Tag Archives: electoral law

Another miracle: Eight-party working document on Hungary’s electoral system

Today seems an appropriate time to look at much needed changes to the Hungarian electoral law. The German polls just closed, and yesterday eight Hungarian left-of-center opposition parties agreed to sit down to work out a more equitable, more proportional electoral system to replace the one Fidesz introduced to satisfy the party’s immediate political interests. They announced that they already have a rough working document and that by October 23 they intend to have the final product.

I’m sure they will study the German electoral law carefully since the 1989 Hungarian law, which governed elections between 1990 and 2010, was modeled to some extent on the German system–except it turned out to be much more complicated and a great deal less proportional. It’s high time to remedy the situation, although we know that as long as Fidesz-KDNP holds sway over the country, whatever these parties come out with in the next month will remain merely a plan, to be stashed away for later implementation.

Still, the very fact that the eight left-of-center parties agreed to work together on a piece of legislation is an important event. It was only a few days ago that the same eight parties (along with Jobbik) agreed on a “national minimum” as far as healthcare is concerned. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if soon enough a similar undertaking would address the transformation of the Hungarian educational system.

Gergely Karácsony, Ferenc Gyurcsány, and Lajos Bokros at the Agora where the working document was announced

Before going into the present state of the discussion on the electoral law, I think it might be useful to share some material on the subject from the websites of the different parties.

LMP (Politics Can Be Different) published the party’s position on the reform of the electoral system in 2011, prior to Fidesz’s single-handed reworking of the system in its own favor. Nonetheless, I’m confident that the document still reflects the views of the party on the subject. Among the available material, I found LMP’s presentation of the party’s ideas on an ideal system to be the best. It is succinct and clear. LMP at that point wanted to make the 1989 electoral law more proportionate but didn’t want to drastically change the system. They wanted to retain the mixed system of individual districts and party lists. LMP, being a small party always hovering around 5%, wanted to lower eligibility for representation to 3%. Since the leaders of LMP didn’t believe that the incredibly low percentage of women in parliament would change on its own, they suggested a female quota.

Demokratikus Koalíció/DK’s program titled “Hungary of the Many” (2016) has a section called “For a Fair Electoral System.” DK is also in favor of the mixed system (individual districts and party lists) but suggests further study of an “open list system,” which allows voters to indicate their favored candidate on the party list. Otherwise, DK is adamant that “voting rights can only be given to people who are inhabitants or who spent a considerable time in the country.” DK, like LMP, recommends a quota set-aside for woman politicians.

The document of Együtt, in which the party set forth its ideas on a new electoral system, is the longest but is unfortunately quite repetitious and at places muddled. Most likely this is because, as the author of the document says, they don’t only want to have a more proportional and fairer system. “The main task of the party is a model change which would strengthen political competition through the institutionalization of compulsion for compromise (kompromisszumkényszer).” Együtt also wants to retain a mixed electoral system, but unlike such systems in other countries, the party would have an equal number of seats for MPs from the districts and from the lists. They suggest a 222-member parliament, two members of which would come from votes of the dual citizens residing in the neighboring countries. Együtt recommends the introduction of instant-runoff voting. Instead of voting for only a single candidate, voters can rank the candidates in order of preference. Együtt is in favor of an “open system,” whose introduction DK is also contemplating. Együtt also supports a quota system to ensure the fairer representation of women in the legislative process. Együtt can’t imagine taking away the voting rights of dual citizens, but it would completely rework the system governing their voting. Right now they can cast only one vote, for a party list. Együtt would create two districts with their own candidates.

I left MSZP to last because what the party has is not a program but a collection of ideas, which the party leaders offered “for debate.” The document is called “Election in Hungary: A new alternative.” As far as MSZP is concerned, there are only two alternatives: a mixed system with run-offs with compensation derived from votes on party lists and single voting by counties plus Budapest for party lists alone. MSZP would give three seats to dual citizens residing in neighboring countries. Whoever put the document together assigned the number of seats for all 20 districts. In addition, MSZP threw in several other options for discussion: a female quota on all party lists, introduction of a preferential (instant-runoff) voting system, lowering the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation, lowering the voting age to 16, compulsory voting, a second house, or just one countrywide list like in the Netherlands. I assume that MSZP isn’t seriously considering any or all of these options but is simply putting them out for discussion.

As you can see, the parties who have already offered some thoughts on the reform of the electoral system are not very far apart, and therefore I don’t anticipate serious disagreements among them. From what we know so far about the discussion among the parties, the mixed system would remain and the number of seats would be raised to 220-222. The participants are optimistic that by the October 23 deadline the final proposal will be signed and sealed.

Ferenc Gyurcsány at the time of the announcement that they already had a working document and that they would spend the month ironing out the details expressed his opinion that “the democratic opposition is in better shape intellectually and in human terms than it appears from the outside.” If there is easy agreement on as difficult an issue as the electoral system, “it is even possible that these parties and movements will govern the country well.” Gergely Karácsony expressed his opinion that this is “not the end but the beginning of something.”

The working document is not public yet, but we learned a few details. Péter Juhász of Együtt indicated that they no longer insist on the introduction of an “open party list.” Ferenc Gyurcsány said at the press conference that DK added a proviso to the document in which they stated that the party doesn’t support voting rights for dual citizens who are permanent residents of another country. Anett Bősz of the liberals added that the Magyar Liberális Párt did the same thing regarding the minimum threshold for parliamentary representation.

So far, so good. In the case of the “healthcare” minimum, it was an outsider, not a party leader, who hammered together an agreement that was acceptable to all parties. Now, a week later, a civic activist achieved the beginnings of the same for the electoral system. Perhaps the party-civic society combination has a greater chance of success than I anticipated.

September 24, 2017

A minor miracle: nine parties support Márton Gulyás’s electoral reform plan

Yesterday’s post turned out to be quite controversial. It reported on a poll that showed what we have suspected for some time: that Hungarians who were born in the country and who currently live and work there resent the generous financial support given by the Orbán government to Hungarian minorities living in the neighboring countries. Moreover, Hungarians know that their tax money that goes abroad is intended primarily to gather votes for Fidesz, the party of choice in those countries. The majority of the inhabitants of Hungary proper strongly oppose the current practice of bestowing voting rights on those Hungarian speakers in the neighboring countries who become dual citizens. I added my own personal agreement to that general sentiment.

