picture of hands, throwing a ballot into a ballot box and voting

In the lead-up to the Hungarian elections in spring 2022, Dora Hegedus has a look at how the country’s electoral law can shape the outcome of the vote. Her analysis calls attention to a crucial but often overlooked (and over-complicated) aspect of our democracies: how votes are translated into political power.

On the European continent, the two most prominent, watershed electoral events are the German federal elections (September 2021) and the French presidential ones (April 2022). Due to the country’s comparably small population and economy, Hungary’s parliamentary election should generate more subdued levels of attention, based on the principles of realpolitik. Nevertheless, owing to the country’s infamous rule of law duels, international media scrutiny has been scrupulous and unapologetic.

Despite heightened press attention, most media coverage I’ve encountered lacks detail and the right vocabulary when criticising the 2011 and 2013 Hungarian electoral reforms. Yet, appropriate, informed criticism is quintessential to diagnose the ills of Hungary’s illiberal democracy, and to avert populist leaders from pointing a finger back at the source of the criticism. Therefore, this article aims at pinpointing the key difference between electoral changes, which are ceteris paribus unfair; and changes which led to a mismatch between electoral law and the electoral reality. For the sake of conceptual clarity, first, the normative features of a good and fair electoral system need to be established. In addition, one needs to go back in time a little further, right to the very creation of democracy in post-communist Hungary, in order to grasp the problematic, frankenstate nature of the reformed electoral law.

What is a good electoral system?

Karl Popper, author of the seminal piece ’The Open Society and Its Enemies’ is perhaps the most prominent name in theorising democracy. Hence, his 1988 article in The Economist, which discusses the normative features of a good and fair electoral system, should provide suitable guidance for assessing the translation of votes into parliamentary seats and governments. Popper is an avid advocate of the single-member district (SMD), first-past-the-post (FPTP) system, and a staunch critic of proportional representation (PR). An SMD, FPTP system is where the electoral district is represented by a single office-holder, and “the winner takes it all” in the electoral race, even if the candidate wins only by an insignificant number of votes. In a PR system, meanwhile, the electorate votes for a closed or open party list, and votes are translated into parliamentary seats proportionally. Paradoxically, the most criticised aspect of the Hungarian electoral reforms is the strengthening of the SMD arm, which boosts the ruling Fidesz government’s chances.

Popper’s normative assessment is way too immersed in Anglo-American politics, where democratic traditions, and a strongly bipolar two-party system have centuries old histories. In contrast, party competition is malleable and impressionable to internal and external shocks in young democracies. Consequently, the SMD system in Central Eastern Europe does not necessarily produce a stable and accountable two-party system, envisaged by Popper. There are no single normative means to achieve the overarching normative goal of every single democratic regime: a steady, accountable, and widely representative legislature, and an equally stable and reflexive executive. Only a dynamic, dialectic design can create the best, most context-fitting electoral system.

The Hungarian system: How it all began

Setting up a fair and functional electoral system is much easier said than done, especially if political parties, or in other words the electoral context itself is absent, as it was the case when Hungary transitioned from autocracy to democracy. Hence, instead of dialectics, crude opportunism, power-politics, and some inexperienced montage compilation played a great role in establishing Hungary’s pre-2011 electoral regime. The old electoral law is rightfully recognised by many as the most complicated set of electoral rules in the world. And now dear reader, please bear with me only for a brief while, that I must spend on electoral geeking. I promise I will try to make it not so painfully technical. In addition, understanding the basics is quintessential to formulate rightful criticism against later electoral reforms.

In Hungary’s 1990 mixed member system (MMS) every eligible citizen could cast two votes: one for an SMD representative, and another for a closed party list. In SMD districts, provided no one managed to attain more than 50% of the votes, a second runoff had to be organised between candidates, who got at least 15% of the votes. Of the overall 386 parliamentary seats, 176 were decided by SMD and 152 seats by votes on regional party lists.

At first, newly emerging democratic parties (among them Orbán’s Fidesz) were in favour of a more PR-heavy system, fearing that SMD would assist old Communists (Socialists), who relied on their better entrenched political networks. However, on 22nd July, 1989, during the first official democratic “trial” byelection, an opposition candidate of the Hungarian Democratic Forum won the SMD seat, in a mid-size city called Gödöllő (in Budapest’s agglomeration). Preferences instantly changed, and hence the final outcome became an inevitably pro-SMD system. No one would have imagined that this very system would help Fidesz attain two-third majority in 2010, after the Hungarian Socialist Party was absolutely discredited, and the quasi two-party nature of Hungarian politics fell apart, owing to a series of internal scandals and external shocks.

Before delving into criticising reforms, a final aspect of the old electoral Hungarian law must be mentioned. There was a third, compensation, country-wide party list, where the electorate could not cast any votes. It was utilised to compensate those voters, who gave their ballot to losing candidates in SMD districts (so-called fragment votes), which was translated into 58 seats in the parliament. Only those parties could establish a country-wide compensation list, who had at least 7 regional PR lists, and were present in a least 1/3 of the SMD regions. Fragment vote compensation was also reformed in 2011, which may seem to be a tiny tweak, but in fact made the system more rigged towards the winner.

