The upcoming Hungarian parliamentary elections are unlike any other in the country’s electoral history. European capitals and the EU institutions will keep a close eye on the vote as Hungary has undergone a process of democratic backsliding long in the making. Democratic erosion in Hungary has reached a point that Freedom House no longer considers the country a democracy but a hybrid state (a transitional phase between democracy and autocracy).
Hungary’s disregard for fundamental rule of law principles established by the EU and shared across member states — Democracy Reporting International (DRI) has been monitoring this through the re:constitution project — is also casting a shadow over Hungary’s capacity to hold a legitimate vote. Furthermore, polls forecast that Hungary is heading for a tight race between the governing party and the opposition. All of it is increasing the chances for the EU to face the first contested electoral results in the bloc’s history — yet another crucial test in its endeavour to protect electoral standards and the rule of law in the Union.
DRI, with our partners from the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), brought together key experts from civil society, academia, media, as well as representatives from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR), the German Federal Ministry and the European Parliament for two informal online briefings on these landmark elections. Both online briefings — the first one on 17 January and the second one on 14 February — were held under Chatham House Rules.
The OSCE/ODIHR recommends deploying a full-scale election observation mission to Hungary
The OSCE/ODIHR announced in early February a full election observation mission (EOM). This is only the second time that such a comprehensive mission is sent to an EU member state. The international organisation will deploy 18 long-term observers in the weeks before the election and 200 short-term will observe proceedings on 3 April.
While the first online briefing explored challenges for the observation of the upcoming elections by the OSCE/ODIHR, the second event focused on ODIHR’s findings of their Needs Assessment Mission and the subsequent recommendation to deploy a full-scale election observation mission to Hungary. Among other important questions, participants noted that Hungary does not provide for independent citizen’s observation of elections, adding to the need of an observation mission that independently assesses the process.
The report clearly acknowledges Hungary’s erosion of democratic standards, a process that experts have observed over the last 12 years. Throughout the years and lacking transparency, Prime Minister Orbán and his Fidesz party have changed critical parts of the country’s legal framework, notably the constitution, and electoral legislation.
While Orbán praises the self-proclaimed ‘illiberal democracy' model, observers express great concerns regarding the state of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary. Experts noted many undemocratic practices such as opaque money flows and a high concentration of media expressing pro-governmental views. The so-called ‘illiberal’ model is a façade for undemocratic practices that could conveniently tilt the electoral process in Orbán's favour.
Implications for the European Union
Aside from exchanging around the contributions that an EOM could make to safeguard the electoral integrity of the elections, participants looked at the vote’s implications for the entire European Union.
They highlighted that the situation in Hungary cannot be seen as an isolated issue of domestic politics in a single EU member state, as concerns about the rule of law and democratic standards directly affect the rest of the Union as well. Against the backdrop of upcoming elections that also raise rule of law concerns – Slovenia (April 2022), Poland (2023) – the Hungarian vote will represent a critical juncture for the EU regarding its efforts to protect electoral standards and the rule of law across member states. The final ODIHR assessment report will be a key tool for the EU to coordinate a solid, unified, and timely response to the election outcome in Hungary.
Ahead of the elections, the expert community agreed that democratic actors should raise awareness inside the German Bundestag, German media, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly as well as among national politicians in EU member states. By putting the Hungarian elections and their relevance for the EU on the radar, we can effectively safeguard democracy, electoral integrity, and the rule of law – both in Hungary and the rest of the EU.
DRI and DGAP will continue to convene key stakeholders to discuss a forward-looking strategy to strengthen democratic principles in Hungary and beyond.
Photo: OSCE/Thomas Rymer