Throughout election day, the high turnout was giving Fidesz politicians a fright. Then in a masterstroke, the election office revised voter numbers down by 83,791. Luckily for Fidesz because the decline secured them the magical 2/3 majority.
Turnout over 70% would have cost Fidesz their two-third majority according to every pollster. And anything higher than 70% would have eaten into Fidesz’ majority (and Orbán’s king-like ego).
Throughout the day, turnout has been persistently high, giving Fidesz a fright. Its politicians were cautiously talking down the mood, talking about a simple majority which is just as good. Ever since February, voting intention has been record high and the anti-Fidesz mood galvanized opposition voters. Opposition parties were in no shape to vote for, but voters were stoked to deliver a tiny electoral blow to Orbán’s corrupt, arrogant rule.
Orbán was always going to be the next prime minister thanks to his own election law – which happens to be the most disproportionate in Europe.
But a strongman would be deeply troubled by shrinking legitimacy, his invincibility would come under question. Not to mention corruption scandals that are catching up with his family, discontent for the extreme polarization of public discourse, his Russian business and his oligarchs’ growing arrogance.
Thanks to the turn of events after 18:30, however, the reckoning didn’t happen.
The unprecedented 3-hour news embargo
At first, there was a weird, unusual and unprecedented 3-hour embargo on election results because Fidesz’ bureaucracy couldn’t handle transfer voters. Budapest’s 11th district was the hardest hit where thousands of people were still waiting in a mile-long queue after 10PM because all transfer voters had to vote at the same voting station.
Thousands of (mostly) students were thus patiently waiting their turn while the mood was celebratory. After images of crowds turning up to vote in London, Paris, and elsewhere, plus the 18:30 record turnout data, people were really hoping for record turnout.
As the OSCE observers’ report kindly put it, “there is overall trust in the accuracy and inclusiveness of the voter register” in Hungary. And they are right. No one suspects anything, only one TV host flipped out at the representative of the election office – but not because of suspected fraud but because of the unprecedented delay. We rely on journalists and party delegates to spot attempted fraud – but no one really understands IT security (or he is not working in Hungary anymore, definitely not as an underpaid journalist). This kind of naive trust would be a great weapon in the hand of someone who decided to break it first. And breaking political taboos and being the first in the race to the civilizational bottom are two things illiberal strongmen are very familiar with.
As I have repeatedly stated on this blog, no one was expecting that they would try to cheat at the counting of the votes. And we still don’t. The independent media is actually coming up with perfectly reasonable explanations for the discrepancy. Fidesz did their cheating by writing their own this election law, by using taxpayers’ money to push Fidesz election theme, by intimidating candidates and opposition parties, and by generally making it impossible to form a coalition against Fidesz.
As the OSCE put it, these elections are free but not fair. In other words, they didn’t need to steal a wad of cash – they had already stolen the bank. But the stakes for Orbán had been high. Rulers like him cannot show weakness, retire, or move into opposition. But the sheer suspicion of cheating is enough to crush an opposition voter. If your votes just disappear like that and it magically secures the coveted 2/3 for Fidesz, then your votes literally don’t matter. There is officially nothing left for you to do against the regime.
As seen above, every interim participation data was at record high – up until 18.30, 30 minutes before polls closed. At 68.13%, participation was also at record high by 18:30. Three more hours and thousands of voters later, however, it went back down.
When data started flowing again (past 10PM), participation suddenly decreased from 68.13% (at 18.30) to 67.08%. (At some point it even claimed to have gone back down to around 62%.)
In numbers, “the National Election Office at 6:30 p.m. claimed that 5,365,511 people had voted thus far but half an hour later changed the number downward to 5,011,380 or, in a later version, to 5,283,097.”
The head of the election office blamed the delegates for accidentally over-reporting the voter numbers during the day – but that’s 83,791 people, or 790 in every district.
NOTE: Just to picture what it means. There was a delegate in every district that had only one job: to draw a tally mark every time a voter turned up and signed the register. The interim participation data was reported based on these tally marks. The final participation number then came from the signatures in the register. Every previous election went perfectly well this way. But according to Ilona Pálfy, head of the National Election Office, the 2018 delegates got so carried away with the tally that they accidentally added 790 extra voters each (!) on average – and thus the participation numbers had to be revised downward at the end of the day (and after a 3-hour news moratorium).
Not only would that be mind-boggingly incompetent – it had never happened before.
After the 3-hour embargo and visible stress on Fidesz politicians, Orbán finally emerged, triumphantly because he secured exactly enough votes for another 2/3 in parliament – thanks to the low turnout. Luckily for him, because he would have been in hot water with anything less. What would Putin do? Europe? OLAF? He also has job left that can only be done by 2/3. He needs to reign in the courts that were still putting up a fight. He wanted to eliminate civil society ASAP. He wanted to play with the “Big Guys” on the global geopolitical table because he deems himself too good for this tiny country. And he can only do all those things with an unquestioned 2/3.
Naturally, it is conceivable that the delegates really screwed up that hard. But it would be the most inopportune moment to do so. And whatever it was they did, Orbán rewarded them. On Monday, the head of the election office received a bonus for services rendered – despite the 3-5 hour queues for transfer voters, the overwhelmed online system, and the 3-hour news embargo. (UPDATE – the official records won’t be available for public scrutiny for another week, while the deadline for lodging complaints about them
passes on Wednesday has later been extended.)
