Tag Archives: election law

Hungarians oppose the Orbán government’s policy toward ethnic Hungarians living abroad

Originally, I considered writing about the “gala interview” that László Kövér gave to Magyar Idők yesterday. I must admit that this decision was based mostly on the couple of reactions I read, which insisted that Kövér’s interview was the craziest he has ever given, that it’s becoming apparent to everyone that the president of the Hungarian parliament is not quite normal. Index, ahead of the interview’s publication, was sure that the interview would have “exciting” parts, while a journalist from Pesti Bulvár, a liberal internet site, was flabbergasted after reading it.

So, foolish me, I thought this interview would give us new insight into Kövér as well as into the latest mindset of the Fidesz leadership. Perhaps I have developed an immunity to everything that comes from the characters who are running the country at the moment, but I found nothing new in this “gala interview.” I guess what shocked the journalists of Pesti Bulvár was that Kövér announced that he wouldn’t be surprised if the European Union collapsed in his lifetime. Kövér is 58 years old, so the timetable is pretty tight. Aside from this prophecy, Kövér repeated his belief in the conspiracy of certain clandestine powers (háttérhatalmak) that, at the time it was first floated by Viktor Orbán a year ago, consisted of the U.S. government, the Clintons, George Soros, and the civic organizations financed by him. By now the composition of this group of evil spirits has changed somewhat. After the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, “a certain segment of the intellectual, political, and economic elite” joined the conspiracy because “they are trying their best to hamstring the democratically elected president.” So, instead of the U.S. government, Kövér considers the American liberal elite part of the hidden powers that run the world. I fail to see what is new in all that.

On the other hand, there is something that is worth discussing. A new poll was just released showing that Hungarian citizens living in Hungary have serious reservations about the financial assistance given to ethnic Hungarians who live in neighboring countries. They also reject their participation in Hungarian elections.

Those of you who follow the discussions among readers of Hungarian Spectrum may recall that only a few days ago I expressed my personal misgivings about giving voting rights to people who have possibly never set foot in the country. They don’t live and work there, but now they have the right to determine the political fate of the country, possibly at the expense of those who have to carry the political and economic burden of it. Ex Tor especially took exception to my position, saying that there can be no citizenship without voting rights. At that time I looked at the electoral laws of several European countries and found that most of them do in fact grant voting rights but that there are exceptions. In any case, I believe that the Hungarian situation is unique, if for nothing else but the large number of votes expected from the neighboring countries. If the government’s plans materialize, about ten percent of all votes cast would come from abroad.

Now let’s see the results of the poll Publicus Institute published for Vasárnapi Hírek. Just as I said earlier, my hunch was that Hungarians wouldn’t mind giving citizenship to those who can prove Hungarian ancestry but who were born and still live in another country, be it one of the neighboring countries or countries such as Canada, the U.S., France, or Germany. The majority, however, object to certain privileges these ethnic Hungarians receive at the moment. They resent the sizable amount of money that is being spent on projects in the neighboring countries to benefit ethnic Hungarians. They oppose their entitlement to various social benefits in Hungary. They have serious objections to the voting rights of dual citizens. They consider the present law, which makes a distinction between new dual citizens and Hungarian citizens who work abroad, discriminatory and unfair. And when it comes to spending billions on the football academy in the Szekler-inhabited area of Romania, they are really up in arms (-81%).

Anyone who’s interested in all the details of the poll can visit Publicus’s website. Here I will summarize only the most important findings. On the whole, there is strong support (68%) for granting dual citizenship to those who want to become Hungarian citizens, but backing for the legislation that granted it varies greatly, depending on party affiliation. Fidesz and Jobbik are strong defenders of the measure, while the majority of MSZP voters object even to dual citizenship as a concept. (Publicus has the habit of putting all left-liberal parties under MSZP.)

