Newspaper article International New York Times

New Ad Rules and a Clown Give Hungarian Vote a Circus Feel

Newspaper article International New York Times

New Ad Rules and a Clown Give Hungarian Vote a Circus Feel

Article excerpt

In Hungary, the rules on political advertising have been changed quickly to benefit the ruling party.

The most visible poster on the streets here is not the one advertising the Deep Purple concert at the Papp Laszlo Sportarena. And it's not the one for "Balkan Kobra," a theatrical comedy featuring a stubbly hero sporting tight jeans and a Kalashnikov. And it's definitely not the one for the Budapest Dance Festival.

Instead, it's the one that shows three or four guys wearing neckties standing in a police lineup, alongside a clown. In one of the more ubiquitous versions of the poster, two of the men are former left-wing prime ministers of Hungary. A third is Attila Mesterhazy, president of the country's Socialist Party and a candidate for prime minister in the coming election in April. The fourth is Miklos Hagyo, the former left-wing deputy mayor of Budapest and the subject of a corruption trial.

The men, and the clown, appear above the slogan "They Don't Deserve Another Chance."

Given that political advertising has been sharply and abruptly curtailed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz Party, the pre-eminence of a political ad -- on billboards, lampposts and the sides of buses -- might seem surprising. But Fidesz, which has been widely criticized as taking Hungary in an autocratic direction since taking power in 2010, has become adept at controlling the message. It has rewritten the state's Constitution, come to dominate all branches of government and held increasing sway over the media. Meanwhile, according to the International Monetary Fund, Hungary's economic output is not expected to return to 2008 levels until 2017.

Fidesz has reshaped the rules for political advertising. Commercial television stations are barred from charging money for political advertising, which has largely driven political ads off commercial TV. That leaves state-owned stations, which are restricted to eight hours of political advertising over the 50 days of the official campaign. In Budapest, outdoor advertising on billboards, lampposts and other areas has also been restricted.

The outdoor-advertising restriction, however, does not apply to "independent" groups, notably the pro-Orban Civil Union Forum, which has been partly financed in the past by a Fidesz foundation and is behind the clown ad. The group has plastered the ad all over the capital and throughout the country.

Think of it as soft money, Hungarian style, or Hungary's own version of "super PACs," the political action committees that have transformed the American political process. In the United States, though, both sides of the political aisle take part in the super PAC arms race. In Hungary, the rules have been changed quickly to benefit the ruling party, leaving the opposition flat-footed and well behind. …

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