During the resultant discussion it turned out that many of the commenters are not familiar with details of the electoral law as it applies to citizens living abroad. I suggest that readers take a look at a November 2013 post of mine called “Inequality of the Hungarian electoral law.”

Since we had such a brisk debate on this aspect of the electoral law, we might as well talk about another angle of it, its gross disproportionality. 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 have been able to form a government on its own.

In March of this year, 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. In his opinion, an alliance of all left-of-center parties is neither realistic nor is it an effective way to ensure victory. Fidesz naturally would oppose any change to the present electoral system. In that case, all the other parties should refuse to participate in the election. Haraszti argues that Fidesz cannot risk such a “one-party campaign and election” and therefore will have to negotiate with the other parties.

Haraszti’s idea was widely debated in intellectual circles. In May it got a boost when at a demonstration Márton Gulyás, a civil activist, called for a political movement whose goal would be to change the unfair electoral system. As usual, there were many who argued that, in the current 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 the necessary two-thirds majority that would enable the new government to dismantle Viktor Orbán’s illiberal political system. However, given the current state of the Hungarian opposition, the likelihood of such a development is unlikely. The left-of-center parties show no inclination to gather under the leadership of MSZP’s László Botka. Perhaps the growing recognition of this fact induced these parties to line up behind Márton Gulyás’s new movement, Közös Ország Mozgalom/Common Country Movement (KOM).

After the initial announcement of Gulyás’s political movement in May, there were weeks of silence. To tell you the truth, I thought that the whole program had died even before it was launched. But on August 7 the newly revived zoom.hu reported that Gulyás’s movement will make its debut on August 20. Zoom.hu learned that most of the opposition parties indicated that they would support Gulyás’s movement. “If all these parties sign the document, we will be witnessing a minor miracle.” The internet site seemed to know that Jobbik had not yet made a decision. In any case, on August 18 Alfahir.hu, Jobbik’s official internet news site, published an intriguing article on the subject titled “There will be no political cooperation with the left but the electoral system must be changed.” The article quoted Jobbik PM Dóra Dúró’s personal opinion, posted on Facebook, which harshly condemned the leftist parties that “ruined the country” and declared opposition to any cooperation them. In the body of the Alfahir.hu article there was not a word about “the electoral system [that] must be changed.” These words appeared only in the title. However, if I read this article correctly, Duró’s words might not be the final ones on the subject. Her weight within the party has greatly diminished since the demotion of her husband, Előd Novák.

Well, it seems that the minor miracle did happen. Nine parties support the movement, including such stalwart “go-it-alone” parties as LMP and Momentum. The two larger rivals, MSZP and DK, managed to find common ground. This is indeed an accomplishment, and most likely it happened only because the initiator of the movement is a civil activist, an outsider in a way. The nine parties that signed up are MSZP, DK, LMP, MoMa, Együtt, Párbeszéd, the Liberals, the Two-tailed Dog Party, and Momentum. Negotiations with Jobbik are still in progress. As a spokeswomen of KOM stated, “the representatives of [Jobbik] might participate in the discussions that begin on September 4.” These discussions will take place in the open, in a temporary structure called Agora on Alkotmány (Constitution) utca, where topics related to the electoral law will be discussed continuously. I guess the hope is that during these discussions ideas regarding the final shape of a new electoral law will emerge. Otherwise, Gulyás gave Fidesz a deadline of October 23 to respond. If Viktor Orbán refuses to negotiate, the activists will begin a program of civil disobedience.

How can this be a country of all?

Does this movement offer any hope? What worries most people is the lack of a specific proposal for the kind of electoral system they would like to be adopted. What do they mean by a proportionate election law? But perhaps open discussion could ignite some public enthusiasm for change. We know that the majority of Hungarians don’t want to see another four years of Fidesz rule, but they have been discouraged and dispirited by the lack of resolve on the part of the opposition parties. Perhaps the very fact that nine parties or perhaps even ten could stand behind a political cause might give them some hope that Fidesz’s stranglehold on the Hungarian political system can be broken. We will just have to see.

As for Fidesz’s reaction, it is too early to say. For the time being, at least on the surface, the party leaders seem utterly unconcerned. We know, however, that the national security forces have been keeping a watchful eye on Márton Gulyás and his camps, which are supposed to prepare his followers for the force activists may face if they carry out peaceful resistance. We have also heard often enough about the “hot fall” that is coming, when enemies of Hungary will try to overthrow the government. So, obviously there is some concern on the part of the powers-that-be.

Fidesz was undoubtedly prepared for the launch of the movement, but what might have come as a shock was that there seems to be a united front behind it. At the moment only one short editorial appeared in Magyar Idők today. It makes fun of the people, nine men and nine women, representing the nine parties, on the video released by the movement. The journalist mocks their personal appearance and their alleged political gravitas, which he suggests is feather light. He tries to minimize the problem of the disproportionality of the Hungarian law and accuses them of “ignoring the unfairness of the French electoral system.” He asks them whether they plan to stand behind the “unrealizable brainstorming” of Momentum’s program on electoral reform. “Don’t miss it! Every word of it, every picture-frame of it, worth its weight in gold. And imagine what would happen if they governed the country. It’s better not to find out.” I guess the rest of the pro-government press is waiting for Viktor Orbán to return from Croatia, where he is spending his vacation.

August 21, 2017

A shameful verdict: The Court finds the new Budapest electoral law consitutional

Now that Viktor Orbán has seen the light and convinced Péter Szentmihályi Szabó to shelve his ambitions to be the next Hungarian ambassador to Rome, I am returning to the domestic scene, which is not pretty either.

Although hardly a day goes by without some horrendous attack on Hungarian democracy, this week’s greatest abomination was the 8 to 7 decision of the Constitutional Court affirming the constitutionality of the new law governing elections in Budapest. Once, back in May, I wrote about Fidesz plans to completely change the electoral system in Budapest. Why? Simple. After the April elections it looked as if Fidesz’s position was not secure in the capital. And naturally, in Fidesz’s view, no election can ever be lost. By hook or by crook they will win. The party and its leader will march resolutely from victory to victory for time immemorial. And so a devilish plan was devised to ensure victory.

