A few days ago (January 25) I reported on a new Szonda Ipsos poll that inquired about the population's attitude toward an austerity program. Of all the possible changes the people sampled could choose, the most popular was a reduction in the size of the overblown Hungarian parliament. Ninety-three percent of Hungarians of voting age were most enthusiastic about such a change. The reason for this enthusiasm is a disillusionment with politics in general and the performance of the members in the House in particular. People complain about the large number of absentees during general debates. (I don't know what they would think if they saw U.S. senators making impassioned speeches in a virtually empty room.) Those who are not supporters of Fidesz bring up Viktor Orbán's absence from parliament for weeks on end. A lot of people don't like the Fidesz and Christian Democratic practice of marching out of the chamber when the prime minister speaks. Moreover, they believe that with a smaller parliament a lot of money could be saved (which is not really true; fewer representatives would mean a larger staff). However, it is not so much the savings that counts here but the gesture toward the demanding voters. Another sore point is the members' bloated, undocumented expense accounts.
For years five-party discussions have been taking place on and off about the size of parliament and improvements in the electoral system. They got nowhere. Each party came up with suggestions in its own favor. By now the population is fed up, but not fed up enough just to let the whole thing drop. As far as compensation is concerned Ferenc Gyurcsány's position has been for some time that base salaries should be raised to an acceptable level but that compensation for expenses would require receipts. Fidesz refused to discuss the question because they claimed that it is outrageous to raise salaries. Indeed, it looks good that a parliamentary member's salary is barely more than the current average salary. To my mind it is more outrageous that compensation received has nothing to do with actual expenses. And it is not taxable income either.
Most likely encouraged by the Szonda Ipsos poll the government decided today at an extraordinary session of the cabinet to propose its own version of electoral reform and to tackle the question of salaries and expense accounts. Admittedly, this is one of the bills that needs a two-thirds majority, but the proposals should be put to a vote. This way Fidesz must come out in the open and vote for or against them, thus making its position public.
At the moment there are 386 members. I don't want to go into the details of the Hungarian electoral system because a whole blog would not be enough to explain it. I once encountered a Harvard graduate student whose dissertation was on the Hungarian electoral system and who claimed that it is the most complicated system in the world! But the upshot of it is that some members come from party lists, a fair number are elected as individuals from their parliamentary districts, and leftover votes for losers are added to their party's final numbers. There are two rounds that allow for all sorts of manipulation during the intervening weeks.
The new proposal is very simple: the number of seats would shrink from 386 to 199. Of these, 176 seats would be decided on the basis of party lists put together by counties. Twenty-three seats would come from votes cast for unsuccessful candidates. Because there would be no need for a second round the expense of national elections would be only four billion forints instead of eight. In addition, the government is planning to raise the base salaries of members to three times the average salary but at the same time compensation for expenses would be made only after the submission of receipts. The government is also preparing a bill that would decrease the number of council members in local governments by fifty percent. Ferenc Gyurcsány at today's press conference announced that these changes would result in a savings of 100 billion forints a year.
That is not good news for Fidesz. So the party machinery and the think tanks close to the party immediately began a campaign against the proposals. Péter Szijjártó, the Fidesz spokesman, was quick to attack the prime minister as well as the whole idea. According to Szijjártó "the prime minister proved for good that he is unfit for his post" because he came up with such constitutional issues in the middle of a financial and economic crisis. Szijjártó recalled Péter Medgyessy's "discredited constitutional proposals" at the time when he was in deep political trouble. The implication is that Gyurcsány is in a similar situation, and we all remember what happened to Medgyessy. He added that Fidesz made several suggestions for a parliament of about this size but MSZP refused even to consider their proposals. Nézőpont (Point of View), a fairly new Fidesz think tank, went even further. They already figured out that Ferenc Gyurcsány "has no intention of coming to an understanding with the opposition on these issues" because his suggestions are helping only MSZP and the smaller parties. The political scientists working for Nézőpont are most likely right about MSZP, at least at the moment. At the last elections out of the 176 MSZP MPs 107 won their districts outright. Today it is unlikely that MSZP would carry so many districts. Nézőpont is also correct in saying that a system based on party preferences and party lists helps the smaller parties. After all, SZDSZ won very few seats outright, the rest came from the list based on the number of votes cast for SZDSZ candidates. MDF won all its seats the same way.
Therefore, I'm almost certain that the two small parties will be willing to go along with the government's suggestion. In fact, Károly Herényi, head of the MDF caucus, already indicated that it is an acceptable basis for negotiation. This didn't come as a surprise to me because MDF all along championed for a system based on party lists. This evening Ibolya Dávid talking with Olga Kálmán (ATV) reiterated her belief that such an electoral system is the fairest and the simplest. She added that that most people vote not so much for the person but for the party the person represents. Nézőpont decided to frighten the public a bit by predicting that under such a system it could easily happen that the far-right Jobbik could send as many as ten members to parliament. Thus, they added, Gyurcsány's suggestions indirectly could strengthen the extreme right. The political scientists of Nézőpont admitted, however, that it will be difficult for Fidesz to say no because of public demand for a small and cheaper parliament. Nézőpont's final conclusion: Gyurcsány crafted these proposals in such a way as to make sure that Fidesz wouldn't vote for them.