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.
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.
For 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.