Here is living proof of the unfairness of the new Hungarian election law enacted by the current government party, Fidesz. While according to the latest poll every second person would like to see a change of government, the prediction is that if nothing changes between now and April 6, Fidesz will again have a two-thirds majority of the seats in parliament. Therefore, I strongly suggest that readers study Professor Kim Scheppele’s article on the Orbán government’s election law.
And there is a second oddity. While the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, misses no opportunity to show the European Union in a negative light, a recent poll indicates that the reputation of the European Union is on the rise in Hungary. Hungarians are a great deal more enthusiastic about the European Union than the average European citizen: 47% as opposed to 31% have a positive view of the Union. They even have a better opinion of the economic well being of Europe than most people and therefore may not believe the Orbán slogan “Hungary performs better” since they know that Hungary’s economic situation is not exactly rosy. It seems that Orbán’s war of independence mostly fell on deaf ears.
Although half of the electorate would like to see a different government, in the polls Fidesz leads by a mile. Among the population eligible to vote Fidesz comes in at 47% as opposed to the democratic opposition’s 29%. The government party lost a bit of its popularity in February but the united opposition which, by the way, wisely changed its name from Összefogás (unity) to “Kormányváltás” (change of government) hasn’t moved an inch. It was necessary to change the name of the united democratic opposition because a right-wing party already calls itself Összefogás Pártja (party of unity). I should add here that there might be close to 40 parties on the ballot, most of them total unknowns. It will be darned difficult even to find the democratic opposition on the list; by lottery it “won” thirty-first place.
How can we account for the discrepancy between the wishes of the population and the numbers of the pollsters? According to Medián, the answer might lie in the group that at the moment cannot find a party to vote for. In this part of the electorate 47% of the voters would like to see Viktor Orbán go while only 14% of these people are supporters of the current government. The question is whether this group will be inspired enough to go and vote or will stay at home, believing that the result is preordained.
One worrisome bit of news is that Jobbik has improved in the standings. Among both eligible and active voters 18% would vote for this neo-Nazi party. Compare that to Kormányváltás’s 29% and 30%.
When it comes to the popularity of politicians, no politician is really popular in Hungary because even the most popular has only 49%. At the head of the list are Fidesz politicians, but for the first time we find Jobbik’s Gábor Vona’s name among the top ten, right between Lajos Kósa and Tibor Navracsics. It seems that the most hated politician is not Ferenc Gyurcsány anymore but Rózsa Hoffman. Zsolt Semjén and András Schiffer are both near the bottom of the list.
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Hungary: An Election in Question
Part III: Compensating the Winners
Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton University
Election analysts have predicted that the democratic opposition in Hungary cannot win a majority in the parliament if it produces a tied vote or even pulls somewhat ahead of Fidesz in the final vote. Instead, the allied opposition parties will have to get as many as 6-8% more votes than Fidesz to gain a simple parliamentary majority, mainly because of gerrymandered districts. But that’s not the only Fidesz-friendly element of the new electoral system.
If Fidesz wins these new single-member districts by substantial margins, Fidesz’ parliamentary representation will then be boosted even more by a novel system of “compensation votes.” To understand how this works, we need to understand how proportional representation (PR) systems are typically structured.
In PR systems, compensation is typically awarded in the calculation of final results to ensure that the distribution of seats in the legislature is as close as possible to the distribution of votes cast by the electorate. That’s what makes them proportional. For example, German parties are compensated by gaining extra votes in their party list totals when their candidates win a lower share of individual constituencies than the popular vote would predict.
Hungary’s system for awarding compensation based on the results in the single-member districts used to be quite similar to the German one, but no longer. The new electoral system now bizarrely compensates not just the losers, but also the winners. This new system increases the winner’s victory margin to create even more of a “winner take all” system. This will most likely ensure that the final tally of votes moves farther from the distribution of votes in the population as a whole rather than closer to the overall distribution, as PR systems typically ensure.
In short, majorities are magnified into super-majorities under this new system.
The new system of compensation is complicated and counterintuitive, so let’s start with the basics.
What is a “lost vote”? A lost vote is a vote for a candidate who loses. If, for example, you are voting in a district that has Red, Green and Yellow parties on offer and you vote for the Yellow candidate, who loses, your vote is considered “lost.” But that lost vote is used instead to help the party you voted for get an extra boost when party-list mandates are calculated. As a result, you are compensated for having “wasted” your vote for the individual candidate by having your vote supplement the party-list totals instead. This is the system Hungary had for compensating lost votes in the individual districts from 1990-2010.
Let’s take an example. Suppose the Red party wins a district with 500 votes while the Green party gets 200 votes and the Yellow party 100 votes. Under the old Hungarian compensation scheme, 200 votes for the Greens and 100 votes for the Yellows would be added to the Green and Yellow party-list votes so that those parties gained in strength when party-list mandates were determined.
Under the Fidesz reforms, however, not only do the Green and Yellow parties get compensation, but now the Red party also will be deemed to have “lost votes” in this election despite having actually won the seat.
