Hungarian election law

OSCE’s interim report on the parliamentary elections of 2014

Here is the interim report of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. The document is limited to observation only and does not contain analysis of how the new Hungarian electoral law will affect the possible outcome of the election.

OSCE

INTERIM REPORT

5 – 18 March 2014

24 March

I. EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

  • On 6 April 2014, some 8 million voters will elect the members of parliament for a four-year term. A modified mixed electoral system removed the possibility for a second round, changed the seat allocation method and reduced the number of parliamentary seats from 386 to 199.
  • The governing coalition formed by the Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz) and the Christian- Democratic People’s Party has had a two-third majority in parliament since the 2010 elections. It adopted numerous laws, including a new Constitution and electoral legislation, without public consultation or inclusive dialogue with the opposition. The new constituencies address previous vote inequalities, but concerns were raised about the political intention of the delineation process.
  • The election administration, composed of three tiers of election commissions supported by election offices, has met all legal deadlines to date. It enjoys the general confidence of stakeholders, however, several OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors raised concerns about partisanship among the permanent members of the National Election Commission (NEC).
  • Some 550,000 Hungarians living abroad received Hungarian citizenship since the 2010 amendment of the Act on Hungarian Citizenship. A number of OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors expressed serious concerns about the different voting procedures for out-of-country voters with and without residence in Hungary, as well as about the security of postal voting.
  • A candidate may run concurrently in single-member constituencies and on national lists. The police is investigating several cases, in response to allegations that smaller parties traded signature collection sheets for single member constituency candidates. The election commissions registered 1,559 single member constituency candidates, including 395 women. A total of 1,610 candidates, including 379 women, run on 18 national lists.
  • Citizens who register themselves as national minority voters must vote for a minority list drawn up by the respective national minority self-government. All 13 national minority self- governments submitted lists, with a total of 99 candidates, including 42 women. Some Roma leaders campaigned against registration as a minority voter and proposed their own national list.
  • The campaign commenced on 15 February and intensified since the beginning of March. The opposition claims that Fidesz created an uneven playing field by using government advertisements. Current regulations result in a de facto absence of campaign advertisements on commercial television.
  • Formally, numerous electronic and print media outlets provide for media diversity. Media experts expressed to the OSCE/ODIHR LEOM their serious concern over lack of independence of the Public Service Broadcaster, Magyar Television, of Hungarian News Agency, the official source for all public media news content, and of the Media Council, the new supervisory body for media legislation, as well as a lack of pluralism in news programs, as the main commercial television stations are affiliated with the ruling parties or have entertainment-oriented programs.
  • Hundreds of complaints have been filed to date with the election commissions and courts. Most were rejected on formal grounds.

II. INTRODUCTION

Following an invitation from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and based on the recommendation of a Needs Assessment Mission conducted from 20 to 23 January, the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (OSCE/ODIHR) deployed a Limited Election Observation Mission (LEOM) on 5 March.1The LEOM is headed by Ambassador Audrey Glover and consists of 12 experts based in Budapest and 10long-term observers deployed throughout the country. Mission members are drawn from 17 OSCE participating States. In line with ODIHR’s methodology, the LEOM will not carry out systematic or comprehensive observation of election day activities. Mission members will, however, visit a number of polling stations to follow election day procedures.

III. BACKGROUND

The 6 April elections will be the seventh since 1990 and the fourth observed by the OSCE/ODIHR. The April 2010 parliamentary elections resulted in a two-thirds majority in parliament of the Coalition of Hungarian Civic Union (Magyar Polgári Szövetség, Fidesz) and the Christian- Democratic People’s Party(Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt, KDNP). This ruling coalition enacted key laws, including the Fundamental Law of Hungary (the Constitution) and new electoral legislation. These were largely passed and modified without public consultation and lacking inclusive dialogue with opposition parties, and following proposals from individual MPs. This procedure circumvented the Participation of Civil Society in the Preparation of Legislation Act, which requires that “all laws proposed by the government need to go through its procedures for public consultation”. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe strongly criticized this process and the numerous changes to the constitution and the laws after their adoption as well as the use of constitutional amendments to override some decisions of the Constitutional Court.2

IV. THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK AND ELECTORAL SYSTEM

The conduct of the elections is regulated primarily by the Constitution, the Act on Election of Members of Parliament (Elections Act), and the Act on Election Procedures (Election Procedures Act). The Constitution entered into force on 1 January 2012 and was amended five times, most recently in September 2013. The Elections Act was adopted in December 2011, and was amended four times, most recently in July 2013.A key change is the introduction of the right to vote for citizens living abroad without permanent residence in Hungary, but only for the proportional part of

the elections. The Election Procedures Act was adopted in October 2012, and was amended three times, most recently in December 2013. Amendments introducing active voter registration for all citizens were declared unconstitutional and overruled.

The Constitution gives every adult citizen the right to vote and be elected. The right to vote can be limited based on a court decision as part of a criminal sentence or for an individual with limited mental capacity as established by a court decision. There are no legal requirements aimed at enhancing the participation of women in political life.

