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Hungarian election wasn’t a fair fight, observers say

BUDAPEST — International observers raised concerns Monday about Hungary’s general election, saying the electoral conditions had been tilted in favor of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government.

Orbán’s right-wing populist Fidesz party won a fourth consecutive term in office in Sunday’s parliamentary election, once again taking a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. 

Experts and critics have long maintained that Fidesz enjoys an unfair advantage in Hungary, arguing that the electoral system was designed to favor the ruling party and that it also controls much of the media and advertising landscape.

In an unusual move for an EU member state reflecting broad concern about the state of democracy in Hungary, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) deployed a full-scale mission involving over 200 observers to Hungary for the election.

The mission found that although there were few procedural problems on election day — which took place in parallel to an anti-LGBTQ+ referendum — the contestants did not compete on an equal footing. 

“The 3 April parliamentary elections and referendum were well administered and professionally managed but marred by the absence of a level playing field,” the international election observation mission said in preliminary conclusions published Monday afternoon. 

“Contestants were largely able to campaign freely, but while competitive, the campaign was highly negative in tone and characterized by a pervasive overlap between the ruling coalition and the government,” the mission found.

“The lack of transparency and insufficient oversight of campaign finances,” according to the observers, “further benefited the governing coalition” while “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 mission also pointed out that the way many election disputes were handled “fell short of providing effective legal remedy.”  

International observers had raised similar issues in 2018, following Hungary’s last parliamentary election. Now, many experts and diplomats say problems have deepened.

“How can an election ever be free and fair in a state that is captured by the ruling party, and when a campaign is built on smear and fear?” asked one western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The OSCE report, the diplomat said, is “stronger than 2018.”

While the OSCE mission was formally in Hungary following an invitation from the national authorities, it had faced public criticism from the country’s own government.

Orbán hit out against the observers in the days ahead of the election, telling pro-government media that “election observation is no longer about observation but about accusation: how can the political forces they do not like but can win be accused well in advance.” 

The Hungarian government did not respond to a request for comment about the mission’s findings.

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