By Gergely Szakacs
MIERCUREA-CIUC, Romania (Reuters) - A Hungarian government program to grant ethnic Hungarians abroad the right to vote has handed Prime Minister Viktor Orban an advantage that could, in a close election, keep him in power.
Several million ethnic Hungarians live in neighboring Romania, Serbia and Ukraine and elsewhere, descendants of Hungarians who found themselves outside their homeland when the country's borders were redrawn at the end of World War One.
Using a change in citizenship rules pushed through by Orban's Fidesz party, nearly half a million members of the diaspora have applied for Hungarian citizenship, which gives them the right to register to take part in elections, including a parliamentary vote next year.
The Hungarian prime minister stands accused by the European Union of undermining democracy, but he enjoys rock-star popularity among many of the Hungarians in Romania, who credit him with reconnecting them to their historic homeland.
Orban's supporters say they gave the right to vote to the diaspora not for political advantage but as part of a mission to re-unite a scattered Hungarian community. Many other countries also give passports and voting rights to diasporas.
The votes of Hungarians abroad would only play a significant role if an election is on a knife-edge, say political analysts.
Orban's critics, including the United States and European Union, say he is using his popularity to entrench his rule.
Orban is accused of curtailing the media, the courts and other institutions that are a check on his power, and of installing allies in pivotal posts. He denies the accusations.
Orban irks some neighboring governments. In February, Romania's foreign minister threatened to expel the Hungarian ambassador in a row over flying the Hungarian community's flag.
The level of support for Orban and Fidesz in Miercurea-Ciuc, 710 km (441 miles) from Budapest, is striking. The town is part of the Transylvania region of Romania, which before the 1920 Treaty of Trianon was inside Hungary's borders.
Julia Jozsef, 65, described how she once shook Orban's hand when he visited Romania.
"I have fond memories of (him)," she said at a ceremony this month to mark the religious holiday of Pentecost, which was attended by Hungary's president, an Orban ally.
"I will definitely go and cast my vote."
Jozsef Fazekas, 55, a car electrician from the predominantly Hungarian town of Sfantu Gheorghe, was visiting Miercurea-Ciuc for the Pentecost celebration.
"We are very happy that someone in Hungary tries to sort things out for Hungarians living outside the borders," he said.
Out of the 420,000 members of the diaspora who had applied for Hungarian citizenship as of April, nearly 300,000 were Romanian citizens, according to government statistics.
Several ethnic Hungarians in Miercurea-Ciuc said that when they took the oath of citizenship, they received letters of greeting from Orban. One said a letter from the Hungarian prime minister reminded her to vote in the election.
A copy of a letter from the prime minister to new citizens abroad, which was provided to Reuters by the Hungarian government, makes no direct mention of the election.
However, the six-paragraph greeting, which carries a photograph of Orban and his signature, says: "We can organize ourselves, we can again govern Hungary together and we can all have a say in the nation's future."
By the time of the 2014 election, the Budapest government estimates that some half a million people, equivalent to five percent of Hungary's population, will have received Hungarian citizenship. Most are in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and the United States.
Analysts estimate the number of votes cast from abroad could be anywhere from 100,000 to 500,000. They could determine who wins one to three seats in parliament, out of a total of 199.
In a very close vote, like that in 2002 when Orban lost to the Socialists to spend the next eight years in opposition, the diaspora votes could be decisive.
"If we look at the 2002 results, it is possible that several hundred thousand additional votes for Fidesz would have made a difference," said Robert Laszlo, an election systems expert at think tank Political Capital.
Based on the latest polls, Fidesz seems a clear favorite over a divided opposition. But with half of the eight million domestic voters undecided, surprises cannot be ruled out.
Even if Fidesz wins by a big margin, there is another issue at stake in the election: whether it retains its two-thirds majority in parliament, which it has used to push through changes to the constitution.
(Additional reporting by Krisztina Fenyo in Budapest and Sam Cage in Bucharest; editing by Andrew Roche)