Hungary seeks new voters abroad to shape elections at home

Viktor Orbán's nationalist message plays well to ethnic Hungarians across Europe. The ruling party hopes that will boost its prospects in 2014 elections.

By , Contributor

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    Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán addresses a university in Baile Tusnad, north of Bucharest, in July 2013. For the first time, ethnic Hungarians living abroad will have the right to vote in Hungary’s national elections next year, and Mr. Orbán is betting these new citizens will support his Fidesz party.
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Hungary's next national election could be influenced by voters who have never lived here. And the ruling party is counting on that working in its favor.

For the first time, ethnic Hungarians living abroad will have the right to vote in Hungary’s national elections next year.

The government says that 480,000 people have applied for citizenship, and thousands have registered to vote, after a 2010 law allowed non-residents with Hungarian ancestry to become citizens and participate in national elections.

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Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is betting these new citizens will support his Fidesz party. The government’s populist, nationalist message includes frequent reminders to a policy of uniting ethnic kin that live beyond Hungarian borders.

Although Mr. Orbán has repeatedly clashed with the European Union and civil society groups in Hungary over his sweeping legislative changes – which critics say undermine democracy – he is overwhelmingly popular among Hungarians in neighboring countries.

Foreign as domestic

The largest Hungarian minority groups reside in neighboring countries, including Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Regions within these countries were part of the large Austro-Hungarian empire, before a post-World War I treaty divided that territory up.

Ukraine and Slovakia do not allow for dual citizenship but Romania and Serbia will contribute tens of thousands of new voters to a country with an electorate of 8 million.

And polling indicates those voters could be solidly in Fidesz's corner. Eighty percent of those eligible to vote in Transylvania – where many of Romania’s 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians reside – said they would support Fidesz in a recent poll.

Government officials have been courting these voters by backing ethnic Hungarians’ battle for more autonomy in Romania. In February, a brief diplomatic row between the two nations broke out over the Hungarian community’s display of its own flag, which Romanian authorities objected to.

Fidesz’s popularity is also boosted by a deep skepticism of the opposition Socialists. Many still resent the party for being in power during an unsuccessful referendum in 2004 on whether to grant non-residents citizenship.

“In the mass electorate [in Romania], the perception is that the Hungarian left has betrayed us,” says István Székely, researcher at the Romanian Institute for Research on Ethnic Minorities. Ethnic Hungarians believe Orbán “was the one who gave us the status law, [Orbán] was the one who gave us dual citizenship, while the left has done nothing for us.”

To secure its power base, Fidesz is strengthening its ties to Hungarian political parties abroad.

In April, investigative journalism website Atlatszo reported that Fidesz indirectly funded Hungarian parties in Romania, including the Hungarian People’s Party of Transylvania (EMNP). The EMNP says the report was politically motivated.

“Fidesz and Viktor Orbán [are] very popular in Transylvania,” says Zoltán Sipos, who conducted the investigation and is deputy editor of the Transylvanian news portal Transindex. Fidesz has long supported Hungarian parties in this region, he says.

Untapped voters

Many Hungarians outside the country’s borders have waited for decades to become citizens, says Ágnes Dobrotka, a dual-citizen Hungarian from Serbia’s Vojvodina region.

Almost everyone from her community has also applied for citizenship, she says, and many of them will back the party that granted them this right: Fidesz.

Ms. Dobrotka intends to vote in 2014. But she is not sure who she will support. “Most of [the people] who have applied for citizenship, they really want to vote as well. If they have a right to vote, they will go and vote,” Dobrotka says. á

Based on estimates, Mr. Székely predicts dual citizens could add about 150,000 votes to the electorate.

Fidesz has a significant lead in the polls, with support among 49 percent of decided voters, compared to 26 percent for the Socialists, according to an Ipsos poll last month. However, almost half of all voters are undecided, casting doubt on whether Fidesz can carry this lead into the spring election.

And even if ethnic Hungarians do not sway the results of the 2014 election, Fidesz could be preparing the ground for future tight races. The party lost the 2006 election by less than 100,000 votes and the 2002 election by an equally narrow margin. If history repeats itself with a similar close result, Hungarians abroad could tip the scale in Orbán’s favor.

A wildcard abroad

Although Fidesz is a clear favorite among this segment, another community of Hungarians abroad could be a wildcard in the election. Expats who left Hungary in the past decade, mainly for work, are estimated to total 500,000.

But less is known about their political affiliations. Having witnessed Hungary’s economic decline in recent years, they may be harder for Fidesz to win over.

While dual citizens are able to vote by mail, Hungarian expats must vote in person at an embassy or consulate in their host countries, which could decrease their turnout. Critics say this indicates Fidesz’s preferential treatment for dual citizen voters.

The government will review this system after the election and “make it more unified,” says Zsolt Németh, the state secretary for foreign affairs.

He predicts non-residents will have a “relatively small influence on the Hungarian election.” They could impact the fate of only one to three seats in parliament out of 199, he says.

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