When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Budapest and had a fairly long discussion with members of civic organizations, according to media reports she noted that as long as one government can be replaced by another one at a democratic election one cannot talk about the end of democracy. Therefore, she added, the United States will pay close attention to the “reform” of the current electoral law.
I think it is important to say a few more words about the Fidesz proposals and their possible consequences. After all, this is a complicated and weighty topic that cannot be fully discussed in a few hundred words. So, let’s return to some of the intricacies of the current Hungarian electoral system, which is terribly complicated.
It is not at all suprising that a governing party, especially one with a two-thirds majority behind it, will propose a system that at the moment seems advantageous to it. However, the party, in this case Fidesz, must also be mindful of a possible change in the political climate that may result in an outcome that might be disadvantageous to the party that proposed the changes in the law. A political commentator reminded us yesterday that the two parties that insisted and voted on raising the parliamentary threshhold to 5% were MDF and SZDSZ. And behold, a few years later these two parties struggled mightily to gather enough votes to be eligible for parliamentary representation. It is very possible that sooner or later Fidesz will find itself in a similar situation. What looked terrific in 2010 or 2011 may well be a serious disadvantage in 2014 or 2018.
As it stands now, according to the calculation of Viktor Szigetvári, formerly campaign manager of MSZP but who now seems to be active in the Haza és Haladás Alapítvány (Country and Progress Foundation) established by Gordon Bajnai, if the Fidesz proposal for electoral reform is accepted in the form it was presented to the public over the weekend, a party with 45% of the votes would receive 135 seats out of the possible 200 while a party with 35% of the votes would get only 47 seats. Roughly speaking, a 10% difference in popular vote would result in an almost 30% difference in actual representation.
Or here is a graph published in today’s Népszabadság:
Here are some explanatory notes. As you can see, there are four categories in the above graph: individual voting district (egyéni választókörzet), regional list (területi lista), countrywide list (országos lista), and total (összesen). In the Hungarian system each voter receives two ballots. On one he/she can vote for the individual running in his/her district and, on the other, for the regional list put together by the parties within each county or in the case of the capital within the city. The individual voter doesn’t vote for the countrywide list. Instead candidates on that list receive their mandates from the votes of those candidates who didn’t manage to win in any given individual voting districts. This is called the compensation list (kompenzációs lista).
In the first row we can see the results of the 2010 elections. In the case of Fidesz the victory was so great that the compensation votes didn’t really matter very much. Altogether the party received only three extra seats that way. But in the case of LMP the compensation list was critical (they wouldn’t have reached the 5% threshold without it), and almost half of MSZP’s meager parliamentary representation came from this list.
Last year Fidesz already came up with a proposal. The second row of numbers shows what the situation would have been in 2010 if that proposal had been adopted before the election. Keep in mind that instead of a 385-seat parliament the new parliament will have only approximately 200 members. As you can see, in the 2010 proposal people would vote for either for an individual or for the countrywide party list. However, in that scheme there would still have been a compensation list.
And finally we have the situation that would have been created on the basis of this latest proposal in two versions: the first in which there would still be a compensation list and the second without it. You will surely notice that the lack of a compensation list makes the system even more disproportionate. But these graphs presuppose a political situation identical to the one in the spring of 2010. As we know very well, since then Fidesz has lost about one million voters and therefore we have no idea what the situation is going to be in three years’ time.
Of course, all these calculations are based on a partial knowledge of the Fidesz plan for a new electoral law. The reduction of the size of parliament by half also means that the number of electoral districts will be reduced, and that means redrawing the districts. Viktor Szigetvári, who wrote two articles on the electoral reform, considers this redistricting to be the crux of the matter. Will it be done without gerrymandering or not? If the new districts are drawn on the basis of past voting patterns favorable to Fidesz, then we can say that the new electoral law will not only favor Fidesz but will be undemocratic and therefore unacceptable. I have my doubts about Fidesz’s intentions in this regard. In certain cities just before the municipal elections certain voting districts were redrawn in a most artificial way. It was clear on the basis of the maps I saw that those who were responsible for the redistricting knew the past voting patterns of practically every city block.
And finally. Just as Some1 rightly noted and as a very well informed political observer pointed out to me in private, I neglected to make clear that Gergely Karácsony wasn’t thinking in terms of a long-lasting coalition among the three opposition parties. No, it would be a very temporary “alliance” for the purpose of winning a two-thirds majority which would allow these parties to undo the damage Fidesz inflicted on Hungarian democracy, including the abrogation of some of the cardinal laws. Karácsony thought that a month would be sufficient for that. Once democracy is restored and a more reasonable electoral law is in place, parliament would be dissolved and new elections held.
Of course, this scenario is highly unlikely, but at least it achieved one thing. The opposition parties got closer together. Even András Schiffer (LMP) this morning on InfoRádió talked about a “technical coalition” to get rid of Fidesz’s most grievous pieces of legislation. Ildikó Lendvai (MSZP) wouldn’t hear of any “technical coalition” that would include Jobbik, but she talked about an “opposition roundtable” (ellenzéki kerekasztal). Anyone familiar with the history of the change of regime in 1989-90 must remember that at that time all parties and civic organizations that wanted change stood on one side against MSZMP and for months did nothing else but hammer out the details of the regime change. I suspect, however, that it will be harder to go from Fidesz-style democracy to true democracy than it was to go from communism to democracy.