The 2010 amendments to the Act on Hungarian Citizenship provide that a descendant of a person who was a Hungarian citizen before 1920, with some proficiency in the Hungarian language can apply for Hungarian citizenship. To date, some 550,000 such persons living mostly in neighbouring countries availed themselves of this opportunity.

Parliament is elected for a four-year term. The new Elections Act retained a mixed electoral system but removed the possibility for a second round, changed the seat allocation method and reduced the number of parliamentary seats from 386 to 199. The 106 seats from single-member constituencies are elected through majoritarian contests. The remaining 93 seats are distributed through a nationwide proportional system among candidate lists from parties passing a 5 per cent threshold (or a 10 per cent for lists with two parties or 15 per cent for lists with more than two parties). The votes for candidates who did not win a seat in the majoritarian contest and the votes obtained by winning candidates beyond the 50 per cent plus 1 that are required to win, are allocated to the proportional contest. The five per cent threshold is not applicable to national minority lists.4

Amendments to the Elections Acts established the constituency boundaries in July 2013. These can only be altered by a two-thirds vote in parliament. The constituency delimitation resolves previous inequality issues between the numbers of voters in different constituencies as it requires that this number may not deviate more than 15 per cent from the national average.Based on current voter registration figures, five constituencies do not respect this principle.The constituency delimitation process was criticized by several OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors for lacking transparency, independence and consultation and for catering to the political interests of the governing parties.

V. THE ELECTION ADMINISTRATION

The elections are administered by a three-tiered election administration: the National Election Commission (NEC), 106 Constituency Election Commissions (CoEC) and 10,386 Polling Election Commissions (PSC). Each commission is independent. A parallel set of election offices act as secretariats for the commissions, including the National Election Office (NEO), 97 Constituency Election Offices (CoEO) and 1,297 Local Election Offices (LEO). For voting abroad, 97 PSCs have been established at diplomatic representations.

The NEC is a permanent body consisting of seven members elected for nine-year terms by the parliament, based on proposals from the president.Two of the NEC members are women, including the deputy. Each of the 18 national lists registered to contest the upcoming elections is entitled to appoint one member to the NEC. The 13 national minority lists may appoint one commissioner each, however they may only vote on national minority issues. The NEO is an independent government agency responsible for preparing and conducting the elections. Its head is appointed by the president based on a proposal from the prime minister, for a nine-year term. The current head is a woman.

The CoECs and PSCs consist of three members elected by local governments as proposed by the head of the CoEOs and LEOs respectively. In addition, each candidate in the constituency is entitled to appoint one member to the respective CoEC and two members to the respective PSCs. The CoECs have completed candidate registration for the single-mandate constituencies and are hearing complaints and appeals in their jurisdictions. The PSCs were to be formed by 17 March. Some commissioners have expressed concern to the OSCE/ODIHR LEOM that the large number of members will impede the efficiency and effectiveness of the commissions.8

Election commissions’ sessions are public. NEC meetings, minutes and decisions are publicized on its website. Since the start of the electoral period, the NEC has issued several instructions, adopted decisions, including on the registration of nominating organizations, parties and lists, and handled numerous complaints and appeals. The election administration has met all legal deadlines to date. Most OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors expressed confidence in the electoral administration, however, some raised concern about partisanship of the commission in the current political context.

VI. VOTER REGISTRATION

The central voter register is maintained by the NEO and is extracted from the population register. Citizens with a permanent address in Hungary and who are over 18 are eligible to vote on election day as are married citizens who are 16 years or older, upon their request. The number of eligible voters at the time of this report is 8,236,443.

Voter lists can be viewed in the LEOs up to 4 April, which is the deadline to make any alterations to the lists. Persons with a disability may apply by 4 April for Braille or simplified voting materials, or to vote in an accessible polling station. Mobile voting is available for voters with disabilities, for health reasons or for those in detention. Citizens may also request to vote in a designated polling station in a constituency other than their registered address by 4 April.

Some 16,000 citizens with permanent residence in Hungary who are out of country on election day registered with the NEO to vote at one of 97 diplomatic missions. They can vote for both contests. Some 176,000 citizens without in-country residence, who can only vote for the proportional contest, are registered to vote by mail. The ballot packages may be mailed to any address requested. Voters can mail their ballot to the NEO, or deliver it to a diplomatic mission or a CoEO, including by proxy. The Election Procedures Act relaxed the registration of non-resident voters, while residents must submit registration data which exactly matches official records. Several OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors expressed serious concern about the different voting procedures for out-of-country voters with and without residence in Hungary. They also shared concerns about the security of postal voting and the fact that the list of non-resident voters is not public. The authorities stated that the list is not publicized to protect Hungarian citizens in countries prohibiting multiple citizenships.

