Medián

The Hungarian people are not thrilled with Orbán’s Russia policy

Népszava‘s information about Vladimir Putin’s visit to Budapest, seconded by Attila Ara-Kovács on Klubrádió, turned out to be accurate. Válasz, a pro-government internet site, was skeptical about the accuracy of the news because, after all, there was no mention of such a visit in Russian sources. Moreover, no western media picked up the news from Népszava. A commenter on this blog also expressed his doubts about the authenticity of the news. After all, Népszava is an opposition paper and therefore, I guess, not quite reliable. By this morning, however, the press department of the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed the information: Putin is coming to Hungary, although the date hasn’t been fixed.

Meanwile Népszabadság, another opposition paper, learned “from diplomatic circles” that the trip was planned a year ago on Hungary’s initiative. At that time the sanctions against Russia were not yet in place. Moreover, originally the trip was supposed to take place sometime in 2014, but because of scheduling difficulties it was postponed to this year, a change that might be advantageous to Putin but is mighty uncomfortable for Orbán. But as László Kovács, former foreign minister, said yesterday, Orbán developed a relationship with Putin that precludes any postponement of the meeting.

While waiting for the arrival of Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, several civic groups are preparing demonstrations. A group headed by Zoltán Vajda and Balázs Gulyás, two people whom I consider to be the most promising among the organizers of the recent demonstrations, plans to take the lead. Balázs Gulyás was the organizer of the mass demonstration against the internet tax, and Zoltán Vajda organized the demonstration on behalf of those 60,000 people whose savings in private pension funds the Orbán government wants to expropriate.

Vajda and Gulyás are planning two demonstrations. One will take place on February 1, the day before Angela Merkel’s arrival. It is called “Spring comes–Orbán goes: Demonstration for a European Hungary.” The second demonstration is planned for February 9 or, if Putin comes later, it will be postponed to the day of his arrival. The theme of the second will be “We will not be a Russian colony.” Other organizations and parties expressed an interest in joining these two Facebook groups, and it seems that they, unlike some others, are ready to cooperate with everybody who is ready to join them. As I wrote yesterday, PM asked all democratic parties to take part in massive demonstrations that include both parties and civilians.

In the lively discussion that followed yesterday’s post, a question was raised about the attitude of Fidesz voters toward Russia. According to one opinion, Fidesz voters are so brainwashed that they are ready to follow Viktor Orbán all the way to Moscow. Others, myself included, doubted the accuracy of this observation. In fact, I ventured to suggest that anti-Russian feelings might be a catalyst that will bring about a united opposition to Orbán’s regime. Well, today we have a more scientific answer to the question of Hungarians’ attitude toward the United States and Russia. The poll was taken by Medián for 444.hu

Here are some figures confirming that the Orbán propaganda did not significantly alter Hungarians’ anti-Russian sentiments. I will start with the most important and most telling figures: “If Hungary had to choose between the United States and Russia as a close associate, which country would you choose?” Fifty-three percent chose the United States and only 25% Russia. Hungarians are aware of the worsening relations between the United States and Hungary, and surprisingly the majority blame the Hungarian government for it. This finding goes against the widespread belief that Hungarians always blame others for their misfortunes. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents blame Hungary and only 14% the United States.

Medián also ran these figures against party affiliation. Those who feel more aligned with the democratic parties overwhelmingly blame their own country for the current situation (80%); only 4% blame the United States. Interestingly, the majority of Jobbik voters (59%) side with the United States. Only 13% put the blame on the U.S. while 27% think that the blame should be shared by the two countries. The situation is about the same among undecided voters. Fidesz voters are not as uniformly pro-Russian as some commenters on Hungarian Spectrum suspected. Only 37% blame the United States, 22% Hungary, and 40% think that both countries are at fault. I wouldn’t call that a resounding endorsement of a pro-Russian, anti-U.S. foreign policy.

Diplomats, present and former, have found it difficult to figure out what the real purpose of this meeting is. I could suggest a few topics that might come up. First, I think, is Paks. Orbán, for whom the building of a second reactor at the Paks Nuclear Power Plant is very important, surely would like to get reassurance from Putin that the project is still on and that Russia will not turn its back on Paks as it did on the Southern Stream. Another topic might be Hungary’s attitude toward the extension of the sanctions against Russia. Would Hungary vote against such a decision? There is also the question of the U.S.-EU free trade agreement, officially called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which Russia opposes.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Orbán were a ready partner of Russia in opposing the free-trade agreement. On what am I basing this opinion? István Mikola, formerly the “nation’s doctor” and nowadays one of the undersecretaries in the foreign ministry, announced last night on HírTV that Hungary would go so far as to veto the TTIP if Hungary’s interests were not taken into consideration. One such reason would be the acceptance in the European Union of genetically modified food products coming from the United States. Fidesz lawmakers included a GMO ban in the new constitution. András Schiffer, the anti-capitalist, anti-globalist co-chair of LMP, went even further. In his opinion, the whole free-trade agreement is against the interests of Hungary. In fact, not just Hungary but in his words “it means in the long run the ruin of the whole globe.” He added that the agreement would mean the loss of 600,000 jobs in the EU. So, Putin and Orbán are of one mind when it comes to the TTIP. András Schiffer, the so-called opposition leader, joins them because of his far-left notions of modern capitalism and globalism.

