Reflections on the Hungarian elections

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As I mentioned in earlier posts (here and here), I was a counting officer on the April 3 parliamentary elections and referendum.

Photo from Index

It was hard to even start writing this post, I gave it a lot of thought in the past three weeks, because it’s almost impossible writing about this topic in a neutral tone, and that’s the only tone I should use here. I am not (never was, never intend to be) involved in party politics. I went to great lengths during this whole thing to emphasise that although I was delegated by “the opposition”, I am not affiliated with any political party, never got involved in any organising, never went to any event of either one. I try to preserve this neutrality in the tone of my writing too, I can only hope it comes through.

I also want to emphasise that I still stand by what I wrote earlier (many times now, I guess) that I believe in the institution and the ideal of the elections, that I consider a cornerstone of democracy. I will continue to celebrate every election day as one when I can practice my right to vote. Nothing happened that should change that.

Lots of things were said and written about the experiences of counting agents (20k of us volunteering to be involved in change), there is even a Facebook page that shares all the stories. If I wanted to cut this short, the main lesson appearing in most of them is that the abuse of democracy is not happening through frauds on election day, it doesn’t even happen around the voting booths. Yes, we heard stories of paying people to go vote, or taking them by bus, or threatening them with consequences if they don’t, but these weren’t the main reason of the ruling party’s sweeping victory.

As a counting agent, I concluded early in the morning (dawn, really), before we even opened the polling place that no fraud will be committed here, and not because I was there, no fraud would be committed even if I wasn’t. The people I was in the same committee with were experienced, well prepared and well-intentioned. What I didn’t know then is that most of my fellow counting agents would conclude the same by the end of the day.

I was delegated to a remote polling station of a small rural town. Less and less people live in those remote locations, since most of them cannot make a living solely on farming anymore. The young tend to move to the towns nearby, and mostly older people remain. The younger generation who stayed either work in a nearby town or do public work for the municipality for a minimum wage (a construction of the current regime). What I am getting at is that not many of them have a reason to be satisfied with how things are going. Yet they went and voted for things to remain the same (the end result there was pretty much the same as the aggregated result).

The most striking for me (and many of us) was how little people know about the stakes of the election, how under-informed, or worse yet, misinformed people are. Old people came with their adult children by whom many of them were instructed on how to vote. When asked about the referendum (which should be a whole different topic), they had no clue what it was all about. Yet they came to vote. The misinformation was most visible when I went to people’s houses with the moving ballot box (in Hungary you can ask for a moving ballot box to go to your place on election day, when you are unable to go to the polling place due to your age, or any permanent or temporary disability, including Covid this time). We only visited old people (nine of them altogether) who don’t leave the house much anymore, but wanted to cast their vote. One of them had her pen in the colours (and with the logo) of the ruling party ready and even used their flyer as an underlay to write on. They eagerly shared their reasons to vote how they voted without asking, citing untrue statements like the opposition leader would send their grandkids to Ukraine and surely they can’t have that. I had to help one of them voting, which we are allowed to do if someone asks. This aid can look like reciting the content of the ballot and even making the mark on the paper if asked. This particular old lady with her deteriorating eye-sight only asked me to show her “where Viktor was” (“hun van Viktor”).

As I said, the referendum is a whole different story. Its date coincided with the parliamentary elections, so that people would be there anyway (officially, it was about saving money, but I suspect they hoped it wouldn’t be invalid, but it still was). As counting agents, we were instructed to ask everybody whether they wanted to take part in both elections (parliamentary and the referendum). Many people didn’t even know what that meant. I always cringed when the other counting officers said in answer that it was about “child protection”, but of course we didn’t have any ways to educate people at that point. I will not get deep into my opinion, I know some states in the US are dealing with the same issue these days (and people are not even asked there), but this whole referendum was a shame. I was glad it was invalid (I cast an invalid vote myself), but I saw too many “four yeses” to be relaxed about how people in Hungary view these questions. Again, what was evident was that people had no clue. Of course in this case, they can’t be blamed, because the questions were intentionally constructed to be confusing, but seeing people not even understanding the questions and answering them anyway was again disheartening.