Since I went into the details of previous system in May, here let me just summarize it briefly. In the past the lord mayor (főpolgármester) was elected directly by all the eligible voters in Budapest. District mayors were chosen only by the inhabitants of the 23 districts. In addition, there were party lists on the basis of which the 32-member city council was elected. What particularly bothered Fidesz was that the opposition might get a majority on the city council given the fact that numerically more Budapest people voted for the opposition parties than for Fidesz. After some clever mathematics they came up with a solution: simply abolish the city council as it exists today and replace it with a body composed of the 23 district mayors. This body could then be joined by nine people from the so-called compensation lists of the losers. Thus, including the lord mayor, it would have 33 members, just as it has now.

But from day one it was clear that this scheme is glaringly unconstitutional because it violates the one person, one vote principle that is fundamental in a functioning democracy. This disproportionality is due to the varying sizes of the districts. Here are some examples. While District I (the Castle district) has 24,679 inhabitants, District III has 127,602.  District V (Antal Rogán’s domain) has 26,048 while District XIII has 119,275. I guess you will not be terribly surprised to learn that the smaller districts lean heavily toward the right. Thus, the Castle District where no socialist or liberal has ever won will be represented on the city council by one person as will the socialist District XIII.

As soon as this problem was discovered–and it didn’t take long–the Fidesz “election experts” started to tinker with the proposed law and introduced all sorts of amendments that were supposed to remedy the situation. Their attempts eventually made the system extremely complicated without satisfying the constitutional requirements. In a very rare moment of unity, all parliamentary members of the opposition–including Jobbik and LMP–turned to the Constitutional Court for a ruling on the issue. That was in June. On Monday at last the judges handed down their decision. It was a very close vote, especially considering the composition of the court: 8 out of the 15 judges found the law, by and large, constitutional.

One ought to keep in mind that the majority of the judges were appointed by Fidesz after the “court-packing scheme” was introduced. In addition, there are two judges who were put forth by Fidesz earlier. Currently there are only three judges on the court who were nominated by MSZP, one of whom will have to retire in September and two others in March 2016.  After that time there will not be one member of the court who was not a Fidesz appointee. As it is, seven out of the eight judges who were nominated by Fidesz since 2010 found the law constitutional; the one exception refused to concur because he couldn’t agree with the majority on the one side issue it found unconstitutional. So, this is where we stand.

A rather telling picture of the current Hungarian Constitutional Court Source: Népszabadság

A rather telling picture of the current Hungarian Constitutional Court. Source: Népszabadság

Several judges wrote separate opinions. Perhaps the  hardest hitting was that of the chief justice, Peter Paczolay, who is considered by legal experts to be conservative. He was endorsed by both parties and since his term will be up next February I guess he doesn’t particularly care what Viktor Orbán thinks of him. He pointed out that “the present case does not merely touch on constitutional issues but on the right to vote that is the very basis of democracy.” According to him, this Fidesz-created law “is entirely contrary to the fundamental principle of equality.” Moreover, he added that some of his colleagues did not fulfill their professional duties and instead wrote a decision that was dictated by the interests of a political party. Pretty tough words.

András Bragyova (MSZP), who will be leaving the court in September, had nothing to lose either. In his opinion the new “council will not be an elected body although the constitution states that Budapest must have its own self-government.” It is an unconstitutional creation. Moreover, he noted that while the constitution demands self-government for the city as a whole, the election of district mayors is not specifically mentioned in the constitution. As he wittily remarked,  “from here on instead of Budapest having districts, the districts will have a capital city.”

The behavior of István Stumpf, an old Fidesz hand and Viktor Orbán’s former college professor who doesn’t always toe the party line, was the strangest. He voted this time with the slim majority, but he wrote a separate opinion in which he objected to changing the electoral law only months ahead of the election.

NGOs such as the Hungarian Helsinki Commission and TASZ as well as independent electoral law experts are appalled by the poor quality of the opinion that was written by Béla Pokol. Viktor Orbán chose him to serve on the court despite the fact that he is opposed to the very existence of a constitutional court. His judicial views are also extreme.

Csaba Horváth (MSZP), who ran against current lord mayor István Tarlós in 2010, declared that this decision demonstrates that the last bastion of democracy, the Constitutional Court, has been captured by the enemies of democracy. Some people contemplate boycotting the election but most are ready to face the music. Between Fidesz and the totally incompetent opposition a huge Fidesz win seems to be shaping up for October 12.

Another election trick: Bogus parties; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 5″

Although the Hungarian media is absolutely full of the story of a forthcoming book written by János Zuschlag, a former MSZP member of parliament who spent six years in jail for embezzling about 50 million forints while he was undersecretary in the short-lived Ministry of Sports. He alleges that MSZP paid him 50 million forints to refrain from entering the 2006 parliamentary election as a candidate. I am not wasting time on the Zuschlag allegation because I consider it a bogus issue being used by Fidesz as yet another weapon against the opposition, strategically released a month before the election.

Instead, I would rather call attention to another election trick introduced by Viktor Orbán’s team that will make the democratic opposition’s chances on April 6 even slimmer. They decided to change the rules for getting on the ballot. According to the old rules, each voter received a piece of paper which he could hand to a canvasser from the party of his choice. The number of endorsements each candidate had to collect was pretty high, and therefore it was difficult for bogus parties to enter the race. But as a result of the changed rules voters now can endorse several parties, and the candidates need only 500 signatures. In addition, Fidesz decided to be generous with public money. They allocated 6 billion forints to distribute among all parties, including these new no-name parties and candidates. As things stand now, there are so many new parties that the 6 billion forints most likely will not be enough. It may cost the budget 10.5 billion forints to pay off those who are ready for this ugly game.

Originally, Fidesz claimed that eliminating the second round of elections would save a great deal of money. As it is turning out, with these generous subsidies the cost of the election will be exactly the same as if there had been two rounds of elections. I should also mention that although the European parliamentary election could have been held together with the national one this year, the combined election was torpedoed by Fidesz because they calculated that its results would be unfavorable to them.