Citizens declaring themselves as a national minority may register to vote for minority lists rather than national lists. This limits the choice of minority voters in the proportional race on election day as this registration precludes their possibility to vote for another but the minority list.Requests must be lodged with the NEO by 22 March, though this may be altered up to 4 April. The number of minority voters registered thus far is 28,250.

VII. REGISTRATION OF CANDIDATES

A candidate may run in single-member constituencies and on national lists concurrently. Parties wishing to nominate candidates in the single-member constituencies had to register as nominating organizations with the NEC. A candidate had to collect at least 500 signatures from eligible voters in that constituency on signature sheets and submit to the CoECs by 3 March. Strict fines were imposed for late submission or lost sheets.10Voters could support more than one candidate.

The CoECs registered 1,559 candidates, including 395 women, and rejected 849, mostly because they did not collect enough support signatures. Several national media reports alleged that a number of smaller parties traded signature sheets to copy voter information and fraudulently obtain registration. Police are investigating a number of cases. Only two parliamentary parties have gender quotas. There are no women candidates in four constituencies. National lists were to be submitted to the NEC by 4 March. Lists were registered if the nominating organization was able to submit at least 27 candidates in 9 or more counties as well as Budapest. Of the 31 lists submitted to the NEC, 16 single party and 2 joint party lists were registered with a total of 1,610 candidates, including 379 women.11

The new legislation provides that national minority self-governments can submit candidate lists that appear on a separate ballot for national minorities. They had to collect support signatures from at least 1 per cent of the voters included in the minorities register as of 17 February, but no more than 1,500 signatures. All 13 officially recognized minorities registered with a total of 99 candidates, including 42 women. The main parties and coalitions standing for election are the ruling party alliance Fidesz /KDNP, and the opposition parties alliance of the Hungarian Socialist (MSZP), Together Party for a New Era (Együtt 2014), Dialogue for Hungary (PM), Democratic Coalition (DK) and Hungarian Liberal Party (MLP), as well as the Movement for a Better Hungary party (Jobbik) and the LMP (Politics Can Be Different).

VIII. CAMPAIGN ENVIRONMENT

The campaign officially began on 15 February 2014. The campaign silence period has been abolished, but campaign activities are prohibited within 150 meters of a polling station on election day. The main campaign messages have been conveyed through billboards, media, rallies, leaflets and door-to-door campaigning. Contestants have been extensively using social networks.

The Fidesz/KDNP suggests that voters will have to choose between the future (represented by them) and the past when the country was governed by communists and subsequently by the leftist-liberal coalition. The campaign of MSZP-Egyutt/PM-DK-MLP is centered on their intent to “repair democracy”. They demand a referendum on the planned expansion of the nuclear plant in Paks and assert that a loan from Russia financing this plant could jeopardize the country’s independence. The green LMP has also denounced the expansion of the nuclear plant. Jobbik focuses on security issues and nationalistic proposals. Jobbik uses anti-Roma, anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric and calls for the protection of the Hungarian soil.

The campaign has intensified since the beginning of March 2014. The tone of the campaign has been influenced by alleged corruption cases across the political spectrum. The opposition complains that Fidesz created an uneven playing field, by broadcasting government advertisements and using proxy civil society organizations for their campaign. Fidesz argues that such broadcasts are social advertisements and not political in nature. The opposition also alleges that at least 50 per cent of the billboards in Budapest are controlled by businesspeople close to Fidesz.

IX. CAMPAIGN FINANCE

Electoral contestants can use state and private funds for campaign purposes. State funding is regulated by the Act on the Transparency of Campaign Costs related to the Election of the Members of the National Assembly, while private donations are regulated by the The Act on the Operation and Financial Management of Political Parties. There are no limits for private donations. Those over HUF 500.000 (EUR 1,600) must be disclosed in party annual reports.

Single-mandate constituency candidates receive up to HUF 1 million (EUR 3,200) in state funds, irrespective of whether they run independently or nominated by a party. Additional state support is provided to political parties that nominate candidates in single-mandate constituencies and to the national minority self-governments which nominate lists.12 A candidate can spend a maximum of HUF 5 million (EUR 16,000).

Electoral contestants report to the National Treasury Office (NTO) and are audited by the State Audit Office (SAO). There are no reporting requirements before election day. State support to political parties is not subject to NTO verification, while support for candidates is. A compulsory audit is performed by the SAO of parties that win seats.13 Several NGOs are involved in the election campaign, with billboards targeting some electoral contestants.14 The costs for such activities are not regulated by campaign regulations nor subject of supervision by SAO.

The government has been conducting a “Hungary is performing better” campaign since 2013. According to the Minister of Public Administration and Justice, its cost was approximately EUR 2 million for the period from March to November 2013. On 1 October 2013, the government sold to Fidesz the non-exclusive rights for the use of this slogan for EUR 640. Currently, both Fidesz and the government run campaigns with the same lay-out and identical slogan on several television stations.