Not so long ago, however, James Stavridis, dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, wrote an article in Foreign Policy: “Vladimir Putin hates the TTIP which is exactly why Europe and America need to get it done.” Stavridis explains his support of the treaty this way:

The TTIP is a sensible agreement on economic grounds, broadly speaking. But it also holds enormous real value in the geopolitical sphere. The increased linkages between the United States and our European allies and partners will stand in direct opposition to Putin’s key strategy of driving a wedge between the United States and the EU as the central members of the transatlantic community.

I don’t know how important the GMO issue is in the scheme of things, but one has the feeling that Hungary will be a difficult negotiating partner when it comes to the TTIP.

Another issue that might be discussed is Putin’s pet subject, the Eurasian Economic Union. It was only a few days ago that Russia’s EU ambassador urged Brussels to start talks with the newly born Eurasian Economic Union despite the Ukrainian crisis. As he put it, “common sense advises us to explore the possibility of establishing a common economic space in the Eurasian region.” A Russian-led bloc might be a better partner for the European Union than the United States. The reason: low health standards in the U.S. food industry. Orbán again might be helpful on this issue. However, in Orbán’s place I would tread lightly. It is true that Putin’s idea of a Eurasian Union became reality on January 1, but according to Reid Standish, an expert on Kazakhstan, Putin’s Eurasian dream was over before it began.

Eurasian Union

All in all, I think the two have plenty to talk about. The topics I have outlined are primarily Russian concerns, and getting Hungary on board would be only to Russia’s advantage. For Hungary to become Moscow’s Trojan horse in Europe is not strategically wise.

Viktor Orbán and Fidesz are in trouble: Record loss of popularity

A few weeks ago Tárki, one of the three or four reliable opinion polls, announced a serious slide in Fidesz’s popularity. HVG introduced the news by calling it an avalanche. The poll was taken between November 13 and 23 and showed that Fidesz-KDNP had lost 12% of its sympathizers within one month. The drop was so great that I’m sure Endre Sík, the lead researcher at Tárki, must have worried whether something went wrong with their methodology. Well, he can relax. Médián came out with its latest poll, and its figures show that no party has lost as much as fast since the change of regime in 1990.

Just to give an idea of the kinds of numbers we are talking about, in a single month Fidesz lost 900,000 voters. Two-thirds of eligible voters think that the country is heading in the wrong direction. For a party that is so proud of its two-thirds majority in parliament, achieved only a few months ago, that is a devastating statistic.

Among the voting-age population Médian, just like Tárki, found that before the attempted introduction of the internet tax and everything that followed Fidesz-KDNP had a comfortable lead: 38% of the electorate would have voted for the government party. That figure by the end of November when the poll was taken had shrunk to 26%. Although 5% of those who abandoned Fidesz are still undecided, others joined some of the opposition parties. There was a 4% rise for MSZP and 2% for Jobbik.

When it comes to those who claim they would definitely vote if elections were held next Sunday, Fidesz-KDNP’s drop of popularity is even more glaring. In October 57% of those asked said that they would definitely vote for Fidesz. A month later Médián measured only 34%.

Médián collected another interesting data point. Fidesz voters’ enthusiasm for voting has waned. The party’s inability to mobilize the troops was especially noticeable in the repeated election in Budapest’s 11th electoral district where the MSZP candidate won with a very large majority. According to Médián, today only 52% of Fidesz voters say they would vote come hell or high water. This figure is significantly lower than for Jobbik (64%), DK (63%), or MSZP (59%). Another telling sign is that 22% of those who voted for Fidesz in April would not vote for the government party today, as opposed to the October figure of 4%. In October only 48% of the respondents thought that the country was heading in the wrong direction. Today that figure is 68%. When it comes to satisfaction with the performance of the government, only 31% of the voters still approve of the government, 14% less than in October.

The popularity of Fidesz politicians also dropped precipitously. The great loser was the prime minister himself who lost 16 points, followed by his closest associates: János Lázár (14 points), Antal Rogán (13 points), and Lajos Kósa (13 points). Even János Áder lost 10 points. Endre Hann of Médián noted in an interview with György Bolgár that even Ferenc Gyurcsány after the introduction of the austerity program after the 2006 election lost only 8 points. At the same time opposition politicians all gained. Not much, but a few percentage points. Viktor Orbán with his 32 points is tied with Gergely Karácsony (Együtt) and Gábor Vona (Jobbik).

Popularity of politicians: October and November

Popularity of politicians: October and November

These findings correspond with anecdotal observations. People openly criticize the government and call Fidesz politicians all sorts of names.

Viktor Orbán yesterday visited Blikk, a tabloid that the prime minister uses for his own political purposes, and agreed to answer questions from readers. Twenty-five in all. This is the second time that he participated in something called Sztárchat. As opposed to last year, this time 95% of the questions were antagonistic. The very first was a whopper from “a former Fidesz voter” who wanted to know about “the useless scrap of paper that was actually full of concrete details,” or what the prime minister thinks of Antal Rogán “conducting business with an ordinary criminal.” Someone wanted to know how it is possible that “the whole country and half the world knows what is going on here, except you. What kind of dimension do you live in that you have no idea about the real world?” Zoltán and his family wondered how “the government has money to buy banks and build stadiums and move [your office] but there is no money for hungry children, pensioners, hospitals.” He was the second person who accused the prime minister “of taking our extra money away for working on Sundays.” Someone asked why Orbán “does not dare to stand in front of people and instead tells his story in an empty studio.” There was a question about whether Orbán’s daughter is studying some manual profession in Switzerland. Sándor wanted to know when Orbán is going to resign, and “ráadás” asked him “why he thinks that the Hungarian people are so stupid” that they believe all the humbug his government feeds them.

