Hungary's Orban courts diaspora for election boost


Dunajska Streda (Slovakia) (AFP)

Posing on Facebook in December beside the millionth "new citizen" Hungary has welcomed in recent years, an ethnic-Hungarian farmer from Serbia, nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban had reason to look pleased.

A 2011 law offering dual citizenship, according to Orban, "makes Hungarians officially part of the Hungarian nation again" after the post-World War I Trianon Treaty handed over swathes of territory and population to neighbouring countries.

And thanks to rule changes in 2012, these dual citizens abroad can vote by post in Hungary's elections -- including on April 8.

All but a handful of those registering to vote are expected to cast their ballot in gratitude for Orban's party, Fidesz, which polls predict will remain in power for a third consecutive term.

Around half of the two-million-strong diaspora next door to Hungary lives in the Transylvania region of central Romania, with clusters in Slovakia, Serbia and Ukraine.

In the mostly ethnic-Hungarian town of Dunajska Streda in Slovakia, a country home to some half a million Magyars -- almost 10 percent of the population -- Trianon still stings almost 100 years on.

"For us Hungary is the motherland," said Gabor Racz, 43, outside a cultural centre where posters advertise visiting performers from Budapest.

During a game at the local football stadium, fans wearing scarves with the pre-Trianon Hungarian name for modern-day Slovakia chanted "Hungaria!" and praised Orban.

"We must hold on to our Hungarian identity," Zoltan Repas, 58, told AFP. "This is why I would vote for Fidesz".

- Anti-immigration patriot -

Since coming into power in 2010 Orban, who in recent years has portrayed himself as an anti-immigration patriot, has pumped funding into Hungarian schools, churches and cultural institutions abroad.

"Orban speaks on a national and ethnic level, it resonates with Hungarians across the border," Nandor Bardi, a historian at the Academy of Sciences in Budapest, told AFP.

Some 95 percent of cross-border voters at the last election in 2014 plumped for Orban's party, and a similar proportion is expected in April.

Both Jobbik and the Socialists, Hungary's next biggest parties after Fidesz, were largely ignored by locals during campaign trips.

The head of the Socialists, Ferenc Gyurcsany, complaining that people who don't pay tax in Hungary shouldn't vote, has won few fans among the diaspora by pledging to rescind the dual nationality law.

"As citizens we should have the same rights as those in Hungary even if we don't pay tax," Agota Cinege, a 30-year-old Fidesz voter, told AFP in the Transylvanian city of Cluj.

"There is no one else to vote for, the opposition parties aren't relevant here," said Zoltan Tibori Szabo, a professor at the city's Babes-Bolyai university.

- 'Counting on you' -

But while the proportion of "new" citizens who vote for Orban may be overwhelming, the actual numbers are low.

"The passport has high symbolic and practical value, but people are either too busy to vote, or don't like Orban's politics," said Bardi, the historian.

In 2014 only 130,000 bothered to vote, a small fraction of Hungary's electorate of almost eight million, and enough for just one extra mandate for Fidesz in the 199-seat assembly.

"Orban expected a million new passports to translate into a million grateful voters, but it hasn't worked out," Robert Laszlo, an elections expert at the Political Capital think-tank, told AFP.

Critics also point out that Hungarians living and working farther afield in western Europe can't vote by post but have to travel to their nearest embassy or consulate.

"The government knows that many of these people emigrated from Hungary because of the government's policies and are unlikely to vote for Fidesz," said Miklos Hajnal from the opposition Momentum party Monday.

Last year Orban sent a letter to the diaspora urging them to register to vote, and has paid several trips across the border in the run-up to the election.

"I'm counting on you," he told a crowd in Subotica, Serbia on Monday.

Voter registrations have duly doubled since 2014 with some 250,000 expected to vote this time round according to analysts.

"It's as if a new city full of Fidesz voters has sprung up," wrote a commentator on the website.

In 2014 a little went a long way. The single mandate meant Fidesz clinched a powerful two-thirds majority by one seat.

And as Orban faces a tighter race than expected after a recent by-election defeat that has galvanised the opposition, the two or more diaspora mandates likely next month could again prove decisive.