The new electoral system

Before formulating my criticism, for the sake of clarity and better understanding, here is an overview of the 2011 and 2013 electoral reforms:

  • The parliament was reduced from 386 to 199 seats, with a stronger SMD arm (106 SMD to 93 PR seats).
  • The concept of regional, PR party lists, and a separate, compensatory country-wide list ceased to exist. Instead, a single list was established, where all PR party list votes, together with fragment votes from SMD regions are assessed.
  • After changing the compensation rules, winners could equally receive compensation – obviously favouring large, winning parties, which concentrated only to Fidesz after 2010. (E.g.: if a Fidesz candidate receives more votes in an SMD district than what is minimally needed for winning, extra votes above the minimum winning percentage are transferred to the country-wide party list). In the past, only losing parties could be compensated.
  • SMD districts lost the second runoff, all seats must be decided immediately. Hence, a candidate may win a district seat without reaching the absolute majority of votes. Furthermore, opposition parties were deprived of forming coalitions after the first round.
  • Ethnic Hungarians in surrounding countries were granted the right to vote, even via mail. Ethnic Hungarians tend to be uniformly pro-Fidesz, owing to the misjudged, scandalous, failed referendum campaign of the Hungarian Socialist Party, when the fate of their citizenship was decided. Other Hungarians with more government-critical views, who moved abroad and still have a permanent residency address card, can only vote in person at embassy and consulate buildings.

Dear reader, if you took the effort to go through all these technical details, by now, hopefully you possess all the necessary information to carry out a fair assessment of the Hungarian electoral reforms.

The Hungarian Parliament │ Ervin Lukacs on Unsplash (Unsplash licence)

On its own, making the SMD arm more prominent, or eradicating second runoffs in SMD districts are neither unconstitutional changes, nor unfair, and definitely not undemocratic. Indeed, many established European democracies rely solely on SMD rules. Fidesz routinely uses Western democratic examples to justify their reforms, not only in the field of electoral reforms. Despite having been established in old European democracies, new regulations, or their unique mixture represent a total mismatch with political realities in Hungary, serving only the opportunistic aims of the ruling Fidesz party. After Hungary’s strongest centre-left party, the Hungarian Socialists were utterly discredited, and the second Orbán government was established in 2010, the opposition became severely fragmented and disunited. Under these circumstances, a heavily SMD friendly electoral law will not help restoring old two-party realities. Instead, it will unreasonably favour the strongest, most successful party, gravitating Hungary’s political system towards single-party domination. Reforms should have gone the exact other direction if healthy party competition was to be restored – which clearly was not the aim of the power-hungry, ruling Fidesz party.On the other hand, allowing ethnic Hungarians to vote with different preconditions, compared to Hungarians living abroad; or meddling with the compensation list, were ceteris paribus unfair. These might seem to be insignificant tweaks, but in reality, these rules can decide the fate of a two-third majority. Moreover, other illiberal factors make the rise of a credible contender against Orbán even more difficult: such as the propagandist, pro-government state media (TV channels, and local newspapers included); lax party financing rules, which boost the emergence of small, fake parties; as well as the considerable gerrymandering of electoral district borders. Orbán at the helm of Hungary over the past 12 years can be explained by a mixture of intended and unintended circumstances: an initially unfit, pro-SMD electoral law, an incompetent centre-left opposition, and Orbán’s own conscious, shrewd fiddling with the electoral system, and many other democratic institutions.

I could already anticipate the response of Fidesz acolytes to the above criticism: “Merkel was in power for even longer”. Only that in Germany, the relationship between the two arms of the MMS system is fundamentally different. SMD votes are packed in a broader PR frame, compelling the German Chancellor to make wide-ranging coalition deals, which ultimately result in a fairer, more representative executive, as well as legislative. Of course, Orbán equally governs in a coalition setting with a phantom partner, the Christian Democrats, who apparently retained their single MEP within the EPP Group of the European Parliament, after Fidesz was kicked out, to maintain their superficially independent status.

Was Popper right?

After long years of infights, self-discrediting, and bashing one another, fragmented opposition parties have finally realised that they have no chance of success if they do not unite and form a common platform against Orbán. This broad coalition includes all parties from left to right, defying all political sensibilities and textbook recommendations. Unfortunately, there is really no other means to put an end to Orbán’s illiberal regime. The first instance, when opposition parties decided to unite behind consensus candidates (who were elected at primaries), was the 2019 local elections. Many large cities, including Budapest could inaugurate a non-Fidesz mayor in its aftermath.

Opposition parties are trying their hands at employing a similar tactic, in preparation for the 2022 parliamentary elections. Primaries have already happened this year in two runoffs (first in September, second in October), which not only helped to nominate SMD candidates and the opposition’s concerted PM, but also, primaries brought back long-missing televised, live, public debates, and everyday, meaningful political discussions in Hungary. However, this large, diverse opposition block is an extreme slippery-slope. No one can foresee whether they can form an effective consensus government. The only rock-solid certainty is that they cannot win and have a shot at forming a government any other way, due to the technical features of the current Hungary’s current electoral law. In conclusion, Popper was right at least in one aspect: artificially, Hungary has become a quasi two-party system again, Fidesz vs non-Fidesz. I’m not sure whether that’s in line with his ideals.

Cover photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash (Unsplash licence)

  • retro

    Dóra was born in Budapest, but her family originates from two tiny villages in North-East Hungary, that she equally calls home. She resided in London between 2012 - 2019, where she attained her BA diploma in International Relations (Queen Mary University), and MSc degree in Global Europe: Culture and Conflict (London School of Economics). She worked two years in diplomacy between her undergrad and postgrad years; and as Events Manager at LSE IDEAS, the foreign policy think tank of the LSE, following her MSc studies. Dora is currently a PhD candidate with scholarship at LUISS Guido Carli in Rome, researching the impact of illiberalism, and the reinvigorated V4 on EU policies.

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