In Hungary, PM Viktor Orban remakes an election to his liking

Mr Viktor Orban has not hesitated to use the levers of government power to erode democratic norms and cement one-party rule. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BUDAPEST (NYTIMES) - During the dark winter of the 2020 coronavirus wave, the Hungarian government set up a website so anxious residents could sign up for the news on the pandemic. For months, the system sent out updates about the virus, testing and where to get vaccinated.

But last month, long after the vaccination drive had peaked, the system blasted out a very different type of alert: an email claiming, falsely, that opponents of Prime Minister Viktor Orban were agitating to drag Hungary into the war in Ukraine.

"This is cheating," said Ms Klara Dobrev, a Hungarian Member of the European Parliament and one of those accused in the email. "Using public money for obviously party propaganda? This is obviously election fraud."

In more than a decade in power, Mr Orban has not hesitated to use the levers of government power to erode democratic norms and cement one-party rule. He has rewritten the Constitution, remade the courts and used state-run and privately owned television stations - even school textbooks - to advance his agenda or push misinformation about his rivals.

He has always justified his brand of what he calls "illiberal democracy" by pointing out that, like other European leaders, he has won free and fair elections. Now, though, as he stands Sunday (April 3) for reelection against an unexpectedly organised opposition, Mr Orban is using the power of his office to shape the contours of the election more to his liking.

He has unleashed a fresh round of election law changes that benefit his party. He put an inflammatory but ultimately symbolic LGBT referendum up for a vote, a move that is likely to rally his most strident supporters. And he legalised the registration of voters outside of their home districts - a common practice, until now criminal, that is known as "voter tourism."

All of that is playing out in a media echo chamber, since Mr Orban has cemented control of public television to the point where stories, photos and guests are hand-picked to align with his talking points. Many of the largest independent news outlets have been taken over by Mr Orban's supporters.

The situation is considered so extraordinary that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental organisation, is sending observers to monitor the elections. It is only the second time in the European Union's history that the group has started a full-scale monitoring operation on an EU member.

"We are very, very far away from a fair electoral environment," said Mr Robert Laszlo, an election analyst with Political Capital, an independent Hungarian policy centre.

Mr Orban, a canny political survivor who relishes a fight, has given no indication he is worried about the election monitors or the outcome. "I can't remember the last time the stars aligned so well, 19 days before an election," he declared at a rally this month.

When The New York Times asked Mr Orban's office for a comment on the election law changes, Mr Rajmund Fekete, the chief of staff for the spokesperson, replied in an email that they did not plan to comment and would respond "with other means." He would not elaborate.

Signing the papers

In the tiny village of Kispalad, at the north-eastern tip of Hungary along the border with Ukraine, the mayor summoned a local woman to the town hall to sign some papers. It was mid-2014, and the mayor, a member of Mr Orban's party, was locked in a tight reelection race.

The woman, Ms Jozsefne Sanko, was a seasonal cucumber picker and would soon be out of work. If Ms Sanko signed the papers, the mayor said, she would be guaranteed public-assistance jobs for her and her family.

"There is no work around here," her son Adam Sanko said in an interview. "So my mom signed the papers."

In signing, Ms Jozsefne Sanko attested that 135 Ukrainians lived in her tiny home. That made them eligible to vote in Hungarian elections.

The mayor's offer was part of a common tactic in Hungary called voter tourism, which allows non-residents to register using addresses in Hungary. On Election Day, they cross the border by car, bike or bus, then vote and return home.

Until recently, voter tourism was a type of fraud. Ms Jozsefne Sanko and the mayor received fines in 2020 after what she had done became a local scandal.

But Mr Orban has legalised the practice for the upcoming election. He is popular in these rural villages, but since the government refuses to make historical voter data public, it is impossible to know whether voter tourism has changed the outcome in any of these small districts.

Mr Adam Sanko believes it can. In every election, he said voters arrive from out of the country with lists of names they are expected to vote for. "Now this is totally legal," he said.

Voter tourism also has something of a mail-in equivalent.

Hungarian citizens can mail in their ballots, but only if they do not have a residence in the country. That overwhelmingly applies to ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries like Romania and Serbia, a constituency whose votes Mr Orban has courted for years.

By contrast, roughly 100,000 Hungarian citizens live in the United Kingdom, a more left-leaning voting bloc that includes students and foreign workers. But voters in Britain must travel in person to London or Manchester to cast ballots. Mr Orban's government has rejected calls to open more polling places.

A supermajority in name only

To understand one of the ways Mr Orban has reshaped democracy, consider this: When his political party, Fidesz, won the last two national elections, it received less than half the votes, yet still secured a two-thirds supermajority in Parliament. The supermajority has allowed Mr Orban to ram through changes to the Constitution as part of his illiberal agenda.

The explanation lies in Hungary's complex electoral system. The country is divided into 106 districts, each of which elects a member to Parliament, much like members of Congress are seated in the United States. But then another 93 seats are awarded to political parties based on a unique formula.

Mr Orban changed that formula for handing out seats in dramatic fashion to benefit Fidesz. Parties that win big in the district elections can get extra seats - a move that is expected to pad Fidesz's winning margin in Parliament if it realises big wins in gerrymandered districts.

He has also made it harder for small parties to get any seats at all under the formula. But to counter him, Socialists, Greens, centrists, fiscal hawks and Christian conservatives have united behind economist Peter Marki-Zay in a long shot bid to beat Mr Orban or at least shatter his supermajority, since Mr Marki-Zay has a six-party coalition behind him.

Gerrymandering is just one problem for the opposition. Television time is another.

Early on a Wednesday morning, less than three weeks before the election, the leader of the opposition party, Mr Marki-Zay, was given his first and only appearance on Hungary's largest public television station.

"Thanks for allowing the entire opposition five minutes in the past four years to speak," Mr Marki-Zay said during his appearance. "That I could not come here until now is likely for the same reason that Viktor Orban is unwilling to partake in a live debate. It's much easier to lie, defame and to conduct a smear campaign."

Because Mr Orban controls public television and his allies dominate private media, voters are inundated with coverage that favours him. Opposition parties cannot pay for political advertising on television because it is illegal - even though the public channels regularly put out "public service" announcements that critics say are thinly veiled ads for Mr Orban or his agenda.

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