The total subsidy to each party will depend on the number of districts in which their candidates run. Those parties which manage to have at least 27 candidates in Budapest as well as candidates in 9 counties will be able to have a nationwide list. The well known, established parties naturally had no difficulty gathering the necessary 500 signatures in all 106 individual districts. They are Fidesz-KDNP (Viktor Orbán), Jobbik (Gábor Vona), LMP (András Schiffer), MSZP-Együtt-PM-DK-MLP (Attila Mesterházy), and Munkáspárt (the communist party headed by Gyula Thürmer). They were joined by a new party I had never heard of called A Haza nem Eladó Mozgalom Párt (The Homeland is Not for Sale, Árpád Kásler). Given the name, I assume that it is a far-right opposition party.

Yesterday twelve new parties were registered: Sportos és Egészséges Magyarországért Párt (Party for Fit and Healthy Hungary, Patrícia Pásztori ), Szociáldemokraták Magyarországi Polgári Pártja (Bourgeois Party of Social Democrats of Hungary, Andor Ákos Schmuck), Független Kisgazda-, Földmunkás és Polgári Párt (Party of Independent Smallholders, Farmworkers and the Middle Class, Péter Hegedüs), az Együtt 2014 Párt (Party of Together 2014, György Tiner), Új Magyarország Párt (New Hungary Party, Péter Táncsics), Közösség a Társadalmi Igazságosságért Néppárt (Community of Social Justice, Katalin Szili), Magyarországi Cigánypárt (Gypsy Party of Hungary, Aladár Horváth), Zöldek Pártja (Party of the Greens, László Ács) , Új Dimenzió Párt (New Dimension Party, Szabolcs Kovács), a Jólét és Szabadság Demokrata Közösség (Democratic Community for Welfare and Freedom, Zsolt Makay), Összefogás Párt (Party of Unity, Zsolt László Szepessy), and Seres Mária Szövetségesei (Associates of Mária Seres). Now you understand why the name change from Összefogás (Unity Alliance) to Kormányváltás (Change of Government) was necessary. Of course, there’s still the potential confusion between az Együtt 2014 Párt and Bajnai’s party that belongs to Kormányváltás.

Originally the National Election Commission registered 80 parties and 2,600 individual candidates. Total chaos reigned at the Commission. The first list they released still had 31 parties, which then was reduced to 18. The word is that this may not be the final version. This is what the ballot would have looked like with 31 parties in their allotted places on the list:

partlistaEarly enough it became clear that at least 1,000 of the individual candidates couldn’t get 500 signatures. But still there remained more than 1,500. However, 300 of the 1,000 appealed the decision and their cases are pending.

Among the smaller parties there were several who did surprisingly well–for example, the Social Democrats of Andor Schmuck and Democratic Community for Welfare and Freedom of Zsolt Makay, a party that is a revived segment of the old MDF. They will receive 400-450 million forints. Even Aladár Horváth’s Gypsy Party will get about 300 million forints. I might add here that individual candidates will each receive 1 million forints, and these people will have to account for every penny they spend. The parties themselves have a great deal of freedom and can easily cheat.

So, we are talking about more than 1,500 candidates representing 18 parties. That means they had to collect 750,000 signatures altogether. Admittedly, a single voter can sign several endorsement lists, but still this is a very high number especially when better known small parties couldn’t manage to get the necessary number of signatures. Suspicion lingers that some of these bogus parties got their signatures illegally, by swapping data bases. If Party X had a lot of signatures in Baranya but few in Csongrád, they swapped names with Party Y which was strong in Csongrád but weak in Baranya.

Fidesz politicians refuse to admit that their generosity toward smaller parties served the purpose of confusing voters and weakening the opposition. They proudly point to the democratic nature of the procedure. But the fact that the threshold of parliamentary representation was not lowered from the existing 5% reveals Fidesz’s real goal. They didn’t want to give small parties a chance to share power with them in parliament. They simply wanted to use them.

The parties’ place on the ballot was decided by lottery. Here is the (perhaps) final list: 1. Magyarországi Cigány Párt, 2. A Haza Nem Eladó Mozgalom Párt, 3. Seres Mária Szövetségesei, 4. Független Kisgazdapárt, 5. Új Dimenzió Párt, 6. Fidesz–KDNP, 7. Sportos és Egészséges Magyarországért Párt, 8. Lehet Más a Politika, 9. Jólét és Szabadság Demokrata Közösség, 10. Új Magyarország Párt, 11. Munkáspárt, 12. Szociáldemokraták Magyar Polgári Pártja, 13. Közösség a Társadalmi Igazságosságért Néppárt, 14. Együtt 2014 Párt, 15. Zöldek, 16. Összefogás Párt, 17. MSZP–Együtt–PM–DK–Liberálisok, 18. Jobbik.

The National Election Committee already announced that it will be necessary to have more voting booths and that there might be long lines because of the slowness of the procedure. It is also likely that the final results will not be released as promptly as in the past.

Good luck, Hungarian voters!

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question

Part V: The Unequal Campaign

Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton University

 Officially, the election campaign in Hungary starts 50 days before an election, so the race began in earnest on 15 February for the 6 April election. Once the campaign period starts in Hungary, special rules ensure that all parties are treated equally.

 But as Anatole France once said, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”

We’ve already seen how the new system in Hungary was designed to push opposition parties into an uncomfortable alliance and to require they win by a substantial margin to win at all. And we’ve seen how the system of minority and foreign voting has opened the doors for Fidesz voters while closing them to those who would vote for opposition parties.

Not surprisingly, the rules for the campaign period itself also have a similar logic.

A free and fair election requires that all contesting parties have equal access to the media to get their message out. The new Law on Election Procedure, which regulates media access during the campaign period, formally complies with formal equality. For the first time since the first post-communist election, the parties running national lists will receive equal numbers of free minutes on public television to make their case to the public. This is a victory for equality and transparency.

But a closer look at the small print reveals that it is a trap. The law allocates only 600 minutes total for all parties with national lists (including the “nationality” lists) and it requires that these minutes be equally divided. If, as the head of the National Election Commission predicted in his 29 January press conference with the Hungarian Foreign Press Association, there are 10 or 12 national lists contesting in the April election, each party would be entitled to 50-60 minutes to be used over 50 days. One minute per day on television is not much – especially when those minutes appear on the public television station, which is the least watched major television station in the country.

