Although it is obvious that some of our less than democratically minded readers and commenters are bored witless with such trifling matters as the current Hungarian government’s attempt to take away the citizens’ hitherto unfettered access to the voting booths, I will keep on writing about this topic. Because, whether they believe it or not, this question is absolutely crucial to determining whether we can still consider Hungary a democracy or not.
Today three research institutes dealing with legal matters published a statement in which they expressed their opinions on the legal aspects of registration. The three organizations are the Eötvös Károly Intézet (Károly Eötvös Institute), the Magyar Helsinki Committee (Hungarian Helsinki Bizottság), and the Társaság a Szabadságjogokért (TASZ / Society for Human Rights). In their joint statement they expressed their legal opinion that, given the Hungarian situation, the demand for registration as a prerequisite to voter participation is unconstitutional.
Just to be clear about some of the fine points of the law, I would like to mention again that if someone fails to register he deprives himself of the right to vote for four years. He is not only ineligible to vote in the national elections; he cannot participate in municipal elections either. In case there are elections for the European Parliament during this period he will also be sidelined. By-elections are out as well. So, one missing step and the citizen is disenfranchised for four solid years. And if the proposed system remains in force, four years later the whole registration process can begin anew.
Throughout the western world the tendency in recent years has been the extension of voting rights. The aim is to reach more and more prospective voters. This is the stated goal of the European Union, and now we have a member state that through administrative fiat is going against that trend and is making participation more difficult.
Voter turnout in Hungary is not very high as it is. Here are a few numbers. In 1990 only 44.14% of the eligible voters bothered to participate in the first truly free elections since 1946. In 1994 it was 55.12%; in 1998, 57.01%. But then something interesting happened. The population had had enough of the first Orbán government (1998-2002) and participation suddenly shot up to 73.47%. Most likely because of the high turnout, Fidesz lost. Four years later, in 2006, participation was still high: 64.39%. Then came 2010 with 46.66%, the lowest figure since 1994, and Fidesz won big. The lesson for Fidesz: the fewer voters the better.
If, let’s say, 25% of all eligible voters don’t register, the turnout might be considerably lower than in 2010 when 3,453,798 people voted out of a total of 7,402,053. If 25% of the total number of voters become ineligible, there will be 1,850,513 fewer voters who could participate in the 2014 elections. It’s possible, of course, that the people who don’t register are the same as those who have never voted, but I doubt that Fidesz would bother with registration if the party believed in that scenario. An admittedly much less likely scenario is that the 25% who drop out all voted in 2010. If we assume that the turnout percentage from 2010 remains constant in 2014, less 25% of all eligible voters, participation would drop to a staggeringly low 21.66%.
Just to compare the Hungarian turnout with that in other countries, in the 2009 German elections 70.78% of eligible citizens voted; in Austria (2008) 81.71%; in Denmark (2011) 87.74%; in Sweden (2010) 84.63%; in the Netherlands (2010) 75.40%. Even in the United States in 2008 64.36% of the population voted and polls predicted a similar turnout this year. So, how can Hungary justify making the act of voting more difficult given the low political awareness and activity of the population? Naturally, not at all.
The authors of the statement, after going through all of the alleged reasons for the introduction of registration, found it “without legitimate reason and therefore an arbitrary act.” Although the Orbán government made the necessary changes in the brand new, already many times modified constitution, as László Sólyom, former chief justice of the Constitutional Court and president of the country, pointed out only yesterday, just because the government modifies the constitution doesn’t mean that the newly inserted provisions are constitutional. Thus, the Constitutional Court should take a look at the constitutionality of registration. Given the current composition of the Constitutional Court, there is still a chance that the majority of the judges will find the new law unconstitutional. However, if the judges drag their feet, the outcome might be different in a few months when several of the judges will reach mandatory retirement age and the government will have the opportunity to propose new judges more to its liking, just as it did earlier when it expanded the size of the Constitutional Court.
Constitutionality is not the only problem with the election law. Scholars working for one of the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences came out with a study that mathematically established that there is no way that the proposed 106 voting districts can possibly conform to the law’s stated requirements. One of the rules is that the voting districts must lie within county lines and must include only contiguous territories. The law also states that the number of voters in each district cannot be more than 15% higher or lower than the national average.
The researchers studied the voting districts using various mathematical algorithms and came to the conclusion that one would need at least 130 districts to conform to the law. Moreover, at present the law doesn’t provide for any adjustment of the districts in the future when the demographics will most likely change.
Most of the bills brought before parliament are put together in a totally ad hoc fashion without much attention to internal consistency. A great number of the new laws don’t conform to the laws of the European Union, and several others were found unconstitutional even by the new Hungarian Constitutional Court. Only recently the European Court of Justice ruled that the early and sudden retirement of hundreds of judges clashes with European law, which supersedes Hungarian law. Mind you, even the Hungarian Constitutional Court found part of the law unconstitutional on Hungarian legal grounds. The Orbán government is not only undemocratic but also grossly incompetent.