Governing parties are overspending on 2014 campaign

Transparency International Hungary (TI), K-Monitor and Atlatszo.hu have united their efforts to find out how much parties are spending on their campaigns. At their press conference today, they have introduced the website kepmutatas.hu (Hungarian for hypocrisy), where the public can continuously follow how much each party is paying for their campaign. It is already blatantly obvious that the Fidesz-KDNP party (with the help of the Civil Alliance Forum /CÖF/ and the government) will exceed twice the campaign spending limit of one billion forints prescribed by legislation. However, it looks like this excessive spending will go without any consequences.

The election campaign is far from over, but it is already clear that until the end of February, Fidesz spent more than 2 billion, the left-wing Kormányváltás (Hungarian for ’change of government’) 680 million, while Jobbik 650 million and LMP 310 million forints. Our figures do not contain all the spending of the parties occurred in March, so numbers will grow further in the run-up to the elections. The spending limit set by law is 1 billion. TI’s programme for the assessment of campaign spending examines all means of campaigning, by monitoring public billboards, media advertisements, direct marketing tools (postal letters, SMS messages, phone calls, personal contact), and also party events. The anti-corruption organisation also calculated the expenditure of parties on their campaign team, opinion polls, and promotional items.

Fidesz is spending more than allowed

It is clear from the figures available to us today that Fidesz has already exceeded the legally prescribed limit, if we take into account the governmental and civil advertisements supporting the party. Parties may spend 1 billion forints on their campaigns, of which 700 million forints may come from public funds.

The campaign of governing parties is also aided by advertisements of pseudo NGOs (the so-called GO-NGOs), such as the Civil Alliance Forum (CÖF), which on paper is independent from any political force, but is in reality blatantly campaigning in support of Fidesz. According to our calculations, the price of CÖF’s campaign between November and February amounted to 570 million forints.

Not only pseudo-non-governmental organisations, but also the government itself is sponsoring Fidesz’s campaign. The government gave Fidesz a gift of 540 million forints, as this is how much the ‘Hungary is performing better’ campaign and the campaign advertising the utility price cuts that lay the foundations of the governing party’s election campaign have cost since November.

The billboards commissioned by GO-NGOs and government have so far cost altogether about 1 billion forints. As these support directly the campaign of Fidesz, we added this amount to the party’s campaign expenses. But even without the campaign costs of CÖF and the government, Fidesz-KDNP’s campaign costs have already reached 940 million, which is very close to the legally allowed limit of 1 billion, even though elections are still more than one month away.

Loopholes in the legislation

The new legislation on campaign financing is not suitable for eliminating campaign-related corruption„, says Mr. Miklós Ligeti, TI’s Legal Director, and adds „the parliament managed to adopt regulations, which the parties do not even have to break, if they want to spend unchecked on their campaigns„.

As Mr. Ligeti explained, the new legislation that entered into effect on January 1st does not prohibit the outsourcing of the campaign, that is, it does not deal with the spending of NGOs with close ties to parties, and does not limit government campaigning in any way. Under the legislation, the tariffs of public billboards do not need to be disclosed, which immensely contributes to the lack of transparency in campaign finance. Political advertisements in electronic media are free of charge, a step forward TI would theoretically welcome, but the way this regulation is put into practice annuls all its advantages. There are signs that commercial TV channels do not want to deal with the advertisements of political parties (with one major commercial channel only broadcasting government advertisements), and in addition, public media is heavily biased towards the government parties.

The legislation does not stop corruption

A further incomprehensible element of the regulation on campaign financing is that while independent electoral candidates – rightly – have to account for all public subsidies to the last forint, and if unsuccessful, will have to repay these, political parties have no such obligation. As TI warned several times in the past, there is a possibility that several parties only participate in the election to gain access to the generous allowance ensured by the state. For parties to have a nationwide candidate list, they need to collect 500 signatures in each of the 27 constituencies, and in return they are entitled to almost 149 million forints in public subsidies, which amount – depending on the recommendations collected – may climb as high as 600 million forints. In addition, the Hungarian Court of Auditors does not investigate the spending of unsuccessful ‘sham parties’ ex officio, but only in reported cases. The only positive element of the new legislation on campaigning is that the tariffs of political advertisements in the print media are made public.

So far, the experience with campaign monitoring suggests that Fidesz makes the most use of the loopholes of the campaign financing regulation. As a result, TI believes that the elections will be free, but not fair on many points.

People think parties are corrupt

Commissioned by TI, the polling agency Psyma has assessed public attitudes concerning the campaign. The findings show that only 8% of the people expect a clean campaign, assuming that the parties will only make use of legal means before the elections. According to the poll, majority of the public thinks that both the left-wing alliance to change the government (62%) and Fidesz-KDNP (55%) use funds from corrupt sources in their campaign, and every second person thinks the same about Jobbik.

Commissioned by TI, Ipsos carried out an opinion poll regarding the means of direct campaign marketing. Inter alia, it is clear from the poll that Fidesz-KDNP approached almost a quarter (22%) of the adult population in person through its activists, while the left-wing alliance reached out to 12% of those eligible to vote through the same channel. Both sides are pursuing an intensive campaign in the form of leaflets, and reach a quarter of people with this method.

An anti-corruption minimum-programme is needed – in everybody’s interest

TI, the watchdog association K-Monitor and the investigative online portal Atlatszo.hu (Hungarian for ‘transparent’) have developed an anti-corruption minimum programme (www.ezaminimum.hu). The recommendations of the programme have been drawn up so that a quarter of a century after the political transition we can finally take substantial measures against the misuse of public funds. Our aim is to gain the support of decision-makers with influence on legislation, and the broadest possible non-governmental cooperation for our initiative, overwriting political lines.

The programme makes recommendations primarily in the areas of party and campaign financing, public procurement, asset declarations, conflict of interest/revolving door, the management of national assets, and the rule of law. „The country and the legislation have changed significantly over the past 25 years, but now breakthrough has been achieved in the fight against corruption„, says Mr. Sándor Léderer, director of K-Monitor. Corruption causes immeasurable economic and societal damages; its elimination therefore needs to be in the interest of all political actors. No party striving to get into the parliament can afford to ignore this problem – added the director.

The website atlatszo.hu is receiving reports uncovering wrongdoing linked to the election campaign”, says Mr. Tamás Bodoky. The editor in chief of the online portal added that all substantiated reports will be dealt with using the tools of fact finding and investigative journalism.