European Western Balkans

Hungarian minority party achieves a “historic success” in Serbian elections: How will this affect the community?

VMSZ Party; Foto: Facebook / Vajdasági Magyar Szövetség - VMSZ

One of the more bizarre developments of the 2020 elections in Serbia included 1200 votes won by the Alliance of Hungarians in Vojvodina, a regional party representing this national minority in living the north of Serbia, in the southern city of Vranje, where, according to the population census of 2011, there are only five Hungarian citizens. It appears that the voters were told to vote for the number four in the local election in Vranje, and they also circled the same number on the separate ballot for parliamentary election, which was occupied by the Hungarian minority party.

Apart from this episode, which became an overnight hit on the social networks, it cannot be said that the leader of the Alliance of Hungarians in Vojvodina (Vajdasági Magyar Szövetség, VMSZ) István Pásztor was wrong when he declared his party one of the winners of 2020 election.

According to the still unprocessed results of the Republic Electoral Commission, which will change further after the repeated voting at 2,77% of polling stations on July 1, VMSZ won almost 15 thousand votes more than in the previous election for the National Assembly of Serbia, a total of slightly more than 70 thousand. This was not its best result ever –  but VMSZ members have a reason for satisfaction due to the number of MPs they have won. The current projections show this to be nine, five more than in 2016 and the most a Hungarian national minority party has been able to achieve since 1992.

The reason for doubling the number of MPs lies in the legal changes from 8 February, when the threshold was lowered from 5% to 3% – additionally, a provision was adopted to increase the votes won by national minority parties, to which this threshold does not apply, by 35% before inserting it in the D’Hondt formula for the distribution of sears, on which our portal has previously written about.

VMSZ achieved an even greater success in the elections for the Provincial Assembly of Vojvodina and local elections – instead of the previous six, it will have 11 seats in the Vojvodina Assembly (120 in total). An even better result, as Pásztor emphasized, was achieved at the local level, where the number of votes, according to him, was “historical”. Thanks to the boycott of the opposition, VMSZ managed to reach one of the first three places in most of the 23 cities and municipalities where it ran independently. In the northern city of Subotica, it finished strongly second, while in the majority Hungarian municipality of Kanjiža, it beat the Serbian Progressive Party with 64 to 18 percent.

The clear mandate of the Alliance of Hungarians in Vojvodina could be used in the coming period to solve the problems with the exercising the minority rights that this community still has in Serbia, despite the undoubtedly better position compared to some other minority communities. However, as journalist Csaba Pressburger says for our portal, these issues were in the background during the campaign, dominated by economic issues.

“Improving the economic position of citizens is probably of paramount importance, but that does not mean that everything in the field of minority rights is regulated and functions flawlessly,” says Pressburger.

VMSZ among the Hungarian minority – as dominant as Serbian Progressive Party in the country

During this election cycle, our portal wrote about both the Albanian and Bosniak national minorities, and it is interesting that the party scene of these three communities has had a completely different dynamic – while the Albanian parties finally ran united following the mediation of Tirana and Pristina, three dominant Bosniak parties ran in three columns – and all managed to enter the parliament. When it comes to the Hungarian community, however, the situation is reminiscent of the position that the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) currently has at the state level – VMSZ is dominant, and political pluralism is present only in traces.

The relations between the parties of national minorities cannot, of course, be fully compared with the relations that prevail within the majority population. However, as Csaba Pressburger notes in a recent text, similar to the SNS in the republican parliament, the VMSZ was left alone on Vojvodina’s Hungarian political scene.

Of the remaining four parties of the Hungarian national minority, two supported the VMSZ, while the Democratic Community of Hungarians in Vojvodina (Vajdasági Magyarok Demokratikus Közössége, VMDK) and the Hungarian Civic Alliance from Senta joined the boycott of the opposition. VMDK leader Áron Csonka, together with one of the founders of the Alliance for Serbia, Janko Veselinović, visited several places in Vojvodina in June, where he also called on members of national minorities to boycott the elections. On that occasion, Csonka stressed that the media in the Hungarian language are completely under the control of VMSZ, the coalition partner of the SNS, and that no truth can break into those media.

Given the absolute number of votes won by the VMSZ – close to a quarter of the total Hungarian population, together with 1,200 Vranje residents – it cannot be said that the call for a boycott found a very fertile ground. On the other hand, if the goal of the boycott, similar to the opposition on the national level, was to show almost one-party dominance on the political scene, it was achieved – the only other association of citizens, the Hungarian Movement, competed in the elections, in Subotica and Senta, where it seems to have won a small number of councilors.

Back in 2016, the situation was different – then the Hungarian electorate was divided in the provincial elections by the VMSZ and the coalition of VMDK and the Hungarian Movement, which won three times smaller, but not insignificant 16 thousand votes and two seats. According to Csaba Pressburger, four years later, the long-term work of the VMSZ has borne fruit – the party remains the only serious player in the Hungarian political arena.

