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From the DAHR to the grocer’s: everyone’s zealously collecting the mail ballots in Transylvania

 

13.04.2022

siposz

Zoltán Sipos

All signs indicate that the Hungarian government has assigned the task of collecting the votes in Transylvania to two politically-related organizations: the Eurotrans Foundation established by the DAHR and the Democracy Centres operated by the Hungarian National Council of Transylvania [HNCT].

After several months of tuning, the DAHR and the HNCT have switched to full campaign mode this week. Looking at the Facebook activities of the politicians of the two organizations, we have the feeling that these Transylvanian officials are fighting for their own mandates in a “sharp” election campaign – although only the ballots are being collected for the Hungarian parliamentary elections.

The collected ballots will be sent either to the consulates in Cluj-Napoca and Miercurea Ciuc or to a constituency in Hungary. However, it is hard to double-check: envelopes are received in most cases completely informally, voters rarely receive an acknowledgment of receipt, and there is usually no confirmation that their vote has been cast in the ballot box.

Assistance is not illegal – however, it’s unclear what it covers

This “assistance” is allowed by the Hungarian electoral law. However, it does not specify what is included in the assistance and to what extent it infringes the secrecy of vote.

This picture was posted by Sándor Tamás, president of Covasna County Council, with the title “morning activity at my parents”. The voting preferences of his mother can be clearly seen in the picture

As the role of the DAHR and the HNCT is not transparent, it raises suspicions of electoral abuse. How can you see a fair, impartial mediator in the organisations funded by the current Hungarian government, which have been campaigning for Fidesz in recent months, and whose leaders are not hiding their political options for a single minute?

It is important to emphasise that we currently have no evidence of electoral fraud, either in the Eurotrans Foundation offices or in the network of Democracy Centres. The suspicious cases that have come to our attention during the vote so far are not necessarily linked to any of the organisations, and rather appear as isolated incidents of overzealousness.

A Facebook post by Ferenc Gidó, a local councilor in Ghidfalău. Gidó encourages people to bring their ballots to a local grocery shop

At the same time, in addition to the DAHR and the HNCT, several other organisations, even individuals, collect mail ballots. It is not uncommon in some villages for envelopes to be submitted at the parish or brought to the consulate by a neighbour. In Háromszék, for instance, the Bertis shop chain has gotten involved in collecting: the mail ballots can be left at the cash desk.

Some dozens of ballots were received by the Democracy Centres

The only change since the parliamentary elections four years ago is that less voters ask for mail packages to be sent to the Eurotrans and the Democracy Centres.

“This year, a few dozen more arrived at our offices upon the voters’ request, and most of them were sent out. Of course, they also gave us contact information so we could let them know. Currently, a total of two such ballot packages are still waiting for their owners in our offices.” – answered Krisztina Sándor, executive official of the HNCT to our question. Eurotrans only responded that no packages were sent to their addresses.

The consulates communicate particularly little

While everyone in Transylvania is collecting mail ballots zealously and voters are often specifically asked not to take the envelopes to the consulates, the consulates in Cluj-Napoca and Miercurea Ciuc communicate particularly little on Facebook. At the time of our article, there are 1-2 paid campaigns running with elections information.

Information that mail ballots may be cast in person at consulates is displayed on the Facebook pages, but not prominently. You need to carefully scroll down and read the posts to find it. This is strange because the safest way to vote is to take votes in person to the ballot boxes at the consulates.

The Consulate General of Miercurea Ciuc has spent about 14,400 lei (2,900 EUR) on Facebook ads since the end of December last year. Election-related ads only started running in February. The Consulate General in Cluj-Napoca advertised for nearly 11,800 lei (2,385 EUR) in the same period, and advertising campaigns also started in February.

The press department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade responded briefly to our questions sent to the consulates. That’s all we’ve learned about Facebook communication:

‘Our delegations draw the attention of the electorate to all the possibilities at hand that they have, so that their mails arrive at the National Electoral Office on time thanks the information published on the available platforms and by sharing it.’

Now, it’s the Transylvanian Hungarians’ turn to say thanks

Unlike the Consulates General, the two organisations facilitating the simplified naturalisation – the Eurotrans Foundation closely related to the DAHR and the network of Democracy Centres (Demokrácia Központok) operated by the HNCT – have been campaigning since last autumn. Initially, the Transylvanian Hungarians were encouraged to register and update their data, then after the registration deadline, i.e. 9 March 2022 and the arrival of the envelopes, they started collecting mail ballots.

Ads posted and paid for the Eurotrans Foundation

In its advertisements, the Eurotrans Foundation does not even try to give the impression that it is facilitating the elections as an independent organization. The vast majority of ads suggest that it is in the best interest of the Transylvanian Hungarians that the current government continue its work. Several campaign materials mention the subsidies from Hungary, noting that it is now the Transylvanian Hungarians’ turn to help the Hungarian government.