It was, in brief, not a friendly crowd. Among the questions I found only one or two that were not antagonistic and only one that supported his anti-American policy.

His drop in the polls and the brutally honest questions addressed to him are not his only woes. Zsolt Semjén, until now a most faithful ally, decided to show his independence. He announced that as far as he knows government officials visited Germany to talk to officials there about their church law which the Hungarians allegedly want to copy. As we know, the present arrangement concerning the churches was not accepted by the European Court of Human Rights and the Hungarian government is obliged to change it. Today Semjén threatened Orbán with the KDNP caucus’s refusal to support the law once it gets to the floor.

To tell you the truth, I have been suspecting for some time that Viktor Orbán’s change of heart concerning the Sunday closing of stores might have had something to do with pressure brought to bear on him by the Christian Democrats. Perhaps Orbán thought that he could appease the KDNP caucus by supporting their proposal to shut all the stores on Sundays. Obviously, he was wrong.

There’s trouble everywhere. I wonder how he can escape from the hole he dug for himself and his government with his shoddy governance, his irresponsible foreign policy, his taxing the population to death and not producing sustainable economic growth. Hungarians are getting more and more fed up and antagonistic. If Orbán continues down the same path he has been following in the last five years, the end might not be pretty.

Final polls before the Hungarian election tomorrow

This morning an editorial appeared in politics.hu by a former senior editor of the internet paper who is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Liverpool. The title of his opinion piece is “Forget rigged elections, Fidesz will win because there is no viable alternative.” The core of his argument is that with the exception of Tímea Szabó “the top four politicians are all from the Socialists’ eight year corruption run.” He is not the only one who is convinced that Hungarian politics needs an entirely new cast of characters. András Schiffer of LMP, for example, just yesterday announced that “voting for Gyurcsány is voting for Orbán.” I guess he is offering himself as the only pristine Hungarian politician of the future.

I think it would be high time for these people to learn that one cannot just produce brand new, ready-made politicians out of thin air. One of the handicaps of the first Hungarian democratic government of József Antall was that it was made up entirely of people with no political experience. The other strongly held notion is that just because the leading politicians of the Unity Alliance held office prior to 2010 they are forever unelectable. They should simply disappear, never to be seen or heard of again. I wonder where the Unity Alliance would be standing if they had obliged. I would guess somewhere close to where LMP is today.

I also doubt that the problem of the opposition is that they can offer no viable alternative. If that were the case, why was it necessary for the government and Fidesz to do everything in their power to prevent the opposition from delivering that nonexistent message to the electorate? Why do they need the votes of Hungarians from Romania where, according to the latest poll taken in the Partium, areas closest to the Hungarian-Romanian border, 66% of the voters are Fidesz sympathizers, 13% would vote for Jobbik,  and only 2% for the Unity Alliance? And why does Fidesz need an electoral law that dramatically reduces the democratic opposition’s chances?

Practically all the English- and German-language articles I read are certain of an overwhelming Fidesz victory. Their predictions are based on the numerous public opinion polls that have appeared in the last few months. By now there are mighty few people who believe in the possibility of victory for the democratic opposition. But some suggest that the results will be closer than current polls indicate. They are convinced that in the last four years the political fear that Hungarians were accustomed to during pre-democratic times returned. People who were always somewhat suspicious of poll takers by now are genuinely fearful that the information they share with the pollsters will end up at Fidesz headquarters and that soon enough they or their relatives will lose their jobs as teachers, doctors, or civil servants. Or, if they are small businessmen, that they will no longer receive government orders. Unity Alliance activists claim that they frequently meet people who actually lied to the pollsters because of their fears of the present ruling party. If the final election results are substantially different from the generally predicted ones, perhaps there is something to this explanation.

We may never know how many people misled the pollsters, but we do know that it is very difficult to convince people to answer their questions. Reluctance to participate in a survey is not a new phenomenon, but lately the polling companies are in real trouble. In order to find 1,000 willing participants they have to canvass about three times that number, sometimes even more. Surely, this fact says something about the Hungarian population’s present psyche.

Unity Alliance activists report full houses at their gatherings. They claim that their tables, set up alongside Fidesz posts, have long lines of interested people while Fidesz activists are not at all busy. This description might be a reflection of their bias and wishful thinking but one thing is sure: this morning  the square in front of Debrecen’s Great Church was not even half full during an event Fidesz organized as the last, triumphant stop in Viktor Orbán’s campaign. Is it possible that Fidesz voters have also become apathetic? Are they possibly disappointed? Or perhaps too sure of a Fidesz victory?