As for the election day itself, – other than the end result, which I wasn’t aware of until very late at night – I enjoyed it thoroughly! I was prepared to be bored at times, but I really wasn’t, mind you, we couldn’t use any devices inside the polling place, and even going outside, in that remote countryside my service was so weak it was a struggle to check the news once in a while during the day. The day lasted from 3:45 a.m. in the morning until about 2:00 a.m. next morning for me, and still I don’t regret joining this movement. I loved the “work” part of it very much. Being part of this machinery that conducts the practicalities of the elections was at times hard work (especially doing the counting at the end of the day), other times just nuisance (disinfecting all day after having to work with people’s IDs), but that’s still something I could enjoy. And the challenge of remaining in good mental shape after a jam-packed day until late at night for the counting, then going home and writing a report about it at 1 a.m. is the task for me. I know, it sounds crazy, but I swear I do enjoy this kind of stuff. I got a little discouraged when not long before midnight I saw the results, but still I have good memories of election day, and I would do it again anytime.

The official report of OSCE election observers concluded what many of our experiences confirm that the elections were well-run, if the results don’t reflect the public sentiment, it’s because the playing field was far from level. True, the oppositions wasn’t able to exploit the little chances they got to appear on public media for example, or in general they failed to connect with the masses. In part it was surely because of the lack of opportunities to appear in the media vs. the ruling party’s uncontrolled spreading of one-sided, often distorted information about the other side, world affairs, the EU, everything.

And don’t get me wrong, this is not the looser’s point of view, far from it. I wouldn’t have a problem with the majority of people voting for someone I would never vote for, if they made a well-informed, thoughtful decision. After all, that’s what democracy is all about. I do have a problem though with people being fed with disinformation or straight-out lies, and then sent (or brought) to cast a ballot. I can’t see why so many people would want this government to represent their country. Hungarians want to belong (and enjoy the benefits of belonging) to the European Union, yet many of them voted for someone who with his autocratic behavior and anti-EU statements slowly becomes a pariah among European leaders. Hungarians are good at heart and want to help the less fortunate, yet many of them voted for someone who considers NGOs trying to make a difference his country’s enemies. Hungarians condemn an aggressor who orders his troops to kill innocent people in a neighbouring country, yet many of them voted for someone who considers said aggressor a friend and fails to make a clear statement about the war. Hungarians deeply emphatize with and want to help people having to flee from war, yet many of them voted for someone who out of his xenophobia straight-right eliminated refugee protection from the Hungarian legal system. I could go on. What is hard for me to wrap my head around is people not drawing the simple conclusion that the problems caused by the ruling party will not be resolved without them being removed.

What I miss from politics these days is the principled decision making that the late advocates for people’s representation envisioned. Take now the French elections, where the far-left Mélenchon’s voters have to be convinced not to vote for Le Pen in the second round. I am stunned by this. I want to think it should be evident that far-left thinking people would under no circumstances vote for the far-right. Turns out it’s only true if they are thinking alongside principles and not based solely on hate towards the other candidate. I like to think that even if you don’t know which party to sympathise with or you consciously want to avoid party-politics (like me), you still have opinions. And if you have opinions about things in life you will want to vote for the party that’s closest to your worldview. It can’t be true that one weekend the far-left represents your worldview best, and two weeks later the far-right. It just can’t be true.

Of course for people to have opinions and information about politics, they have to be educated, accurately informed about all the sides of the political spectrum and have to be willing to take the trouble to add 2+2. Sure, it’s in a significant part on the media (circumstances), but in a large part it’s on them, the people. Whether they care about what’s happening around them or not, whether they believe their vote counts or not, whether they are willing to learn things in order to make the best decisions or not. Whether they do want to work for change or not.

Although I still pledge not to get involved in party politics, my willingness to do something remains strong. I want to keep working to make a difference. In people’s minds, mostly, but change needs to be made, and I am willing to take my part in it. I was always in favour of political and civic education, which again has nothing to do with party politics, but making people care about how things are going on and making them aware of the ways they can participate. I am seeking ways to work towards that while also fighting disinformation which is a major enemy of democracy. I will probably write a lot about it here.

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