An NGO in Serbia with ties to the ruling Hungarian Fidesz party of authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was not only given access to voter lists of ethnic Hungarians in Serbia but was tasked with distributing absentee ballots for Hungary's recent parliamentary elections.
The Serbian state-run postal service, Posta Serbia, signed a deal with Unity of the Hungarian Minority to distribute to eligible voters in Serbia ballots for Hungary's April 3 parliamentary elections, according to a copy of the contract obtained by RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
The NGO, which bills itself as promoting and protecting human rights with no mention of electoral activities, was awarded the deal despite Posta Serbia, the national mail carrier, not announcing a public tender for the contract. In Hungary, right-wing populist Orban has been criticized for backsliding on human rights and limiting the independence of the judiciary and media.
The leadership of Unity of the Hungarian Minority comprises members of the Union of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM), a political party that represents ethnic Hungarians in Serbia and is formally linked to Orban's Fidesz party. Vojvodina is a northern autonomous province in Serbia where the vast majority of ethnic Hungarians live.
Under the deal with the Serbian postal service, the NGO gained access to personal data, including the addresses of thousands of ethnic Hungarians in Serbia with dual citizenship, the documents obtained by RFE/RL show.
Posta Serbia did not respond to requests from RFE/RL for comment, neither did the NGO, Unity of the Hungarian Minority.
More than 250,000 ethnic Hungarians live in Serbia, latest census data shows, with 70,000 holding Hungarian passports and registered to vote in Hungary.
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 emigres 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 granted them Hungarian citizenship in 2010 and voting rights in 2011, and has continued to groom his base abroad with generous financial support.
More than 1.1 million ethnic Hungarians have taken up dual citizenship, according to Hungarian data. Slovakia quickly altered its law in 2012 to prevent its population from doing the same and holding dual citizenship.
The new influx of citizens has paid off politically for Orban's Fidesz party. In the 2022 elections, for example, Fidesz picked up more than 52 percent of the popular vote in Hungary but nearly 94 percent among the Hungarian diaspora.
Documents that Posta Serbia made available to RFE/RL show the postal service hired the Unity of the Hungarian Minority in March to deliver ballots to dual citizens in Serbia.
It is unclear on what criteria Posta Serbia selected the NGO for the job. According to publicly available data, Posta Serbia did not hold a tender nor did it issue a call for the job.
Posta Serbia paid 2 dinars ($0.017) per ballot delivered. Although no exact figures are available, data from Hungary's National Election Office estimates the number of people who are registered for the elections and have an address in Serbia is 68,492 voters.
Unity of the Hungarian Minority is registered at an address in Subotica, in northern Serbia. It shares the same address as the Prosperitati Foundation, which is run by members of the SVM and Hungarian government officials. The foundation was appointed by Budapest to administer programs to help farmers in Vojvodina.
Unity of the Hungarian Minority was founded 20 years ago in 2002. Officially, it employs 34 people and, between 2018 and 2020, recorded 500,000 euros ($506,000) in business income. The NGO is headed by Karolj Dudas, one of the founders of SVM.
Documents provided to RFE/RL raise questions about whether it was Unity of the Hungarian Minority or SVM that was in charge of the ballot disbursal. The ballots were picked up at another address where SVM, as well as the National Council of Hungarians, are registered.
The role of the SVM in delivering the ballots seems to be confirmed by anecdotal accounts. A man from Subotica, whose identity is known to RFE/RL, confirmed that SVM activists delivered the ballot to his home address.
"I was a little confused when the two of them (SVM activists) appeared at the door, because before that I read in the newspaper that SVM was not involved in the delivery of voting materials," he said.
As he explained, the activists introduced themselves and said they were from SVM and that they had brought envelopes for everyone in the family. "They offered to pick up the envelopes after the vote and hand them over to the consulate. We refused," he said.
Members of the SVM, including parliamentary deputy Balint Pastor, son of SVM President Istvan Pastor, did not respond to requests from RFE/RL for comment.
In early March, Istvan Pastor said Unity of the Hungarian Minority would provide assistance in delivering Hungarian parliamentary election material in Serbia, only to retract the statement a few days later, telling the Hungarian daily Magyar Szo that it had been a misunderstanding.
In Hungary, parliament has passed legislation to give the country's election office more power to investigate suspicious cases abroad. That law, however is not in force yet and could not be applied in the current case.
"The amended law is not retroactive. From the day the law enters into force, electoral bodies will have the authority to make decisions in cases of fairness of elections outside the country if there are any objections received through official channels," the Hungarian National Election Office told RFE/RL.
The National Election Office said in the case of the ballots being delivered to voters in Serbia, it had acted according to standard procedures.
"The election office must choose a universal service provider, and these are the Hungarian and Serbian postal services," it explained, denying that it had any contractual relationship with SVM or that it had provided voter data to the party.
The Hungarian Supreme Court has weighed in on the matter, stating that the National Election Office did nothing wrong and that it could not be held accountable to what happened to ballot material inside Serbia.