Hungarian voter registration found unconstitutional

Reuters was the first foreign news agency to report that “Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party abandoned plans to force voters to register for parliamentary elections before the 2014 poll, after the Constitutional Court threw out the measure saying it limited voting rights.”

The court’s ruling is considered to be a  major blow to the Orbán government. Just before the holidays there were nationwide students demonstrations that forced Viktor Orbán, for the first time in his present tenure as prime minister, to retreat. Now, instead of fighting the ruling of the court as this government has done several times in the past, the decision was made to give up the idea of registration. But, as Antal Rogán, the whip of the Fidesz delegation, emphasized in his press conference after the ruling became public, “there will be no registration for the 2014 election.” So, perhaps there might be for subsequent elections. However, I would like to remind Mr. Rogán that first Fidesz must win the 2014 election, which is not a done deal at the moment.

The court was “mindful of the practice of the European Court of Human Rights… [and therefore it] established that for those with Hungarian residency the registration requirement represents an undue restriction on voting rights and is therefore unconstitutional.” In addition, the court also found that some of the law’s provisions on political campaigning imposed “severely disproportionate restrictions on the freedom of opinion and the media.”

I dealt with the question of the electoral law several times and also with the latest ruling of the Constitutional Court on the so-called “temporary provisions” of the Constitution, one of which was the electoral law. A thorough analysis of the electoral law by members of the pre-1989 democracy movement can be found on Hungarian Spectrum. I also covered the ruling on the temporary provisions, and therefore I don’t think it is necessary to dwell on the proposed law itself. A much more interesting question at the moment: why did Fidesz decide to abandon its previously inflexible position on the subject?

Opinions naturally differ on the cause.  An unsigned editorial in HVG is of the opinion that the Orbán government really doesn’t care about the rulings of the Constitutional Court. It happened before that the court found something unconstitutional and the answer was immediate: “It doesn’t matter. In this case, we will put it into the Constitution or add it to the list of items in the temporary provisions to the Constitution.”

László Kövér just lately said in his  usual blunt way what he thinks of the Constitutional Court. In his opinion, the court misunderstands its role. It acts as a “quasi appellate forum over parliament in such a way that the judges, unlike members of parliament and members of the government, are not responsible to anyone. The judges created the theocratic power of a divinity called ‘the invisible constitution’ over and above the sovereignty of the people.” In brief, Kövér doesn’t seem to realize the real function of a constitutional court. Kövér is not alone in his opinion within the Fidesz leadership.

Moreover, the HVG article continues, the Hungarian Constitutional Court is a shadow of its formal self and therefore what is going on now is not a struggle between two equal branches of government. The real reason for the change of heart, according to the author, is pragmatic. As he puts it, it is “the self-correction of a regime that only understands force.” The author suggests that the opposition parties and organizations should follow the example of the students. The logic of this particular explanation is not at all clear to me in light of its conclusion of “force” as the only thing Fidesz understands. If the Constitutional Court is so weak, why would Fidesz bow before it?

retreating, in formation  Flickr

Retreating, in formation / Flickr

Another article that also appeared in HVG  is by Áron Kovács and András Kósa. They think that pushing ahead with the registration issue would have been “too politically costly” to Fidesz. It didn’t matter how hard the government tried to sell registration as something desirable, the idea wasn’t gaining traction. According to Medián, 78% of the population is still against registration. Even the majority (51%) of Fidesz voters disapproved of the plan. The large group of undecided voters that the parties must court was overwhelmingly (85%) against Fidesz’s plan. Even the pro-Fidesz Nézőpont measured a substantial reluctance to support the government’s registration scheme.

As for the “political scientists,” only a few have been interviewed so far. Gábor Filippov (Magyar Progresszív Intézet) considers the decision a “defeat” for the government. Filippov added that going against the Constitutional Court’s ruling would “ignite wide and long conflict internationally” which, under the present circumstances, would place a heavy burden on the weakening Hungarian government.