The situation is entirely different when it comes to the fabulous amount of money the Orbán government spends on ethnic Hungarians living in Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, and Slovakia. The majority of respondents disapprove of the policy of providing social benefits similar to the ones they receive to people who have never lived in the country. People feel strongly against providing dual citizens with pensions, paid leaves for new mothers, travel discounts, and welfare benefits (60-70%), but somewhat strangely 55% would provide them with healthcare. When it comes to the reasons for Fidesz’s generosity toward ethnic Hungarians, the majority of the Hungarian voters cannot be fooled. Or at least only Fidesz voters (57%) believe in their party leaders’ altruism. The most skeptical bunch are the Jobbik voters (77%), closely followed by MSZP (74%), but uncommitted voters are not far behind (63%). The fact that new dual citizens can vote via mail as opposed to Hungarian citizens working abroad, who must travel miles to reach the embassy or a consulate, is considered to be discriminatory and unfair by 81% of the people. On the crucial question of voting rights, 57% of the respondents indicated their opposition to the present practice.

Although the Orbán government’s “national policies” (nemzetpolitika) are unpopular, the government considers the “investment” worthwhile, as is obvious from its frantic spending on Hungarian ethnic groups lately. The government spends hand over fist on those “sisters and brothers” abroad who are squarely in the Fidesz camp. The extra votes Fidesz expects to receive from them are considered to be crucial in the forthcoming election. Moreover, since there is no independent oversight of the incoming ballots, their numbers can be manipulated, depending on need. Let’s not forget that Fidesz’s two-thirds majority in 2010 was announced after the foreign votes were counted. It was highly suspicious then, and it will be equally suspicious if a similar situation occurs in 2018.

August 20, 2017

Debate on the Hungarian electoral law

In today’s post I will not even be able to scratch the surface of the debate over restructuring the Hungarian electoral system to make it more proportional. It’s an exceedingly complicated, emotionally fraught subject.

Until recently the discussion was merely academic, but with civil activist Márton Gulyás’s call for a political movement whose goal is changing the unfair electoral system, it has become a political issue. Supporters of such a change believe that it is a prerequisite for fair elections that would reflect citizens’ true political views instead of the two-thirds Fidesz majority that the present system practically guarantees. Opponents argue that, given the present political landscape, the opposition would not benefit from a more or less proportional system but in fact would emerge weaker than it is now. As long as this greatly disproportional system exists, there is always the possibility that an opposition party may, even with 45% of the votes, be able to achieve a two-thirds majority, just as Fidesz did in 2014, which would enable it to dismantle Viktor Orbán’s illiberal political system. As Orbán said, “one has to win only once, but then big.”

There is nothing new in the disproportionality of the Hungarian electoral system. In 1994 MSZP got 32% and SZDSZ 19% of the popular vote. Together, with their combined 51%, they had a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament. In 2010 a similar situation occurred: Fidesz’s 53% was enough to have a super majority in parliament. With amendments tipping the electoral law even more in their favor, in 2014 44% was enough for Fidesz to get a two-thirds majority in parliament. In a more proportional system, Fidesz wouldn’t even have been able to form a government on its own.

In 2015 János Széky, writer, translator, and political commentator, first talked about the need to address the serious shortcomings of the Hungarian electoral law as it was originally conceived in 1990. He devoted a chapter to it in his book Bárányvakság, the Hungarian equivalent of Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis or LCA, an inherited eye disease. He returned to the topic in February of this year, arguing in an article that with a proportional electoral system Fidesz would never have gotten a two-thirds majority. The standard response to this assertion is that it wasn’t the electoral system that produced Fidesz’s super majority but the extremely poor performance of the Gyurcsány government. Széky disagrees. Since the end of World War II no other party has received two-thirds of the parliamentary seats in any of the present members of the European Union. Not even 60% of the seats. “There is no such thing in a democracy,” claims Széky. In this essay and in his book, Széky forcefully argues for a proportional electoral system based on party lists and criticizes the political elite for neglecting this vitally important political issue.

