.

Gerrymandering is just one problem for the opposition. Television time is another.

Early on a Wednesday morning, less than three weeks before the election, the leader of the opposition party, Mr. Marki-Zay, was given his first and only appearance on Hungary’s largest public television station.

“Thanks for allowing the entire opposition five minutes in the past four years to speak,” Mr. Marki-Zay said during his appearance. “That I could not come here until now is likely for the same reason that Viktor Orban is unwilling to partake in a live debate. It’s much easier to lie, defame and to conduct a smear campaign.”

Because Mr. Orban controls public television, and his allies dominate private media, voters are inundated with coverage that favors him. Opposition parties can’t pay for political advertising on television because it is illegal — even though the public channels regularly put out “public service” announcements that critics say are thinly veiled ads for Mr. Orban or his agenda.

Stories that criticize Mr. Orban’s favorite targets — the billionaire George Soros or the European Union, for example — are welcome. Photos of women and children who are refugees, for example, were prohibited, as they might garner sympathy and undermine Mr. Orban’s hard-line anti-immigration stance.

“There was an explicit order against this,” said Andras Rostovanyi, who was an editor with the state broadcaster M1 until the end of 2019.

In one news meeting, a recording of which was obtained by Radio Free Europe, an editor is heard telling reporters that the station does not support Mr. Orban’s opponents, and anyone who objects to that policy can leave.

This control over the media has helped Mr. Orban shield from public view what might have been a vulnerability: his political ties to Moscow and his fondness for the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.

With Russian troops laying siege to civilians in nearby Ukraine, Mr. Orban might have faced pointed questions about his past support of Mr. Putin; instead, he has simply rewritten the narrative.

One example is a pro-Orban website and Facebook page “Numbers and Facts,” which links to it. Both post the same content. Every day, they churn out headlines that cheer Mr. Orban. Their content argues that the West is to blame for the war, that Russia has legitimate territorial claims to parts of Ukraine, that Ukraine president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is a murderous dictator and that the Russian invasion was defensive.

Such views might have lived and died among the Facebook page’s community of 85,000, but the pro-Orban television station PestiTV started a weekly news show late last year that it said was produced in collaboration “with the highly successful Numbers and Facts.”

So the message that Mr. Orban is the voice of reason and his opponents are warmongers echoes across all media: from the fringes of Facebook and pro-Orban news outlets to public broadcasters and even Hungary’s vaccine alert system.

Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting.

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