While Foreign Minister, Péter Szijjártó and other members of the Hungarian government appear in the advertisements several times, the opposition appears only in a negative context, if ever.

In the last three months, the Eurotrans Foundation has published 247 advertisements worth a total of 23,700 lei (4,770 EUR). About half of this amount, 10,700 lei (2160 EUR), has been spent on 119 ads in the last 30 days. However, the total cost of the campaign was certainly much more than that: making films and other creative materials could not be cheap either.

The Democracy Centres’ campaigns are modest compared to Eurotrans

The presence of the DAHR’s opposition, the Democracy Centres operated by the Hungarian National Council in Transylvania, on Facebook is much more modest. They have spent 3,650 lei (740 euros) on advertising in the last three months, including their campaign to help refugees in Ukraine and several smaller projects.

The Democracy Centers clearly have less resources than Eurotrans. While the latter organisation advertises with short films of impeccable quality, the motion pictures of the Demokrácia Centres were taken over from the news, most of their advertising materials are simple graphics, and members of the Hungarian government do not appear here either.

Facebook summary of last months’ spendings

Even though online presence is important, mail ballots are not collected on Facebook. Most of the work is done by staff of the Eurotrans Foundation and the Democracy Centres in the regional offices of the two organizations. If we take a closer look at these offices, we can see why the Eurotrans Foundation and the DAHR appear in many advertisements as one and the same entity.

In the very same office with the parties

Although the DAHR and the Eurotrans Foundation are two distinct legal persons, they cover essentially the same organisation. The Eurotrans Foundation was established by the DAHR, its chairman being Zoltán Nagy, the chief of staff is Kelemen Hunor, President of the DAHR. The Eurotrans office network largely coincides with the addresses of the DAHR’s local offices.

Ferenc Péter, president of Mureș County Council and Levente Kovács Mihály deputy president, local leaders of DAHR

In other words, the local employees of Eurotrans and the DAHR work in one and the same office and premises all over Transylvania. The question is how civic and political activity can be separated during a campaign. The situation is similar with the network of Democracy Centres operated by the Hungarian National Council in Transylvania: these offices are at the same time the headquarters of the regional organisations of the Hungarian People’s Party in Transylvania.

The extent to which these organisations converge is well illustrated by the mass text that Átlátszó Erdély laid hands on sent out on 28 March by a Cluj County DAHR politician. In this, he urges colleagues to “take the task seriously”, as only 40% of the votes that had been collected four years ago was collected. “Don’t give it to the minister, don’t take it to the consulate! They must get to the county DAHR!” – read the message.

A day later, on 29 March, another text was sent, this time praising them: ‘Thanks for your work! As of today, we’ve reached 60 percent. (…) On the last day, our task is to get all votes of the county. (…) Let’s go for it!’

SMS messages sent by the Cluj County organisation of the DAHR

The text message is real, but there is no quota to be reached

Upon our question, Géza Antal, executive president of the Cluj County DAHR confirmed that they had indeed sent such texts to the elected officials and the internal management staff.

We also asked whether there was a quota that the county DAHR needs to achieve in terms of the number of mail ballots to be collected. According to Antal, there is no quota that anyone would have set for the Cluj County organisation of the DAHR.

The competition is not just seen in mobilization. The DAHR and HNCT often pose with envelopes collected by their staff or when they throw in the ballots at consulates.

Géza Antal, the executive president of Cluj County DAHR (to the right) throws in the ballots at the Consulate General in Cluj-Napoca

There is no quota but there are targets

We asked the Eurotrans and the HNCT about the quotas. The Eurotrans’ answer: ‘There is no target number. In 2018, we helped nearly 100,000 people get their mail ballots back and compiled the letter package. Without exception, these letter packages were successfully delivered to the Consulates General or to the Hungarian constituencies along the border. People need this help; this number is expected to be even higher this year.’

“There is no such target number set by an external party, it is not possible to standardize this work, because there are many possibilities to return the ballots. We use targets to organise our own work because it is more efficient, but they only help and impact on the internal processes.” – said the HNCT.

The two office networks operate thanks to HUF 250-400 million grants every year

Both the Eurotrans Foundation and the Demokrácia Centres operate with the support of the Hungarian government, more precisely the Prime Minister’s Office. We requested their contracts and settlements with data requests. The Prime Minister’s Office partially complied with our request: it did not send the documents but gave us the opportunity to flip through them and take notes.

Since 2017, the Eurotrans Foundation has received subsidies between 250 million – 400 million HUF (680 thousand to 1 million EUR) annually from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Gábor Bethlen Fund. The foundation had 71 employees in 2020, spending most of the subsidies for wages. In 2020, for example, they forecast to spend 212 million HUF (578,000 EUR) for this purpose, and 120 million HUF (320,000 EUR) was set aside in their budgets for material expenses.