Recently Miklós Haraszti, rapporteur of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and a monitor of the elections in the Netherlands, began a campaign of sorts to induce Fidesz to change the electoral system before the 2018 election. He gave several interviews and wrote extensively on the subject. He shares Széky’s poor opinion of party leaders who neglected to explain to their followers the real reason for Fidesz’s “success”–a grossly disproportional electoral system. In order to escape from what Haraszti calls “constitutional dictatorship,” this system must be changed. As far as Haraszti is concerned, in talking about electoral victory the opposition parties are engaging in self-deception or, even worse, deceit.

Haraszti doesn’t believe in an alliance of the left-of-center parties, which would be a straitjacket for the parties and wouldn’t satisfy the needs of their followers. Moreover, at present there is no sign of any kind of cooperation among them. Competition among parties is a natural state of affairs, but it can work only if there is a genuinely proportional electoral system. Fidesz must be forced to change the system it made even less proportional than it had been. If it refuses, the opposition parties should abstain from participation in the election. Haraszti believes that no electoral campaign and election would be accepted if all the other parties refuse to participate. Haraszti argues that Fidesz cannot risk such a “one-party campaign and election” and therefore would have to negotiate with the opposition parties, all demanding radical change.

One of the first people to criticize Miklós Haraszti’s blueprint for achieving a reform of the electoral system was the political analyst Zoltán Ceglédi. He calls the plan an illusion. It is hard to imagine that Orbán would willingly replace a system that is advantageous to him with one that would give him fewer votes. Moreover, knowing Orbán, the more pressure is applied, the more adamant he will be to keep the present system. In his opinion, the claim that Fidesz cannot be defeated under the present system is wrong. The word “Fidesz” is not in the law. One simply must get more votes. Ceglédi considers boycotting parliament under the present circumstances an acceptable method of not collaborating with a thoroughly corrupt and dictatorial regime. But boycotting the election is not a realistic goal. The defeat of Orbán as soon as possible is of primary importance, but it must be done under the present system.

The other critic who published an opinion piece today is László Bruszt, professor of political science at Central European University and visiting professor at Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. He considers Viktor Orbán’s campaign for the recapture of the two-thirds majority pretty well lost. In his opinion, Viktor Orbán’s Easter message was not about the consolidation of his regime but a desperate stab at saving it. Bruszt is, however, unhappy with Márton Gulyás’s declared goal of changing the electoral system. Concentrating narrowly on one issue diminishes the opportunities the recent demonstrations offer the parties. In fact, it may divide them. Yes, Fidesz must be defeated but by Fidesz’s own rules. The secret is competition on party lists but with a single common candidate in each district.

What Bruszt considers more important than a change in the electoral system is a modification of rules and regulations not found in the electoral law. For example, the extreme limitations placed on sending messages to the electorate. A couple of weeks before the election in 2014 there were practically no signs of campaign activity. Parties had minimal possibilities to advertise either on the streets or in the media. Fidesz used so-called “civic organizations” like the government-financed CÖF as proxies. Since electoral laws did not apply to them, they were able to advertise where parties were forbidden to do so.

Orbán is in trouble now and much more vulnerable than in 2014. Bruszt actually compares him to Károly Grósz, the last party secretary of MSZMP in 1989 who, like Orbán, became more and more aggressive as he felt more and more threatened. The opposition should not let Orbán escape from the trap in which he finds himself by talking exclusively about an unfair electoral system and thereby offering excuses for failure. Moreover, since the present system can easily produce a super majority, if the opposition could receive 45-47% of the popular vote, it would be in a position to change the constitution and many other institutional laws the Orbán regime has introduced.

Electoral laws, of course, go beyond questions of proportionality. Electoral districts are drawn in such a way as to favor particular parties, voting procedures benefit some (for instance, Hungarian Romanians) and disadvantage others (Hungarians living in Great Britain), and campaign finance laws can make a significant difference in the outcomes of elections. All thorny, all worthy of debate.

