Rarely if ever are monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ever called on to observe polling in a European Union state.
But in an unprecedented move, the OSCE deployed a full monitoring mission for the vote in Hungary on April 3 amid concerns over potential election fraud and the use of state resources to give the ruling right-wing Fidesz party an unfair advantage.
Europe’s main security and rights watchdog said in a report in February that, in addition to a core team of analysts, it planned to delegate 18 long-term observers to follow the electoral process nationwide and 200 short-term observers to follow the voting on election day.
The OSCE sent only small, limited observation missions to the last Hungarian elections in 2018, 2014, and 2010.
The stakes are arguably higher this time. Prime Minister Viktor Orban — who has served in the post since 2010, as well as from 1998 to 2002 — is seeking his fifth term in office and fourth in a row. In Orban’s toughest challenge yet, an opposition alliance of six political parties has rallied behind Peter Marki-Zay, who has cast the elections as a choice between West and East.
Orban has long been viewed as the most Kremlin-friendly leader in the EU and has tempered his response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
European institutions and watchdogs have raised alarms about democratic backsliding over the past years under Orban, and critics have expressed concerns about the fairness of the electoral process.
Following the 2018 elections, the OSCE concluded that “intimidating campaign rhetoric limited space for substantive debate and diminished voters’ ability to make an informed choice” while government information campaigns had “significantly compromised” the contestants’ ability to compete fairly.
In a preliminary report published in late February, the OSCE mission voiced concerns about several aspects of the elections, including bias in public media and the potential for postal vote abuses. It also said many of the concerns it identified at the 2018 vote had not been addressed.
The last general elections in 2018 were “the dirtiest of the last 30 years, since the end of communism,” Zsofia Banuta, co-head of the Unhack Democracy election watchdog, told AFP in Budapest in late March.
Experts say Orban has managed to remain popular, despite his ties with Putin, due to the autocratic ways in which he has transformed Hungarian society during his 12 consecutive years in power.
In addition to reworking the electoral system to give his Fidesz party a big advantage, Orban has constrained NGOs.
Media organizations have also been in the crosshairs, with The Washington Post reporting that Orban’s government has deployed spyware against journalists, while building up a media empire that largely parrots the party line.
Signs of alleged voter fraud emerged earlier this week not in Hungary, but in neighboring Romania, where a large number of mail-in ballots were reportedly found on March 31 burned and dumped in a field.
In every election, most of the mail-in votes are from ethnic Hungarians in Hungary’s immediate neighbors, who tend to vote for Fidesz. The opposition in Hungary has long been suspicious of mail-in ballots, charging that they are susceptible to manipulation.
The purported ballots were found near the city of Targu Mures, Romania, which is home to a large ethnic Hungarian community, local news website punctul.ru reported. The website also published a video showing what appeared to be ballots filled with votes for the opposition.
Romanian police announced that they were launching a criminal probe after discovering unsealed envelopes containing ballots in a field.
As a result, the Hungarian opposition alliance asked that “all mail-in ballots from abroad be eliminated.” Fidesz countered by alleging that the opposition had burned the ballots themselves, without offering any evidence.
On voting day on April 3, there were scattered reports of irregularities, including voters being offered meat and others being bused in, but no suggestions of widespread wrongdoing.
The OSCE monitors were not alone in observing how the ballots were being cast.
A group called 20K, appointed by the opposition, has recruited and trained around 20,000 volunteers that were expected to monitor the country’s approximately 10,000 polling stations.
“For the first time ever there will be two trained poll observers delegated by the opposition in each [voting] station, even in the most distant village,” Peter Muller, a 45-year-old businessman who helped set up 20K, told AFP.
With so many observers monitoring the elections, any widespread irregularities, if any, should be known shortly after the vote.
Traditionally, the OSCE monitoring mission gives its assessment a day after the vote.