On 23 June 2022, as part of the research project IVF 22120065. funded by the International Visegrad Fund, aiming to analyse the impact of the global pandemic on the V4 countries’ electoral framework, a policy roundtable was held in a hybrid format to discuss the Hungarian experience on this matter. Four speakers were invited to the roundtable: Dániel Döbrentey, the Project Leader of the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union; János Mécs, Project Leader of the Association of European Election Officers; Attila Nagy, the president of the Hungarian National Electoral Office; and Emese Szilágyi, the Electoral Observer of the OSCE ODIHR Election Observation Mission to Hungary 2022. The panellists raised a number of paramount issues concerning the latest electoral development in Hungary and its link with the public health concerns, and this was followed by the comments of the audience, which included also the questions of the colleagues joining online from the Jagiellonian University of Cracow. The organisers aimed to foster an interdisciplinary legal discourse amongst the representatives of various interested actors; this was the leading consideration when the invited speakers were selected from the National Electoral Office, from a Hungarian NGO, from an international electoral network and from an international electoral observer mission. The roundtable was moderated by Boldizsár Szentgáli-Tóth, the senior research fellow of the Centre for Social Sciences, Institute for Legal Studies.
Dániel Döbrentey highlighted the significance of a dubious case heard by the National Electoral Authority during the first vawes of the pandemic: it was argued, that in the light of the risks attached to personal meetings, local electoral commission members should be exempted from the general duty of taking their oath with personal presence, a written form sent via postal means should be sufficient. However, despite the known public health concerns, the National Electoral Office insisted on the maintenance of personal oaths, since this is the lone opportunity to communicate with the elected members of these bodies during the preparation of the electoral process, and without this direct channel, the elected commission members would face with several unexpected additional difficulties during fulfilling their tasks.
János Mécs pointed out, that the pandemic not only entailed tangible impact in terms of organising elections, but also influenced the amendment of the substantial rules on the Hungarian electoral framework. Due to the limited campaign opportunities which were carried out mostly through online platforms, the smaller political stakeholders and candidates without established circle of supporters are seriously disfavoured. In the light of these concerns, smaller political factions as independent actors were almost eliminated from the competition when the Hungarian Parliament amended the electoral law in December 2020 and set more demanding requirements from political parties to stand a list of candidates at the proportional path of distributing parliamentary mandates. For instance, instead of the formerly provided 27 individual district candidate which was required for registering an electoral list, now each political party should run candidates at least in 71 electoral districts from the 106 constituencies in the country. The amendment of the regulatory landscape meant an important motivation for some oppositional parties to merge their endeavours and to organise the joint primary elections during the Autumn of 2021.
Attila Nagy noted, that the Electoral Office assessed the experience of the recently jointly held parliamentary elections and nation-wide referendum, and as usually, submitted its proposals to the Ministry of Justice for amending the electoral procedural law accordingly. Most of the proposals concern the technical rules on how to manage the electoral registries, and how to organise the process of voting itself, the reflection on the global pandemic has only secondary importance amongst the priorities of the proposed amendments. This should be explained by the fact that during the last two and a half year, schedules of elections fall into such periods, when public health circumstances were relatively favourable, the legislation and the electoral authorities were forced to implement just less weightful interventions to maintain the integrity of the electoral process. Nevertheless, some policies shall be influenced by the rising of the pandemic: for instance, the bill confirms the duty of electoral commission members to take personal oaths. Moreover, a rule has been proposed to maximise the number of citizens allocated into one polling station to 800 to avoid overcrowded venues or long queues before the locations designated for voting. Attila Nagy also confirmed the strong engagement of the National Electoral Office to strengthen the role of electronic means into the organisation of elections, and initiated further inclusive discussions on these matters. The participants agreed that the global pandemic should invigorate the discourse on how to implement alternative voting methods, and how to increase the flexibility of the electoral framework to provide additional resilience to the electoral framework especially during such global challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic.