The HNCT Association receives roughly similar amounts as subsidies: since 2017, the subsidies received from the Prime Minister’s Office have ranged between 250 to 400 million HUF (680 thousand to 1 million EUR). It is important to note that both organizations have been assisting in the compilation of naturalisation applications since the beginning of the simplified naturalisation process (2012). According to the last published balance sheet, the HNCT Association had 53 staff. Their financial plans show that wages accounted for the largest share of the costs: in 2020, 179 million HUF (486,000 EUR) was earmarked for this purpose, and material expenses amounted to 62 million HUF (168,000 EUR).

The ballots are mainly collected on trust

It is not clear whether those who leave the packages with the mail in ballots at the Eurotrans offices, or the Democracy Centres will receive an acknowledgment of receipt. How will they be notified that their packages have been sent or delivered to a consulate or the National Electoral Office?

“If they ask for an acknowledgment of receipt, they will of course receive it. But it is unusual because people trust the Foundation and its staff, and those who give us the ballot packages are confident that we will deliver them to the Consulates General on time. If the voters provides their phone number when handing over the package, we will notify them about the delivery via a text message.” – the communication office of the Eurotrans Foundation responded to our request.

Krisztina Sándor, the executive president of CNMT (to the left), Réka Brendus, head of department at the Prime Minister’s Office and Árpád Potápi, secretary of state for National Policy. Sorce: the Facebook page of Krisztina Sándor

Krisztina Sándor wrote to our question about the acknowledgments the following: “They will not receive any acknowledgment or confirmation that their vote has been sent to any consulate. Just as the post office does not provide it to those who put their vote in the mailbox.”

How is the secrecy of the ballot ensured?

What exactly are the instructions given to their co-workers who collect the mail ballots? In a situation where an elderly voter asks the staff for help in filling out the forms, how is the confidentiality of the ballot ensured? – we asked from the Eurotrans Foundation and the HNCT.

“Our staff will only assist in compiling the mail package and filling in the identification statement. We ask people to fill out the ballot themselves at home. We receive the mail ballot package with the sealed inner envelope containing the ballot.” – said the Eurotrans Fundation.

“Our staff can only help and help those who come to us to fill in the identification statement and put it in the envelopes. If there is a voter who has not yet filled out his ballot or “referendum” slip, we ask him to step aside in a separate room or corner set up for this purpose and effectively vote.

At the same time, the vast majority of voters only come to us to return of their mail ballots, so they come to us with the closed mail ballot packages. We also help many with methodological guidance: what goes into the smaller and what goes into the bigger envelope, because there had been lots of invalid ballots in previous years.” – answered Krisztina Sándor.

Emese Oláh, the deputy mayor of Cluj shared a post urging voters to bring the ballots into the offices of Eurotrans Foundation in Cluj. The post doesn’t mention the fact that the General Consulate is near the Eurotrans offices, so voters can drop their ballots directly there

Don’t take it to the consulate general not even if its 180 m away from the Eurotrans office

It is striking that the official communication emphasizes everywhere that the envelopes should be taken to the Eurotrans Foundation as well as the Democracy Centres. There is little information about the voters being able to take the envelopes directly to the consulate in Cluj-Napoca and Miercurea Ciuc.

In Cluj-Napoca, for example, the Eurotrans Foundation office is located at 2 Iuliu Maniu Street, exactly 180 meters from the Consulate General. And even so, the Eurotrans Foundation asks everyone to bring the ballots to them, not to the Consulate General.

According to Google Maps, the Consulate General of Hungary is 180 m away from the Eurotrans office

Personal delivery is important because the more hands a ballot passes through, from the voter to the National Electoral Office, the greater the theoretical chance of fraud.

“(…) In the online communication of the Eurotrans Foundation, the priority is to help those who are unsure to fill in the identification statement correctly and compile the ballot package, and we shall take the votes to the delegations by the specified deadline. Except for the residents of Miercurea Ciuc and Cluj-Napoca, it is less realistic for someone to travel hundreds of kilometres to cast their ballot in person. That is why they can contact our colleagues from Satu Mare, through Târgu Mureş to Hunedoara.” – answered the Eurotrans Foundation to our question.

“The vast majority of our clients do not turn to us in Cluj-Napoca or in Miercurea Ciuc, so personal delivery at consulates is not a realistic option for them. Therefore, we also use our limited advertising opportunities to inform that precise majority. We do not specifically recommend our Transylvanian voters to return their ballots by mail, mainly because the ballots must be received at the National Electoral Office in Budapest by the day of the elections. (…) We see delivery to consulates as a much safer method as we have mentioned it in several places, and we take the collected ballots from all our offices there ourselves.” – said Sándor Krisztina.

Translation: Auguszta Szász. Original article, in Hungarian, available here.

Cover photo: an employee of the DAHR delivers ballots to the Consulate General in Cluj. Source: the Facebook page of the Cluj county DAHR

This article is part of our project aiming to monitor the 2022 parliamentary elections in Hungary. The project was funded in part by a grant from Investigative Journalism Europe (IJ4EU) and a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the funders.

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