Troubles ahead: registration, constitutionality, and mathematics

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.

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Paul
Guest

I mistakenly thought the turnout for the 1990 election had been 70% (I swear I read this somewhere!) and had always used this as a comparison between the less than enthusiastic welcoming of democracy in Hungary, as opposed to (e.g.) South Africa.

But now I find out it was actually only 44%! This is staggering – people wait all those years to finally get democracy, and less than half of them bother to vote?

To someone who grew up in the West during the Cold War years, this is quite litterally unbelievable.

Why was this? Was it just that people weren’t used to voting, or did they not identify with the people sitting round the Round Table – or does it just tell us something very important about Hungarians?

Paul
Guest

PS – I hope the comments in your first para weren’t directed at me, Éva? If they were, then I apologise for giving you very much the wrong impression. Whilst I am strongly of the opinion that trying to counter OV with democratic means is pointless, that certainly doesn’t mean I’m not interested in any discussion of democracy in Hungary, and in particular Fidesz’s desperate twists and turns to ensure they ‘win’ the next election. Far from being bored by it, I find it endlessly fascinating – and long may you continue to write about it.

Opposing OV democratically may be pointless (not because I am anti-democracy – far from it – but simply because he holds all the cards), but we still need to be concerned about the crazy things he is doing, and ensure that the rest of the world is kept aware of the madness currently underway in Hungary. And HS plays a vital role in that process.

Kingfisher
Guest

Paul, I may be wrong but I think the turnout for the 2nd round in 1990 was 25%.

2002 was interesting (and has been somewhat swept under the rug by commentators, I feel) because it was seen as a foregone conclusion that Fidesz would win and that turnout would be very low. To everyone’s consternation, turnout for the 1st round was very high and Fidesz got totally unexpectedly walloped. Then Orbán gave his appalling speech at the Physical Education University (to my mind, Hungary has never been the same since that evening and the divisions in society were somehow made explicit from then on, rather than merely implied) and turn out was even higher, this time with Fidesz fighting back. And in the end, MSZP limped over the line but it was a very close result. In that case, a high turn out (the highest ever recorded) did pretty much favour Fidesz (but were too far behind because of the 1st round)

An
Guest

@Paul, before 1989 the turnout was 98-99%., as voting was de facto compulsory (of course, these were mock elections under the communists, with no real choices). Maybe people were happy not having to go in 1989, maybe they did not quite fully comprehend or believed that this time (in 1989) elections were meaningful… hard to say. A lot of people felt that changes took place “above their head” and this may have been a reflection of that attitude.

An
Guest

I mean 1990, not 89…

Paul
Guest

Kingfisher – 25% doesn’t really surprise me. I’ve always thought the two round concept was a mistake.

Incidentally, we’re about to have an election (tomorrow) in England for the first ever elected Police Commissioners, and ‘interest’ in this is so staggeringly low, that I think we are about to save Hungary (and anyone else) from embarrassment where historically low election turnouts are concerned. Pollsters predict a turnout of 25% or less, but some punters put it well below 20%. Personally, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if it didn’t even limp into two figures!

Minusio
Guest

Éva, lots of appreciated facts and figures about a – finally – failed state. This is not at all encouraging. And I guess, still 100 physicians are leaving Hungary every month. From my friends I hear that waiting lists are becoming endless and treatment less reliable.

You mentioned László Sólyom. This is a man I love to hate. Why? A president is a man of the word, he has only the power to open bridges and kindergartens, go on state visits and sign laws or to refuse to do so. Otherwise he is the guardian of the style and vision of politics and has to be non-partisan. I don’t know about opening bridges, but on every other count he failed miserably. So what he says today doesn’t interest me at all. It would have been his duty to tell Orbán that taking politics to the street, to leave the plenum when the Prime Ministers speaks is unacceptable behaviour. Instead he promoted the Fidesz election campaign. Imagine!

In my eyes, he is the most despicable figure in this turn for one-party, undemocratic, megalomaniac autocracy in Hungary.

Paul
Guest

An – I suspect your ‘above their head” comment has a lot of truth in it (an attitude that sowed the seeds of today’s disinterest in politics, perhaps?). I hadn’t thought about the idea that people would be so pleased that they didn’t have to vote that they simply wouldn’t bother, but that also has a ring of truth.

Maybe, because the Communists not only weren’t overthrown, but actually participated in creating the new constitution and regime, people simply didn’t see the ‘change of regime’ as any real change at all. It looked pretty much like the same people running the country (or the same type of people), and no one had actually bothered to consult the people themselves, so why bother now that you don’t have to?

Back to the old debate again – would Hungary had been better off having a ‘proper’ revolution in 1989?

Minusio
Guest

Voter turn-out: I think it’s not so important as long as people can go to vote in masses whenever they feel like it. I have been living in Switzerland as a foreigner for more than 40 years. They have four dates to vote on a referendum or some election a year. Normally voter turn-out is between 30 and 40%. But when it comes to the nitty-gritty you get close to 70%. But then the Swiss are well informed. Newspapers are critical and independent. Political tv discussions take place in various formats every week. And people care – and they don’t let populism take the upper hand. Despite its huge inner differences, this is a civic society.

Paul
Guest

Miusio – it’s even worse than that, in a way. Originally, the President was to have been elected by the people (thus giving him/her independence – and a very powerful mandate), but one party refused to sign the Round Table agreement until this was changed to the President being elected by Parliament (thus rendering him virtually impotent). That party was Fidesz.