But let’s return briefly to the two latest polls. Medián shows unusually high percentage of committed voters (62%), larger than in 2002 or 2006. If these people actually go and vote, that fact itself might help the Unity Alliance, which benefits from high turnout. On the other hand, it was highly disturbing that 2% of these committed voters actually opted for the “Együtt 2014 Párt,” which was created to confuse voters. It is especially easy to mix up the two parties since Együtt 2014 Párt occupies the sixteenth place on the ballot while the Unity Alliance in which Együtt 2014-PM is listed is seventeenth. The Zöldek Pártja (Party of the Greens) received 1% of the sample’s votes, most likely from people who actually wanted to vote for LMP.

szavazo fulke

Ipsos, although it predicts a large Fidesz victory, also saw signs that confuse the issue. For example, it is very difficult to judge what the voters will actually do once they are in the voting booth. For example, there are 250,000 Fidesz supporters who think that they might vote for Jobbik while about 100,000 Jobbik voters think they might support Fidesz after all. There might also be some last-minute changes within the anti-Orbán forces. 150,000 Unity Alliance supporters are contemplating switching to LMP and a goodly number of current LMP supporters are thinking about voting for Unity after all. About 10% of the electorate is still undecided and another 10% refuses to divulge. Endre Hann of Medián also points out in his article that one must keep in mind that in the by-elections the opposition did considerably better than in 2010.

And finally, those who are keeping fingers crossed for the democratic opposition call attention to what happened to Slovak prime minister Robert Fico who a week ago was still leading in the polls by a margin of 10%. The next day he lost his bid to become president to a newcomer to politics, Andrej Kiska, a businessman, and not by a small margin. Kiska received almost 60% of the votes against 41% for Fico.

It would be a miracle if something like that were to happen in Hungary tomorrow, but there is a possibility that the Fidesz victory will not be so overwhelming as everybody thinks. As a Hungarian commentator said this morning, if Fidesz won with only a simple as opposed to a two-thirds majority, under the circumstances it would actually mean a victory for the opposition. Tomorrow, after all, might be a more interesting day than the current polls indicate. Let’s hope so.

Every second voter wants change but Fidesz may win super majority again; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 3″

Here is living proof of the unfairness of the new Hungarian election law enacted by the current government party, Fidesz. While according to the latest poll every second person would like to see a change of government, the prediction is that if nothing changes between now and April 6, Fidesz will again have a two-thirds majority of the seats in parliament. Therefore, I strongly suggest that readers study Professor Kim Scheppele’s article on the Orbán government’s election law.

And there is a second oddity. While the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, misses no opportunity to show the European Union in a negative light, a recent poll indicates that the reputation of the European Union is on the rise in Hungary. Hungarians are a great deal more enthusiastic about the European Union than the average European citizen: 47% as opposed to 31% have a positive view of the Union. They even have a better opinion of the economic well being of Europe than most people and therefore may not believe the Orbán slogan “Hungary performs better” since they know that Hungary’s economic situation is not exactly rosy. It seems that Orbán’s war of independence mostly fell on deaf ears.

Although half of the electorate would like to see a different government, in the polls Fidesz leads by a mile. Among the population eligible to vote Fidesz comes in at 47% as opposed to the democratic opposition’s 29%. The government party lost a bit of its popularity in February but the united opposition which, by the way, wisely changed its name from Összefogás (unity) to “Kormányváltás” (change of government) hasn’t moved an inch. It was necessary to change the name of the united democratic opposition because a right-wing party already calls itself Összefogás Pártja (party of unity). I should add here that there might be close to 40 parties on the ballot, most of them total unknowns. It will be darned difficult even to find the democratic opposition on the list; by lottery it “won” thirty-first place.

How can we account for the discrepancy between the wishes of the population and the numbers of the pollsters? According to Medián, the answer might lie in the group that at the moment cannot find a party to vote for. In this part of the electorate 47% of the voters would like to see Viktor Orbán go while only 14% of these people are supporters of the current government. The question is whether this group will be inspired enough to go and vote or will stay at home, believing that the result is preordained.

blue: total population; green: citizens eligible to vote; red: determined voters

blue: total population; green: citizens eligible to vote; red: determined voters

One worrisome bit of news is that Jobbik has improved in the standings. Among both eligible and active voters 18% would vote for this neo-Nazi party. Compare that to Kormányváltás’s 29% and 30%. 

When it comes to the popularity of politicians, no politician is really popular in Hungary because even the most popular has only 49%. At the head of the list are Fidesz politicians, but for the first time we find Jobbik’s Gábor Vona’s name among the top ten, right between Lajos Kósa and Tibor Navracsics. It seems that the most hated politician is not Ferenc Gyurcsány anymore but Rózsa Hoffman. Zsolt Semjén and András Schiffer are both near the bottom of the list.

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question

Part III: Compensating the Winners

Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton University

Election analysts have predicted that the democratic opposition in Hungary cannot win a majority in the parliament if it produces a tied vote or even pulls somewhat ahead of Fidesz in the final vote. Instead, the allied opposition parties will have to get as many as 6-8% more votes than Fidesz to gain a simple parliamentary majority, mainly because of gerrymandered districts. But that’s not the only Fidesz-friendly element of the new electoral system.

 If Fidesz wins these new single-member districts by substantial margins, Fidesz’ parliamentary representation will then be boosted even more by a novel system of “compensation votes.” To understand how this works, we need to understand how proportional representation (PR) systems are typically structured.

In PR systems, compensation is typically awarded in the calculation of final results to ensure that the distribution of seats in the legislature is as close as possible to the distribution of votes cast by the electorate. That’s what makes them proportional. For example, German parties are compensated by gaining extra votes in their party list totals when their candidates win a lower share of individual constituencies than the popular vote would predict.

Hungary’s system for awarding compensation based on the results in the single-member districts used to be quite similar to the German one, but no longer. The new electoral system now bizarrely compensates not just the losers, but also the winners. This new system increases the winner’s victory margin to create even more of a “winner take all” system. This will most likely ensure that the final tally of votes moves farther from the distribution of votes in the population as a whole rather than closer to the overall distribution, as PR systems typically ensure.

