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No time to chicken out: Hungary's opposition gets creative

Selling yourself in five minutes can be tough.

But that's all Hungary's opposition parties have been given on state media to promote their visions for Sunday's European Parliament election.

Undeterred, they've come up with novel and creative ways

Two campaign billboards, top left and bottom right, from the ruling Fidesz party that read: ”Our message to Brussels: Immigration must be stopped,” are displayed next to a campaign poster, top right, by the Hungarian government to boost the country’s birthrate, in Budapest, Hungary, May 16, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh)

From short "reality newscasts" mentioning the enrichment of the prime minister's family or a party spokesman clucking away dressed in a chicken costume, the opposition is making every broadcast second count.

It's a lean and mean approach that contrasts with what's available to the ruling Fidesz party on state radio and television channels and other media outlets considered to be under its control.

One particularly humorous promotion has come from the Two-Tailed Dog Party — yes, there really is such a thing. Top of its agenda is banning the Eurovision Song Contest and mandatory siestas, "because a night of sleep isn't enough."

People stand near a billboard for Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party that reads: ”Our message to Brussels: Immigration must be stopped”, in Budapest, Hungary, May 16, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh)

It may come as a bit of a surprise to some that the party has yet to win any seats in Hungary's parliament and isn't expected to see any of its lawmakers elected to the European Union legislature, but the party is sure making an impact. Hungarians have certainly chuckled at the memory of one of its campaign stunts, when a party spokesman answered a reporter's questions on state television by clucking away for minutes while dressed in a chicken costume.

"They were asking me questions that only have one reasonable answer— 'cluck-cluck,'" said Jozsef Tichy-Racs, a former spokesman for the satirical party.

That's how the Two-Tailed Dog Party used its five-minute slot.

An opposition supporter gathers signatures in Budapest, Hungary, May 16, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. The Momentum Party used its time on state TV to promote a campaign, which has received over 600,000 signatures, to pressure the government into joining the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh)

Momentum, another new party which first gained attention for its successful efforts two years ago to end Budapest's bid for the 2024 Olympic Games, took a different approach.

The party, which opinion polls suggest could win one of Hungary's 21 seats in the EU parliament, used its five-minute allotment during a simultaneous broadcast on state TV and radio to present a "reality newscast" dealing with issues like Hungary's increasing shortage of doctors, the wasteful use of funds received from the EU and the debut of Orban's 32-year-old son-in-law on the list of richest Hungarians.

Momentum also used its time on state TV to promote a campaign, which has received over 600,000 signatures, to pressure the government into joining the European Public Prosecutor's Office. The new agency will begin fraud and corruption investigations into the use of EU funds starting in 2020. Twenty-two of the 28 EU states have signed up for the agency, but Orban's government says the body would compromise national sovereignty. Opposition parties say Orban wants to escape tighter EU scrutiny.

A security guard at Hungary’s state media headquarters photographs the Associated Press reporters interviewing Jozsef Tichy-Racs, of the Hungarian Two-Talied Dog Party, wearing a chicken costume, in Budapest, Hungary, May 18, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. During Jozsef Tichy-Racs party’s five-minute slot on state television, he answered a reporter’s questions with chicken clucks. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh)

Hungary's opposition parties have to resort to these sorts of media strategies because they face numerous challenges in getting heard. The government has Hungary's media sewn up. That's especially true since nearly 500 internet sites, magazines, newspapers and cable TV channels were merged into a foundation for right-wing media and which is under tight government control.

It's easy for Orban's government to get its message — and accusations, whether true or false — across.

Marta Bencsik, a media lawyer at the Mertek Media Monitor watchdog and think tank, said a recent study of the state television newscasts showed they were "unbalanced."

Jozsef Tichy-Racs, of the Hungarian Two-Talied Dog Party, jumps up dressed in a chicken costume, outside the headquarters of Hungary’s state media company in Budapest, Hungary, May 16, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh)

"They mostly promote the government's propaganda and themes, presenting the government in a favorable light," Bencsik said. "The opposition appeared only in a negative context."