In addition, what the law gave with one hand it took away with the other. The election law originally gave free minutes on public television while simultaneously banning paid advertising on commercial television, a move which the not-yet-packed Constitutional Court struck down in December 2012 as a violation of free speech rights. The government then added this provision directly to the Constitution in April 2013 through the infamous Fourth Amendment. The European Commission found this provision contrary to European law and threatened a legal action over it. Eventually, the Hungarian government backed down and modified the commercial broadcast ban in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution passed in September 2013, permitting all parties to advertise in the commercial broadcast media during the election campaign.

But here, too, there was a catch: parties are only allowed to run campaign ads on commercial television if the commercial broadcasters donate the time and give this free time to all national lists equally. It is hard to imagine a for-profit television station giving free advertising time to all parties equally, especially when there are likely to be 10-12 lists. So it was not surprising that all of the commercial channels, the most watched channels in Hungary, have already said that they will not run campaign ads in this election cycle. In fact, there will be no prime ministerial debates either.

So the EU pressure and resulting constitutional amendment designed to open up the commercial media to campaign advertising have produced absolutely nothing. The only campaign ads on television during the campaign this year will be on the public broadcaster alone.

So how else can the parties and candidates get their message out?

Parties are allowed by the campaign law to advertise without limit on billboards. But, as it turns out, most of the display advertising space in the country is owned by companies in the possession of the circle of oligarchs close to Fidesz (Mahir, Publimont and EuroCity). If the opposition parties buy billboard space, the proceeds go straight into the pocket of the Fidesz family of companies.

As it turns out, however, having the opposition enrich the governing party through the purchase of billboard space was the least of the problems with the monopoly on billboards. One of the leaders of the Unity Alliance told me on a recent trip to Budapest that all of the billboards in the country are sold out for the duration of the campaign and not available for purchase. But one can see already that Fidesz-friendly billboards are everywhere. As I write, Budapest streets, streetcars, metro stations and other public spaces are flooded with Fidesz-friendly ads, using the spaces owned by the Fidesz-friendly companies.

What about newspapers? Fidesz has a large group of party-friendly newspapers, owned by their oligarch allies. By contrast, the Unity Alliance has a smaller group of much-poorer newspapers that are sympathetic to them. So far, no advertisements from the allied opposition have appeared in the Fidesz-friendly media which don’t need the money while advertisements for Fidesz have already appeared in the opposition papers which cannot afford to turn down paying ads.

So the media landscape is severely tilted against the Unity Alliance, which now needs to get a new message out to let people know what this new joint party is all about.

If most of the regular broadcast and print media are not open to the democratic opposition, however, surely, of course, the parties can plaster the light posts, bus stops, trees, walls and other public surfaces with posters and handbills, right? Actually, not.

A law from 2011 that received virtually no attention at the time it was passed bans commercial advertisements and political messages from major thoroughfares around the country. It is billed as a safety measure, designed to keep drivers’ eyes on the road. Suddenly the law came into public view, however, when a late-Friday-afternoon prime ministerial decree on 17 January 2014 added campaign posters to the list of advertisements already banned by this prior law. Now no campaign ads can be placed within 50 meters of a major road or 100 meters of a highway, joining the prior ban on other kinds of posters.

A Budapest ordinance adds to the spaces from which political posters are banned. Acting in the name of environmentalism and heritage preservation, the Fidesz-dominated Budapest City Council has prohibited political posters from going up on bridges, on metro station walls, in street underpasses, on statues and memorials – and on trees. A 26-page addendum to the law adds many specific places where posters may not be placed, and the list includes almost every major square and public meeting point in the city.

Of course, incumbent parties can find many ways to keep themselves in the public eye, so restrictions on the media disproportionately tend to affect challengers. So how is the opposition supposed to get its message out for this campaign given that all of the traditional avenues are blocked?

Well, there’s the internet. But anyone who has read the comments sections of Hungarian newspapers, blogs or other public spaces on the internet (even the Krugman blog!) knows how quickly government-supporting trolls try to occupy and dominate the space. And while internet-based media like Facebook are good at reaching the young and the educated, it is still not a universal medium.

What about mailing campaign literature to supporters and reaching them by phone? A recent announcement from the head of the data protection office (the office whose independence is being questioned in an infringement action before the European Court of Justice seems to limit even this sort of access to voters by parties.

According to Attila Péterfalvi, the government’s data protection official, political parties must notify him when they intend to keep lists of their supporters. (EU law, by the way, does not require the regulation of such lists, but confines its scope to lists kept by the government.) Péterfalvi told the parties that they may not use for campaign purposes lists of addresses in the phone book, nor may they call people who have not explicitly indicated that they welcome campaign calls. The Election Office added to this privacy protection by sending all voters a letter that explains how to opt out of receiving campaign materials. So access to voters through these traditional means has been limited in the name of data privacy.

Perhaps the opposition can hold campaign rallies and stage personal appearances by the candidates to reach voters? But already a friend in Debrecen tells me that the Unity Alliance has had a hard time finding a place to hold a rally there because all of the spaces large enough for such a gathering are controlled by the Fidesz allies. They have either forbidden all political rallies or charge so much for the use of the space that the opposition parties cannot afford it.

Which brings us to campaign finance reform as another aspect of the campaign regulation in which rich and poor alike are banned from sleeping under bridges.

The new campaign finance law attempts to regulate campaign spending by publicly funding campaigns. Before the Fidesz reforms, campaign finance was completely non-transparent and had few enforceable rules.  It was listed as one of the policy areas most deserving of reform by Transparency International, so change is a good thing.

On the surface, the campaign finance picture looks much better. All of the parties running national party lists get equal amounts of public money (between € ­475,000 and € 2 million, depending on the number of candidates fielded) and each candidate gets a fixed amount of money in addition (about € 3400). This will provide transparent funding for all parties equally, something very much needed.

Political parties can still accept private money, though, up to a defined limit. But of course there is a catch.   Now, suddenly, no campaign may accept private money from a foreigner (understandable). But, in addition, no party may accept money from a “legal person” – meaning any company, NGO, foundation or trust. After the US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, permitting corporations to give unlimited cash to American campaigns, the ban on corporate donations in Hungary may seem a great idea to Americans. But context is everything. Fidesz is funded by a set of oligarchs tied to the party who can give virtually unlimited amounts as individuals. The Unity Alliance, by contrast, has been funded by party-allied foundations, which now cannot contribute to the campaign. The campaign finance regulations are, like Anatole France’s aphorism, designed to equally prohibit what the rich don’t need and the poor can’t do without.

