There are hundreds of political analysts and commentators in Hungary whose only job is to follow politics as it is unfolding. Admittedly, the information avalanche makes it increasingly difficult to keep up with the entire spectrum.
As I was preparing to write today’s post on the pros and cons of a boycott of the 2014 elections I happened upon a “letter to the editor” that had an observation that I found prophetic. The letters to the editor in Galamus are of exceptionally high quality, most likely because the readership of the website comes from an educated and politically savvy stratum of society. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago one of readers of Galamus, Miklós Ráczkevy-Eötvös, predicted that “the new electoral law will be changed until the bitter end and always according to the given interests of Fidesz.” And this is exactly what’s happening. A few months ago Fidesz thought that doubling the number of endorsements would be advantageous to the party. But then the study by Gordon Bajnai’s foundation (Homeland and Progress / Haza és Haladás) came out and it was read not only by the opposition but also by the strategists of Fidesz. And they learned a thing or two about how the opposition parties, if they were to follow the advice of the Foundation of Homeland and Progress, could actually win the elections.
So, came the first serious change in the electoral law, which will be followed, I’m certain, by other changes between now and 2014. Instead of a larger number of endorsements that could disqualify smaller parties, Fidesz realized that there might indeed be fairly close cooperation among democratic parties. In such a case, the number of endorsements would be irrelevant. It took a few weeks to come up with a solution. Abolish the whole system of endorsements and deprive the parties of government subsidies. Let’s give the money to individuals and thus make cooperation among the democratic parties less likely. And I suspect there will be other “innovations” depending on “need.”
Under these circumstances I think that ruling out a boycott of the elections is foolhardy. But before I list some reasons for and against an election boycott, it might be useful to take a look at the recent history of the idea. As usual, it was Ferenc Gyurcsány who first voiced his belief that there might come a time when such a move would have to be considered. If it were to become obvious that all the fiddling with the electoral law would result in a certain victory for Fidesz, even if the majority of the voters didn’t support the party, the opposition would have to seriously consider the possibility of a boycott. Gyurcsány mentioned that possibility last November in a post on his Facebook page.
Interestingly enough, István Ujhelyi, one of the deputy chairmen of MSZP, also thought of it and about three months ago even voiced his opinion in front of a number of foreign diplomats. Even Gergely Karácsony, deputy whip of LMP, mentioned the possibility of a boycott if “Fidesz withdraws the parties’ financial support.” I would like to remind Karácsony that if the announced changes actually end up in the bill that János Lázár submits to the House next week, then he and his party might have to start thinking. After all, according to announced plans financial assistance will not be going to parties.
All this talk, however, was rather vague and not openly and widely discussed in the media, although József Debreczeni, deputy chairman of the Demokratikus Koalíció, did mention it in a conversation with Olga Kálmán on ATV’s Egyenes Beszéd (Straight Talk) on July 31. Debreczeni wanted to use the rumblings about a boycott to deter Fidesz from introducing voter registration. In general, however, these rumblings didn’t arouse much interest and with the exception of a few blogs (PuPu, Veránusz, etc.) no one took notice.
But then came an MSZP gathering in Szeged on August 29 where György Kolláth, a constitutional lawyer, brought the idea up again. István Ujhelyi was present and seconded the notion. For Kolláth voter registration by itself warranted a boycott. Well, it took MSZP’s top leadership only a few hours to decide that the party under no circumstances would boycott the elections. László Bitó, professor emeritus of ocular physiology at Columbia University who now lives in Hungary and made a name for himself as a writer, retorted that announcing way ahead of time that a boycott is out of question is like a trade union declaring at the very beginning of negotiations that under no circumstances would it strike.
From that point on, the debate has been raging on the question of a possible boycott, and I assume that it will not die down for a while, especially after the announcement of the planned further changes in the electoral law. There are people who are adamant in condemning a boycott that, in their opinion, would only help Fidesz. In the eyes of the anti-boycott group the electoral law will be formally acceptable to the leaders of the European Union. As they said, “the outside world will not come to the assistance of the opposition.”
The pro-boycott forces argue that the boycott would call the attention of the international community to the fragility of Hungarian democracy. Perhaps the legitimacy of the elections wouldn’t be called into question but the legitimacy of the Orbán government would. Let’s assume that because of the boycott the entire parliament is comprised of Fidesz-KDNP and Jobbik members. Such a government’s position internationally would be close to impossible.
I think that the Fidesz leadership is somewhat worried about a boycott. Magyar Nemzet in two different articles, one on August 30 and another on September 10, condemned the idea of a boycott. András Kovács in the first article accused Ujhelyi and Kolláth of being ignorant of all those studies by right-wing researchers who proved that the electoral law in many ways is more democratic than the old one. The second article by the same author also appealed to the expert opinion of the same two right-wing researchers to show how unfounded any accusation of unfairness is when it comes to the electoral law and voter registration. Surely, Fidesz is aware of the danger of a possible boycott and would very much like avoid it.
Unfortunately MSZP made a mistake and, at least for the time being, removed that danger.