It has become a cliché to say that relations between opposing players of the political spectrum in Hungary are simply awful. Indeed, it is an inescapable fact that there is not a single area where the obvious national interest offers the prospect of consensus. On any topic — from job creation, through the family support system, to the political rights of Hungarians beyond its borders — it is consequently clear that should the current government be removed from office in the general election today, none of its achievements since 2010 would survive.
This intense antagonism between the parties has existed for at least 15 years, while the possibility of finding a common language has not improved but has, in fact, further deteriorated during this period.
Having recognized at least a year ago that the hate campaign devised by the international political strategist Ron Werber was not sufficient to win the election, the Socialist opposition decided that it would complement this by calling into question its outcome. To be sure, the task of political opposition is to oppose, but responsible political leaders acknowledge that their attacks on their opponents should not go beyond the point where they risk damaging the nation’s reputation or institutions. The Left in Hungary has shown no such restraint, knowing from experience that however grotesque its claims these would be taken seriously by liberal opinion formers overseas. Accordingly, there have been suggestions that civil conflict might be an acceptable route to bring down a democratically elected center-right government; meanwhile, left-leaning German liberals have taken to referring to Hungary as Führerstaat. Recognising that the hate weapon has become counter-productive, but lacking the ability to devise an intellectually coherent set of alternative policies on which to campaign, the Hungarian Left has concentrated its resources in an attack on recent changes to the country’s electoral system.
From Two-Round to Single-Round
It is worth taking a look at the facts: How has the Hungarian electoral system changed? In the past all the parties have spoken eloquently about the need to significantly reduce the number of seats in Parliament, but this remained nothing but an empty promise until 2010. As far as ordinary voters are concerned, the only truly perceivable change will be that the elections will consist of a single round. Even that will not represent a huge change due to the increasing number of first-round victories in individual constituencies where the winning candidate obtains more than 50 percent of the vote, one-third of the country’s constituencies in 2006 and two-thirds in 2010.
It is not, of course, as if the Left has regarded Hungary’s electoral system as immutable. In 1994, the ruling Socialist–Free Democrats coalition which enjoyed a two-thirds majority in Parliament, introduced single-round elections in municipal elections at six weeks’ notice, thereby leaving no time at all for the opposition to prepare. This time, for the 2014 parliamentary elections, the government announced the change two and a half years in advance.
Moreover, all of the other changes are moderate as regards their overall effects. The ratio of mandates obtainable in constituencies increased from 46 percent (176 constituencies in a Parliament with 386 seats) to 53 percent (106 mandates out of 199). This modest switch of emphasis to a more majoritarian system has been introduced in the interests of stability.
It is a recurring accusation that the new constituency boundaries were drawn with a view to the interests of the current governing parties. On top of this — the left-wing criticism continues — the boundaries were not determined by some independent body but were passed by Parliament as an appendix to the electoral legislation.
The current opposition is inclined to forget that the constituency boundaries had to be redrawn not only because of the radical reduction in the number of parliamentary seats. It would have been inevitable even if no such change were occurring. This is because in 2011 the Hungarian Constitutional Court invalidated a decree from the last, pre-1990, Communist Council of Ministers, on the grounds that the system was disproportionate, and it also ruled that the new boundaries must be defined in a law.
This judgment should have surprised no one.
In practice, there were constituencies in which only 26,000 electors lived, while in others there were as many as 74,000, which meant that some votes were worth three times as much as others. As regards the number of mandates, in Budapest — which traditionally supports the left-liberal side both on the party lists and in the constituencies — twelve more mandates were up for grabs than the capital’s dwindling population would have warranted due to relocation to neighboring towns. It was hardly a coincidence that in Csepel (Budapest 21st district), a traditional left-wing stronghold, the same number of electors had two members of Parliament, while people in the Budapest 2nd district, which historically sides with the center-right, could only decide on a single seat. These boundaries were laid down not in a law but in a decree of the Council of Ministers created by the last Communist government.
Left-wing outrage has been predictable: The Left had gotten used to the fact that, during the course of the six elections conducted since the Communist collapse of 1990, it had enjoyed a comfortable advantage due to the unfairness of the system. It has pained them that the government should have delivered on its promise to halve the number of members of Parliament, to introduce stringent rules regarding conflicts of interests in the interest of full-time work in Parliament, and to restore the equality of the votes of electors. It was these efforts that the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe acknowledged when it described the new electoral law as a good basis for the conduct of genuine and democratic parliamentary elections.”
Moreover, it is surely right that as of this year it is no longer the government that is responsible for the implementation of the elections but an independent authority, the National Election Office. In the past the National Election Office effectively functioned as a ministerial division, and its head was appointed by the interior minister for an indefinite term. He is now appointed for a term of nine years, is fully independent of executive power, cannot be instructed, and cannot be removed.
Citizenship and Franchise Go Hand in Hand
It is also an important step forward that Hungary follows the core principle observed by 24 member states of the European Union out of 28 that citizenship and the franchise go hand in hand. For the first time this year, Hungarians beyond the borders, too, will be able to cast their votes. The fact that the government parties perceived this as a theoretical and national issue, rather than as a party policy and power issue, is amply demonstrated by the rule that permits Hungarian citizens with no permanent residence in Hungary to vote only for national lists; their votes will decide the outcomes of only approximately one and a half mandates in total. Voting by mail, an option reserved for them, also conforms to the relevant European practice; in the interest of avoiding fraud, the legislation contains the most stringent guarantee provisions on the continent.
While, in spite of the favorable signs, Fidesz and government-party voters cannot be complacent about the final outcome of the elections, the Socialists’ desperate reactions seem to indicate that they have already given up on victory. A self-confident party deals with the big issues of the day; the fact that it has chosen instead to concentrate on ill-founded accusations about the integrity of the electoral system suggests that it knows the real obstacle to its success is to be located in the opinion of the voters who punish a totally unreformed Left. What it has been doing in recent weeks has merely been to prepare an excuse for its own inadequacies.
— Gergely Gulyás is a member of the Hungarian Parliament. This piece is adapted from one that appeared in the Hungarian Review.