Guest
London Calling! From this edge of Europe the situation in Hungary looks so hopeless. It would be wrong to build up the hopes of our Hungarian friends – just to see them dashed as Orban walks away with the loot. It is so obvious that the elections are rigged. It is so obvious that with fewer MPs, Fidesz will concentrate its power – in a lower turnout election. It is obvious that the voter turnout will be very low – through ennui – even if Orban hadn’t introduced registration – making it even lower. It is so obvious that even if there was a second coming – Orban would still be the victor. It is so obvious that the election won’t be representative of the people. It is obvious that many people have had enough of their voting experience. “Whatever we do has turned out wrong” And the despair is obvious when you see so many people leaving – or planning to leave. Unlike Petofi I DON’T believe that Hungarians deserve to be dissed – they are a decent people, I know. They are just the unfortunate victims of a unique set of circumstances. At the moment the EU and… Read more »
Peter Karlsson
Guest

Dear Eva. If Wikipedia is to be believed, the turnout for the first round in 2010 was 64,37%, while your figure, 46,66%, is very close to Wikipedia’s total for the second round, 46,52%. I notice a small difference in turnout on the Hungarian language Wikipedia, 64,20% and 46,64% respectively.

An
Guest

@Paul “Back to the old debate again – would Hungary had been better off having a ‘proper’ revolution in 1989?”

In retrospect, probably yes.

cheshire cat
Guest
Paul “Back to the old debate again – would Hungary had been better off having a ‘proper’ revolution in 1989?” Very good question. To reply to your original question (why such low turnout in 1990). People were fed up with politics and distrusted politicians already back then. Don’t imagine Hungarians in 1990 as a nation passionate for freedom, desperate for freedom of speech, free elections etc. As they say “Hungarians didn’t want freedom and democracy in 1990. They wanted Gorenje freezers.” In other words, most Hungarians wanted the lifestyle, standard and quality of living of the Austrians, whatever system may bring it on. This is mostly what they (we, I was quite young…) expected from the new system and government then, and this is what they expect from the government now. A lot of Hungarians don’t care about free elections, the independence of the national bank, who owns the farms and supermarkets at all. They want money in their pockets full stop. (I have relatives who have said so.) And Western lifestyle. Many people still don’t want democracy – they don’t even know what democracy IS and they don’t really care. I know this sounds cynical and yes, it is… Read more »
cheshire cat
Guest

OT
Charlie,
you are right in many things, but please don’t start on Farage’s

“The EU needs to be more democratic (and an ‘elected’ President would be a start)”
etc.

Minusio
Guest

Paul: To elect a president in Europe (except France) by popular vote is problematical if politics is basically relying on a democratically elected government. I take Germany as an example, because I know it best (and the post-1989 Hungarian constitution was closely formed along those lines).

Direct elections of a president (who won’t have any real powers) would involve election campaigns with all their costs and ugly aspects. That would destroy the moral impact of someone like Gauck which he has in Germany now.

The “first past the post” (majority instead of proportional) vote has extreme long-range disadvantages. I am willing to expand on this if you wish.

Gabor
Guest

Minor comment for the middle of the second paragraph: The English name of “Magyar Helsinki Bizottság” is “Hungarian Helsinki Committee” (and not “Magyar”). See

http://helsinki.hu/en/about/history-of-the-hungarian-helsinki-committee

Guest

London Calling!

Cheshire Cat!

Damned by faint praise! Thanks!

Unfortunately the EU loses so much ‘authority’ when it issues decrees and fiats – it gives the Orban crowd a certain justification to reject its will – the will of the collective EU – in a treaty that Orban signed – when it, itself is seen as ‘undemocratic’.

So many members (Greece? Italy? Spain?) and would-be countries that seek EU membership use this as an excuse for their rejecting of the club’s authority – that the idea of an elected president has merit.

And it had merit long before N Farage propounded it.

I have no truck with UKIP – they have hijacked the argument for their own anti-EU rhetoric.

But the installation of an elected president would pull the rug from under the feet of all those ‘nearly’ democracies.

I believe so anyway.

And btw – I always look forward to your contributions!

Regards

Charlie

Member

Cheshire Cat, I so agree with your post regarding the changes in the nineties. In the eighties people were bringing IKEA chairs over from Austria. That was the WEST. McDonalds, Coka Cola in a can, IKEA, Casucci jeans…what wouldn’t we gave for them. Wait list for a Lada was twelve years, and you could not choose the colour. Anything after that seemed like heaven on earth.

Penny Oswalt
Guest

If you are eligilble to vote, then be brave and do it. I voted in the 2012 election in the USA and I made a difference. Vote wisely!!!

Hank
Guest

I’m sorry but the turn out at the first round of the 2010 election was really 64.4% (Wikipedia, electionresources.org and http://www.ipu.org/parline/reports/2141_E.htm), and not 46%. Important to get the facts straight, I would say. The clue of course is that uin 2014 Fidesz wants to win the elections with 1.3 million loyal voters instead of the 2.7 million votes it got in 2010. Therefor it needs a lower turnout and thus the registration and the measures that are aimed at a low-key campaign (no adds on commercial TV etc.) that doesn’t stir up emotions with the broad public.

Mark
Guest

>Most of the bills brought before parliament are put together in a totally ad hoc fashion without much attention to internal consistency.

Ha! I hate to say it, but from my casual observation over many years, this appears to be the way many things are done in Hungary, from home repairs to municipal governance to national legislation. I can’t tell you how often I find myself experiencing something and thinking, Why the heck did they do it that way? Sophistication, subtlety and comprehensiveness are in very short supply here. There’s a lot of doing, but very little thinking.

GW
Guest

Does anyone know if non-Hungarian EU citizens (who have the right to vote in local and EU elections in Hungary) will be disenfranchised by the new registration law?

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