Hungary to extend EP voting rights to diaspora and politicians may legally buy votes

Some 80,000 Hungarian citizens who live outside the European Union will be given voting rights for the upcoming 2019 European elections to elect a new European Parliament. Zsolt Semjén announced the proposed amendment to Hungary’s electoral laws, which also included one other change: politicians will be permitted to give various gifts to voters during election campaigns and this will no longer be considered illegal vote buying.

It is not uncommon that municipalities run by Fidesz hand out smoked ham to residents if the campaign falls close to Easter or that residents are gifted with 10,000 forints per adult (approximately $45) weeks before the vote, as happened in Hódmezővásárhely. In 2014, the town of Siófok handed out free smartphones to residents of voting age during the municipal election campaign. In the same municipal election year, in Budapest’s Erzsébetváros, Fidesz party activists gathered in a public square to distribute one litre of milk per resident, for the nominal fee of 7 forints (approximately 3 cents), while later in Terézváros a Fidesz politician handed out free eggs, as well as free milk. In Újbuda, the local Fidesz mayor sweetened the mood of the campaign by distributing free chocolate pastries to locals. It was in the spring of 2014, in the weeks before the national elections, that the Fidesz-run 5th District of Budapest provided each resident with an Easter ham for free.

Fidesz politician István Bajkai distributes free milk in 2018.

Hungary’s amended electoral law will soon codify that such gifts in exchange for votes are entirely legal. Fidesz continues to find that the approach taken by the Kádár regime, of paying off the population with perks and gifts in exchange for their political passivity or loyalty, was the best fit for Hungarian society and Viktor Orbán has enthusiastically resurrected elements of pre-1989 Hungary. Most municipalities are currently led by Fidesz politicians and the ability to legally buy voters may help boost Fidesz fortunes in 2019 local elections.

In the case of the EP vote next spring, Fidesz intends to marshal the party loyalty of some 80,000 Hungarians abroad. Hungarians in Romania will be able to vote in EP elections as residents of Romania, but by extending the vote, tens of thousands of Hungarians in Canada, the United States, Australia, Israel and elsewhere may also cast a ballot. In each of these countries, Fidesz is the undisputed favourite for local Hungarian passport holders. For instance, in the 2018 national elections, 96% of Hungarians living abroad and voting by mail-in ballot cast their votes for Fidesz.

The current state of affairs strongly suggests that Fidesz will be effectively uncontested in EP elections next spring. Yet even with such a solid footing, the ruling party will leave nothing to chance. And in this case, that means once again amending the nation’s electoral laws to suit the needs of the current party.

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