Kester Eddy in Budapest -
Barely had the ink dried on the January agreement between the fragmented Hungarian left-liberal opposition parties to fight April's general election in an alliance, when a massive negative advertising campaign was rolled out across the country. This includes giant posters on the walls of offices and housing blocks, featuring past and present Socialist leaders, along with a clown and the slogan: "They don't deserve another chance".
The images "remind" voters that the Socialist-led coalitions - most notably under Ferenc Gyurcsany, the bÃªte noire of the governing Fidesz party - had eight years to govern Hungary, during which, according to right-wing views, the country was led to ruin.
To the uninitiated, this would appear just part of the rough and tumble of modern election campaigning. Except there is little by way of response from the opposition alliance, certainly nothing equivalent to giant poster campaign.
Part of this could be down to the tardiness amongst the opposition groups to unite. After all, it was only in the New Year that the Socialists (under Attila Mesterhazy) and Together (headed by former prime minister Gordon Bajnai) accepted the necessity of including, amongst others, Gyurcsany's Democratic Coalition, into a broader opposition alliance named Unity2014. The alliance also has less money.
But most importantly, claims the opposition, the laws and regulations governing campaigning have been continually revised by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government, ultimately severely restricting political parties from getting their message out. For example, the latest rules limit the campaign advertising on public television to a little under eight hours during the 50 days of the official campaign, and commercial channels cannot charge for political advertising.
According to the government, the new rules attempt to "level the playing field by limiting political campaign ads on radio and television, and thereby attempting to limit the influence of money on political campaigns," says Ferenc Kumin, a government spokesperson. Fine on paper, but the opposition maintains that with state channels already acting as government propaganda machines, Fidesz doesn't need the advertising.
In another change, no political posters can be pasted onto lampposts, poles or trees on public highways. So how to explain the giant posters denouncing the alliance hanging from buildings in town? The answer is that these are not funded by a political party, but by the Civil Unity Forum - a supposedly independent association that has a remarkable track record for organising large, pro-government marches. And there are no restrictions on NGOs advertising in the street either.
No level playing field
Such legal niceties that favour the ruling party are not consigned to advertising. The opposition complain that the new election law, drawn up by the government with no cross-party consultation, benefits Fidesz in numerous ways.
For a start, the new downsized Hungarian parliament, comprising 199 instead of the previous 386 seats, will include 106 first-past-the-post individual constituency MPs - a higher proportion than the current system - which naturally favours the largest party.
Moreover, the newly drawn constituency boundaries have been created either so that the "solid" left-wing seats are made up of larger numbers of voters than average - thereby eating up opposition votes - or so that left-wing voters are subsumed into districts with a right-wing majority. "This is straight out of the first pages of any gerrymandering guidebook," says Viktor Szigetvari of Together.
The government protests that it has succeeded in downsizing a parliament far too large for a country of just 10m people, and correcting the large inequalities in constituencies, which in the worst case meant the largest contained two and a half times more voters than the smallest. It also points to other countries, such as the UK, which only use first-past-the-post voting systems.
Kim Lane Scheppele, a constitutional expert from Princeton University in the US who has studied the new election law in detail, admits that almost all its features can be found in other democratic electoral systems, but says it is "beyond doubt" that the entire package "is heavily slanted" to favour Fidesz in the context of the current political environment. "Models show that if Fidesz and the alliance get an equal 40% share of the vote, it will leave Fidesz with around 10 more seats in parliament," she says.
But with Fidesz well ahead in opinion polls - with 50% support of committed voters and 30% of the total electorate - the main question would appear to be whether Prime Minister Orban will command a two-thirds super majority, rather than merely win the election.
This is an astonishing achievement, given Hungary's struggling economy - which has only begun to show signs of growth since the second half of last year - and the well-publicised scandals that so greatly favoured government supporters, such as the tobacco shop franchise.
Csaba Toth, director of the Republikon Institute, a liberal-leaning political think-tank, says government-mandated utility price reductions in the past 18 months have been hugely influential in maintaining voter support. Despite mostly benefiting households with the largest bills, ie. high-income housholds, the move has brought "pocket-book benefit" to most voters. "Even though the economy is not improving significantly on the macro level, people can actually save on their monthly bills," Toth says.
Meanwhile, the opposition has been struggling to find the unity needed to mount anything like an effective challenge to Fidesz under the new election rules.
Last but not least, Toth points to Fidesz's "resource advantages" in the election. "The two-thirds majority enjoyed by the government in terms of finances, media opportunities and their ability to use constitutional changes for electoral tampering - all these make the elections themselves free, but not fair," Toth concludes.
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