Photo: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán takes selfies in an ethnic Hungarian-majority village in Szeklerland, Romania. Source: the Facebook page of Hunor Kelemen, president of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania.

This investigation scrutinised Hungary’s parliamentary elections on April 3, 2022. The team focused on the voting processes for ethnic Hungarians with dual citizenship living in three neighbouring countries: Romania, Serbia and Ukraine.

The votes of dual citizens matter because they can be expected to translate into up to three parliamentary seats for the ruling Fidesz party of illiberal Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Traditionally, the overwhelming majority of ethnic Hungarians who vote from countries on Hungary’s doorstep support Fidesz. In April 2022, some 94 percent of valid mail-in ballots were for the ruling party. Most came from Romania, Serbia and Ukraine.

The investigation sought to get to the bottom of Orbán’s popularity among ethnic Hungarians in lands once belonging to the Austro-Hungarian empire, probing how Fidesz has garnered unprecedented influence through preferentially awarded community grants.

The team also gathered data to reveal how Budapest pours forints into ethnic Hungarian media in Romania, Serbia and Slovakia. This financial support leads to widespread censorship, it found.

The team’s press-monitoring data showed that Orbán and his government are almost always depicted in a favourable or neutral light by ethnic Hungarian media outlets, while the Hungarian opposition is either absent from the news or depicted negatively.

The journalists also exposed questionable voting practices in Romania and Serbia.

In ethnic Hungarian communities in Romania and Serbia, pro-Fidesz non-governmental organisations financed by Budapest competed to gather mail-in ballots. The votes were then taken to consulates in improvised, open boxes instead of in standard ballot boxes.

The team investigated an incident in which more than a dozen partially burned mail-in ballots were found in a field among debris near the Romanian city of Târgu-Mureș. The incident quickly became fodder for disinformation campaigns from both political camps.

Close to the Ukrainian border, the journalists discovered that several thousands “phantom voters” were a no-show at this year’s elections in Hungary. The war in Ukraine disrupted established patterns of illegally “trafficking” groups of voters over the frontier.

Figures showing how the population of Hungarian border villages has changed over time suggests that even before the war, “phantom voters” had been disappearing by the thousands.

The investigation was led by Átlátszó Erdély, a Hungarian-language news outlet based in Romania. Some members of the cross-border team had previously collaborated on the IJ4EU-supported investigation Hungarian Money, Orbán’s Control.

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Published stories

Átlátszó Erdély (Hungarian-language news outlet in Romania)