I’m truly grateful to “Observer” for this thorough analysis of the Hungarian electoral system. It is a great contribution to our understanding of the electoral chicanery Fidesz politicians devised to maintain their dominance in Hungarian politics.
♦ ♦ ♦
With the approaching general elections in spring 2018, this piece focuses on the heavy bias of the Hungarian electoral system (HES) introduced by and often amended by the ruling Fidesz.
Following the victory in April 2010 one of the first acts of the new VO/Fidesz government, after the freezing of all EU financed public tenders, was start building their new political system. The new Basic Law and a bit later the Electoral Law were rushed through with little consideration of and no input from experts, other parties, labor or civil organizations or the public and were approved by Parliament in April and December 2011 respectively. Following which this “chiseled in granite” legislation underwent numerous amendments in the period up to 2014.
Limited by the post format, I will present mainly the criticism of HES and the practical results produced by this system. Many sources offer brief or more detailed descriptions of the whole HES:
More detailed studies are
- http://www.aceeeo.org/sites/default/files/PDF/elections/JB16-en-low.pdf, page 134,
The main changes the Fidesz HES brought were:
- One round of voting instead of two.
- No participation threshold, formerly, a turnout of 50% was required for the first round and 25% for the second.
- 199 seats parliament, from 386 before,
- 106 constituency seats, from 176, their weight increased from 45.6% to 53.3% of the total
- 93 party-list seats, including minority-list seats, down from the 210 (regional list and national list seats), i.e. a decrease from 54.4% to 46.7% of all seats,
- 5% threshold remains for party lists, 10% threshold for joint list if two parties, 15% threshold for joint list of three or more parties,
- boundaries of the voting districts gerrymandered to suit Fidesz,
- the requirement for all voters’ prior registration was later rescinded.
Many critical studies and reports were published, e.g. the Tavares report, the Kim Scheppele studies, the 2014 OSCE report, dozens of articles were written on the new political and electoral systems and on the deteriorating state of democracy in Hungary. Herein I use extensively the analyses of Dr. Zoltán Tóth, considered as one of the best experts on electoral systems with an impressive resume of administrative, advisory and teaching positions in all governments before 2010, as well Constitutional Court advisor and Secretary General of the Association of European Election Officials 1991-2011.
I’ll also follow the order of Dr. Tóth’s study “By the Force of the Votes – A small study on the elections 2018” (in Hungarian), starting with:
Dr. Tóth draws attention to the fact that “The governing rules are to be found in the Basic Law, in 8 different statutes, 13 government decrees and in 30 National Electoral Commission (NEC) rulings of 3000-4000 pages.”
“The Hungarian parliamentary electoral system is built on parties and is a one-turn, two-way voting system, which favors only the party with the majority of the votes and punishes the others by way of a mathematical solution.” The essence of the legislation lays in the details and the complicated power distribution technique, says Dr. Tóth. The HES consists of at least 100 elements, the combined effect of which should enable the election of a Parliament that reflects all the people’s interests and values.
However, in Dr. Tóth’s opinion “The current law is far from this. We are faced with the fact that the rule of law (including in the elections process) has ceased in Hungary and the crude economic, political and government interests directly affect the outcome of the election.” Notably “All existing legislation was born after 2010, where there was no public, professional or political consultation. The legislation is based on loosely defined legal concepts, the main interpreter of which is the National Electoral Commission* [NEC]… The language of the legislation is far from intelligible, its structure is complicated.”
* NEC and the other election commissions have the primary task to determine the results of the elections, ensure the fairness and legality of the elections and restore its legal order if need be. NEOffice and other election offices carry out administrative tasks.
A study by the ACEEEO p.138, finds that:
“In the past 25 years the [Hungarian] electoral system has been subject of serious amendments. As described above, the new law adopted in 2011 has brought about significant changes, including the restructure of constituencies, the abolition of regional lists and voter turnout requirement, the introduction of the one-round election, national minority lists, the possibility to vote without Hungarian residence, the winner surplus vote, etc.” “The current electoral law has been modified eight times since 2012, five times within one year prior to the elections held in 2014.”
Proportional or majority system?