On 10 March candidates from MSZP and Együtt 2014 filed a complaint with the NEC against TV2. On 13 March the NEC rejected the complaint. On 18 March, the Supreme Court overturned the NEC decision, motivating that TV2 violated the law by broadcasting campaign advertising. It also prohibited TV2 to further broadcast this spot.

X. THE MEDIA                                                                 

Formally, a significant number of electronic and print media outlets provide for diversity in the media landscape. The internet increasingly becomes the primary source of news. A growing number of online media outlets appear to be affiliated with both sides of the political spectrum. Television news still are the primary source of political information.

Media experts expressed their serious concern to the OSCE/ODIHR LEOM over developments in broadcasting and a lack of independence of the Public Service Broadcaster, Magyar Television (MTV), potentially undermining the political pluralism of news programs.15 The market-leading commercial television stations are affiliated with the ruling parties or have an entertainment-oriented program profile, resulting in limited critical reporting about the government by the broadcasters with the highest audience shares.16 In addition, OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors expressed concern about the independence of the public Hungarian News Agency, MTI, which is the official source for all public media news content. Another potential issue is the recently extended scope of defamation provisions in the Criminal Code, including penalties of up three years imprisonment for defamatory video or sound recordings. Criminalized speech can potentially undermine investigative journalism and silence opposing views.17

The Freedom of the Press and the Fundamental Rules of Media Content Act requires broadcasters to provide “balanced coverage” in news and information programs “on local, national and European issues that may be of interest for the general public”. The law, however, lacks clarity on what constitutes “balanced coverage”.

The new supervisory body for content regulation is the Media Council, part of the National Media andInfo-communications Authority (NMHH). The chairperson, who is at the same time the president of the NMHH, and the four members of the Media Council are elected by parliament with a two- thirds majority for a nine-year term. The process of selecting their members is of major concern as the current Council has a politically homogenous composition.18 The Media Council monitors the coverage of political actors and publishes monitoring results on its website, but only acts upon complaints as the law prohibits it to act ex officio.

The Election Procedures Act provides for a total of 600 minutes free airtime on the Public Broadcaster, to be equally divided among the lists. In response to the large number of contestants, MTV provided each list with additional five minutes of live broadcast in a discussion program aired on M1 and on public TV and radio. The Act banned paid political advertising on commercial broadcasters, which the Constitutional Court deemed unduly restrictive on freedom of expression and media. A fifth amendment to the 2012 Constitution allowed commercial broadcasters to air campaign advertising, but only unpaid and equally divided between national lists contesting the elections. In practice this right is not exercised. Opposition parties complained that this limits their direct access to television. Contestants can purchase political advertising in print and online media outlets.

On 11 March, the OSCE/ODIHR started qualitative and quantitative media monitoring analysis of the campaign coverage, including five newspapers with and five TV channels.19

XI. COMPLAINTS AND APPEALS

The Election Procedures Act allows voters and contestants to lodge complaint, but sets out some new formal requirements. The NEC serves as a first instance for reviewing most election-related complaints and also decides on complaints on political advertisements. All decisions of the NEC can be appealed to the Supreme Court. Its decision is final unless appealed to the Constitutional Court provided that the applicant alleges a violation of a constitutional right.20 All complaints must be received and decided on within three days.

To date the NEC received over 841 complaints, of which a large number are appeals against CoEC decisions on the validity of candidate support petition sheets. Some 200 complaints pertained to fines issued by CoECs for late or unreturned petition sheets. The Supreme Court received 114 complaints so far, 11 decided on merit and the rest were rejected on formal grounds. All except a few upheld the initial NEC decisions. The Constitutional Court received 13 cases and ruled on 4, rejecting them on formal grounds.

XI. PARTICIPATION OF NATIONAL MINORITIES

According the results of the 2011 census, the largest national minorities are the Roma (3.1 per cent) and the Germans (1.3 per cent). The other groups officially recognized as minorities make up less than one per cent of the population: Slovaks, Croats, Romanians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Slovenes, Poles, Greeks, Bulgarians, Ruthenians and Armenians.

Each of the 13 national minorities has a national minority self-governments. The current self- governments have been elected in 2010 and new elections are foreseen in the autumn of 2014. Their election predates the entry into force of the Elections Act, meaning that national minority voters elected their current national minority self-government not knowing that this would possibly impact on their parliamentary representation.

The restriction to vote for a national list by registered national minority members once voters registered for this elicited criticism. Some Roma leaders opted to campaign against registration as a minority voter and proposed their own national list. A certain degree of confusion seems to prevail regarding this new system; according to some OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors, this could negatively affect the possibility for minority voters to make an informed choice. In practice, there is no competition within each respective minority contest, as the ballot will only include one choice.

XII. CITIZEN AND INTERNATIONAL OBSERVERS

The legislation does not provide for citizen non-partisan observers. Nominating organizations have the right to appoint commission members to the NEC, except those from national minority lists, and may appoint up to five observers to work alongside the NEO and verify their operating practices. While the presence of observers from political entities at polling stations is not provided for, each political entity registered within the respective constituency may appoint representatives to the PSC. The Election Procedures Act now allows for international observers. They may observe the entire process and may request copies of any documentation.

