Democratic Challenges in Europe: Recent Elections in Serbia and Hungary – What Lies Ahead?

Where is democracy in Europe heading? Earlier this month, Serbian and Hungarian citizens went to the polls to cast their votes. As expected, Aleksandar Vucic remains the President of Serbia while Viktor Orban remains the Prime Minister of Hungary. What do these outcomes mean for these countries and the rest of Europe? What are the democratic challenges connected to the outcome of these elections and are we going to see more countries struggle to uphold democratic values and rule of law?

On April 28, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) Regional Europe Office (REO) hosted the 18th installment of its Democratic Resilience in Europe discussion series to explore these issues. The event gathered 79 participants (of whom 58 percent were women) from 29 countries and is now available in English. Participants rated the discussion 8.5/10 on average and 82 percent of participants had participated in previous discussions.

Ms. Marta Pardavi emphasized the increased role of Hungarian civil society organizations compared to the 2018 parliamentary elections while demonstrating their focus on voter inclusion, training polling staff and election monitoring in the 2022 elections. Pardavi presented how the Russian invasion of Ukraine served Viktor Orban’s campaign, and his portrayal in the Fidesz media-dominated landscape as the sole protector of the Hungarian nation rendering his party the only solution to minimizing the threat of war spilling over into Hungary. As one of the 16 members of the civil society coalitions that were fined for “encouraging to cast invalid votes” in the referendum held on the same day as the elections aimed at ostracizing the LGBTQI community, Pardavi stressed that this will not deter them from raising awareness of LGBTQI issues.

Mr. Peter Novotny, an official observer of the Hungarian parliamentary elections assessed Election Day as generally positive with some shortcomings, whereas the election campaign itself was viewed very negatively given the lack of public debates as well as the state backed media campaigns and weak regulations in campaign finance and overall lack of transparency. According to Novotny, the war in Ukraine also changed the narrative of the campaign rhetoric. Novotny noted that while the election procedures in Hungary are generally well developed, the main issues lie with the lack of freedom in media and judiciary independence. Novotny predicted that with regards to the outcome of the elections on Hungary’s foreign policy priorities, not much will change, but Hungary risks becoming isolated due to its support of Russia, in addition to the level of corruption that threatens its position in seeking EU funds.

Mr. Bojan Klačar expressed concern over the rise in support of far-right parties in Serbia that was fueled by the Ukrainian crisis. Klačar revealed how the 2020 boycott of elections initiated inter-party dialogue, brought changes in electoral reform and led to some improvement in the legal framework. Klačar called for more reforms in election administration and processes while positively viewing the role of the election management body in the most recent elections. The main shortcomings are the blurring between the activities of public officials and party positions as well as a lack of a level playing field in media representation. Despite a large majority of the Serbian population supporting Russia, Klačar expects that Serbia’s foreign policy will gradually lean towards the West.

Mr. Nermin Nisic highlighted main challenges in the Serbian election processes, such as new election laws being implemented prior to the elections, a lack of a permanent secretariat at the national level, misuse of state resources and lack of trust in the election processes due to media disinformation and general global security issues. Among the proposed solutions for overcoming the challenges, Nisic proposes the introduction of election legislation in an inclusive and transparent manner rather than as multiple laws and strengthening the technical capacity of staff. Regarding collaboration between electoral management bodies in West Balkan countries, Nisic identified similarities that provide fruitful opportunities for collaboration and sharing good practices through networks that IFES actively supports. In addition to these networks, IFES delivers tailored technical support in specific countries, helps tackle corruption, supports election management institutions and focuses on inclusiveness in elections.

The Q&A session looked at state abuse of resources in Hungary and Serbia and how these issues can be tackled.

Published on May 12, 2022.

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