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A Tale Of Two Diasporas: The Battle For Hungarian Voters Abroad

An ethnic Hungarian Szekler arrives to attend Hungarian national holiday celebrations in Targu Secuiesc, Romania, in 2013.
An ethnic Hungarian Szekler arrives to attend Hungarian national holiday celebrations in Targu Secuiesc, Romania, in 2013.

LONDON -- One evening in January, a large group of Hungarians met in a conference room along the upmarket Pall Mall street in central London. More than 200 people sat at round tables, the room decorated with crystal chandeliers and huge, antique paintings. They were there to see Hungary's joint opposition candidate for prime minister, 49-year-old conservative Mayor Peter Marki-Zay, ahead of Hungary's April 3 parliamentary elections.

The event was at full capacity, and it was Marki-Zay's first campaign stop outside the country.

"I hope that this April, more Hungarian citizens will go to the polling stations than ever before," said Tamas Csillag, a member of Hungary's centrist Momentum party and a candidate for parliament. Csillag was also the organizer of Marki-Zay's campaign stop in London and anticipates 75,000 to 100,000 people will vote just from the United Kingdom alone.

In previous elections, the majority of Hungarians living abroad -- notably the ethnic Hungarians living around Hungary's borders -- have voted for the ruling right-wing party Fidesz and Prime Minister Viktor Orban. But with that population aging or becoming assimilated into their home countries, a new generation of Hungarians abroad -- many of whom are living in Western Europe, politically engaged, and certainly no fans of Orban -- is changing the electoral calculus.

Opposition candidate Peter Marki-Zay speaking in central London in January.
Opposition candidate Peter Marki-Zay speaking in central London in January.

The Hungarian diaspora is split into two distinct groups. The much larger group, numbering around 2 million people, comprises the ethnic Hungarians who have lived in regions surrounding the country ever since the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which ceded much of the Kingdom of Hungary to neighboring states, now Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Ukraine.

The second group is made up of émigrés from communism and, more recently, migrants who have left the country for work abroad, mainly in the European Union. Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but this newer expatriate population is thought to number between 300,000 and 400,000 people.

The older, traditional diaspora's fierce loyalty to Orban comes as no surprise, given that the prime minister gave them Hungarian citizenship in 2011, voting rights in 2012, and has continued to groom his base abroad with generous financial support -- all policies that resonate with Orban's nationalist rhetoric at home.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the opening of a soccer academy in Dunajska Streda, Slovakia, in November 2018.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban at the opening of a soccer academy in Dunajska Streda, Slovakia, in November 2018.

But with the 2022 vote shaping up to be a close call and perhaps the greatest challenge ever to Orban's rule, it is the second diaspora group that the opposition -- a six-party alliance led by political outsider Marki-Zay -- thinks could be theirs for the taking.

Almost 190,000 Hungarians live in the United Kingdom, a number that has been growing since the 2000s. In 2006, according to data from Statista, 4,314 people left Hungary to live abroad; in 2019, that number was nearly 50,000. Fueled by migration following the country's entry into the European Union, now every sixth Hungarian baby is born outside the country.

While the data is limited, Hungarians living in the United Kingdom appear to be much more open to voting for opposition parties. According to an exit poll conducted by a group of volunteers in 2018, only 7 percent of those who voted in the parliamentary elections from London cast their votes for Fidesz. It's a trend that is likely mirrored elsewhere. A 2022 report from the 21 Research Center, in which researchers asked over 5,000 Hungarians living around the world, shows that only 11 percent of Hungarian emigrants would vote for Fidesz.

'Power-Hungry Forces'

Lily Horvath is among the supporters of the joint opposition, which is made up of center-left parties and the right-wing Jobbik. She moved abroad 15 years ago and now lives in London. Horvath told RFE/RL that she hasn't always been politically active, but it was Fidesz's campaign against LGBT people that she found nauseating. She isn't loyal to any of the parties, she said, but supports the joint opposition and Marki-Zay.

Since he became prime minister in 2010, Orban's critics say he has dismantled democratic institutions in Hungary, while trashing judicial independence and taking control of the media. A series of laws passed in 2021, which included legislation on teaching about homosexuality and transgender issues in schools, were widely condemned by the LGBT community and the European Commission.

"I heard stories about the lines for the previous elections. I might have had second thoughts," Horvath said. "But this year I'm sure it won't put me off from queuing for hours if needed."

A Hungarian opposition event in central London in January.
A Hungarian opposition event in central London in January.

Annamaria Karvalits, a Hungarian living in London, was equally determined to vote against the ruling party. "I will vote for the opposition coalition because I am tired of power-hungry forces exploiting my country," Karvalits said.

"Like many," she said, she moved to the United Kingdom five years ago to study. For the 2018 elections, she traveled to Hungary, as it coincided with her university break. "This time I will go home," she said, "to take part in the campaign and the counting of the votes."

"Many of the émigré Hungarians do not support the government. [The government] is aware of this, which is why they are making it more difficult for us to vote," Karvalits said.

While Hungarians living abroad who don't have a Hungarian address -- which is normal for ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring states -- are allowed to mail in their votes, Hungarians who have kept their addresses but are living outside the country must go to polling stations overseen by Hungary's National Polling Office.