But there is clearly an election coming because, on the streets of Budapest, there are huge billboards and posters everywhere attacking the Unity Alliance.

Nem erdemelnek2Civil Unity Forum (CÖF) Election Poster, seen everywhere in Budapest
CÖF is a civil society group aligned with Fidesz, unregulated by the election laws.

These ads (see above) show the three of the leaders of the Unity Alliance (Mesterházy, Bajnai and Gyurcsány) with a Socialist former deputy major of Budapest (Miklós Hagyó) who is currently facing trial for corruption. Hagyó is not running for any office in this election, so he is there on the posters to convey guilt by association. The message, which blares “They don’t deserve another chance” shows all of the men holding placards of the sort featured in police mug shots. And seen also in the photo is the clown, who has been making appearances at events of these candidates, following them around to make fun of them. These sorts of messages are unregulated by the campaign finance rules – or in fact by any campaign rules at all.

Why not? They’re not sponsored by Fidesz but instead by the CÖF (which stands for Civil Összefogás Fórum or the Civil Unity Forum). As it turns out, civil society organizations can advertise without being limited by either the campaign media rules or the campaign finance rules. As a result, CÖF has plastered the city with election ads on billboards owned by Fidesz-friendly billboard companies, and none of these ads count toward Fidesz’s money or media allocations under the election law.

Of course the united opposition could do this also, if it had the wealthy backers. But virtually all of the wealth in Hungary stands behind Fidesz.  And even if there were rich backers of the united opposition, they would still have to buy the billboard space from Fidesz-friendly companies, billboard space that is now conveniently all sold out.

 * * *

The Orbán government vociferously insists that it is still a democracy. But in its four years in power, the Orbán government has been preparing for the moment when it actually has to get through an election in order to still be able to make that claim. Not surprisingly, this government of lawyers has created a complex legal framework in which the rules may appear to be neutral, but they don’t have neutral effects.

Fidesz has designed a system that allows it to face an apparently contested election without the real possibility of losing. With this election, then, Hungary has mastered the art of appearing to be something it is not – a true democracy holding free and fair elections.

Every second voter wants change but Fidesz may win super majority again; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 3″

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.

blue: total population; green: citizens eligible to vote; red: determined voters

blue: total population; green: citizens eligible to vote; red: determined voters

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.

* * *

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.

Viktor Orbán finally spoke against Vladimir Putin; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 1”

Over the next five days, in addition to my regular daily posts, I will republish Professor Kim Scheppele’s five-part series on the pitfalls of the new election law that makes free and fair elections in Hungary doubtful. The article, entitled “Hungary, An Election in Question,” originally appeared on Paul Krugman’s blog on February 28, 2014 in The New York Times.

The reason that I asked Professor Scheppele to allow me to publish her article on Hungarian Spectrum is because, although we always knew that the newly enacted law was slanted in favor of the current government party, news coming from Budapest of late indicates that the situation is worse than we ever imagined. The opposition’s advertising options have been greatly restricted. And it seems that even the few posters the opposition candidates managed to put up are systematically being torn down. Budapest and other cities are full of posters of so-called civic groups campaigning for the government while the opposition has virtually no advertising presence. So, the more people read Professor Scheppele’s analysis of the new Hungarian  electoral law the better.

And now back to the Hungarian government’s attitude toward Ukraine. It was only yesterday at noon that Viktor Orbán said anything substantive about the Ukrainian crisis. In his statement he kept his concerns narrow and provincial, presumably not wanting to criticize his newly acquired friend, Vladimir Putin. His only concern seemed to be the safety of the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathia. He sent them a message: “you can count on us.” He added that “Hungary is not part of the conflict.” Well, in a narrow sense, perhaps not, but the conflict directly involves the European Union and Hungary’s neighbor, whose territorial integrity has been challenged.

Today the prime minister decided to elaborate on his position, crafting it to be more in line with EU thinking, a wise move since on Thursday he will attend an EU summit in Brussels. He will “represent the standpoint that the European Union will have to respond to the Russian military moves,” a response that has to be “immediate, unambiguous, and integrative.” He further elaborated on the theme when he announced that “the only alternative to war is negotiation. We want negotiations and not military conflict. We want peace, not blood.” Hungary wants a democratic Ukraine. Again, he stressed that “in the whole Ukrainian crisis the most important consideration for Hungary is the safety of Hungarians in Hungary and in Subcarpathia.” Note that he didn’t mention anything about the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

While Viktor Orbán talked to the media in Budapest, Vladimir Putin gave a press conference just outside of Moscow in Novo-Ogaryovo. It was a long and fairly rambling talk in which he announced that he had given up, at least for the time being, plans for the annexation of the Crimea. However, although he knows about and even condemns Yanukovych’s thievery, he still considers him to be the legitimate head of Ukraine and therefore refuses to recognize the interim government formed a few days ago.

Hungary is after all a neighbor of Ukraine

Hungary is after all a neighbor of Ukraine

Mid-afternoon the prime minister’s office released the “Statement of the Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Countries on Ukraine.” If we compare the text of this joint statement of the Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian prime ministers to Orbán’s words, we see that the joint statement is a great deal stronger. Let me quote a few sentences from this document.

The Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Countries are deeply concerned about the recent violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the fact that the Russian parliament has authorized military action on Ukrainian soil against the wishes of the Ukrainian Government…. We condemn all action threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and call on Russia to decrease the tensions immediately through dialogue, in full respect of Ukrainian and international law and in line with the provisions of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

The Visegrád Countries believe that the recent military actions by Russia are not only in violation of international law, but also create a dangerous new reality in Europe. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are appalled to witness a military intervention in 21st century Europe akin to their own experiences in 1956, 1968 and 1981….

The European Union and NATO should demonstrate solidarity with and assist Ukraine in this difficult moment and stand united in the face of this dangerous development threatening European peace and security.