In short, majorities are magnified into super-majorities under this new system.

The new system of compensation is complicated and counterintuitive, so let’s start with the basics.

What is a “lost vote”? A lost vote is a vote for a candidate who loses. If, for example, you are voting in a district that has Red, Green and Yellow parties on offer and you vote for the Yellow candidate, who loses, your vote is considered “lost.” But that lost vote is used instead to help the party you voted for get an extra boost when party-list mandates are calculated. As a result, you are compensated for having “wasted” your vote for the individual candidate by having your vote supplement the party-list totals instead. This is the system Hungary had for compensating lost votes in the individual districts from 1990-2010.

Let’s take an example. Suppose the Red party wins a district with 500 votes while the Green party gets 200 votes and the Yellow party 100 votes. Under the old Hungarian compensation scheme, 200 votes for the Greens and 100 votes for the Yellows would be added to the Green and Yellow party-list votes so that those parties gained in strength when party-list mandates were determined.

Under the Fidesz reforms, however, not only do the Green and Yellow parties get compensation, but now the Red party also will be deemed to have “lost votes” in this election despite having actually won the seat.

How did the winning party “lose” votes? Some Red votes are counted as “lost” because the mandate could have been won with only 201 votes and yet the Red party got 500, exceeding what the party strictly needed to win the mandate. So under the new Fidesz system, 299 votes – the number of votes beyond those necessary to win – are considered lost and are added to the votes for the Red party when party-list seats are awarded.

Under Hungary’s new election system, then, the party winning an individual constituency will be awarded not only that particular mandate, but also extra points in the party-list calculations when it wins by more votes than needed. This is another reason why the electoral system in Hungary is even more highly disproportionate in 2014 than it was before.

The reason for having a proportional representation system is to enable representation to be proportional to the vote.   But the Fidesz system makes representation less proportional overall. This innovation puts Hungary out of line with all PR systems in Europe.

The winner compensation system was designed at a time when Fidesz was clearly the plurality party, with all other parties trailing at a distance even though, combined, they would have been more formidable. So Fidesz designed a system in which it would maximally benefit in that fragmented political landscape. If Fidesz won by large margins in the individual districts against a divided opposition, it could have gotten its two-thirds back even with substantially less than half the vote.

The system of winner compensation is therefore another reason why the opposition had to form an alliance, even if only to narrow the gap between the first- and second-largest vote-getter in each individual constituency.

An example shows why. If Fidesz won 500 votes in an individual district and four smaller parties obtained 100 votes each, Fidesz would get 399 votes in winner compensation. But if Fidesz won 500 votes and the Unity Alliance combined the votes of the four smaller parties to gain 400 votes in that district, then Fidesz would only get 99 compensation votes added to its party-list votes. With a unified opposition, the effect of winner compensation is blunted.

So when does winner compensation actually benefit a political party facing a united opposition?

A party would benefit from the winner compensation system if it could encourage a host of new challengers on the “other side” to chip away at the difference between the first- and second-place candidates in each district, throwing additional votes to the winner. And in fact, the new electoral rules make it easier in 2014 than it was in 2010 to field new parties and new candidates, by requiring fewer supporters to endorse them before they can be registered. While we don’t yet know the number of parties that will actually run lists and field candidates, already there are 92 parties that have registered with the National Election Commission. If there are many small “anti-Fidesz” candidates in a particular constituency, for example, they could divide the vote and increase the margin by which Fidesz wins – and therefore increase Fidesz’s likelihood of getting its desired two-thirds majority.

Of course, if the united opposition could sweep the individual constituencies by large margins, then they could also win a disproportionate victory on the party list side as well. But that is why it matters so much that the individual constituencies are drawn in a way to make that maximally unlikely. There are very few safely “left” districts remaining that the united opposition could win by such large margins. So while it is possible in theory for the united opposition to win a disproportionate victory under the rules also, the facts on the ground and the way that the districts have been matched to those facts make it virtually impossible in reality.

But this is not the only “winner compensation” system on view for the 2014 Hungarian election. The fact that Fidesz so decisively won the 2010 election has given it the power to remake and staff the institutions that will run the election this time. In fact, the whole election machinery itself is in the hands of governing party allies for 2014. And we are already seeing worrying signs that these offices are not neutral.

Twice since the 2010 elections, the Election Commission was reorganized and all members of the Election Commission were fired before they completed the ends of their terms. First, the members of the Election Commission elected by the previous parliament were fired when Fidesz passed a law in 2010 that required all Election Commission members to be reelected after each national election, effective immediately (Law LXI of 2010). The old members of the Commission, which included a mix of opposition and Fidesz members with opposition members in the majority, left office immediately and were replaced by a new Commission elected by the Fidesz parliamentary majority which included no members from the political opposition.

Then, in 2013, Fidesz changed the system yet again (Law XXXVI of 2013). This time, the law created a newly structured Election Commission and a newly structured Election Office. The new Election Commission now has seven core members nominated by the President of the Republic (himself a former Fidesz vice-president). They were elected for a term of nine years by a two-thirds vote of the Fidesz-dominated parliament. Not surprisingly, all of the new members of the Commission appear to be allied with the governing party. The Election Office is staffed by civil servants, but the head of the office now is a former deputy state secretary for the Ministry of National Development in the Fidesz government.