XIII. MISSION ACTIVITIES

The OSCE/ODIHR LEOM commenced its work on 5 March. The Head of the Mission met with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the NEC and the NEO, and other high-level state officials, politicians and diplomatic representatives. The LEOM has also established contacts with political parties and candidates, representatives of the media, civil society and other electoral stakeholders. The Head of the Mission met a pre-election delegation of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). Mr. Adao Silva has been appointed by the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office as Special Co-ordinator to lead the short-term OSCE observer mission.

 

NOTES

[1]Previous OSCE/ODIHR reports on Hungary are available at: http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/hungary.

[2]See European Parliament resolution, available at http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=TA&language=EN&reference=P7-TA-2013-3154. See also the Request for the Opening of a Monitoring Procedure in Respect of Hungary, available at http://www.assembly.coe.int/Communication/amondoc08_2013.pdf.

[3]The Venice Commission Code of Good Electoral Practice, Paragraph 2.2.b provides that “The fundamental elements of electoral law, in particular the electoral system proper, membership of electoral commissions and the drawing of constituency boundaries, should not be open to amendment less than one year before an election”; see at http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2002/CDL-AD(2002)023rev-e.pdf. See also Existing Commitments for Democratic Elections in OSCE Participating States, paragraph 3.2, at http://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/13957.

[4]National minority lists that fail to win a seat are entitled to a non-voting parliamentary spokesperson.

[5]The Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters of the Venice Commission, paragraph 2.2, provides that “the permissible departure from the norm should not be more than 10% and should certainly not exceed 15%, except in special circumstances”. In addition, the law provides that constituencies “should form contiguous areas”, but at least one constituency, Szeged 1, is composed of three separate areas.

[6]The largest deviation is Pest 5, followed by Somogy 2 and Tolna 1, 2, and 3.

[7]Previous legislation set NEC appointments for four years. The NEC was elected on 30 September 2013.

[8]In the constituency of Baranya, 29 candidates have been registered, and as such the PSCs here may have up to 63 members, plus minority representative members.

[9]See the Joint Opinion of the OSCE/ODHIR and the Venice Commission on the Elections Act which noted that this “limits the choice of minority voters in the proportional race on election day, especially when there is only one list competing for the vote of the respective minority.” See at http://www.osce.org/odihr/91534.

[10]An unlimited number of forms could be requested. The fine for lost sheets or late submission of sheets is approximately HUF 50,000 (EUR 160). More than 200 fines were issued, with the highest being HUF 21,000,000 (EUR 67,000).

[11]A total of 13 lists were denied registration as 12 failed to reach the 27 candidates required and one list had the required number of counties, but failed to secure registration in Budapest.

[12]Parties are eligible to receive between HUF 150 million and HUF 600 million depending on the number of candidates registered in single-mandate constituencies (approximately EUR 500.000 and EUR 2 million). National minority self-governments receive amounts proportionate to the number of registered minority voters.

[13]SAO can audit the parties not represented in parliament only upon the request of other contestants.

[14]The most visible advertisement campaign is by the Civil Unity Forum against some opposition leaders. NGOs monitoring the campaign estimate it cost between EUR 500.000 and 1 million since January 2014.

[15]See also European Parliament resolution of 3 July 2013 on the situation of fundamental rights: standards and practices in Hungary (pursuant to the European Parliament resolution of 16 February 2012, available at http://www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?type=TA&language=EN&reference=P7-TA-2013-315#def_1_8.

[16]Data on audience share is available at http://adattar.nmhh.hu/agb/nezettseg/201307.

[17]See the press release of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of Media at http://www.osce.org/fom/107908.

[18]See the press release of the OSCE Representative on Freedom of Media at http://www.osce.org/fom/90823.

[19]The monitoring is conducted from 17:00 till 23:00. The media outlets monitored are: M1 ATV, Hír, RTL Klub and TV2. The monitored print media outlets include Blikk, HVG, Magyar NemzetMetropol and Népszabadság.

[20]The Constitutional Court voiced its concerns to the OSCE/ODIHR LEOM that its jurisdiction is not clear, and that the lack of clarity of the new legislation and the lack of expertise and judicial practice on it, and the short deadlines for adjudicating complaints are putting a strain on the court, and could lead to a situation where possibly valid complaints are rejected on formal grounds.

New details on the Russian-Hungarian agreement on Paks; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 2″

I’m returning briefly to the secretive Putin-Orbán agreement on the addition to the atomic power plant in Paks. Shortly after the news of the agreement became public, I heard rumors to the effect that what the Orbán government actually wanted was not so much a new power plant built by Rosatom but an outright loan of 5 billion dollars. The Hungarian media spent a few lines on this rumor, but the topic was dropped soon enough. Most likely the rumor couldn’t be substantiated. But now Népszabadság has returned to the topic. In a fairly lengthy article the reporter who has lately become a kind of Paks expert unearthed a number of new strands in the story.