From this point of view HES “must be considered against the political system of that state, the number of participating parties.”
Dr. Tóth offers the examples of the very different British/ US two party, the multi-party French or the list voting Belgian systems, which all produce fair, sensible and socially just election results in their own environments. The Hungarian “is a multiparty system with one round voting, which is an irresolvable contradiction resulting in social injustice.” So overall “Hungary currently is neither an equitable nor a socially just state.”
Dr. Tóth finds that the Hungarian electoral regulations comply with the international requirements for a general, equal, direct and secret vote/voting, except for the equality of voting rights; the problems being the rules for the minorities’ voting and the rules and the practices regarding the voting of the expatriate Hungarians and of those living “beyond the borders.”
The basic principles of the elections are: free, fair and transparent. “The international observers [OSCE] of the 2014 elections identified 36 errors in their preliminary report, all of which were rejected by the Hungarian government.”
The conclusion is that the 2014 elections were half free, unfair and opaque. Notably the English language OSCE report wasn’t officially published in Hungarian.
Dr. Tóth criticizes, along with many others, a violation of the principles of equality of votes, by:
first, the eligibility of the Hungarians living “beyond the borders”, [granted fast track citizenship from 2013 on], but have never lived in Hungary and
second, the different ways the former and the expat Hungarians can vote.
Fidesz gave citizenship, with the right to vote, to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Hungarians and later allowed them to vote by mail, so they “didn’t have to travel, moreover you could … hand your ballot to anyone who would turn your ballot in for you. You didn’t even have to vote by mail.”
Moreover the electoral rolls abroad were compiled by local registration and remained valid for ten years without any verification, open widely to abuse, although only 2 or 3 seats were determined by those foreign votes.
Actually “that vote, … went 97-98 percent for Fidesz. That’s like North Korea voting… All the polls that were being taken in Romania, in the community of Hungarian citizens there, showed that Jobbik would probably get 20 percent of the vote, and Jobbik got nothing.” Kim Scheppele observed.
Scheppele also highlights the discriminatory and unfair [or illegal] treatment of the approx. 500,000 Hungarians who “have left the country under the Fidesz watch since 2010… Many of them were voters affiliated with the opposition and Fidesz made it very difficult for them to vote in the election … they exiled the opposition… the émigré Hungarians – people who had lived in the country, still have permanent residence in the country … Those people had to register to vote outside and their registration had to exact match what was back in the office in Budapest.” So, many were rejected because they misspelled their mother’s maiden name, or a minor detail didn’t exactly match the data at home. Compare this with the electoral roles of the “beyond the border” voters which were loosely compiled, largely unverified, valid for 19 years and closed to public scrutiny.
The expats had to go to a consulate or to an embassy to vote, e.g. embassy in London for the 200,000 – 300,000 Hungarians. Kim Scheppele continues: “Then, the National Election Office sent a letter to everyone telling them what address to go to vote… the address was wrong. They sent out the wrong instructions for the British vote. They also sent out the wrong instructions for what day the Americans had to vote… all the mistakes went to suppress the external vote… suddenly people show up and they are told “you need your foreign passport to be able to vote.” A lot of people showed up to vote with the identification they’d use to vote with in Budapest, their address card…”
This element of the HES was also abused, Dr. Tóth notes that the boundaries were gerrymandered twice in the run up to 2014 elections; the ACEEEO study p. 137, counts more: “The current electoral law has been modified eight times since 2012, five times within one year prior to the elections held in 2014 … affected Annex 2 of Act CCIII of 2011, which determines the constituency boundaries.”
Moreover, as Gábor Tóka’s study concludes, “[HES] clearly favors Fidesz against the leftist parties, but not against Jobbik. The key is the change of boundaries of SMDs. It is not simple gerrymandering: the historically leftist SMDs are in average bigger (approx. 80 thousand eligible voters) than the pro-government constituencies (approx. 75 thousand eligible voters). Thus, the voting power of leftist citizens is somewhat smaller: the difference is about 150 thousand votes.”
