Fresh evidence of Hungary vote-rigging raises concerns of fraud in European elections

Controversial prime minister Viktor Orbán narrowly won a supermajority last year. Now counting officers allege electoral fraud – and show how it could happen again next week.

Elliott Goat Zsofia Banuta
17 May 2019, 4.01pm
Viktor Orbán celebrates election win in 2018.

New evidence of “a string of anomalies” in last year’s Hungarian general election has raised serious concerns about the integrity of next week’s European parliamentary elections, where Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is hoping to lead the biggest far-right surge across Europe since the 1930s.

Non-profit human rights group Unhack Democracy Europe has uncovered evidence, released exclusively to openDemocracy, that points to wide-scale fraud in the April 2018 election, including vote buying, voter intimidation, tampering with postal votes, missing ballots and election software malfunctions.

Unhack Democracy Europe’s research, which also pulls together local press reports from Hungary, Serbia and Romania for the first time, shows “a string of anomalies in the Hungarian election which, put together, call into question the supermajority it gave to Fidesz [the ruling party]", says Gábor Tóka, election expert at the Central European University in Budapest.

This two-thirds supermajority in the national parliament has enabled Orbán’s government to gain more control over the judicial system, and tighten its grip on the media.

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Since coming to power in 2010, controversial changes to Hungary’s electoral system have allowed Orbán to consolidate power and drive an agenda of “illiberal democracy” that has been mirrored by far-right leaders across Europe. He has deployed increasingly anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Commenting on our findings, Hungary expert Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton University said: “Should Europe trust the European election in Hungary now that it has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that the Hungarian government cannot run a free and fair election?”

Votes ‘bussed in’ from Ukraine

A church in Tiszaújlak, Ukraine.
Tiszaújlak, Ukraine.
Google street view, fair use

In a recording made by Hungarian broadcaster HírTV, József Kilb, the former mayor of Tiszaújlak in Ukraine, which borders Hungary, said he transported hundreds of people across the border to vote for Orbán’s Fidesz party at last year’s election. Recorded on election day, the mayor further mentions a Fidesz government minister.

He said that he spoke to this minister, who he called “my friend” and told him, “I will organise everything. Then I’ll come out to the border and from there I’ll bring a group.”

Asked how many people he managed to bring across, the former mayor initially replied: “It was 450 to 500 approximately” but went on to say “it will be 250 to 300 that we are doing... I was making the rounds with the bus.”

Although the constituency in question was won by Fidesz by a wide margin, overall the party secured its crucial two-thirds majority in parliament by as little as 425 votes – spread across two different swing constituencies.

The minister Kilb refers to didn’t reply to our request for comment.

Voters in Hungary have two votes in general elections: one for their local MP, and one for a party list. There are long-standing Hungarian communities in Romania, Serbia and Ukraine and, in 2011, the Fidesz government granted them the right to vote for national party lists. They are not eligible to vote for individual constituency candidates unless they also have a registered address in Hungary.

Local press has uncovered huge irregularities in the registration of voters in border precincts. In Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county, one hundred and ten people were registered living in a single two-bed family home, while another single-story house registered 200 people.

When the opposition candidate in that county, Béla Adorján of the Jobbik party, purchased the electoral roll for his constituency he said he found a staggering increase in the number of eligible voters. In one border precinct, the number of eligible voters increased by 5,000 over a period when other data suggests the population of the area fell by 5,000, according to the candidate. He believes this was aided by the massive influx of Ukrainian voters.

“There are settlements whose number of inhabitants tripled on paper, but the average shows an increase between 20% to 30%. Among the 88 settlements investigated there are 60 that are involved,” Adorján told reporters.

One ballot counting officer in central Hungary told us that the local priest seemed to have brought his family to vote from Ukraine.

“I did not… understand why they did not allow me to check the IDs,” the ballot officer said. “There were many people I did not know, who are not from here and I did not know where they were from… I know practically everyone. There were many who came with the Protestant priest and I asked who they were. They said they are the relatives of the priest from Ukraine.”

