Hungarian Two-Step: FIDESZ Courts ethnic Hungarians abroad to reap electoral benefits domestically

Fidesz’s policies towards ethnic Hungarians will bring mandates – but not necessarily through mail-in votes from beyond the borders. Fidesz pursues a distinctive agenda when it comes to ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring countries. This agenda has a tradition, and Fidesz benefits as it increases votes coming from within Hungary.

A young woman in a light blue jacket enters the office of GEBI,[i] a considerable private agricultural company in Čantavir (Csantavér), a small town populated mostly by ethnic Hungarians in Vojvodina, Serbia. The young woman holds an envelope in her hand: inside is her ballot for the Hungarian Parliamentary election in 2022. She leaves the envelope with her vote in the office of the private company with a clerk who claims to be an “activist.” This was filmed with a hidden camera and published by the investigative journalists of 444, a news portal critical of the Hungarian government.

Leaving a vote in the office of a private company is not exactly how Hungarian citizens living beyond the Hungarian border should cast their votes. Hungarian citizens without a registered address in Hungary are entitled to mail-in ballots, but the envelopes with their ballots should be distributed and collected by official postal services, according to the Hungarian Election Law. The 444 team started their investigation in Vojvodina after the local independent media spread news of ‘activists’ going door-to-door, and ‘assisting’ citizens to fill in the formalities of the mail-in ballots and cast their votes.[ii] 

Hungary, a country with a population of 9.8 million has over a million citizens living outside state borders. They were offered a simplified process of getting Hungarian citizenship in 2010, when Fidesz acceded to power. Citizenship naturally includes voting rights in Hungarian general elections where a physical address in Hungary is not necessary, but they do have to register to vote, and are entitled to a mail-in ballot if they do not have a registered address.

End of Greater Hungary

The 1920 Treaty of Trianon formally ended World War I in which the Kingdom of Hungary was considered a belligerent power. The Treaty redefined the country’s borders reducing the population by 48% thus creating the notion of ethnic Hungarians, or “Hungarians living beyond the borders of Hungary”. The 1947 Treaty of Paris, which ended World War Two, largely reconfirming these changes. As a result, some 3.3 million Hungarians found themselves living in new countries, under new administrations – all variations of communist, on the other side of the Hungarian border - and as national and ethnic minorities.

The number of ethnic Hungarians living in the neighboring countries currently is between 1.9 – 2.2 million. The relatively high uncertainty in the figures is due to assimilation, including an increase in mixed marriages. The largest group of Hungarians lives in Romania (1.1 - 1.3 million), followed by Slovakia (420-500 thousand), Serbia (180-220 thousand) and Ukraine (100-130 thousand). In Austria, Croatia and Slovenia, there are an additional 30-80 thousand ethnic Hungarians altogether.

Of the 1.9 – 2.2 million ethnic Hungarians some 1.1 million hold Hungarian citizenship today. Most acquired it after 2010, benefitting from the simplified process. It was not necessary either to have a registered address in Hungary or pay taxes to Budapest, but simply to prove that their ancestors had Hungarian citizenship and they speak the language at least on a basic level.

Out of the 1.1 million “new” Hungarian citizens 456,000 were registered to vote in March 2022, and voter turnout was 58%.[iii] Because mail-in voters only vote for a party list and not for single-members constituencies, out of the 199 Parliamentary seats, they only handed two mandates to Fidesz in the 2022 general election. In 2018, they did not bring any extra seats for the ruling party, while in 2014, they brought one.

So, if the mandates gained from mail-in votes don’t significantly change the outcome (0 to 1% of the mandates are defined by mail-in voting), why has Fidesz been so keen to invest time, money and energy into ethnic Hungarian communities in neighboring states? Why risk additional scrutiny and censure for conspicuous voting irregularities when it comes to distributing, collecting and handling the ballots?

Fidesz pursues a distinctive agenda when it comes to ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring countries calculating on increased voter support inside the country. This has been proven to in fact work, benefitting Fidesz as it not only plays to and consolidates its base but also draws a greater number of voters within Hungary beyond its dedicated electorate.