HES requires a party to field candidates in at least 27 constituencies in order to have a party list; a two or more parties’ common list requires 27 common candidates. This rule poses another formidable challenge to the democratic parties which would like to live-test their national popularity with own separate lists. If they would like to co-operate with each other and field a common candidate in each of the 106 constituencies to face the Fidesz one, each opposition party has to field a candidate in 27 constituencies whereas in some of them two (or more) opposition candidates will have to face each other.
According to Dr. Tóth “Practically there are no rules for the campaign. Practically there are no rules and no limits for the campaign funding.” There are written rules, of course:
But a look into the ACEEEO study reveals what Dr. Tóth means: “The campaign period starts 50 days before the day of voting. The law has special rules concerning posters, election rallies, political advertisements, door-to-door canvassing and exit polls…. In the campaign period the nominating organizations and the candidates may freely produce posters and may place them without restrictions… Government Decree no. 224/2011 (X. 21.) contains special rules and on posters placed next to public roads. .. [which] however, was amended, just before the elections in 2014, extending the applicability to campaign posters as well. As a result, during the election campaign in 2014 … no posters were allowed to be placed to lampposts.” (One of the cheapest way to place posters, heavily used by Fidesz too.)
Political advertisements were severely restricted, incredible enough “Act XXXVI of 2013… prohibited the broadcast of political advertisement by private media … The Constitutional Court declared this provision null and void, as an unduly restriction of the freedom of expression and the media.” ACEEEO study p. 140.
“As an answer, the Fundamental Law has been amended … in order to sustain the disputed provision… [and] amended again, the prohibition vanished, but a restriction remained: political advertisements may be published in media services only free of charge. As a consequence, during the campaign in 2014 no private media provider chose to give airtime to political advertisements.”The government extensively advertised in the public-turned-party media which by statute still has to be “neutral” and “balanced reporting.”
In the above scale the vote dispersion trick of funding fake “parties” pales into insignificance.
It is universally agreed that the HES is heavily biased, Dr. Tóth: “In obtaining seats the mathematics of the electoral laws only favor the party with the highest number of votes, everyone else is disadvantaged … In the case of three way votes distribution (Fidesz, Jobbik, democratic opposition), 31% of the total votes can result in obtaining 2/3ds of the parliamentary seats by the winning block” mainly because of the winner’s compensation* (sic!).
Dániel Róna, a political analyst and economist who developed a model to calculate the seats distribution based on the elections results, comes up with somewhat different figures: “In order to achieve a simple majority, leftist parties’ vote share needs to exceed Fidesz’ share by at least 10 percentage points (under the same conditions: Jobbik 25 percent, LMP 6 percent.”
*The HES “winner compensation” is a turbo charger. Traditionally the votes cast in the constituencies for non-winning candidate are “lost” so as compensation they are added to their respective party list.
But now, Kim Scheppele explains: “[with 300 votes were cast for them]. Fidesz says, “Okay, it turns out that we could have won that seat with 201 votes. So… those other 99 votes were lost because we didn’t need them to win the seat. So we’re going to add those 99 votes to our compensation list on the party list side. They got 6 of those seats just because of this trick. [In] any normal parliamentary system, they would not have their two-thirds..”
Political Capital also calculated the number of seats gained by the “winner compensation” and the “beyond the border votes” amounted to seven crucial seats.
Balázs Horváth of 24.hu concurs:While in 2010 a win of 52,7% of the vote, and 173 out of 176 constituencies brought 2/3 supermajority, in 2014 44,9% of the vote and 96 of 106 proved enough even as Fidesz had lost 564 000 in Hungary and gained only 122 600 votes from “beyond the borders.”
- 2 310 000 votes in 2002 and
2 270 000 in 2006 mean lost elections,
2 265 000 total votes in 2014 resulted in 2/3 of seats.
“Without the uncontrolled campaign financing the fake parties most probably there wouldn’t have been a supermajority . . . The redrawn voting districts was not a crucial factor in the 2014 election, as it could have tip the outcome to the right only in the case of closer results.”
Electoral Procedure Rules
Unsurprisingly the “Electoral bodies (national, regional, individual constituencies, seats and counting committees) are appointed by a majority of the MPs on the basis of a proposal by the Minister of the Interior … practically governmental party soldiers dominate the electoral process. Since 2010, the NEC and the NEO[ffice] haven’t ruled in favor of a single petition or motion of the opposition.