On Monday evening, we are still waiting for the final turnout number. Not the results, not how people voted – but how many turned up. The turnout is still being decided, apparently, even though that’s the first thing they know. In the meantime, every major international news outlet reported Orbán’s repeated 2/3 victory (with 48% of votes) and the opposition voters’ spirit has been crushed.
What does it mean for anti-Orbán voters?
Opposition mobilization was based on the rock-solid assumption that there would be no fraud on election day. The entire election system may have been rigged to favor Fidesz – but the votes would be counted. If it would not be the case, the whole concept of having one tool against the powerful would go out the window – and usher in an era of complete citizen helplessness.
Not only that, but this weirdness accompanied the most crucial election in Hungarian history. With the 2/3 majority Orbán promised to finish the job and cement himself in power. The civil society and the judiciary will be first – it has been announced. The way that the ultimately mediocre turnout shoehorned in Orbán’s mythical 2/3 majority makes it even more creepy.
If you want to crush dissent, pushing them into the crazy corner is a very good way to start. Being the first one to cry electoral fraud is undignified and you sound like a sore loser with sour grapes. You sound like a conspiracy theorist, which is a definition of helpless, and even you hate those people. The independent media is soothing people and keeps coming up with plausible explanations for every new discrepancy – actually better ones than Ilona Pálfy and her “tally mark” excuse. But if you witnessed the mood change that day from hope and humble Fidesz spokesmen to a triumphant Orbán – you will have doubt. And that pushes you even deeper into feeling helpless.
What’s worse, your suspicion cannot be explained in just two words – so don’t expect much sympathy from abroad. If there are a million small ways the election results could have been tampered with, you will run out of breath and your audience will run for cover. If I needed 600 words to explain the “tally mark” excuse, then I better skip trying to explain the more complicated ones.
If you feel that the massively and forcefully centralized administration may have semi-voluntarily done stuff on their own level – you are speechless to even express what’s wrong. If you feel that the fraud didn’t even have to be centrally ordered – local administrators could have been strongly ‘incentivised’ to be proactive – you also have a lost cause. Yet, the entire system of illiberal autocracy is built on such coerced, proactive servilism. Sticks if you don’t deliver without being asked – a promise of a carrot if you do.
This was not the moment to look suspect. And Orbán would have preferred not to give such obvious reasons to be suspicious – or maybe not. It doesn’t matter now and suspicion will just push his opponents further down into deep helplessness.
NOTE – Not every voting station had an opposition representative. The smaller, the less likely. In fact, a quarter of voting stations didn’t have a single opposition delegate – while some had two from Fidesz. (10286 vote counting committees had delegates from: Fidesz-KDNP 14533, Jobbik 7616, MSZP-Párbeszéd 5173, DK 1967, LMP 394, Együtt 197, Momentum 32) Also, the smaller a town or village was, the more likely it was that it went to Fidesz.
NOTE – The OSCE did not monitor the day’s events either – they don’t do that with “established democracies”.
- Local result data unavailable for another week. Comparison with last years’ data is also impossible since that is also missing from the election committee’s website that went down during voting. They blame the computers.
- Local results brought into question in some districts.
- There were actual people who found zero votes for the candidate they personally voted for. One candidate found that not even his party received a single vote in his district – even though he voted for it.
- 7% of voting stations (700) submitted extraordinary high numbers of void votes (over 3%). 70 submitted results with over 10% void votes. One was over 47.83%.
- Other stations appear to have written party votes “in the wrong row” awarding votes to fake parties – rather than existing opposition. Once again, the excuse was incompetent and tired delegates, but Fidesz got all their votes in the right row. It appears to be the most incompetent set of election committees ever.
- National list results show discrepancy with local candidate preferences. Some districts reported literally zero votes for opposition parties on the national list while opposition candidates fared relatively well. (The images below show the districts where parties received individual votes but not party votes. The difference is between the last two columns. Only Fidesz didn’t have a single such district. – These are just the ‘zero’ districts. Source)
The official explanation for the national list discrepancies is even more alarming than the “tally mark excuse” for the missing 84000 voters. It may also be related. Because after the number of voters was revised downwards, there were more votes found in the ballot boxes than voters who turned up (obviously). And whenever that happens, they have to deduct the outstanding number of votes from each party’s list. Once again, the smallest parties often end up with zero votes this way. In other words, small parties were bound to lose out – – while Fidesz somehow never suffered a deduction.
The fact that Fidesz was not affected in the missing vote phenomenon indicates something, but not necessarily centrally ordered fraud. The public administration has also been completely reshaped into a top-down tool of exercising executive power – with local representatives mangled for 8 years and conditioned to second guess the desire of those above. If they fail to deliver certain metrics, they get punished, everyone knows that. And if a leader has such a tool, why would he refrain from using it in critical moments?
But the most crushing of all, it may happen that whatever happened to the lost opposition votes may have been perfectly legal – they were discarded in a completely unfair, but legal way – according to procedural requirements and due to bureaucratic incompetence. What can you do if your public servants were just terribly incompetent that day and had to destroy votes because they screwed up the tally or handed the wrong list to voters? How many do you think would turn up at a repeat-election after this? (There won’t be any, just asking.)