A few hours later Zsolt Németh, undersecretary in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, spoke to Aleksandr Tolkach, Russian ambassador to Hungary. Németh called on Russia to move its troops back inside the Russian naval base in Sebastopol. Németh repeated that Hungary insists on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and considers Russian behavior contrary to international law. So, it seems that Viktor Orbán eventually had to conform to the position held by the United States and the European Union. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question, Part 1

Professor Kim Scheppele, Princeton University

Hungary’s parliamentary elections will be held on 6 April. And it is already clear who will win. Unless something truly surprising occurs, the governing party Fidesz is headed to victory. The only uncertainty is whether it will again win two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, a result that would continue to allow it to change the constitution at will.

Fidesz won the last elections in 2010 fair and square. But this time the election is unlikely to be judged so favorably. The whole election framework – the laws, the institutions and even the new electorate – favors Fidesz because the governing party has used its four years in office with its two-thirds majority in the parliament to redesign every aspect of the electoral system to its advantage.

Fidesz also overwhelmingly dominates the offline media and has closed off almost all avenues through which opposition parties can reach the electorate. New decrees from local Fidesz-affiliated officials around the country and misleading instructions from election officials are creating last-minute campaign obstacles that put the opposition even more on the wrong foot.

Under the new election framework, the allied opposition parties cannot win a parliamentary majority, even if they gain more votes than the governing party. Simultaneously, the changes also make it nearly inevitable that the governing party will keep its two-thirds parliamentary majority even if it gets less than half of the overall vote.

Róbert László of the Political Capital think tank in Budapest shows how Fidesz can win a two-thirds majority with less than half of the party-list vote. His model also predicts that a united center-left opposition would need about 6% more votes than Fidesz to win a simple majority in the parliament.

Central European University Professor Gábor Tóka estimates that, under the new system, a united center-left opposition might get 8% fewer parliamentary seats than Fidesz if both got an equal share of the votes.

Political Capital’s “mandate calculator” permits everyone to try out different models and different assumptions. We tried it here in Princeton and, depending on the assumptions one makes about the nature and shape of the opposition, Fidesz could get its two-thirds majority in parliament pretty easily with only 48% of the vote if the other parties perform as polls indicate they would if the election were held now. If the foreign votes split 85/15 for Fidesz (not unreasonable for reasons I will explain), Fidesz could get its two-thirds with only 44%. If Fidesz wins by the same margin it won last time, with 53% of the party-list vote, it would get 76% of the seats in the parliament instead of the 68% it won under the old system.

In short, Fidesz has designed the election to allow itself to win big, even without majority support. Or, to put it differently, Fidesz has designed the election so that the opposition loses even if it wins.

These effects occur because the way that the districts are drawn and the votes are aggregated. It doesn’t even count all of the other things that Fidesz is doing to help the opposition lose, like monopolizing the media, operating an election office that is giving out misleading instructions and only selectively registering to vote Hungarian citizens who are living abroad.

If Fidesz is reelected under this self-dealing system, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the election has been rigged. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “mandate” will be tainted.

It’s serious to accuse an incumbent party of potentially rigging an election, so the evidence needs to be strong. In this series of five blog posts, I will show precisely how the outcome of the election is cooked into the rules even before a single ballot is cast. The rules were designed to look “normal” but to allow Fidesz to win in a very particular political context, which is where we will start.

As Fidesz officials are quick to argue, they will win the election because they are the most popular single party in Hungary. Which is true (see graph below). But Fidesz’s popularity has only recently climbed above 30%, a level that would cause analysts in most democratic states to predict that an incumbent party is in trouble, especially given how low Fidesz fell over the last several years. What makes Fidesz look like a winner, however, is that all of the other parties are even less popular.

voting intentionsFor the last month, however, Fidesz has been confronted by a more substantial opponent than it has had during its tenure in office so far. Five left-leaning parties calling themselves the “democratic opposition” have combined to form the Unity Alliance (Összefogás). They have put forward a common slate of candidates for the individual constituencies and they are running a joint party list. Their joint strength might just be enough to challenge Fidesz’s domination of the elections – if there were a level playing field. But they were late to the election party, so to speak, announcing their joint effort only on 14 January 2014 just before the election date was set. So they have some catching up to do.

(The five parties in the Unity Alliance are the Socialists/MSzP headed by Attila Mesterházy; Together 2014/E-14 headed by Gordon Bajnai; Dialogue for Hungary/PM led by Benedek Jávor; Democratic Coalition/DK headed by Ferenc Gyurcsány and the Hungarian Liberal Party/Liberálisok headed by Gábor Fodor. Since the coalition was formed, the Movement for a Modern Hungary/MOMA, headed by Lajos Bokros, a conservative MEP, has agreed to support the joint ticket.)

And then there is Jobbik, which its detractors call the “non-democratic opposition.” This far-right party has become internationally known for its anti-Semitism and anti-Roma agitation, its toxic assertion of nationalism, and its ideology so far beyond the edge of the European political spectrum that its three representatives in the European Parliament cannot affiliate with any party caucus. Fidesz might reasonably worry that it would lose votes to Jobbik on the right, which may be why many – including Jobbik’s leadership – claim that Fidesz is “stealing [their] issues and ideas.”  For its part, Jobbik’s campaign ads this year portray it as substantially more moderate than its reputation in order to steal voters from Fidesz.

At the moment, Jobbik seems to have the allegiance of just under 10% of the electorate, though some worry that Jobbik’s support may climb again to the 17% of the vote it won in the 2010 election. Jobbik cannot form a government with that vote, but is the only party that can seriously challenge Fidesz’s electoral strategy by dividing the vote on the right.

Just as Fidesz faces a challenge to its base from Jobbik, the Unity Alliance is challenged by a party called Politics Can be Different (LMP) that provides an alternative for its voters as well. In the last year, LMP – a small party to begin with – split so that one fraction joined the broader opposition alliance and the rest remained unaligned. While LMP lost support since the split, it still seems to be polling around the 5% threshold needed for a single party to enter the parliament.

Though Fidesz and the Unity Alliance are the two big parties in this race, polling data show that the largest single voting bloc – a clear majority of the electorate for the last several years – is still “undecided.” That large number becomes even more formidable when one considers that more than half of the Hungarians asked do not answer surveys. Is it hard to know if those who do not answer are still engaged in politics at all, and if so, how.