“It’s just that this ripe fruit is rolling under a fallen tree, rotten and wormy – because in the meantime, a significant part of the electoral base, with a Hungarian passport in its pocket, emigrated to the west and does not plan to return home or vote anymore,” he wrote.

In between FIDESZ and SNS

The Hungarian citizenship that Pressburger mentions, received by a significant number of Vojvodina residents in recent years, is, among other things, the result of the commitment of the government in Budapest, which has been led by Viktor Orbán’s FIDESZ for a decade, with VMSZ considered its sister party. The day after the June 21 elections, István Pásztor met with Orbán in Budapest, whom he thanked for “the immense support they provided to Vojvodina’s Hungarians for a historic victory.”

A week before the vote, Orbán called on the Hungarian community to go to the upcoming elections in an interview with Pannon TV in Subotica.

“We are a nation whose destiny is strongly influenced by every election. So, there are no irrelevant elections for Hungarians. As far as your choices are concerned, there is no tension here in Hungary, as if nothing bad can happen. That’s when trouble happens. It is very important, and with great respect, I ask the Hungarians of Vojvodina to inevitably go out to vote and support the Hungarian candidates, to give them confidence, to choose good leaders, because good leaders are a condition for the government to have partners”, Orbán said during the interview, his words having an additional weight in the context of the boycott of the elections by the opposition in Serbia.

Orbán and Pasztor in Budapest following the election day; Photo: Facebook / Vajdasági Magyar Szövetség – VMSZ

In addition to the sister relations with VMSZ, good relations between the ruling parties in Budapest and Belgrade are also becoming increasingly noticeable as the years go by, and their leaders often claim that the relations between Hungary and Serbia have never been better in history.

During Orbán’s last visit to Belgrade, immediately after the lifting of the state of emergency in May, Serbian President Vučić said that he was very grateful to István Pásztor, who, as he said, had established bridges of friendship between the two countries. Coalitions of SNS and VMSZ have been functioning for years without, at least public, problems – the peak was probably reached in 2017, when the Alliance Hungarians in Vojvodina supported Vučić’s presidential candidacy. In the previous two presidential elections, this party ran independently, with Pásztor as the candidate.

In an interview on 24 June, Pásztor said that there had been no talk of a post-election coalition with the SNS, but that he expected talks to take place when the President has talked to all the leaders of the parties that entered the parliament.

“If there is readiness, we would continue the cooperation from previous years, which was confirmed to be good for both sides, good for the relations between the two countries, and I see no reason why it should not be continued, especially after these results,” Pásztor said.

Unlike most of the election participants, VMSZ published a detailed manifesto, which it will now have an opportunity to implement. In addition to the points that are obviously written looking up to FIDESZ, including the protection of Serbia’s borders from illegal migration, part of the manifesto includes the rights of minorities – although, as noted by Csaba Pressburger, after the economic issues.

From the representation in the public sector to education

Council of Europe documents dealing with minority rights in Serbia emphasize that the rights of minorities in Vojvodina, among which the Hungarian minority is by far the largest, are at a much higher level of protection than in the rest of Serbia, but that there are still things that need to be improved.

Among the examples of the problems that the Hungarian community still faces, Csaba Pressburger highlights that certain personal documents are still not issued on bilingual forms, that the proportional representation of persons belonging to national minorities in state bodies is still not at the appropriate level nor regulated by legal acts, and that the languages ​​of national minorities are in official use in Vojvodina de jure, but often not de facto.

Representation of the Hungarian minority in the public sector is obviously an important issue, since VMSZ has included it in its election program, and it is also mentioned in the comments sent by the National Council of the Hungarian National Minority to the Council of Europe 2018, stating the negative impact it has on the employment rights.

Assembly of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina

In addition to the rights of members of the Hungarian national minority in the field of culture and education, the 2014 ban of employment in the public sector had a negative impact on communication with public services and other public authorities in their mother tongue, according to the comments on the Council of Europe report on Serbia.

The negative consequence of media privatization on informing members of this community in their mother tongue is also stressed, while public services are struggling with a shortage of staff due to, once again, a ban on employment in the public sector.

In the field of education, the National Council positively assessed the availability of textbooks in Hungarian for primary schools, but not for secondary education, while a complaint was filed against discrimination of students who want to take the entrance exam in Hungarian when enrolling at the Faculty of Law at the University Novi Sad. Another point of the VMSZ program for 2020 referred to the transfer of the founding rights of primary schools in the Hungarian language and cultural institutions of this minority to its National Council.

Given the position that the Alliance of Hungarians in Vojvodina has in the government led by the Serbian Progressive Party, it is possible to expect that some of these issues will be resolved in the coming years. However, the instability of the political scene after the elections, despite the dominant result achieved by SNS, may put them lower on the list of priorities.

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