Study documents electoral corruption in Hungary

Politicians and powerbrokers in Hungary use a variety of illicit election strategies to secure people’s votes, including making access to public benefits contingent on supporting preferred candidates, according to a new study co-authored by Yale political scientist Isabela Mares.

Mares and co-author Lauren Young, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California-Davis, documented the prevalence of multiple forms of electoral clientelism — quid pro quo exchanges of votes for some agreed upon behavior by a politician — in Hungary’s 2014 parliamentary elections.

The study, published in the journal Comparative Politics, is the first to document electoral clientelism in Hungary, a member of NATO and the European Union. 

“Until now, we didn’t know whether clientelism existed in countries in the European Union,” said Mares, a professor of political science. “These are countries that are supposed to have free and fair elections. The existence of these illicit practices in Hungary is extremely important.”

Research on clientelism generally has focused on documenting vote buying — the exchange of private money or gifts for votes — in developing countries in Latin America and Africa, Mares said.   

Mares and Young identified new types of clientelism, and fine-tuned a methodology for measuring and documenting multiple forms of the practice.

“We show that vote buying is just one of many forms of clientelism in Hungary,” she said. “The most important forms involve the use of state resources.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who won power in 2010, established a workfare program that provides jobs to hundreds of thousands of people that pay twice as much as the country’s minimum wage. Local mayors administer the program and control distribution of the benefits, Mares explained.

“The benefits are conditioned on political support,” she said. “In deindustrialized areas of Hungary, where jobs are very scarce, politicians are using the workfare program — many people’s only source of income — to condition electoral support.”

The workfare program drives two forms of clientelism: One in which a positive inducement — access to the program’s benefits — is exchanged for votes, and another in which benefits are threatened to coerce political support, Mares noted. 

“Coercion of voters is something we thought only happened in the 19th century, but we have found that it persists in contemporary elections in established democracies,” she said. “It is the most objectionable form of clientelism because the voter loses autonomy and has little choice but to comply.”

Overall, Mares and Young documented four types of clientelism in Hungary: vote buying, the provision of public benefits in exchange for votes, coercion through threatening receipt of benefits, and economic coercion involving threats from non-state actors, such as moneylenders and employers.

They ran surveys in 93 villages in three Hungarian counties using “list experiments,” which were developed to elicit unbiased answers from people about sensitive political attitudes, such as racism or anti-Semitism. In these survey-based experiments, respondents are presented a list of items and asked how many — as opposed to which — are true. The control group was given a questionnaire with only non-sensitive items. The treatment group received the same list of non-sensitive items with an additional item measuring sensitive behavior, such as whether they expected a favor from the mayor if they voted for the right candidate.

The researchers found that 5-7% of respondents reported having experienced one of the four clientelism strategies. By comparison, studies have shown that 5-7% of voters in Argentina and 10-12% in Venezuela reported getting vote-buying offers.  

The researchers posit that the blend of clientelistic strategies differs across localities depending on a number of factors. These include the long-term incumbency of the mayor, whether the mayor belongs to the nationally incumbent party, and demographic and economic characteristics of the locality. In localities with large populations of residents who are ineligible for the workfare program, coercive forms of clientelism are more likely, especially if there is also a large group of very poor residents who are eligible for the workfare benefits. By contrast, vote buying does not appear to be at all targeted. 

Mares and Young suggest that politicians and political brokers take advantage of resentments between poor people who receive workfare benefits and those who do not. For example, a politician might threaten to reduce workfare benefits, thereby capturing the support of those whose livelihoods depend on them while also signaling to those opposed to the program a willingness to cut benefits or punish beneficiaries deemed unworthy, the researchers explained. These signals are important because in general, voters do not like politicians who use clientelism. However, when politicians use clientelism in a way that aligns with people’s policy preferences, they view it less negatively, Mares said.

This ‘poor-versus-poor’ conflict is an important, yet overlooked, dimension of political conflict in deindustrialized communities.

“Politicians use coercive strategies because they can secure the votes of beneficiary recipients without getting punished by their own supporters since they are signaling that they are opposed to the very poor,” Mares said. “In Hungary, there is political conflict over which groups are ‘deserving’ of welfare benefits, and politicians can use coercion to signal that they believe that the very poor and members of minority groups are lazy and untrustworthy. This ‘poor-versus-poor’ conflict is an important, yet overlooked, dimension of political conflict in deindustrialized communities.”

The ability to use the workfare program to coerce electoral support has played a role in the enduring success of Orban’s Fidesz party, which won 133 of the 199 seats in the National Assembly in the 2014 elections and secured its two-thirds majority in the 2018 elections.  

“The dynamics we uncovered explain how Fidesz politicians win election after election,” she said. “The party controls the mayors and they control the distribution of benefits.”

Mares emphasized the need for election monitors in Hungary and elsewhere to adopt more robust methodological approaches including list-experiments and deploying longer-term monitors to a much wider sample of rural communities, to detect multiple types of electoral clientelism.

“Understanding the extent of political clientelism is important to understanding democratic erosion in Hungary and other Eastern European countries,” she said. “I hope our research informs the work of election monitors and scholars working in other parts of the globe.”