In past Hungarian elections, the turnout had to reach 50% for the election to be valid. But Fidesz changed that rule too so that there is no minimum turnout required any longer. Low voter turnout, then, is no barrier to a valid election.

But even with the large number undecided or apolitical voters, the results are not in doubt. The governing party designed the system precisely to prevent surprises in this particular political landscape, and they wrote the rules to allow themselves to win almost no matter which way opinion breaks and almost no matter what the turnout is on election day. It is hard to see a realistic outcome for this election that doesn’t put Fidesz front and center in the next government. Fidesz will thrive if there is low turnout because the party has a powerful system for bringing out its voters. If Jobbik surges, Jobbik could not govern unless Fidesz were the dominant partner in a coalition. But, perhaps most importantly for judging the fairness of the election, Fidesz will win even if the “democratic opposition” were to pull ahead of them by a substantial margin.

Why is that? According to election experts, the Unity Alliance could only gain a parliamentary majority if it won by more than a comfortable margin in the popular vote. That is because of the way that the system has been designed. Unless there is swing toward the left that is larger than anything we have seen in the post-communist period or unless Jobbik’s support rises by so much that it substantially depletes the Fidesz vote, Fidesz will surely win outright and is very likely to get its two-thirds back again.

How could Fidesz win under almost any likely scenario for 6 April? I will turn to that next.

Some citizens are more equal than others

I simply can’t understand the Hungarian opposition’s lack of initiative and its sluggish reactions to unacceptable actions that are being taken day in and day out by Fidesz and the Fidesz-ruled parliament. Often, opposition politicians wake up only when a government official reveals by a slip of the tongue the real intention of a piece of legislation. A good example of this kind of opposition lethargy is its recent discovery that the government is up to no good with its laws governing the voting rights of new Hungarian citizens who were born and lived all their lives in one of the neighboring countries. No opposition politicians raised the possibility of electoral fraud until the head of the National Election Commission made the mistake of revealing some of the details of the voting procedures contemplated by the government. Then suddenly the politicians of the democratic opposition woke up. But, for Pete’s sake, the particulars of the electoral law have been known for months. Where were these people when the proposal was duly voted into law sometime in December?

I wrote about some possible problems with the absentee ballots on July 29 after Ilona Pálffy, the government official in question, made the mistake of outlining the procedure in terms that made it clear that the safety of the ballots cannot be guaranteed. It will be extremely easy to manipulate the ballots of dual citizens. It took another two weeks for the opposition to discover that there are serious problems with the voting rights of Hungarian citizens living abroad.

Currently perhaps as many as half a million Hungarian citizens work abroad. This number is a guesstimate, but the true number is surely more than 300,000, the number of dual citizens in the neighboring countries. And while these dual citizens can vote via absentee ballot, Hungarians working abroad must vote in person either in Hungary or at a Hungarian embassy or consulate. Let’s take, for example, Great Britain since it has a large Hungarian presence. In the United Kingdom both the Hungarian embassy and the consulate are in London. There are no consulates anywhere else.  So if a Hungarian lives in Glasgow and would like to vote he would have to travel to London, more than a six-hour trip by rail. And we’d better not mention Northern Ireland.

The situation is slightly better in Germany but not much. There a Hungarian citizen can vote either in Berlin or in Munich. In the United States there are three places you can vote: Washington, New York, and Los Angeles.  If you happen to live in Kansas City you can look forward to a 2,000 km trip to New York City. You are even worse off in Canada where there are a lot of Hungarians. There you can vote only in Ottawa; the distance between Vancouver and Ottawa is 3,538 km. For sake of comparison the Hungarian government maintains four consulates in Romania: in Bucharest, Cluj/Kolozsvár, Miercurea-Ciuc/Csíkszereda, and Constanta. Of course, this comparison doesn’t really speak to the issue since Hungarian dual citizens in Romania don’t have to show up in person at one of these consulates.

Fidesz obviously doesn’t want Hungarian citizens living in the West to vote in the forthcoming elections. I don’t think they’re focused on votes coming from Canada and the U.S. What worries them is those recent emigrants to Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, etc. who left the Orbán government behind. Their connection to Hungary, family and friends is much more intense and direct than that of earlier emigrants to North America. Moreover, most of them left Hungary recently because of economic hardship, and most of them seem to be satisfied with their new circumstances. They find life in Great Britain and Germany much more pleasant and career opportunities more merit-based. There is a good likelihood that a great majority of these people would not vote for Fidesz.

And there’s another reason to discourage these potentially anti-Fidesz Hungarians in the West from voting. A Romanian-Hungarian dual citizen can vote only for party lists while Hungarians living in the West but with a valid address in Hungary can theoretically vote for both individual candidates who represent a district and for party lists.

All citizens are equal / www.presseurope.eu

All citizens are equal / www.presseurope.eu

This blatant discrimination against Hungarian emigrants in the West was introduced as an amendment to the electoral law. It was an afterthought. I suspect that Fidesz figured out that the number of Hungarians seeking employment abroad was growing by leaps and bounds and that if these people can vote as easily as the by-and-large pro-Fidesz crowd in Romania and Serbia their actions might counterbalance the gains coming from the Romanian-Hungarian vote. In that case, the whole exercise of giving the vote to Hungarians in the neighboring countries would have been for naught.

The opposition was asleep at the switch when the Fidesz amendment was approved. It was only today that Gergely Karácsony on behalf of Együtt 2014-PM announced that he is planning to submit an amendment to the electoral law that would put an end to this discrimination against Hungarians temporarily living in countries of the European Union.

The answer from the other side came in no time. Gergely Gulyás, who is deeply involved with constitutional and electoral issues, said that he considers Karácsony’s proposed amendment a desperate move on the part of the opposition forces. The opposition already knows that they will lose the election so they are now trying to convince the world that their loss is the sole result of electoral fraud. He claimed that the Hungarian electoral law ensures equal opportunity to all Hungarian citizens. Well, you can judge for yourself whether a Hungarian citizen living in Great Britain has the same opportunity to cast his vote as his counterpart in Romania.

I highly doubt that Fidesz will be willing to change the existing law that clearly favors them. At least this is how I interpreted Gulyás’s words.