Emese Szilágyi considered, that instead of the previous expectations which calculated with the additional challenges entailed by the pandemic, the voting in abroad, and the impact of the armed conflict in a neighbour country caused the most severe difficulties for organising the scheduled elections on 3 April. On the one hand, several uncertainties have been experienced as regard submitting the votes of Hungarian citizens without permanent Hungarian residence, Szilágyi urged for more precise regulatory framework to retain the transparency and accountability of this segment of the elections. On the other hand, Szilágyi also raised the attention to the risks of voting in diplomatic missions within an inherently unpredictable public health landscape. The restrictions ordered on public health grounds wariest significantly from country and country, and also evolving rapidly, which may limited the mobility of Hungarians with Hungarian residence living abroad to approach the closest diplomatic mission of the country. The lack of sufficiently prudential regulation resulted for example, that in China, where strict quarantine measures rested in place, around a hundred of Hungarian citizens were unable to cast their votes in the Hungarian consulates. According to Szilágyi, this anomaly also demonstrates the discriminatory differentiation between Hungarian citizens without permanent Hungarian residence and between those, who are resided in Hungary but are in abroad on the day of the elections.
Thirdly, due to the on-going war, Hungarian citizens with Ukrainian residence could not access Hungarian diplomatic missions in the country, while several Hungarian citizens from the south-west part of Ukraine refuge to Hungary to wait the end of the armed conflict, and probably were unable to cast their votes there. Furthermore, the high number of refugees arriving from Ukraine during the last weeks preceding the elections, some polling stations especially from the north-eastern part of Hungary should have been removed to new venues just some days before the Election Day.
Apart from expressing these views, the participants agreed, that the current constitutional and legal framework does not allow the rescheduling of the parliamentary elections even if huge unexpected challenges would occur. The authorities are obliged to hold the elections on due time, and to implement the necessary measures to making the electoral process feasible, this would enhance considerably the expenses of electoral management. In addition to the political aspirations which are not discussed by this forum, this may be one of the main reason why Hungary hold the parliamentary elections and the national referendum jointly, and why this solution has been extended to 2024, when the European Parliamentary elections and the municipal elections will be also held concurrently on the same day. Indeed, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the municipal elections shall have been postponed due to the lack of sufficient funding to holding the elections on the original schedule. Although the fact, that the schedule of national elections has not been affected by the pandemic, on the municipal level, in some smaller villages the by-elections postponed from the Autumn of 2020 could be held only during the spring of 2022, leaving these villages without legally established leadership for almost two years.
The participants also mentioned an interesting differentiation between the national and local elections. The first package of restrictions enacted in March 2020 banned the holding of any election or referendum unless the public health emergency will be lifted. Nevertheless, during the summer of 2021, the relevant rules were modified, and allowed the initiation of national referenda, but still maintained the prohibition of local ones. This distinction was probably resulted by the aspiration of holding the national elections and nation-wide referenda jointly in April 2022.
It was also agreed in the roundtable, that despite its political failure which should be assessed in more detail by political scientists, from a purely legal perspective, oppositional primary elections operated with some highly innovative elements, which might have influence also for the long term. This was the first occasion, when E-voting has been introduced by Hungary, and in spite of the several short-comings experienced during its implementation, this was an important step towards creating a more flexible electoral framework providing alternative tools for citizens to submit their votes. Apart from this, the participation of young citizens who would attain their eighteenth age before the day of the parliamentary elections constituted also a revolutionary element, but one should also bear in mind, that Hungarian citizens without permanent Hungarian address were excluded from participation.
As for conclusion, the participating stakeholders underlined the necessity of further broad discussions on adapting the electoral framework to the constantly changing environment, the pandemic probably entailed some long-term novelties how to draft electoral policies. Hungary has only limited experience until the date to holding elections in the shadow of the pandemic, the schedule of already-held nation-wide elections fall into favourable dates from a public health perspective. Nevertheless, the epidemiological situation impacted the electoral development in certain regards and may have larger weight in the future, when any elections should be held during more challenging periods. Therefore it is worthy to assess further either the Hungarian development or the known international samples with special regard to the V4 countries to elaborate feasible policy options for disadvantageous public health circumstances.
International Visegrad Fund project no. 22120065. (Democracy in the shadow of the pandemic in the V4 countries).
The views expressed above belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for Social Sciences.