April 20, 2017

In praise of Fidesz’s Machiavellian talents

Here is a good example of what I’m talking about. The electoral law that was originally submitted in September 2012 was immediately amended and in the following weeks the bill was changed several times. The process is not over. The Orbán government at the moment is planning to add another amendment to the already accepted text, and this may still not be the end of the fiddling with its provisions. It depends on what steps are deemed necessary to secure Fidesz’s advantage in the race.

Without going into all of the details of the law that naturally favors Fidesz-KDNP, here I will call attention to one new aspect of it. It is the generous campaign financing of any hitherto unknown or newly created party. This subsidy is different from the one million forints that will be given to every candidate of the established parties on debit cards issued by the treasury where recipients will have to give an account of their spending. The money that the government will give to these new parties, which Hungarians have already nicknamed “kamupártok,” meaning phony parties, will be in cold hard cash. The parties can just pocket the money. It seems that the government doesn’t care where these millions will go as long as a lot of people take advantage of a very enticing proposition.

Machiavelli2What does one have to do to become a party leader? One must have at least twenty-six good friends or, better put, business partners who are willing to declare themselves candidates in a given electoral district. Each candidate need collect only 500 signatures. That certainly shouldn’t be difficult. Once it has 27 candidates, the new “Swindlers’ Party” can have a party list, and from there on it will receive money that it can spend on anything it wishes, no receipts required.

Clearly this rather odd arrangement was devised by the Fidesz think-tank to benefit their own party. With this ploy they can splinter the opposition: there will be so many lines on the ballot in April 2014 that the already confused voters will be utterly lost. And some voters may feel that they should vote for their underdog friends. Thus, Political Capital and Transparency International suggested an amendment: money would be transferred to these new, possibly phony parties on debit cards and, just like more established parties, they would have to give an account of their expenditures.

The Orbán government, which usually ignores suggestions, especially those coming from NGOs, suddenly became interested. The Machiavellian campaign strategists saw an opportunity and decided to purposefully misunderstand the suggestion of Transparency International and Political Capital. Gergely Gulyás, the man who usually handles legal matters in the party, came to the conclusion that “it is worth considering an amendment that would regulate campaign financing in such a way that state subsidies will be issued not to those who present themselves as candidates but to those who actually finish the campaign.” Any candidate who doesn’t finish the campaign would have to return the money he received from the budget.

So, one could ask, what is so Machiavellian in this? Anyone who is following the party struggles on the liberal-socialist side should immediately realize why Fidesz is so eager to tighten up the rules. Although Ferenc Gyurcsány has been talking about designating candidates in all 107 districts, he hopes that by the end the democratic parties will be able withdraw candidates to maximize their chances. This amendment would mean that DK, MSZP, and E14 candidates would have to pay back millions of forints they received to finance their campaigns. The  money naturally would already have been spent and these parties, especially DK and E14, have meager funds with which to repay the government.

The innocent babes of Political Capital and Transparency International were flabbergasted but only remarked politely that “the politicians of Fidesz misunderstood” their suggestion. The planned amendment as described by Gulyás doesn’t solve the real problem. They also objected that their suggestions are being used “for measures that didn’t originate with them.” Surely, they don’t want to be responsible for an amendment that makes the opposition’s electoral chances even worse than they are now. The problems they originally called attention to are still there: these quasi-parties will receive their campaign financing in cash which, depending on the number of candidates, might be as high as 600 million forints. These “parties” will still not have to account for their expenditures. And naturally, these proposed measures don’t remedy the problem that while individual candidates will have to repay monies received from the government if they withdraw in favor of another candidate, these quasi-parties will be able to keep their money even if they don’t receive one single vote. In the rest of their communiqué they repeat their original suggestions.

Of course, crafty Gulyás and his ilk know exactly what they are doing. They weighed matters anew in light of Ferenc Gyurcsány ideas for a single list and acted accordingly. Their original scheme to  weaken the opposition by encouraging phony parties to enter the race will reap only modest benefits. But discouraging MSZP-E14-DK from cooperating by threatening them with the loss of millions and millions of campaign funds may be a real game changer.