While opposition parties report good relations with the new head of the Election Office, one might well still worry about a system in which all of the key players who will make the decisions about the election framework were assigned to their jobs by the governing party, in a system where the governing party just rewrote all of the rules.

Even though the Election Commission has only government-friendly members among its permanent members, once the campaign starts, each party running a national list is able to delegate one person to sit on the Election Commission for the duration of the campaign. These party delegates are able to vote on all matters along with the seven permanent members, which raises the possibility that the permanent members could be outvoted depending on how many and what sorts of groups run national lists. Recently, in a press briefing to the Hungarian International Press Association, András Patyi, the head of the National Election Commission, said that he expected the Election Commission to increase to 20-25 members during the campaign, which means that he anticipates at least a dozen or more national lists. (In 2010, there were 10 lists on the ballot.)

In run-up to the campaign, however, Fidesz allies dominated the Election Commission. The Election Office will remain the key location for information about the election but it gains no members from opposition parties to assist in its operation during the campaign. Already important decisions have been made about how the election will be administered under these new rules. This is why, as we will see in the next blog post, the proliferation of inaccurate and misleading information about the election given out by election officials is especially worrying.

Hungarians are not happy with the Putin-Orbán agreement on the Paks reactors

Well, it seems that for perhaps the first time in almost four years Viktor Orbán may be running into serious political difficulties on at least two counts. One is the government’s handling of the Memorial Holocaust Year, which has caused an international outcry by Jewish organizations as well as historians of the period. The second is his decision to make a deal with Vladimir Putin for the Russian state-company Rosatom to build two new nuclear reactors in Paks.

The Russian government will provide a loan of 10 billion euros which Hungary will have to pay back in thirty years. Although we know nothing of the details, we are supposed to believe János Lázár’s claim that the agreement just signed in total secret “is the business deal of the century.” In fact, the deal was so secretive that even László Kövér learned about it only after the fact. And to make sure that no one will know any of the details for at least a decade, Sándor Pintér, minister of interior,  immediately declared the negotiations and their accompanying documents a state secret.

Not everybody is happy on the right. Kövér, perhaps the best known anti-communist in the bunch, was apparently disgruntled but, being a good soldier, kept his anger to himself. Ágoston Sámuel Mráz, “the independent” political scientist at Nezőpont, initially said that many of Orbán’s supporters were surprised that the two reactors will be built from a massive Russian loan “because Viktor Orbán for a long time used anti-Russian rhetoric.” But since Kövér said nothing publicly, soon enough Mráz was writing articles supporting the brilliant idea of cooperation with Putin’s Russia.

Heti Válasz wasn’t exactly taken with the deal and rightly pointed out that “Paks is not a simple business deal.” Building the two new reactors “is a geopolitical concern.” And András Lányi, a faithful supporter of Fidesz and adviser to Viktor Orbán, thinks that Paks is “bad business and poses an unacceptable risk.”

At last we also know what Hungarian citizens think because Medián’s poll, taken between January 24 and 28–that is, about two weeks after Viktor Orbán’s visit to Moscow, was just released. The first surprise for me at least was that 82% of the population knows about Paks. One might say that, given the importance of this piece of news, the figure is not all that high. However, given the total lack of interest of the Hungarian population about anything political, I think this is not a bad result and shows the concern of Hungarians over a questionable decision that was thrust upon them.

Half of the population (51%) agrees that new reactors are necessary as a supplement to the existing ones. However, the Russian connection is controversial. Those who oppose it are in the majority (56%); only a third of the population supports it. As shown in diagram #1, half of the Fidesz voters support the Russian deal. (In the summer of 2012 only 25% of them supported a reactor built with Russian technology, which demonstrates the power of government propaganda.)

Paks abra1Diagram #2 shows the results of a question about receiving news of the Putin-Orbán agreement. Were people very, somewhat, or not at all surprised hearing the news? Seventy percent of even Fidesz voters were very or somewhat surprised. By contrast, all of LMP’s (I supposed one could call them naive) supporters were surprised; none thought that such Russian-Hungarian cooperation could possibly occur. Another interesting figure concerns those who are undecided voters (elkötelezetlen;  second from the bottom). Their figures are closer to the responses of the opposition parties than those of Fidesz-KDNP voters, which strengthens my conviction that the majority of the undecided voters leans toward the opposition rather than toward the government party.

Paks abra2Diagram #3 is the most important one. Here Medián asked whether people would support holding a plebiscite on the future of Paks and the further use of nuclear energy. The answer is clear: 59% the population as a whole supports holding such a plebiscite. Even Fidesz voters.

Paks abra3In light of these figures I have the feeling that Viktor Orbán miscalculated the effect of his “business deal of the century” and made a big mistake in forcing it through before the election. He rather cockily told Professor John Lukacs that “I would bet a lot that on the question of Russian relations the day after the election there will be perfect agreement.” Of course, that is, if Fidesz wins the election. But given the significant rejection of the Russian connection and the even larger demand for a popular vote on the subject, the quickly signed agreement might have been a serious mistake from Fidesz’s point of view. The election might turn on the question of Paks. Some observers are already comparing the situation to the Horn government’s decision in 1998 to go ahead with the controversial Slovak-Hungarian treaty that obligated Hungary to build waterworks at Nagymaros after Hungary lost the case at the International Court of Justice. Without going into details, suffice it to say that the treaty originally signed by Czechoslovakia and Hungary played a large role in the political unrest in 1988-89. Some people claim that Horn’s decision to go ahead with the project played a  major role in the socialists’ defeat in the 1998 election. Orbán might find himself in a similar situation, which is largely due to his ever-growing self-confidence. In the last four years he managed to get away with everything and therefore abandoned all caution. But he might be running out of luck.