Csaba Fodor of Nézőpont took a different position. Fodor normally vehemently defends the government’s position in all matters. He stresses pragmatism as the motivation behind the decision to bow to the ruling of the Constitutional Court because this way “one will not be able to question the legitimacy of the next election.” Moreover,  the idea of registration is not popular and therefore it may even be counterproductive. Fodor also mentioned that  Fidesz supporters can be more readily mobilized than the forces of the opposition which gives Fidesz an advantage anyway, so imposing an unpopular registration procedure is unnecessary. Please note that Fodor, most likely unwittingly, admits the real reason behind Fidesz’s eagerness to introduce voter registration.

Naturally, all opposition parties and civic groups are delighted and greeted the decision with great enthusiasm. Zsolt Molnár (MSZP) praised the decision as a sign that “the rule of law is still alive in Hungary.” According to Gergely Karácsony (LMP), “promoting voter registration was one of the worst moves of Fidesz” and he hoped that the decision would have a major impact on the politics of the government party for the better. E14 warned the government “not to try to smuggle back through the window what the Constitutional Court threw out of the door.” According to Csaba Molnár (DK), “the ruling was a decent and wise decision.” In his opinion Fidesz retreated not so much because of the Constitutional Court’s ruling but because of the opposition of society.

All in all, the opposition is delighted. They consider it a major defeat for Fidesz and a huge victory for the opposition. Within a couple of weeks we will see what the potential voters think of all this.

40 comments

  1. cheshire cat :
    Minusio @26
    Your question is a very valid one…
    A lot of Hungarians don’t care about democracy. They want a high standard of living and western lifestyle. Democracy can wait.
    Or have I become very bitter?

    Not bitter, just realistic.

    Mind you, this can be said of all nations – few really care about ‘politcs’, as long as the money’s coming in, homes can be afforded, life gets a bit better each year, who cares who’s in charge or how they got there?

    But in Hungary people have never really had the chance to choose their leaders or affect politics until 1989. And events since then have given them a pretty poor idea of what democracy can do for them.

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  2. Pektin – 2014 will not be decided by the voters of Budapest.

    And remember, under the new electoral rules, the next election will be very different to the last – fewer seats, effectively a ‘first-past-the-post’ system, far more difficult to stand as a candidate, almost impossible for opposition candidates to advertise, etc.

    No one really knows what effect this will have, but my guess is it will not be good news for the opposition.

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  3. “And what do you suppose will be left of the country if Orban stays until 2018?”

    It will be a mess. I fully agree with your horror at the thought, but us not liking the idea isn’t going to stop it happening.

    As things stand, an opposition win in 2018 is still wishful thinking, but it’s possible if the opposition does well in 2014 and stays united afterwards. An opposition win in 2014 is about as likely as me winning the Lottery*.

    *And I don’t buy Lottery tickets….

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  4. Eva S. Balogh :
    I’m also a great deal more optimistic than Paul. Almost sure that the overwhelming portion of the population is fed-up with the more and more obvious incompetence of this government. The lies don’t help either.
    At the moment the extent of the dissatisfaction doesn’t show yet in the opinion polls but only because half of the population refuses to tell its intentions. Just yesterday Rogán was still talking about Fidesz’s lead but I have the feeling that he himself actually knows that the polls don’t tell the whole truth.

    Éva, I admire your optimism and hope fervently that you and the other optimists are right. But your post is based on one huge assumption – that the undecided/undeclared voters will mostly not vote Fidesz.

    I too hope they won’t, but my experience of opinion polls and subsequent elections tells me two things about undecided voters: 1) They never vote the way the optimists hope they will, and 2) They usually vote (if they vote at all) in much the same way as the rest of the population.

    Admittedly, my experience is mostly with UK elections, and Hungarians may vote differently, but I somehow doubt it.

    Additionally, you can’t necessarily count a ‘no longer in favour of Fidesz’ vote as a pro-opposition vote. The damage done to MSzP by Orbán’s very successful black propaganda against Gyurcsany, MSzP, and “the ex-Communists” has been immense and has gone very deep. I fear the effects of this propaganda will be felt well past 2014. People may have lost faith in Fidesz and Orbán, but many will still not be able to bring themselves to vote the “old guard’ back in again in 2014. It’s still too early.

