Átlátszó.hu, K-Monitor, Political Capital and Transparency International Hungary looked at how much money was spent by political parties during this year’s municipal election campaign. The civil campaign monitor revealed that taxpayer money was once again not too dear to secure the success of government parties, as Fidesz and its candidates were aided by a billboard campaign in the value of many hundreds of millions of forints, financed from public funds. The civil organizations also uncovered numerous election abuses and launched a minimum campaign against corruption on a local government level.
According to the calculations of the campaign monitoring site, the municipal election campaign of Fidesz cost HUF 1.748 billion, but the party itself paid just HUF 1.1 billion of this amount. The government, as well as local governments controlled by the governing parties, supported the victory of Fidesz’s mayoral and local representative candidates with campaigns in the value of more than HUF 500 million. The municipal election campaign of the left-wing parties (DK, Együtt, MLP, MSZP, PM) cost HUF 413 million, that of Jobbik HUF 280 million, while LMP spent HUF 47 million on its municipal election campaign.
Fidesz also won the “who can post more billboards from public funds” competition
Similar to the parliamentary elections, it was outdoor billboards that proved to be the most expensive during the local government campaign as well. Fidesz spent some HUF 665 million, at list prices, on promoting the party’s local candidates on billboards, while the left-wing alliance spent HUF 110 million on the same purpose. Jobbik’s billboards cost a total of HUF 140 million, while LMP spent a mere HUF 7 million on outdoor advertising.
The municipal campaign was also similar to the campaign leading up to the parliamentary elections in that Fidesz-KDNP could once again rely on government propaganda to help promote its candidates. This time, HUF 540 million of taxpayer money was spent on the government using public funds to cover the country with billboards proclaiming the slogans of “Hungary unites” and “We will hold banks to account”, but money also went to announcing a promise for a new round of utility bill reductions. However, as a new development, Fidesz-led local governments also used some HUF 30 million in taxpayer funds to post billboards to help government parties score victories on the local government level. The government parties clearly performed better than the opposition in plastering the country full of billboards, as Fidesz’s election victory was supported by close to five times as many outdoor political ads than all the other parliamentary parties combined. (While government parties had more than 7,700 billboards, the left-wing had 700, Jobbik 824 and LMP only 47.) The source for the data on billboards in public areas is Outdoor Media Audit.
The civil campaign monitor – similarly to the calculations on campaign spending during the parliamentary elections – was again able to take into account only the list prices for outdoor billboards. Therefore the precise amount that parties spent on billboard ads could not be determined, only the market value of the outdoor ads purchased by the parties. The system of discounts given to parties from the list prices of billboards is currently intransparent, which is also a hotbed of corruption.
Despite more balanced direct marketing, Fidesz candidates were still the most expensive
Compared to the billboard race, which was dominated by government parties, the field for election-related direct marketing was much more balanced. According to data estimates based on a study by polling company Ipsos, which was commissioned by the four NGOs, the political left spent close to HUF 150 million on direct campaigning (flyers and phone calls), which Fidesz exceeded by only around HUF 30 million. Meanwhile, Jobbik spent HUF 42 million and LMP only half that amount on direct campaigns. The direct election campaigns of Fidesz and the left-wing parties was the most balanced in Budapest: while government parties spent HUF 110 million on direct marketing in the capital, the opposition alliance’s spending was HUF 103 million.
Fidesz also “won” in terms of campaign spending per candidate: according to the calculations of the NGOs, the government parties spent on average more than HUF 320,000 on each candidate’s campaign. The campaign of the left wing was worth HUF 80,000 per candidate, while the figure for Jobbik came to HUF 100,000 and for LMP only HUF 67,000.
Rules, problems – no rules, no problems
“Hungarian political parties undoubtedly believe that if intransparent campaign spending is not prohibited by any law then campaigning from unverified sources does not count as corruption,” emphasized Miklós Ligeti. The legal director of Transparency International Hungary added that the problem with campaign financing is not only that they come from unknown sources, but also that parties can hide the actual amount of money they spend on a campaign. The legal expert of the anti-corruption NGO pointed out that this hypocritical situation can be traced back to legislative deficiencies, as local government campaign spending is not regulated comprehensively by any law today. “Laws do not even prescribe a per-candidate upper limit on campaign spending at local elections, and do not provide for any budget support for parties,” Miklós Ligeti noted.