The current Hungarian political scene: Three polls full of question marks

It just happened that the three most important polling companies–Ipsos, Medián, and Tárki–released their findings on the popularity of the parties only a few hours from each other. Ipsos and Tárki are pretty much in sync; Medián’s findings diverge from the other two.

Medián acquired its high reputation at the time of the 2002 election, an election that MSZP-SZDSZ won by a very small margin. The loss came as an utter surprise to Viktor Orbán, especially since all other pollsters had predicted a huge Fidesz victory. Medián accurately predicted a narrow MSZP-SZDSZ win.

It may be Medián’s methodology that accounts for its different results. In an interview with Olga Kálmán on ATV yesterday Endre Hann of Medián emphasized that their numbers are arrived at after personal interviews. From this I gathered that perhaps the others contact the voters via telephone. Mind you, if that is the difference, personal interviews, given the atmosphere of fear in the country, might actually distort the findings in favor of Fidesz.  Hann himself admitted that 30% of the people selected as members of the study’s representative pool simply refused to be interviewed.

All three agree that Fidesz’s lead is large, but according to Medián it is so enormous that it is unlikely that the democratic opposition parties can catch up with the government party. In addition, Medián sees a steady growth of Fidesz support while Ipsos and Tárki see no appreciable difference between the numbers today and six or seven months ago. The third important Medián figure that differs greatly from the findings of the other two is the number of those who still don’t know which party they are going to vote for. According to Medián, only 28% of the electorate are either hiding their intentions or really have no idea what they are going to do at the next election. According to Ipsos and Tárki, this number is much higher, 43 and 42% respectively. All three, however, agree that the numbers on the left have not changed. The only shift is that MSZP and E14 have lost some potential voters to DK.

Medián’s finding that Fidesz support among the electorate as a whole is 37% is so different from the 26% and 28% of  Ipsos and Tárki that at first I thought I made a typo. However, when it comes to Fidesz support among those who claim that they will definitely vote at the next election Medián’s 52% is more in line with the figures of Ipsos (47%) and Tárki (48%), which makes the 37% even more difficult to understand.

I decided to calculate the average of the results of the three pollsters and came up with the following figures. In the electorate as a whole Fidesz leads 30.3% to 24.5% for the four democratic parties: MSZP, E14-PM, DK, and LMP. Among the active voters Fidesz support is even greater: 49% as opposed to the democratic opposition’s 33.5%. Fidesz’s followers are ready to go and vote while the sympathizers of the other four parties are a great deal less committed. Fidesz has always had a higher turnout, which is due in part to the party’s ability to organize and motivate its voters. Another party that seems to have the ability to inspire its voters is DK, which resulted in the party’s either catching up to or surpassing E14-PM, depending on the poll.

Although I always follow the polls, I’m not sure how important these findings are when 42-43% of the electorate either refuse to divulge their preference or don’t know how they will vote. Even if we add to these figures Medián’s low 28%, the average comes to 37.6%. That means at least a couple of million people. So, it is important to learn something about this group. Thanks to Ipsos’s research, we have some sense of where these people stand politically.

question mark1

Ipsos defines some subcategories within this group. One is what Ipsos calls the “active undecided.” These people claim that they will definitely vote but they don’t see any party at the moment that they could vote for. These people belong primarily to the 40 to 50 age group and live in smaller towns and villages. Fifty-eight percent of them believe that “the country is heading in the wrong direction.” Thirty-seven percent think that there should be a change of government and only 22% consider the job of the government good or excellent.

Another subcategory is “Unsure voters who can be activated.” This group makes up 9% of the electorate. Currently they say that they will probably vote but they are not absolutely sure. These people haven’t found a party they would vote for. This group consists mostly of 20- to 30-year-olds with at least a high school education. Two-thirds of them are dissatisfied with the state of affairs in Hungary and 45% would like to see Viktor Orbán and his party leave. Only 25% of them think that “the country is heading in the right direction” and a mere 17% believe that “the country is in good hands.”

The third subcategory of Ipsos is the group whose members “have a favorite party but they are passive or at least they are hesitant about their participation in the election process.” This is a large group, one-fourth of the electorate, which means 2 million voters. Ipsos believes that if this group could be mobilized they would assist Fidesz because 25% of earlier Fidesz voters are passive at the moment. Ipsos calculates 800,000 extra Fidesz voters from this group. According to their calculation, MSZP has 500,000 potential voters in this group, while E14-PM, DK and LMP could gain 100,000 voters each which, if Ipsos’s calculation is correct, means a potential 800,000 voters on the democratic side. In brief, it could be a wash if everyone in this group actually went to the polls–admittedly, an unlikely scenario.

I’ve said nothing about Jobbik, a party that cannot be ignored. Not because it has such a large share of the votes but because it must be viewed as a potential coalition partner or supporter of a Fidesz government if Orbán doesn’t manage to get a two-thirds majority. One must not discard such a possibility. Viktor Orbán is ready to do anything to remain in power. Even a huge international outcry and sanctions against Hungary wouldn’t deter him from collaborating with a neo-Nazi party. As I often say, cooperation shouldn’t be very difficult between the two parties because one doesn’t know where Fidesz ends and Jobbik begins.