The democratic opposition parties cannot delegate a vote counting committee member to each [of the ~10 000] polling station, so in half of the country’s voting districts they can not control in any way the ballot counting carried out by government parties’ people.” states Dr. Tóth.
While the electoral rolls are largely public “the beyond the border rolls are practically secret. Even at 7 pm on election day it’s impossible to find out how many are listed in the rolls” in order to calculate rations, etc.
Add the obvious use of databases, the so called (Fid vice chairman) “Kubatov lists” recording voters’ political preferences, something explicitly forbidden by the law.
Paul Krugman and Kim Scheppele very well summarize the system and the conduct of the 2014 elections as reflected in the abovementioned OSCE report:
“What is not legitimate, however, is his two-thirds supermajority. Orbán was certainly not supported by two-thirds of Hungarians – nowhere close. In fact, a majority gave their votes to other parties. Orbán’s two-thirds victory was achieved through legal smoke and mirrors.”
[The OSCE report] was extremely critical of the election. The election monitors found that in many different ways “the main governing party enjoyed an undue advantage.” They reported numerous violations of international standards, including a failure to separate party and state, a biased media environment, a partisan Electoral Commission, lack of transparency in determining the electoral districts, and a generally un-level playing field… the Orbán government went well beyond normal tinkering when it extensively revised the electoral framework during its last four years in office. The new system was designed precisely to give Orbán a vastly disproportionate two-thirds parliamentary majority with less than a majority vote. And it worked.
The international election monitors … concentrated primarily on evaluating the campaign and the election itself … but they also expressed concern about the election framework and how it had been adopted. As the election monitors noted, the governing party’s “undue advantage” resulted in part from a “legal overhaul” that was “unprecedented” and consisted of laws that were “passed and modified without public consultation or inclusive dialogue with opposition parties.” They found that “the manner in which these laws were adopted and frequently amended, including in the year prior to these elections, led to legal uncertainty and did not provide for effective and inclusive public consultation, contrary to national legislation and good practice.”
Gábor Tóka of CEU’s Political Science dept. studied the system before the 2014 elections concluded that: “Among the contemporary electoral reforms in the world’s democracies, the 2011- 13 Hungarian reforms stand out as a one-party imposition that avoided consensus building and followed perceived self-interest. (Renwick 2012)… The negative side is that the system, at least on the short run, will probably distort the expression of the popular will in seat distributions, and thus generate cynicism regarding democratic institutions and a drop in political legitimacy in Hungary.”
Róbert László of Political Capital, in another study, sums up the criticism of the Fidesz electoral system for:
- increasing the weight of the individual constituencies votes,
- the abolition of the second round,
- over-rewarding the party of the winners in the constituencies.
Although the above may benefit other political forces if the winds change, he admits, the system also “narrows down the democratic political competition” by way of:
- politically manipulated constituency map,
- procedural anomalies related to foreign voting,
- several elements of the campaign regulation (or non-regulation)
- distorted system resulting from the ways of nomination and campaign financing (while the easing of the nomination process wouldn’t be a problem in itself),
- rules creating preferential ways of seat winning by the ethnic minorities.
The cases of abuse, e.g. where the ballot papers posted to past-away “beyond the borders ”citizens are forged, are probably considered intolerable even within the ruling parties” notes pretty optimistically Mr. László, in view of the organized abuses recorded.
Although these are not strictly part of HES, Dr. Tóth mentions the following factors influencing the election results:
- the government’s use of the secret services, the police and the prosecution office actions against opposition politicians, [I would add the Tax Office and the State Auditing office AS];
- it also exerts pressure on the 1.8 public employees existentially dependent on it, including those in the foster work scheme;
- the government uses extensively and state and local government resources for its political campaigns; [including the public media turned party outlet, I would add].
After all this Dr. Tóth and others still think that Fidesz can be defeated “if six million of 70% of the voters will participate”, or that “the popularity of Fidesz is slightly over-estimated by the polls” or because “Fidesz’s position is … much more fragile than it seems.” But projections and forecasts are another subject.