The information comes from “an expert who is an adviser to the government with knowledge of the details” who asserted that the original rumor about the loan the Orbán government wanted so badly was in fact true. The government wanted a loan that it could use as it best saw fit. The Russian partner, however, wanted to link the loan to the extension of the Paks power plant. Although negotiations went on for about a year, the two sides couldn’t come to a satisfactory agreement. At this point István Kocsis, former head of Paks and later of MVM (Magyar Villamos Művek/Hungarian Electricity Ltd), was asked by the government to use his good offices with the head of Rosatom. It didn’t seem to bother Orbán that Kocsis had been charged with embezzling billions, a case that is still pending.

Apparently Kocsis achieved miracles and in no time Rosatom had a contract ready to be signed. Népszabadság‘s informant claims that the Hungarians couldn’t change a word in the terms of the contract. There is, in fact, the suspicion that the reason the Hungarian text is so awkward is that most likely it was a translation from Russian. Earlier difficulties arose as the result of Hungarian insistence that the loan be extended to Hungary even if for one reason or another the power plant couldn’t be built or the project were protracted. At the beginning Rosatom insisted that the money would be lent to Hungary only as the work progressed. We still don’t know exactly what is in the agreement but, as Népszabadság‘s informer said, we may find out that “in the final analysis the Orbán government didn’t bring two reactors but ‘a new IMF loan’ from Moscow.”

The way the Orbán government spends money every penny will be needed. As it is, the national debt is higher than ever. It is over 80% even with the large infusion of money the government laid its hands on from the private pension funds. If we discount this “stolen money,” the national debt would be over 90% of the GDP. The government so far has spent more than 600 billion forints buying up private utility companies and is embarking on very ambitious plans to create a so-called “museum quarters” in Pest, which will accommodate the museums and Hungary’s National Library that are currently housed in the Royal Castle. This project is necessary because Orbán wants to move the entire government to the Castle District. The president’s office would move from the Sándor Palace to the Royal Castle and Viktor Orbán would presumably move into the Sándor Palace.

Yesterday another interesting tidbit about the Putin-Orbán agreement saw the light of day. An LMP member of parliament, Bernadett Szél, initially demanded access to the document but her request was refused. LMP will sue the government on that issue. She was, however, granted a half-hour interview with Mrs. László Németh, who admitted to her that the Orbán-Putin agreement was signed before the Hungarian government had a chance to authorize the deal. Lately, it seems, Fidesz politicians often slip and tell the truth by mistake. Like Lajos Kósa about the tape of Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech at Őszöd. The next day he had to “correct himself.” That was the case with Mrs. Németh as well. Her ministry immediately corrected her. The ministry’s spokesman claimed that it is clear from the January 31 issue of the Official Gazette (Magyar Közlöny) that the authorization was dated January 13 and it was on January 14 that the agreement was signed. My only question is: why did they publish the text of the authorization only on January 31?

Finally, let’s not forget about the Holocaust Memorial Year. András Heisler, president of Mazsihisz, decided to step down from the advisory board of the House of Fortunes. Since Mazsihisz (Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities) opposes the establishment of this new museum, Heisler saw no reason to remain a member of the board. Moreover, as he said, the board is totally inactive. Mária Schmidt, who is the government-appointed director of the project, called the board together only once.

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question

Part II: Writing the Rules to Win – The Basic Structure

Professor Kim Scheppele, Princeton University

How did the governing party Fidesz stack the deck so much in its favor that the upcoming Hungarian election’s results are not in doubt?

Fidesz started immediately after its election victory in 2010 to reshape the electoral system to ensure its hold on power. The Fidesz parliamentary bloc, which enacted constitutional changes without including or consulting any opposition party, slashed the size of the parliament in half, redrew all of the individual constituencies unilaterally, changed the two-round system to a single first-past-the-post election for individual constituencies, and altered the way votes were aggregated.

Moreover, Fidesz has granted dual citizenship and therefore voting rights to ethnic Hungarians outside the borders who are overwhelmingly Fidesz supporters, while at the same time maintaining a system that makes it comparatively harder for Hungarian citizens living or working abroad to vote.

The media landscape and campaign finance rules overwhelmingly benefit Fidesz and a series of last-minute changes to the law just before the campaign started put the newly united center-left opposition at an even greater disadvantage. In addition, the governing party has captured the election machinery which is now staffed with its own loyalists.

The sum total of all of these changes makes it virtually inevitable that Fidesz will win.

The devil is in the details, so let’s walk step by step through these various ways that the governing party has changed the rules in its favor.

As one of its first acts in office, on 25 May 2010, the Fidesz parliament amended the constitution it inherited to cut the parliament’s size in half. This was a move lauded by all sides of the political spectrum, as the old 386-member parliament was widely perceived as too large to be effective and too expensive for a small country in debt. The new 199-member parliament that will be seated after the 2014 elections will represent new electoral districts that had to be newly drawn to accommodate this new, smaller parliament. Redrawing the districts was not only widely welcomed, but also required by the Constitutional Court, which had ruled (first in 2005 and again in 2010) that the old districts had become too unequal in population size to give all citizens an equal vote.