How did the winning party “lose” votes? Some Red votes are counted as “lost” because the mandate could have been won with only 201 votes and yet the Red party got 500, exceeding what the party strictly needed to win the mandate. So under the new Fidesz system, 299 votes – the number of votes beyond those necessary to win – are considered lost and are added to the votes for the Red party when party-list seats are awarded.
Under Hungary’s new election system, then, the party winning an individual constituency will be awarded not only that particular mandate, but also extra points in the party-list calculations when it wins by more votes than needed. This is another reason why the electoral system in Hungary is even more highly disproportionate in 2014 than it was before.
The reason for having a proportional representation system is to enable representation to be proportional to the vote. But the Fidesz system makes representation less proportional overall. This innovation puts Hungary out of line with all PR systems in Europe.
The winner compensation system was designed at a time when Fidesz was clearly the plurality party, with all other parties trailing at a distance even though, combined, they would have been more formidable. So Fidesz designed a system in which it would maximally benefit in that fragmented political landscape. If Fidesz won by large margins in the individual districts against a divided opposition, it could have gotten its two-thirds back even with substantially less than half the vote.
The system of winner compensation is therefore another reason why the opposition had to form an alliance, even if only to narrow the gap between the first- and second-largest vote-getter in each individual constituency.
An example shows why. If Fidesz won 500 votes in an individual district and four smaller parties obtained 100 votes each, Fidesz would get 399 votes in winner compensation. But if Fidesz won 500 votes and the Unity Alliance combined the votes of the four smaller parties to gain 400 votes in that district, then Fidesz would only get 99 compensation votes added to its party-list votes. With a unified opposition, the effect of winner compensation is blunted.
So when does winner compensation actually benefit a political party facing a united opposition?
A party would benefit from the winner compensation system if it could encourage a host of new challengers on the “other side” to chip away at the difference between the first- and second-place candidates in each district, throwing additional votes to the winner. And in fact, the new electoral rules make it easier in 2014 than it was in 2010 to field new parties and new candidates, by requiring fewer supporters to endorse them before they can be registered. While we don’t yet know the number of parties that will actually run lists and field candidates, already there are 92 parties that have registered with the National Election Commission. If there are many small “anti-Fidesz” candidates in a particular constituency, for example, they could divide the vote and increase the margin by which Fidesz wins – and therefore increase Fidesz’s likelihood of getting its desired two-thirds majority.
Of course, if the united opposition could sweep the individual constituencies by large margins, then they could also win a disproportionate victory on the party list side as well. But that is why it matters so much that the individual constituencies are drawn in a way to make that maximally unlikely. There are very few safely “left” districts remaining that the united opposition could win by such large margins. So while it is possible in theory for the united opposition to win a disproportionate victory under the rules also, the facts on the ground and the way that the districts have been matched to those facts make it virtually impossible in reality.
But this is not the only “winner compensation” system on view for the 2014 Hungarian election. The fact that Fidesz so decisively won the 2010 election has given it the power to remake and staff the institutions that will run the election this time. In fact, the whole election machinery itself is in the hands of governing party allies for 2014. And we are already seeing worrying signs that these offices are not neutral.
Twice since the 2010 elections, the Election Commission was reorganized and all members of the Election Commission were fired before they completed the ends of their terms. First, the members of the Election Commission elected by the previous parliament were fired when Fidesz passed a law in 2010 that required all Election Commission members to be reelected after each national election, effective immediately (Law LXI of 2010). The old members of the Commission, which included a mix of opposition and Fidesz members with opposition members in the majority, left office immediately and were replaced by a new Commission elected by the Fidesz parliamentary majority which included no members from the political opposition.
Then, in 2013, Fidesz changed the system yet again (Law XXXVI of 2013). This time, the law created a newly structured Election Commission and a newly structured Election Office. The new Election Commission now has seven core members nominated by the President of the Republic (himself a former Fidesz vice-president). They were elected for a term of nine years by a two-thirds vote of the Fidesz-dominated parliament. Not surprisingly, all of the new members of the Commission appear to be allied with the governing party. The Election Office is staffed by civil servants, but the head of the office now is a former deputy state secretary for the Ministry of National Development in the Fidesz government.
While opposition parties report good relations with the new head of the Election Office, one might well still worry about a system in which all of the key players who will make the decisions about the election framework were assigned to their jobs by the governing party, in a system where the governing party just rewrote all of the rules.
Even though the Election Commission has only government-friendly members among its permanent members, once the campaign starts, each party running a national list is able to delegate one person to sit on the Election Commission for the duration of the campaign. These party delegates are able to vote on all matters along with the seven permanent members, which raises the possibility that the permanent members could be outvoted depending on how many and what sorts of groups run national lists. Recently, in a press briefing to the Hungarian International Press Association, András Patyi, the head of the National Election Commission, said that he expected the Election Commission to increase to 20-25 members during the campaign, which means that he anticipates at least a dozen or more national lists. (In 2010, there were 10 lists on the ballot.)
In run-up to the campaign, however, Fidesz allies dominated the Election Commission. The Election Office will remain the key location for information about the election but it gains no members from opposition parties to assist in its operation during the campaign. Already important decisions have been made about how the election will be administered under these new rules. This is why, as we will see in the next blog post, the proliferation of inaccurate and misleading information about the election given out by election officials is especially worrying.