Another opposition counting officer in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg told us that almost every home in the village has Ukrainian-Hungarian citizens registered.

“There is no such house where they [Ukrainians] aren’t registered. There are no more than two to three houses here where there aren’t Ukrainian citizens registered.”

Following the election, both Hungary’s Supreme Court and the prosecutor’s office ruled there had been “organised” voter fraud on the Ukrainian-Hungarian border involving the illegal bussing of voters on polling day. However, the court declared there was not enough evidence to order a fresh vote based on the video recording of József Kilb, in part because they believed that the number of voters affected was smaller than the difference between the first- and second-placed candidates. A year later, none of the roughly 370 investigations into alleged cases of election-day voter fraud has led to charges being brought.

The only way for 5,300 people to suddenly appear on the Hungarian electoral rolls from one day to the next is if it is organised.

Jobbik party spokesperson.

In March this year Hungary’s Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) and Hungarian research institute Political Capital successfully sued the interior ministry for keeping the number of newly established domiciles issued in the run-up to the election secret. The data is not expected to be handed over anytime soon because the court informed TASZ that the Ministry of Interior already appealed against the decision.

Responding to Unhack Democracy Europe’s findings, Hungary’s main opposition Jobbik party said they “condemn all steps damaging the election’s fairness. The only way for 5,300 people to suddenly appear on the Hungarian electoral rolls from one day to the next is if it is organised. From our point of view this is tantamount to the suspicion of voter fraud.”

‘Wholesale manipulation’ of foreign votes

Under the changes to the law brought in by Orbán, ethnic Hungarians outside Hungary are supposed to cast their party list votes by post. In 2018, Fidesz won 96% of these votes. This follows long-standing concerns that the registration, balloting and vote verification for postal ballots from ethnic Hungarians in Serbia, Ukraine and Romania is open to wholesale manipulation.

To be listed as voters, these people need only provide identification every ten years, and because they live in other jurisdictions, there is little scope for verification of identities, or to check that people are still alive.

Fidesz has built an extensive network of groups of ethnic Hungarians to register voters and collect ballots. While it is legal to aid voters with registration, it is illegal to hand in someone else’s registration form.

Two of the largest of these organisations tasked with registering voters – the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) and Eurotrans Alapítvány – were found by investigative news organisation Atlatszo Transylvania to have done just that, something the National Election Office ruled was “extremely worrying”. Both groups are major beneficiaries of Hungarian public spending and, according to the Eurotrans website, that organisation has 34 offices across Romania for helping Hungarians in Romania to register for citizenship and to vote.

Serbian press reports claimed that the activists of these local Fidesz affiliates opened mail-in ballots for inspection and destroyed those that were not cast for Fidesz.

In total, over 4,000 postal ballots arrived with the required security seal on the envelope either broken or missing. A decision by the National Election Commission to declare these votes void was later upheld by the Supreme Court following a challenge by Fidesz. In response to the ruling, Orbán accused the court of “evidently and unequivocally meddling in the elections”, and since then, the government has relaxed the laws around mail-in ballots.

This opaque postal vote system is particularly open to wholesale manipulation in next week’s European Parliament elections. Large numbers of people who are ethnic Hungarians but not domiciled in Hungary live outside the EU in Ukraine and Serbia. For the first time, they are permitted to vote in European Parliament elections.

This procedure certainly opens the way for electoral fraud and for questioning the fairness of the election.

A spokesperson for the Democratic Coalition.

Reacting to these findings, a spokesperson for the Democratic Coalition (DK) opposition said: “Participation of state-funded organisations in arranging voting by mail raises serious concerns.... The system is unclear and unverifiable.

“The Hungarian authorities fail to inspect if a voter or dual citizen is registered to vote in other EU member states. This practice is very problematic, especially in the European parliamentary election.