The old districting system already favored Fidesz because the larger districts were in the urban strongholds of the left and the smaller districts were in the rural districts of the right. As a result, rural conservative votes were given more weight because it took fewer of their votes to elect an MP. But the way that Fidesz redrew the districts for 2014 gave their party an even greater advantage than they had before.

Without any consultation with opposition parties, Fidesz enacted a new “cardinal law” in 2011 that simply set the boundaries of the districts (Law CCIII/2011). While most election laws provide principles for drawing districts and assign some neutral or at least multi-party body to actually draw the boundaries, the borders of the districts in Hungary are now written directly into the law. Moving a district boundary by even one block requires a two-thirds vote of the parliament. The districts are therefore heavily entrenched and were not the result of either a public or an inclusive process. No justification for these districts was offered by the governing party.

Of course, not all districts in any electoral system have identical numbers of voters. But how much can districts vary before they deny equality of the vote?  The Commission for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission), recommends no more than 10% variation as the international standard. The Venice Commission is not terribly clear about what this means, but given that the Venice Commission is working with a principle that demands that votes be weighted as equally as possible, one can guess that this means that districts should not vary by more than 10% in population overall.

The Hungarian law is fiendishly clever in appearing to come close to that standard while being miles away from it. The Hungarian Election Law (Act CCIII of 2011 – section 4(4)) mandates that the districts should not vary by more than 15%. The Venice Commission was not thrilled with the difference, but let it pass. They shouldn’t have.

A closer reading reveals the trick. The Hungarian law requires that districts vary by no more than 15% calculated from the mean number of voters in the district. This is not an overall 15% deviation, as the Venice Commission presumed, but is instead a standard that permits districts to vary by 15% below the mean and 15% above it.

An example demonstrates what a huge difference this makes. To aim at an average district containing 100 voters, a 10% overall deviation would permit districts to vary between 95 and 105 voters. (Divide 95 by the 10 voters that separate the largest and smallest districts and you get about 10%). The Hungarian law would permit districts to vary between 85 and 115 voters – 15% above the mean and 15% below the mean of 100. The gap between 85 and 115 voters in a district would be 35% overall! (Calculated the same way as above: 30/85 = 35%.) This is a huge difference that the Venice Commission did not seem to see.

In the actual districts were constructed as a result of the new election law, the variation became even larger than that. As you can see in the chart below, the smallest districts in Hungary now have about 60,000 voters while the largest districts have nearly 90,000 voters, roughly a 50% gap. (The horizontal axis shows the number of eligible voters in the new constituencies based on voter data from 2010, and the vertical axis shows the number of districts in the new scheme with that number of voters.) Not only are the actual districts highly unequal, but this variation has no apparent justification.

sizeThe Size of Parliamentary Districts in Hungary after Redistricting
Source: Calculations by Gábor Tóka, Central European University

Hajdú-Bihar County, in the eastern part of Hungary, provides a case in point. A last-minute amendment to the 2011 election law divided the city of Debrecen into two districts of highly unequal size. Now, one district has 87,278 voters and the other, right next to it, has 60,125 voters. These are very nearly the largest and smallest districts in the country, side by side, without official explanation.

The government may have given no reasons for its districts, but this huge variation in district size is not random. As Political Capital shows, the left-leaning districts are systematically 5,000-6,000 voters larger than the right-leaning districts, which means that it takes many more votes to elect someone from a left-leaning district than to elect someone from Fidesz.

The borders of these new districts also appear to be drawn to Fidesz’s advantage, since they just happen to break up the areas where the opposition alliance voters have traditionally been strongest and they scatter these opposition voters over a new Fidesz-majority landscape. Historically left-leaning districts were partitioned and blended into historically right-leaning districts, creating fewer districts where left-leaning candidates are relatively certain to win.

One of the most obvious gerrymanders occurred (again) in Hajdú-Bihar County. In the 2006 election, which went nationally by a wide margin to the Socialists, the county voted three of its nine districts for the Socialists and six for Fidesz, as you can see in the chart below, on the left. If the results from the 2006 election were tallied in the newly drawn six districts for that country, as shown on the right, Fidesz would now win every district. The map reveals that this all-Fidesz result was accomplished by drawing the districts to divide up the compact concentrations of Socialist voters so that they would become minority voters in Fidesz-dominant districts.   Examples like this one can be found all over the country, as left-leaning districts were partitioned to break up clusters of opposition voters to mix them with even more conservative voters from neighboring areas.

hajduThe US may have invented the gerrymander, and so it may seem presumptuous for an American to complain about the new districts. But the Hungarian gerrymander is different from the (also outrageous) American type. In US national elections, gerrymanders occur at the state level, which means one party cannot redistrict the whole country at once. In the US, districting plans are also subject to judicial review to check the worst self-dealing. In Hungary, however, the whole country was redistricted by one party all at once so the Hungarian gerrymander is far more decisive. And there is no judicial review to correct excesses. In addition, unlike in America where the governing parties in the states get a new shot at gerrymandering every 10 years, after each census, it will take a two-thirds vote of the parliament to change any district in Hungary’s future.