Two polls, two different results, and disappointing opposition politicians

In the last couple of days the results of two new public opinion polls on party preferences appeared: Ipsos on November 18 and Medián today. According to Ipsos, Fidesz-KDNP and LMP gained and the left lost, both by an inconsequential 1%. Medián’s survey, by contrast, found more substantial shifts, and in the opposite direction. Fidesz-KDNP lost 4% of its support in one month and Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, DK, became as strong as E14-PM.

Let us examine these results a little more closely. According to Ipsos, Fidesz-KDNP’s support among the electorate as a whole is 27% while MSZP’s is 15%. As for the other parties, 7% of the eligible voters support Jobbik, 3% Együtt-PM, and only 2% LMP and DK.

As for voter commitment, according to Ipsos only 36% of the electorate is certain that they would cast a vote rain or shine. And that is very low. In this group Fidesz-KDNP leads by a mile: they would receive 51% percent of the votes against MSZP’s 26%. Jobbik voters are also deeply committed to their cause and therefore show good results in this category.

Somewhat larger changes occurred in the last month or so among the 42% of the voters who call themselves undecided. Within that group the size of “the completely passive voters” decreased by 3% while the number of those who have a preference but refuse to divulge what it is grew from 8% to 11%.

And let’s pause a bit to expand on these last figures. According to Tibor Závecz, the man in charge of the monthly Ipsos polls, the pool of “secretive voters” is large, about 900,000. Although these people might not want the pollsters to know their political views, the poll takers ask indirect questions that can be quite revealing. Based on answers to these indirect questions, Závecz claims that at  least two-thirds or even three-quarters of the secretive voters actually sympathize with the left.

Moving on to Medián, I’ll compare the still very sketchy outlines of this month’s results to Medián’s October figures. What we must keep in mind is that the October results reflect the situation before the October 23 mass meeting and the public demand there for unity among the forces on the left. The attendees wanted to broaden the arrangement Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy worked out to the exclusion of other parties and groupings. At that time Fidesz had a 36% share in the electorate as a whole and 52% among those who would definitely vote at the next elections as opposed to MSZP’s 14% and 21%. Együtt2014-PM still polled relatively well: 5% in the electorate as a whole and 7% among committed voters. DK at this point was weaker than E14-PM: 3% among all voters and 4% among committed voters.

red = the whole electorate;
black = those with a party preference;
orange = will definitely vote

And what is the situation today, after the mass demonstration?  Fidesz has a 34% share among all eligible voters and among the sure voters only 48%. That is a 2%/4% loss in one month. MSZP ticked up 2% in the electorate at large and remained unchanged among committed voters. E14-PM’s support eroded by 1%: last month’s 5% and 7% are 4% and 6% today. DK, on the other hand, as many people predicted, inched up and now matches Együtt2014-PM’s levels of support: 4% and 6%. If these numbers are more than a one-off, Gordon Bajnai who just the other day referred to those who were left out of the election agreement as small parties as opposed to his own might have to revise his estimate of the situation.

And this brings me to a couple of interviews György Bolgár conducted yesterday and today. Bolgár’s program lasts two hours and consists of a mixture of interviews and listener comments. Yesterday the whole first hour was devoted to a interview with Gordon Bajnai and Attila Mesterházy. Their performances were disappointing. My own feelings were exactly the same as those of Zsófia Mihancsik and Ferenc Krémer in today’s Galamus. Mihancsik’s article was entitled “This way there is no hope,” and Krémer called his “Sadness.” Shall I say more?

Attila Mesterházy took an unyielding position, standing by the arrangement that E14-PM and MSZP worked out. All other parties, including DK that is by now as strong as E14, should be satisfied with their sorry lot and support the two of them. I wonder what Mesterházy will do if in a couple of months it turns out that E14’s support has eroded further while DK has again gained.

I strongly suggest that those who can handle Hungarian listen not only to the interviews but also to the comments that followed. It is strange that these opposition politicians refuse to heed the voice of the electorate. They didn’t believe that the demonstration for unity was genuine and now surely they will say that all listeners of Klubrádió are DK supporters. How long can that fiction be maintained?

The MSZP argument for excluding DK is their conviction that Ferenc Gyurcsány’s presence on the ticket would take away more votes than it would bring in. However, a September survey, also by Medián, indicates that this is not the case. I wrote about this poll at length back in September. It is hard to figure out why Mesterházy clings to that, in my opinion, mistaken notion.

Today György Bolgár had a shorter interview with Klára Ungár, chairman of Szabad Emberek Magyarországért Liberális Párt or SZEMA, one of the three liberal groups. SZEMA’s support is immeasurably small.

I personally like Klára Ungár, but this interview highlighted the dysfunctions that pervaded SZDSZ (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége). The party fell apart because of internal squabbling, political differences, and personal animosities. Things haven’t changed since. It was clear from Ungár’s interview that she would refuse any cooperation with the other liberals, that is with Gábor Kuncze’s group and Gábor Fodor’s new liberal party. Ungár, who hasn’t been active in politics since 1998, feels very virtuous and insists that other SZDSZ politicians should not only admit responsibility for Viktor Orbán’s rise to power but should simply disappear from political life.

So, this is the situation at the moment. A change of strategy is desperately needed as soon as possible. But after listening to Bajnai and Mesterházy I see no possibility of such a change in the near future. Meanwhile time is running out.