Popular Demand

From a historical perspective, the fate of ethnic Hungarians has played an important role in shaping the country’s politics. During World War II, Hungary militarily re-occupied some of its lost territories but subsequently lost them. In the communist period between 1945 and 1989, Hungary had little room to maneuver in the interest of ethnic Hungarians because most lived in Warsaw Pact countries (Romania, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union), where ethnic minority issues were not acknowledged. Still, news of aggressive forced assimilation was frowned on within Hungary, especially by the emerging opposition to the communist regime. In 1989, when Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was ousted, Hungarians organized by the anti-communist opposition donated truckloads of aid to the Transylvanian Hungarians.

Since the first freely elected Hungarian government, there has been consensus in Hungarian society and within the political class that the Hungarian state should support the ethnic Hungarians in the neighboring countries in all appropriate ways.

In 2004, Fidesz, then in opposition, initiated a referendum for ethnic Hungarians “to [be able to] apply for and [eventually] be granted Hungarian citizenship.” The referendum divided society. Fidesz and other right wing and conservative parties campaigned for a “Yes” vote, while the “left-liberal” government of the time campaigned against it. In the end, the referendum was nullified due to the low voter turnout of 37.5% (a minimum turnout of 50% was needed), but, noticeably, there were more than 1.5 million “yes” votes. This block of “yes” voters has remained a solid voter base for Fidesz and other right-wing parties ever since.

Ethnic Hungarian voters abroad continue to see the Hungarian “left-liberal” parties as those who “opposed” their Hungarian citizenship, while Fidesz was clearly on their side in this symbolic battle. They see that Fidesz supports their case generously while they suspect the “left-liberals” would not.[iv] Largely, this explains why Fidesz is so extraordinarily popular among politically active ethnic Hungarians.  

Money Talks

All Hungarian governments, including the Socialist-Liberal governments of 1994-98 and 2002-2010, have supported Hungarians living beyond the borders of Hungary. However, the Fidesz governments have been more generous. This has invariably included one major ethnic Hungarian political party in each country that pledges loyalty to Fidesz, and several “civil organizations” and “foundations” that are established and managed by the given ethnic party. Oligarchs close to the Hungarian government sometimes also take part in specific projects, such as Lőrinc Mészáros’ soccer academy in Osijek (Eszék), Croatia.

The strategy of the Hungarian state, regarding the Hungarians living abroad, has remained the same: to create conditions so that ethnic Hungarians can live their lives to the fullest within their identity and prosper in their countries of residence. The Hungarian government has offered broad programs supporting Hungarian-language education, culture and media, similar to many states in support of compatriots in neighboring states or further afield. In education, as well as in culture (think of Hungarian language theaters, movie theaters, traveling troupes, libraries, music festivals and the like) the systems have not changed much since 2010. In other fields, the Fidesz governments started spending more.

After 2010, the Fidesz government poured additional money into local Hungarian language media, the church, built sports facilities, and, in the case of Ukraine and Serbia, boosted the local economy.

Due to the size and settlement patterns of the ethnic Hungarian communities, Hungarian-language media outlets can hardly be expected to be self-sustaining and need financial support. Fidesz had seized a loyal media portfolio comprising 470 titles, including most established local media outlets in Hungary, and pursued a similar strategy in neighboring countries. Through various organs, mostly party foundations of the ethnic Hungarian parties in each country, money from the Hungarian state budget has been utilized to develop and maintain a range of media outlets. In return for contributions, the donors are allowed to control editorial policies.

As for the church, they are also believed to play a pivotal role in the “survival” of the minority communities, especially in Ukraine, Romania and Serbia, where the majority or state religion is different from the minority religion. Churches are not only important elements of national identity, but often also provide a community space, take part in education and other community services, and for many are symbols of national pride.  Spurring national pride is also the key incentive behind the sports projects. Sporting halls and stadiums, even complete sports academies were built, and successful sports clubs are sponsored by the Hungarian state – not unlike the investments in elite sports in Hungary. The success of the soccer clubs of FC DAC of Dunajska Sreda (Dunaszerdahely) and FK TSC of Bačka Topola (Topolya) in the Slovakian and Serbian premier leagues, respectively, that of the ice hockey club of Miercurea Ciuc (Csíkszereda) or the female basketball team of Sepsi SIC of Sfântu Gheorghe (Sepsiszentgyörgy) in Romania, and others, are often perceived as a source of “national pride” – even if many of the players are not ethnic Hungarians.

