Volunteer vote counters push for election integrity in Hungary

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A volunteer teller holds his glasses as he attends a presentation in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, March 24, 2022. A grassroots civic initiative in Hungary has recruited more than 20,000 volunteer tellers to ensure a fair count in the upcoming elections. In the April 3 contest, Prime Minister Viktor Orban will seek his fourth consecutive term in what polls suggest will be the tightest election since he took office in 2010. (AP Photo/Anna Szilagyi)

PA

A grassroots civic initiative in Hungary, concerned about the integrity of an upcoming general election, has recruited more than 20,000 poll workers to observe the high-stakes contest in which nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban will run for a fourth consecutive term.

The effort to place at least two volunteer tellers in each of Hungary’s more than 10,000 polling stations came from the belief of many supporters of Hungary’s opposition parties that without observers on their side, irregularities in the vote count could affect the outcome of the April 3 ballot.

“It’s not fair that in Hungary, in a lot of electoral districts… there are no scrutineers representing the opposition,” said Judit Szanto, a volunteer with Szamoljuk Egyutt (Let’s Count Together), l one of the many civic organizations that recruit and train the ballot. counters.

“This thing was designed to organize people to monitor the cleanliness of the election on the suspicion that if they don’t, there will be fraud,” said Szanto, who trains the volunteers.

Recent polls show Orban, whose Fidesz party has held an almost uninterrupted two-thirds parliamentary majority since 2010, is set to face his closest election since coming to power.

United for Hungary, a coalition of six opposition parties spanning the political spectrum from liberal to centrist to right-wing, has come together in an effort to overcome what it sees as a political, economic, media and electoral dominated by the right-wing Fidesz. and designed to give him an unfair advantage.

Yet while the coalition’s strategy of coordinating its candidates across the country and fielding a single common candidate for prime minister is likely to improve its performance on election day, the outcome of the contest in many constituencies could be reduced to just a few votes.

Such a tight race makes accurate and transparent counting essential, said Adam Sanyo, a data analyst who helps Let’s Count Together train ballot counters.

“The counting process is actually quite important because even in these elections where the general public thought it was not 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 less than 1,500 votes.

On election day, the volunteers, each of whom will be officially delegated by one of the six opposition parties, will work alongside other tellers delegated by Fidesz.

But in addition to counting ballots once polls close, they will also monitor the voting process throughout the day at each polling station and will have received training on how to recognize and report irregularities. .

“It’s not enough to get people to polling stations, it’s important that they know what’s going to happen there,” Szanto said. “They must know the laws and the electoral legislation to do their job properly.”

Hungarian supporters of opposition parties are not the only ones with their eyes on the election.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has announced that it will send a large-scale election observation mission to Hungary, comprising 18 long-term observers and another 200 on election day – this is only the second time it does so in a country of the European Union.

In 2014, the OSCE called the Hungarian parliamentary elections “free but not fair” and noted that the 2018 vote was characterized by a “pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, which undermines the ability of candidates to compete on an equal footing”.

Orban’s critics have also pointed to alleged instances of vote buying and patronage which they say skewed the outcome of previous elections.

A change to the electoral law passed by the ruling party last year allows Hungarians to vote in constituencies where they have a registered address even if they do not reside there. This has led the opposition and civic organizations to warn against “election tourism”, where voters can register addresses in particularly competitive districts in an attempt to sway the outcome.

An OSCE interim report released last week drew attention to such amendments to the electoral law, which it said were passed by the ruling party “without a proper consultation process”.

“Most of the previous recommendations… remain largely unaddressed, including those related to the misuse of administrative resources and the blurring of the roles of the state and political parties, and campaign finance transparency,” noted the OSCE in its report.

The Hungarian government insisted its elections were free and fair and dismissed concerns that the ruling party had an advantage.

A government spokesman said in an email that OSCE observers were “welcome at all times” and that “the procedural management of elections in Hungary has always been considered one of the best in the country”. EU, and we hope it will remain so”. .”

According to Sanyo, the data analyst, the election outcome will likely be decided by 10 to 15 constituencies where the vote is expected to be close, and even a few miscast votes can affect the election outcome.

“That’s basically the message to (the tellers),” he said. “‘Your work is really important because this time, really every vote counts.'”

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