“The credibility of votes, the authenticity of the electoral roll and secrecy of ballots are not guaranteed. Consequently, the postal votes fail to comply with Hungarian and European electoral laws. At this stage, we cannot predict how these votes will affect the outcome of the [European] election, but this procedure certainly opens the way for electoral fraud and for questioning the fairness of the election.”

The impact of Fidesz gerrymandering

Ahead of the 2014 election, Fidesz redrew electoral boundaries without consulting opposition parties or civil society. Unhack Democracy Europe has compiled data from the 2018 election which shows that the party allocated more MPs to areas of the country that ended up giving it more support, with Fidesz getting 6% more votes in smaller seats. As a result, opposition parties would have had to get approximately 300,000 more votes to win the same number of constituencies as Fidesz.

The finding comes on top of previous research which shows that a range of other changes to electoral law pushed through by the party – including a unique system of ‘winner compensation’.

“€16 a vote”

Interviews with over 160 polling station officials also reveal widespread malpractice including vote buying and intimidation.

In Jász-Nagykun-Szolnok in central Hungary, voters told an opposition delegate that their votes had been bought and election agents had been given money for every person they brought to cast a ballot for Fidesz.

“It is a very poor village and they told me that they got 5000 HUF [€16] each for their vote. The older people were trained and one of their relatives helped. Apparently, those agents who got the voters received 10,000 HUF [€30] per voter they brought, so they amassed millions in [Hungarian] forints [thousands of Euros].”

“If they do it small like this, imagine the big guys” she added.

Another opposition delegate in Nográd reported that Roma voters told him they were instructed to vote for the “last” candidate on the ballot (Fidesz) and number X on the list in order to keep their benefits and stay in workfare programmes.

This new evidence of vote buying and intimidation adds to new academic research which raises similar concerns about electoral clientelism. A study of the 2014 Hungarian elections published this year by academics from Yale University and the University of California, Davis, details outright vote buying, the provision of public benefits in exchange for votes, coercion through threatening withholding of benefits, and economic coercion involving threats from people such as moneylenders and employers.

An opposition ballot counting officer in Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg told Unhack Democracy Europe that while everyone knew that Ukrainian voters were being bussed in “they don’t dare to talk because they are threatened with [losing] public work by the mayor. So if anyone dares to say anything they will be pushed out of public work or won’t receive any.”

Business parties

Under new laws brought in by Orbán, parties that stand in at least 27 constituencies are eligible to receive 150 million HUF (€500,000) in state funds. In 2018, out of a total of 23 parties running, 15 could have been described as ‘business parties’ – standing in order to access this money.

In an election that was polarised between the ruling party – Fidesz – and a loose alliance of opposition parties, these outfits seem likely to have helped Fidesz by dividing the opposition vote. Our analysis shows that these parties fielded more candidates in marginal seats, further helping Fidesz.

By law each candidate needs to collect 500 signatures before they can stand for election. In one case, it was revealed that 341 names submitted for the Lendülettel ‘business party’ were identical to those for the Fidesz candidate. In another Budapest constituency (Zugló) the same fake party had 27 names identical to Fidesz signatures.

In total, these parties received 54,200 votes (about 1% of the total) on the party list and 82,400 votes (about 1.5%) among candidates.

‘Interference’ in counting process

In Tolna precinct one opposition delegate with restricted vision was forced to count in the dark, and alleges that the vote tally on the final forms was altered while she couldn’t see.

“They changed it at the end for sure. We did not count that amount,” she said. Claiming the number of votes recorded for opposition parties was altered after polling day she added: “We counted the ballots but I did not see who filled what and I did not even see what was in it when I signed it.”

They asked us to sign over the log before we had even opened the envelopes.

Ballot counting officer.

A different ballot counting officer told us: “What was interesting is that they asked us to sign over the log before we had even opened the envelopes. So they asked us to sign the empty voter log that did not have any numbers [in it yet], just the basic info.”