Public employment as an illegal campaign tool?
New local government elections had to be held in only 11 municipalities on November 9, 2014 – this would seem to indicate that the elections of October 12, 2014 were free and fair. However, incidents uncovered and partly already made public by investigative portal Átlátszó, paint a much more unfavorable picture. The portal – in the course of its observations – concentrated primarily on smaller municipalities, where its experience shows that it is easier to buy votes.
“One of the lessons of this year’s local government elections was that the leaders of smaller municipalities use public employment to influence local voters,” emphasized Tamás Bodoky, the editor-in-chief of Átlátszó.hu. Since public works programs primarily affect the poorest population living in the most disadvantaged small regions, Roma are significantly overrepresented within the population that takes part in public employment programs. As a result, mayors that tried to influence local voters with promises relating to public works or threats of banning them from public works, often turned to the leaders of local minority governments for support.
The Átlátszó portal was able to document in the municipality of Forró in Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County the decades-old practice whereby locals declare in an open vote that they are supporting the incumbent – local and minority government – leaders with their vote. “Although we received information on specific vote-buying incidents from several places in the country’s eastern region, only witnesses of the events in Nyírmada were willing to tell their stories in front of our cameras,” stressed Tamás Bodoky, adding that in these cases that Átlátszó.hu has uncovered there are ongoing police investigations.
“Átlátszó’s field work was to a great extent helped, and will be helped in the future as well, by an in-depth analysis prepared by Political Capital (PC) mapping out the nature of election abuses,” said Róbert László, PC’s election expert. “In order to statistically validate the correlation between public employment and election abuses we first selected the small municipalities – generally with just a single polling station – where the proportion of the population taking part in public employment is the highest,” said Róbert László. The expert added that the proportion of public-works employees in the 43 municipalities – mostly in eastern Hungary – is more than one-quarter of the population aged 15 to 64.
A conspicuously high number of these settlements can be found where a political formation achieved significantly better results than its national or regional average. Government parties performed above their national average in 36 of the 43 municipalities, and in four villages – Tornanádaska, Fáj, Felsőregmec, és Csaholc – they received between 80–90% of the votes. Jobbik performed – moderately or exceptionally – better than its national average in nine municipalities; taking for example 38% of the vote in Rinyaszentkirály and 32% in Hernádszentandrás. The election list of the left-wing alliance achieved a result that was above the national average in eight of these townships, of which Csenyéte stands out, where they got 80% of the vote. “This in itself is not proof of election fraud, but it is an indication of which are the municipalities where the biggest proportion of the local population is vulnerable to local authorities,” PC’s election expert pointed out.
Only 43 representatives signed the anti-corruption minimum program by the elections
The NGOs announced their anti-corruption minimum program for the municipal elections as well. This time, candidates could undertake vows to make transparent the local government’s budget, council and committee proposals and minutes, as well as contracts and asset declarations. Eventually, a total of 193 candidates signed the joint initiative of Atlátszó.hu, K-Monitor, Political Capital and TI Hungary by the close of polls on October 12, of which 43 ended up winning mandates. There are representatives that agreed with the initiative in almost all of the district governments in Budapest, and signatures were received from candidates of every parliamentary party.
Following the local elections, several additional representatives as well as the mayor of Medgyesegyháza joined the program as well. Some representatives have already made proposals for executing the minimum points and consultations are underway with most of the signatories on realizing the plans. The local council of Budapest’s Zugló district has even already passed a decree on transparency. “We hope that we will be able to bring forth transparency in many local governments; so far we are doing well,” said Sándor Léderer, the director of K-Monitor. He added: “Of course, it is not too late even now to join the program. We are also glad to give advice to representatives who are merely curious to know how they can make the settlement they lead more transparent.”