Hungary tweaks voting system; opposition cries foul

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By Gergely Szakacs | October 16, 2012 6:49 PM EST

Hungary's parliament approved a law late on Monday that will force its citizens to register in advance to vote in national elections, fuelling concerns over democratic safeguards in the former Communist state.

The bill was drafted by the constitutional affairs committee and endorsed by the ruling Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who opponents say has pushed through policies that threaten the independence of the country's media, judiciary and central bank.

Hungary's around 8 million eligible voters will have to sign up in person or online 15 days before the next parliamentary vote, expected in the first half of 2014.

Hungarians abroad, including hundreds of thousands of new voters granted dual citizenship after Orban took power in 2010, will be able to sign up by mail, an option not available to domestic voters.

Orban's Fidesz says registration is necessary given the large swathes of potential new voters in 2014, arguing the reform will strengthen democracy by encouraging people to take a more active role in the process.

But opposition parties say the new system, which will be carved into the constitution in a final parliamentary vote due on October 29, erodes voters' rights.

In comments made prior to Monday's parliamentary approval, the Socialist party accused Fidesz of trying to disenfranchise large groups of opposition voters.

The far-right Jobbik party called voter registration unconstitutional, and the green liberal LMP dubbed it a "declaration of war" against voters.

Until the last election, voters only had to show up on election day with their documents and were identified from a state-run registry.

A survey by pollster Ipsos last month said registration would reduce turnout at the next election, with about a quarter of those planning to vote saying they would not register in advance.

"The fact that registration by mail will not be available in Hungary narrows access to voting rights even further, to an extent, which is entirely unjustified," said Robert Laszlo, an election system expert at think tank Political Capital.

"The worker fearful of losing his job will not take a day off to travel to the next town to register."

Ipsos said the system would keep mostly the uneducated and people living in towns outside Budapest away from the polls.

But it also said the impact among supporters of the main political parties would roughly be the same.

Premier Orban has used his two-thirds majority in parliament to push through legislative reforms that opponents say have weakened Hungary's democracy. His policies have also drawn protests from foreign investors, governments and international bodies.

(Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by John Stonestreet)

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Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters UK. All rights reserved.

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