The Hungarian state was also proactive in boosting the local economy. The biggest investments, using Hungarian taxpayers’ money, were made in Vojvodina, Serbia, where some HUF 65 billion (USD 18.5 million) were spent on various projects handled by a foundation close to Vojvodina Hungarians’ sister party of Fidesz.

The program was needed because ethnic Hungarians, now having EU passports, were leaving Vojvodina en masse, one of the poorest regions in Europe, to work and live in wealthier countries. The tenders were reasonably transparent and accessible for all members of the community. Some 14,000 projects were realized, mostly in agriculture and food processing. A huge number of Vojvodina Hungarians benefited from the program, including, of course, the most influential local Hungarian businesspeople who maintain friendly relations with the local political elite. However, generally, most of the ordinary applicants were also able to access funding. The opposition criticized the program not on the basis of corruption or cronyism, but for not being effective enough in stopping the migration of Vojvodina Hungarians.

The political representatives of ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania, Vojvodina and the other regions where ethnic Hungarians live, benefit from a thriving political relationship with Fidesz in numerous ways. They receive campaign expertise from Fidesz, the best of Fidesz’s sophisticated know-how, and, allegedly, also manpower during campaigns. More importantly, their constituencies benefit directly from the Hungarian government’s programs, and the local media is more than willing to explain to them who mediated these programs with the mother country, cementing the selected ethnic Hungarian parties in power eventually.

What the local political parties can give Fidesz in return is their wholehearted loyalty, which is expressed in the mobilization of the registered voters before the elections in Hungary to display how committed they are. The mobilization drill is also an opportunity to update supporter lists and keep them active. This explains why there are some irregularities in mail-in voting.

Paradise Lost – the key to internal politics

Fidesz’s policies towards ethnic Hungarians will bring mandates – but not necessarily through mail-in votes from beyond the borders. When the government is communicating their contributions to ethnic Hungarian communities, they are addressing their supporters in Hungary.

Voters in Hungary proper are largely supportive of their compatriots who live beyond the borders of Hungary. This is particularly true of Fidesz voters, for whom the fate of the “Trianon Hungarians” is symbolic. It was not coincidental that prior to the pandemic, every summer Orbán addressed his supportersfollowers in Tusványos, Transylvania, as the top political event in the season. Both this audience and the topic more broadly also serves as a proxy addressing the broader Hungarian electorate as well as Fidesz’ base. There are a number of reasons why the fate of compatriots abroad resonates within Hungarian society – beyond romantic or abstract notions of greater Hungary. There are hundreds of thousands of Hungarian voters still attached to those ‘lost’ lands who themselves, or whose ancestors, were born in these territories and who view these as their lost homes, leaving behind existing family ties and friendships. There are many more whose spouses or partners, friends or colleagues come from those parts. These voter segments are particularly receptive to news coming from beyond the borders, and the strong commitment of Fidesz is something they will consider more than other policies when casting their votes.

Istvan Szekeres
Central European Political Transitions Institute

 

[i] The GEBI company had received a capital boost from the Hungarian state recently in the framework of Hungary’s economic recovery program for Vojvodina. At the opening ceremony of GEBI’s new facility the Hungarian state was represented by Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó.

[ii] At the same time in Târgu Mureș (Marosvásárhely) in Transylvania, Romania, a bag with half-burnt Hungarian ballots was found in a garbage dump. Video footage from the location showed evidence that the ballots were otherwise valid, and some of them had votes for the opposition parties. The Romanian police is investigating the case. In Romania the ethnic Hungarians’ party, the RMDSZ had campaigned that returning the ballots by the Romanian postal services is “not safe.”

[iii] The figure shows that far less than half of the “new citizens” are active politically, at least when it comes to Hungarian home affairs. In 2014 the number of registered voters for letter voting was a mere 195 thousand, by 2018 it almost doubled to 378 thousand, and in 2022 it peaked 20% higher, at 456 thousand - the tendency is clear. Not so much the voter turnout: in 2014 it was 81%, in 2018 71% and in 2022 – 58%. These figures show that even though registering the citizens went smoothly, often with the direct help of “activists” who visited the potential voters in their homes with the necessary documents, a smaller and smaller percentage of them found it imperative to cast their votes.

[iv] This is largely confirmed by communications from the Democratic Coalition that ethnic Hungarians should not be able to vote because they do not pay taxes in Hungary. Instead it advocates an ombudsperson system instead.