Another opposition officer reported how the authorities illegally put pressure on the ballot counting committee and deliberately interfered in the electoral process.

“We put stamps on the ballots and checked the turnout number like at previous elections but this time they let [us work] for a while then the local official, I think from the election office, came and said that party ballot counting volunteers cannot check data, cannot stamp ballots or even the turnout number. This was around 11am. As party delegate volunteers we did not know who it was but they must have been the boss of those [on the counting committee] who were public servants from the municipality. Everyone accepted it immediately and said we should immediately stand up and we were not allowed to do anything. There was a lot of quiet talking secretively.”

Out of 108 opposition ballot counting officers who responded to an online questionnaire from Unhack Democracy Europe and Netzwerk Politische Kommunikation (netPOL), an international academic political communications network, over 60% said they did not have trust in the election’s fairness.

Responding to these interviews, Gábor Tóka of the Central European University said: "Claims that the vote tallies were altered, and that opposition agents were asked to sign logs before they'd been filled out with the correct data, are very concerning."

‘Unusual’ ticket splitting

Normally, Hungarians cast both their votes in a general election – one for their local MP, the other for the party lists – for the same party. Sometimes, people split their votes between different parties for various reasons. That’s not suspicious in itself, but our data analysis found that ‘unusual’ ticket-splitting occurred more in rural areas, precincts with no opposition delegates and in places where it cannot be explained by a popular incumbent.

Specifically, in 5.6% of polling stations, ticket splitting was more than four times higher than the national average, with splitting twice as likely in polling stations where there were no opposition party officials monitoring the counting.

Disappearing absentee votes

Hungarians from within Hungary but currently outside the country (such as those working or studying abroad) have to vote in person at a Hungarian embassy. In addition, people who are away from home on the day of the vote can choose to cast their ballot in person in another polling station in Hungary. These absentee ballots are then transported to their relevant constituency to be counted. However, the number of these voters who showed up to cast their ballots, as recorded on the official website, is 2,918 higher than the number of envelopes recorded as being counted – implying that 1% of the total votes went missing.

While some of this can be explained by errors in how precinct committees filled out the voter logs, there is still a large number of ballots that remain unaccounted for – enough to influence the outcome in one or more single-member constituencies.

Asked about this discrepancy, the Hungarian National Election office said “all absentee and embassy votes were counted”.

How many voters were there?

It is not clear how many people were eligible to vote in the election.

Widespread inconsistencies exist between screenshots of the officially updated election website taken in the months leading up to the election, copies of the numbers of eligible voters taken from the official online archive, and monitoring data from the OSCE.

Voters in Hungary are listed automatically, and so changes in the number of people within the country who are eligible should only result from citizens reaching voting age or dying. On the other hand, voters who are not domiciled in Hungary, mostly ethnic Hungarians in Romania, Ukraine and Serbia, need to actively submit a request every 10 years. The total electorate is made up by adding together in-country voters and those who do not have permanent in-country residency.

Reports of what this total is varied, with the National Election Office announcing one number at a press conference one day before the election (footage of which has been obtained by Unhack Democracy Europe), but publishing a different number on its website, and the state media reporting a different number again. The figure reported on the National Election Office website increased by around 60,000 one day before the vote, and the total reported on the site was greater than the sum of the total number of in-country voters and out-of-country voters reported on the same site. Likewise, the total of in-country domiciled voters – the biggest part of the electorate – varied widely between these announcements, and, along with the other numbers, didn’t always add up to the relevant total figure declared by the National Election Office.

"A fair and transparent election relies on a clear and transparent voter register,” says Gábor Tóka. “The apparent inconsistency of the numbers from the National Election Office on their web page in campaign periods undermines the credibility of elections in the eyes of the public, as does the unwillingness of the National Election Office to provide simple, intelligible explanation of how various numbers on their pages need to be interpreted.”