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  5. cheshire cat :
    About the original topic.
    Do I remember correctly, that E14 has announced they will got to the streets if the registration will go ahead? And the Bekemenet guys responded by saying that so would they, and “they would win” (=outnumber them).

    I can only hope that you are reading other people’s comments on the subject.

    Some1 :
    SHould the Peace March take Kossuth Square in protest to have voting preregistration?

    Some1 :Now, what makes me wonder is what is going to happen to the Peace Marchers who announced the last couple of days that they will occupy Kossuth square if there will be demonstration against the preregistration, since the preregistration was the best idea since sliced bread, and they will support it 100%. Will they occupy the parliament now, and tell Orban that they do want preregistration? I remember when the same buh were supporting Orban in the “I do not want the IMF and I will resign if we will talk to them” hissy fit but then they were reduced to support Orban to talk to IMF, while went out to the streets to support Orban to not make a deal with the IMF. Does it sound confusing? Welcome to the land of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

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  6. Petofi: “orban is too intelligent”

    He is intelligent, maybe. He managed successfully to fool too many naive citizens, to be elected.

    He is now committing a public painful extended communal harakiri, like so many past megalomaniac dictators and cult prophets.

    I am still in favor in a quick velvet uprising against orban, with a promise of amnesty for the lesser sinners.

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  7. And, lastly, for tonight – a challenge for the optimists – can you refute the four points from my original post?:

    “For Fidesz to lose the next election requires three basic conditions:

    1) An electoral system that allows the opposition a decent chance of winning.

    2) An effective opposition.

    3) A significant number of voters being ready to forgive MSzP and vote for them again.

    And, to avoid the Fidesz-Jobbik coalition nightmare – a fourth condition:

    4) The collapse of the Jobbik vote.

    I can’t see any of these happening, and certainly not all three/four.”

    Do you acceept those 3/4 points as fundamental – if not, why not? And, if you do accept them, but still think the opposition can win, can you explain how they can achieve each of my fundamental points?

    I’m not asking this just to be argumentative, but I’d like to get away from the ‘I say this, you say that’ form of ‘discussion’, and I would also dearly like someone to prove me wrong.

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    1. @ Paul. I had to cook while you were ticking off all my points… :-)

      You wrote: “The damage done to MSzP by Orbán’s very successful black propaganda against Gyurcsany, MSzP, and “the ex-Communists” has been immense and has gone very deep.”

      This is indeed one of the biggest problems which is hardly ever discussed within Hungary. Even rather enlightened people like the editor-in-chief of Pester Lloyd can’t overcome this irrational hatred of the socialists and Gyurcsány although they were democratic and much less corrupt than Orbán and his Fidesz.

      BTW, Krisztián Ungváry guesses the number of Hungarian intellectuals at “a few hundred” (Interview with hgv.hu 2012-12-20).

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  8. Do we wish for a better Hungary? Yes! Do we like optimists? Yes! Can we distinguish in cold blood between the positive oppositional, sometimes quite articulate and constructive proposals and intentions on the one hand and the facts on the ground, on the other hand? Here my doubts are increasing.

    In some of the comments above I read that the Hungarian people will make choices and important decisions about their lives and the country at the next elections. They are writing as if in 2014 there would be elections as we know them. Don’t you see that they ARE already rigged?

    Democracy in Hungary is a dead parrot. It met its maker. It is an ex-democracy, definitely deceased. It’s passed on. It’s no more. It joined the choir invisible!

    In other words, what you hear and read from intelligent people in Budapest makes you so happy that you forget that more than 50% won’t vote at all; that because of the election laws (the registration thingy was just some regulatory overkill) it will be very difficult even for a united opposition party (because that is what it takes and I can’t see anywhere) to even have a passable showing; that the 175 “district offices” will keep reminding every disgruntled Fidesz member to whom he/she owns his/her job; and finally what counts is electoral arithmetics which are not in favour of the few Budapest intellectuals, students, professors, teachers, artists, etc.

    But I still love optimists! If I can see that they begin to stage “sustainable” uprisings in the streets in masses, I’ll believe in their chances. But not before.

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