Voters often complain there are not enough polling stations and they have to travel too far to get to them. In the United Kingdom, there are only three polling stations -- in London, Edinburgh, and Manchester -- although the authorities have said for these elections they are expanding the capacity of the London voting center.

That is an imbalance that the recent migrants and the opposition think is unfair.

"We did not set up this system, we cannot influence it, but we have already protested against it," opposition leader Marki-Zay said at the London event.

Polling Station Petition

Balazs Lang, a Hungarian based in the United Kingdom, has started a petition calling for more polling stations, which has been signed by over 8,000 people to date.

"We asked for polling stations in 15 major [U.K.] cities, only three of which were approved by the National Polling Office," Lang said. "So our job is to get everyone from the other 12 [cities] who wants to exercise their right to vote regardless of their political affiliation."

Lang is one of the activists behind the newly founded NGO Diaspora Aid, which collects donations to help Hungarians living in various parts of the Britain to get to the polling stations on April 3.

"When people will get on a bus, we won't ask who they are voting for, because we don't care. We simply want to solve a problem that neither the government nor the opposition parties could," he said.

Complaints about voting logistics are rarely heard from the traditional diaspora, those 2 million ethnic Hungarians living in Hungary's neighboring states. People there are allowed to vote by mail, often before election day.

Support for Orban and Fidesz is incredibly high. In Transylvania, the part of northwestern Romania where around 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians live, research shows that over 80 percent of voters would vote for Orban and Fidesz and only 2 percent would cast a vote for the joint opposition.

Ethnic Hungarians in Suza, Croatia.
Ethnic Hungarians in Suza, Croatia.

In Suza (Csuza in Hungarian), a village in eastern Croatia with a large ethnic Hungarian population, there is no doubt who most people will vote for. RFE/RL's Hungarian Service spoke to around 50 people in the village, all of whom said they would vote for Orban and Fidesz.

"Orban has granted [us] Hungarian citizenship, and since 2017 we have been receiving a lot of support," said local resident Ilona Pinkert. "That's why we vote for them, and we don't care who the opposition is in Hungary and what they want."

In addition to granting citizenship to ethnic Hungarians, Orban has plowed money into their communities. A report by found that support for the diaspora has increased tenfold from 2010 to around 383 million euros ($435 million) in 2018. An RFE/RL report from July 2021 found that ethnic Hungarian communities and civic groups in western Ukraine have received at least 115 million euros from the Hungarian government over the past 10 years. The money is usually channeled into Hungarian-language media and education, with the remainder going to local social, religious, and cultural programs.

In nearby Zmajevac (Vorosmart in Hungarian), Jozsef Kromer is the former mayor of the village with a population of around 700. He told RFE/RL he is proud that, during the time of his mayorship, the "ruined" community center was renovated with Hungarian government money.

'Nothing Was Stolen From Us'

Another local, Tivadar Dobo, has 40 hectares of farmland in the surrounding region, and said that he has successfully applied for support from Hungary to buy agricultural machinery. "Orban is a good man," Dobo said. When asked by RFE/RL what he thought about criticism that Orban and Fidesz were corrupt, Dobo was blunt: "Nothing was stolen from us," he said.

"Fidesz counts on these votes," said Endre Tomos, a Budapest-based member of Momentum and an opposition candidate for the parliament. "I think it's a flaw of the opposition that they never cared about these potential voters."

For Hungary's opposition, the traditional diaspora is a tough nut to crack -- a world away from a receptive conference room in Pall Mall. According to a recently published letter, multiple Hungarian mayors in Transylvania expressed their dislike for the opposition and stated that they will not welcome Marki-Zay should he visit the area.

A picture taken in November 2017 shows signs in two languages, Ukrainian and Hungarian, at a pharmacy in Berehove, a small town in western Ukraine.
A picture taken in November 2017 shows signs in two languages, Ukrainian and Hungarian, at a pharmacy in Berehove, a small town in western Ukraine.

Much of their disapproval is grounded in the belief that the opposition wants to take away their voting rights and citizenship. Former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, the leader of the left-wing Democratic Coalition, which is now a member of the six-party opposition alliance, famously campaigned against ethnic Hungarians being granted citizenship ahead of a 2004 referendum.

That isn't the plan anymore, said Tomos, himself from Transylvania. He told RFE/RL that the joint opposition doesn't plan on taking away ethnic Hungarians' citizenship or voting rights and that Fidesz is keen to promote this false belief in its election campaigning and through pro-Orban media.

"Fidesz's campaign is ugly and aggressive now. They didn't start this year, but 30 years ago, and they are milking it now," Tomos said. "Fidesz didn't gain trust over just one campaign."

What could work in the opposition's favor in the long run is the demographics. According to new estimates, the number of ethnic Hungarians in neighboring states has fallen below 2 million for the first time since 1920.

Orban and Fidesz have always played the long game with the country's ethnic Hungarians abroad. Now Hungary's opposition might have to learn to do the same.

Reported and written by Lili Rutai in London with reporting by RFE/RL's Hungarian Service in Suza, Croatia.
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    Lili Rutai

    Lili Rutai is a freelance journalist based in London and Budapest. She has previously reported for Vice, The Calvert Journal, and about social issues, culture, and politics in Hungary. 

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