Hungarians don’t just cast votes for individual representatives in districts of the sort we have just seen, however. Hungarians cast two votes in national elections. In addition to casting ballots for representatives in the voters’ individual constituency, voters cast second ballots for party lists. Those votes are aggregated across the country and additional parliamentary seats are awarded to parties based on these results, above and beyond the seats won in the individual districts.

In the new parliament as in the old one, MPs elected both ways sit together with equal status. While this dual system of MP elections appears to mitigate the effect of the gerrymander, the new parliament, unlike the old, allocates more seats to the individual constituencies than to the party-list mandates. The new parliament features 106 district mandates and 93 party-list mandates. Since individual constituencies are awarded on a winner-take-all basis, this tilts the system toward an even more disproportionate distribution of mandates than in the prior also-disproportionate parliament.

Individual constituencies in Hungary were allocated from 1990 to 2010 in a two-round run-off system. Unless a candidate won 50% or more in the first round, a second round would be held between the highest vote-getters to determine who won the mandate. This system meant that many political parties would field candidates in round one, and then form coalitions before round two after the relative viabilities of the individual candidates could be assessed. Hungarian political culture grew up around this system so that parties were not accustomed to bargaining before any votes were cast.

The new electoral system in Hungary eliminates this second round, benefiting Fidesz, as the largest single party. It can now win districts outright without needing majority support because it only has to get more votes than any other party on the (single) election day to capture the constituency. Given that the districts have been drawn to give Fidesz an advantage overall, one can imagine other parties will have a hard time winning constituencies which have been constructed precisely so that Fidesz is the largest party.

The design of the new system means that the democratic opposition would only have a chance to win individual constituencies if the various opposition parties of the left could create a grand coalition before the election so that they didn’t run candidates against each other. But this was a result that everyone familiar with politics in Hungary knew would be hard to accomplish. The parties in the “democratic opposition” (excluding Jobbik) are sharply divided both by ideology and personality. But unless these parties could set aside their differences to unite, they would surely lose.

The announcement on 14 January that five parties in the opposition had managed to agree on a single list of candidates for the single-member districts as well as a common party list was therefore something of a political miracle.

But can the party leaders of the Unity Alliance bring all of their voters along with them? Many voters for the smaller parties on the left often don’t trust the larger Socialist Party which now dominates the coalition.  And some personalities in the mix are popular only within their own parties and unattractive to the others in the coalition. As a result, it cannot be assumed that votes for the five parties can simply be added together to produce a united whole that is the same size or even larger than the sum of the parts.

Because voters cast two ballots on election day, the individual constituencies are only part of the story, though they are the largest part. Parties will also run national lists to compete for voters’ second votes. The new conditions that came into effect since the last election actually make it easier than it was in 2010 to nominate candidates for the individual constituencies and to register parties with national lists, something that is consistent with a dominant-party strategy to divide up the opposition as much as possible.

But the party-list system also builds in incentives for small parties to join together to form a larger alliance. To be approved to run a national list, parties must field candidates in at least 27 individual constituencies in at least nine of the 19 counties plus Budapest. While this guarantees that parties are truly national, it also aggravates the problems created by the loss of the second-round runoff in the individual constituencies. Any new national list adds to the “clutter” of individual candidates in the individual constituencies and further fragments the vote.

So it makes sense, under these rules, for small parties to form a common national list. To avoid competing head-on and perhaps pushing each other below the 5% threshold for entering the parliament, small parties on the same side of the political spectrum are pushed by the logic of the system to join forces. But as soon as they do so, they run into another problem. In all elections since 1994, parties have had to meet a 5% threshold of the popular vote to gain a fraction in the parliament. For two parties that run together, the threshold rises to 10% and for three or more parties, the threshold is 15%.

If the smaller parties were going to unite for 2014, then, they ran the risk of together missing the higher threshold required of joint party lists. The rules of the game have therefore pushed the small parties of the “democratic opposition” to do what they did – which was to join with the Socialists to form Unity. Only an alliance with the larger Socialist party guaranteed that these smaller parties would be able to enter the parliament given the higher thresholds for joined lists. Because many of the smaller parties were created precisely to distance particular groups of voters from the Socialists, however, this is an uneasy alliance at best.

So that is where we were as the campaign was launched, witnessing a democratic opposition alliance whose members do not like each other much but who have to work together if they are to have any hope of ousting Fidesz given the way that the rules are structured. The public squabbling that occurred as the grand coalition went together belied the name of Unity Alliance and weakened their electoral position. They have the campaign period to convey a new unified message, but – as we will see – that is going to be very hard.