According to data presented by Benedek Javor, the leading EU parliament candidate of the green Dialogue party, state TV news broadcasts in the seven days between April 26 and May 2, included stories about the opposition parties totaling just over five hours, with more than four hours showing them in a negative light.

In the same period, stories about the government, Orban and Fidesz totaled more than seven hours.

Jozsef Tichy-Racs, of the Hungarian Two-Talied Dog Party, dressed in a chicken costume, jumps up and down outside the headquarters of Hungary’s state media company in Budapest, Hungary, May 18, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. During his party’s five-minute slot on state television, Tichy-Racs answered a reporter’s questions with chicken clucks. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh)

"Naturally, we couldn't find any stories at all critical of the government, even with a magnifying glass," Javor said.

Orban's government, which cemented its grip on power with another big election victory last year, does face challenges from time to time.

The right-wing Jobbik party, for example, has won over 200 court cases against pro-government media outlets in the past three years over the reporting of false stories about it and its leaders.

Fake Hungarian currency covers a signature form belonging to the Momentum party opposition campaign, in Budapest, Hungary, May 16, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. The Momentum Party used its time on state TV to promote a campaign, which has received over 600,000 signatures, to pressure the government into joining the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh) meant to pressure the government to join the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. The campaign seeks to gather 1 million signatures and has 600,000 so far.

"Hungarian society believes that what they hear on the newscasts is reality," said Jobbik spokesman Gyorgy Szilagyi. "So Fidesz creates a virtual reality for its voters"

Despite the victories, not much appears to change.

"We win the lawsuit ... but it doesn't interest the public anymore," Szilagyi said.

A billboard for Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party that reads: ”Our message to Brussels: Immigration must be stopped”, is written over expressing support for the Jobbik party, in Budapest, Hungary, May 16, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh)

"In Hungary, unfortunately, it is the government which fills voters and public media with fake news, often originating in Russia," he added without providing any evidence.

He recounted a false story about how a luxury trip he was said to have made spread from one pro-Fidesz media outlet to another in a matter of hours.

"By nighttime, it was on the leading newscasts on state and pro-government television," Szilagyi said.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, left, watches a soccer game in his hometown of Felcsut, Hungary May 19, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh)

Fidesz also appears to have a near-monopoly over the billboards that line Hungary's transport networks.

Momentum spokesman Balazs Nemes said media headwinds have forced the party to innovate.

"The present media situation motivates us, for example, to spend more time on field work or to increase our presence on the street," Nemes said.

FILE - In this Monday, May 13, 2019 file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban to the White House in Washington. The European Parliament elections have never been so hotly anticipated or contested, with many predicting that this year’s ballot will mark a coming-of-age moment for the euroskeptic far-right movement. The elections start Thursday May 23, 2019 and run through Sunday May 26 and are taking place in all of the European Union’s 28 nations. (AP PhotoManuel Balce Ceneta, File)

For his part, "chicken man" Tichy-Racs said he was proud to see the rest of the opposition resorting to similar ingenuity — "I'm glad the other parties are also using their five minutes of airtime wisely."

For more news from The Associated Press on the European Parliament elections go to https://www.apnews.com/EuropeanParliament

People stand near a billboard for Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party that reads: ”Our message to Brussels: Immigration must be stopped”, in Budapest, Hungary, May 16, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh)

An opposition supporter holds up a signature form covered in fake Hungarian currency covering in Budapest, Hungary, May 16, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. The Momentum Party used its time on state TV to promote a campaign, which has received over 600,000 signatures, to pressure the government into joining the European Public Prosecutor’s Office. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh)

A billboard for Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party that reads: ”Our message to Brussels: Immigration must be stopped”, is displayed in Budapest, Hungary, May 16, 2019, ahead of the European election on May 26. Given just five minutes to present their European Parliament election campaigns on Hungary’s state media, opposition parties have been using their meager opportunities in novel and creative ways. (AP PhotoLaszlo Balogh)