Election website malfunction

In the run-up to the election the official National Election Office website experienced repeated malfunctions when absentee and embassy voters unsuccessfully attempted to register. A crash on the morning of the election forced them to revert to a backup site, which meant parties were unable to access scanned copies of original precinct voter logs and the records of previous decisions by the National Election Commission. In a unanimous decision that commission condemned the National Election Office for breaking the law by not making previous decisions available on its site.

According to a report from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe into the election, “Some ODIHR [OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights]/LEOM [Limited Election Observation Mission] interlocutors stated that citizens had no access to information that had been available on the regular website, such as the possibility to file a complaint electronically.”

The National Election Office told openDemocracy: “Voters never file complaints through the website” and “there was no problem with the embassy voters’ submissions”.

Election software breakdown

Hungarian votes are counted by hand in polling stations, then the results are submitted online to the national office, where they are added up. We have collected testimonials from ballot counting officers in at least six constituencies across the country who repeatedly referred to this software “freezing” or going down completely on election day.

“They said the system is not functioning properly, that it is slow and it froze. We waited for an hour only for them to say that the system froze,” said one officer. “We have not experienced anything like this before. We finished counting by 8.30pm, then they let us out after 11pm and we waited at the municipality’s stairs until half past one [in the morning].

By the time the logs had been submitted and printed for signing, the officer said: “I did not even look at what I was signing.”

Despite the software system failure and closeness of some constituency races, initial results were announced declaring Fidesz’ supermajority three hours after polls closed. Only under pressure from opposition parties did the National Election Office finally hand over scanned versions of the original voter logs from all 10,285 precincts.

Asked about the claims of numerous counting officers that the system had frozen, the National Election Office responded: “The election IT system processing the election data functioned without any failure during the election”.

The logs of single-member constituencies were handed over on 11 April and the party list voter logs per precinct were handed over on the 12th, four days after the election. Responding to questions about this delay, the National Election Office said: “On the backup site all handwritten copies of the polling station minutes were available, which is a unique guarantee of the transparency of the election.”

The Head of the National Election Office vehemently denied that there was anything wrong with the election software. Prompted by reports of irregularities, election-day software malfunction and reports of delays in handing over the voter logs, over 100,000 people took to the streets of Budapest in the days after the vote to demand a recount and new elections.

But a spokesperson for the Socialist party backed up the claims by the election agents we interviewed, saying: “On the day of the election, the part of the National Election Office’s software system that was used to transmit the turnout data and the processed vote results to the National Election Office completely stopped and the official internet site was unavailable. “So, one year after the elections, we still don’t know what damage was done by this unparalleled chaos as [the National Election Office] still has not managed to provide a reassuring explanation: could it have been an external attack or could unauthorised persons access certain data?”

The spokesperson added: “This together with the missing absentee ballots” could have delivered Fidesz its supermajority.

Voting software built by people close to Fidesz.

An investigation by Lehet Más a Politika (Politics Can be Different), the Hungarian Green party, has also uncovered a network of companies linked to senior Fidesz officials that was responsible for developing Hungary’s new election software.

All parliamentary, local and European elections as well as referendums have used the same software contractor, founded by three people from current interior minister Sándor Pintér’s inner circle. The companies’ successor, IdomSoft Zrt, was nationalised in 2012 and has operated the national election system since 1994.

Images have emerged of Orbán, his unofficial chief strategist Árpád Habony and deputy prime minister Zsolt Semjén watching the 2010 election results come in with IdomSoft’s CEO.

orban at count.jpg
From left standing Árpád Habony, unofficial chief strategist, Zsolt Semjén, Deputy Prime Minister of Hungary (obscured), Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary and Balázs Karlócai, CEO of IdomSoft.
Image, Viktor Orbán/ Facebook
orban at count 2.jpg
Photo: Zsolt Semjén, Deputy Prime Minister of Hungary with Viktor Orbán Prime Minister of Hungary and Balázs Karlócai, CEO of IdomSoft.
Image, Viktor Orbán/ Facebook

An investigation started in 2010 by the Budapest police into voter fraud allegations relating to the election software system was suddenly cut short by the incoming Fidesz government without explanation.

