BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — A grassroots civic initiative in Hungary, concerned over the integrity of an upcoming general election, has recruited more than 20,000 ballot counters to observe the high-stakes contest in which nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban will seek a fourth consecutive term.
The effort to place at least two volunteer ballot counters in each of Hungary’s more than 10,000 polling places came from a belief among many supporters of Hungarian opposition parties that without observers from their side, vote tally irregularities could affect the outcome of the April 3 ballot.
“It is not right that in Hungary in a large number of electoral districts … there are no ballot counters representing the opposition,” said Judit Szanto, a volunteer with Szamoljuk Egyutt (Let's Count Together), one of several civic organizations recruiting and training ballot counters.
“This thing was devised to organize people to oversee the cleanliness of the election on the suspicion that if they don’t, there will be fraud,” said Szanto, who provides training for the volunteers.
Recent polls show that Orban, whose Fidesz party has held a nearly uninterrupted two-thirds parliamentary majority since 2010, is likely to face his closest election since taking power.
United For Hungary, a coalition of six opposition parties spanning the political spectrum from liberal to centrist to right wing, has joined together in an effort to overcome what they see as a political, economic, media and electoral system dominated by the right-wing Fidesz and designed to give it an unfair advantage.
Yet while the coalition’s strategy of coordinating its candidates across the country and running a single joint candidate for prime minister is likely to boost its performance on election day, the outcome of the contest in many districts could come down to only a few votes.
Such a tight race makes accurate and transparent tallying critical, said Adam Sanyo, a data analyst assisting Let’s Count Together in training the ballot counters.
“The counting process is actually quite important because even in those elections where the general public thought that it wasn’t a close election … in some of the constituencies we had very small margins between the candidates,” Sanyo said, adding that several of Hungary's 106 districts are likely to be decided by fewer than 1,500 votes.
On election day, the volunteers, each of which will be officially delegated by one of the six opposition parties, will operate alongside other ballot counters delegated by Fidesz.
But in addition to counting ballots once polls are closed, they'll also monitor the voting process throughout the day in each polling place, and have received training on how to recognize and report irregularities.
“It’s not enough just to get people into the polling stations, it’s important that they know what’s going to happen there," Szanto said. "They must be familiar with the laws and the electoral legislation to do their job properly.”
Hungarians with sympathies for the opposition parties aren't the only ones that will have their eyes on the election.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has said it will send a full-scale election observation mission to Hungary, including 18 long-term observers and 200 others on election day — only the second time it has done so in a European Union country.
In 2014, the OSCE called Hungary’s parliamentary election “free but not fair,” and noted that the 2018 vote was characterized by a "pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis.”
Orban’s critics have also pointed to alleged cases of vote buying and clientelism which they say have distorted the outcome of previous elections.
A change to electoral law passed by the ruling party last year allows for Hungarians to vote in districts where they have a registered address even if they don’t reside there. This led the opposition and civic organizations to warn of “voter tourism,” where voters may register addresses in particularly competitive districts with the aim of tipping the result.
An interim report by the OSCE released last week drew attention to such amendments to electoral law, which it said were adopted by the ruling party “without a genuine consultative process.”
"Most previous ... recommendations remain largely unaddressed, including those related to the misuse of administrative resources and the blurring of state and political party roles, and campaign finance transparency," the OSCE noted in its report.
Hungary’s government has insisted that its elections are free and fair, and rejected concerns that the ruling party was at an advantage.
A government spokesperson said in an email that the OSCE observers were “very welcome any time,” and that “the procedural management of elections in Hungary has always been considered as one of the best within the EU, and we hope that it will remain so.”
According to Sanyo, the data analyst, the election result is likely to be decided by 10 to 15 districts where the vote is expected to be tight, and that even a few misallocated votes can have an effect on the outcome of the election.
“That’s basically the message to (the ballot counters),” he said. "‘Your job is really important because this time, really every vote counts.’”