A stolen supermajority?

While pre-election polling put Fidesz on course for a clear majority in Parliament, it was unclear whether the party would reach the crucial two-thirds threshold of MPs.

Following the contentious 8 April vote, which has been shown to be marred with irregularities, questionable tactics and blatantly illegal behaviour that benefited the ruling party, the election returned Fidesz, and its ally, a single German minority MP, to Parliament with a supermajority of just two seats.

This has enabled the Orbán government to change the judicial system, granting itself significantly more power, restrict civil society groups, increase its dominance of the press and violate the rights of asylum seekers in Hungary.

According to ‘Freedom in the World 2019’, the annual survey issued by the US-based watchdog Freedom House, Hungary is now only a “partly free” country. With worsening scores for political rights and civil liberties it has become the first country in the EU that is not currently classified as ‘free’.

State broadcasters have been accused of operating as mouthpieces of the government as “the ownership of Hungary’s media has continued to become increasingly concentrated in the hands of oligarchs allied with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s ultra-nationalist government”, according to Reporters Without Borders’ latest World Press Freedom Index.

“Beyond irregularities in the electoral process, the lack of accountability in campaign financing has also contributed to this outcome,” says Bálint Mikola, an expert from Transparency International Hungary. Although political parties that contest elections with a national party list are automatically eligible for public funding, Transparency International Hungary has found that parliamentary parties routinely overspend their budget. In 2014, it is estimated that most parties spent double their official campaign budget, while the governing Fidesz party spent approximately quadruple what it was assigned.

“All this coupled with the non-electoral ‘information campaigns’ of the government has created an unlevel playing field for the Hungarian opposition,” Mikola added.

Despite a High Court ruling that organised organised transportation and vote buying did take place in two constituencies, and amid a growing groundswell of opposition to Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian regime within Hungary, the levers of power remain firmly in the hands of the Orbán government – and his electoral lock on the country remains strong.

The EU has started to take action against the Hungarian government by triggering Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union last year, which allows the EU to suspend certain rights normally afforded to members. The European Parliament’s centre-right European People's Party (EPP) voted to suspend Fidesz in March. However, strong gains by populist parties in European elections next week could stop the parliament from taking further action against Fidesz and other authoritarian governments, fundamentally reshaping the bloc.

Commenting on these findings, Kim Lane Scheppele, who researches sociology and international affairs at Princeton University and is an expert in authoritarian regimes, Hungarian politics and law, said:

“These new reports of election irregularities add a great deal to what we knew already. We knew that Fidesz had designed an electoral system to put the opposition at a disadvantage. From gerrymandered districts to an electoral system that penalised the opposition if it failed to unite into a single bloc, the Hungarian election law framework was guaranteed to give a victory to Orbán before any ballots were cast.

“Even with a rigged system, however, the opposition might still have been able to deny Orbán his two-thirds majority of seats in the parliament, which gives him the power to amend the constitution at will. The Unhack Democracy Europe research now shows that if the election had been properly run – even under his rigged rules – Orbán could not have regained his two-thirds majority.

“It is especially disturbing that the election officials out in the polling places reported so many problems reporting and certifying results. And of course, the suspicious collapse of the election office computer, followed by the election office announcing the overwhelming result for Fidesz nonetheless, always looked suspicious. Now we know what was happening behind the scenes. The vote count was plagued with so many different irregularities that the end result cannot be trusted.

“European elections are next weekend, and the same election office that ran a tainted election last year will be once again tallying the results. Should Europe trust the European election in Hungary now that it has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that the Hungarian government cannot run a free and fair election?”

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