Unity Alliance

The political bickering has begun

The disappointment among sympathizers of the democratic opposition forces is indescribable. But reasonable barometers of the mood in this circle are the call-in shows on Klubrádió and ATV, which by now are the only opposition electronic media in Hungary. Of course, among the callers there are always those who believe that, if they had been in a position to decide, they would have done much better than the Bajnai-Mesterházy-Gyurcsány trio and who offer their pearls of political wisdom. But a lot of the callers simply describe their utter shock when they heard that Fidesz would most likely win again with a two-thirds majority.

Not that these people ever thought that the Unity Alliance would win the election, but the size of the Fidesz victory made them despair. Many students are ready to leave the country at the earliest opportunity because they don’t want to live in Orbán’s Hungary. Even before the election every third person in the younger generation was planning to leave the country. I suspect that the emigration will only accelerate in the future because I very much doubt that the Hungarian economy will improve any time soon, especially if Orbán and Matolcsy continue their unorthodox economic policies. It is also unlikely that the Orbán regime will change political course. No, they will continue their aggressive war against all the foreign and domestic “enemies” of their regime. It’s enough to note that immediately after the election Orbán gave the go ahead to erect the controversial monument to the German invasion of March 19, 1944.

Yet the democratic opposition must continue to fight the good fight because its electoral results were not as bad as they appeared at first sight. As Árpád W. Tóta said in his last opinion piece, if 1,200,000 voters stuck it out with this two-left-handed Unity Alliance, not everything is lost. The opposition simply has to do a little better, which shouldn’t be that difficult.

The Unity Alliance before the election

The Unity Alliance before the election

The disheartened sympathizers will bounce back. Soon enough, especially if the democratic opposition finds someone who can actually lead the anti-Orbán forces effectively, they will once again gather around the liberals and socialists. I am not worried about them. I am, however, very concerned about the politicians and the so-called political scientists who are now engaged in a blame game.

The finger pointing has already started. Attila Mesterházy blames everybody except himself. He doesn’t think he should resign from the chairmanship of his party. Too bad he doesn’t listen to the callers on Klubrádió. I don’t know what his colleagues in MSZP think (perhaps we will see in May), but László Botka, mayor of Szeged, announced that “continuing in the same way and with the same set-up is not worth doing.”

Or there is Gordon Bajnai, who once it became clear that he would not be the candidate for prime minister succumbed to Weltschmerz. After a fleeting appearance in politics he has already had enough. He is throwing in the towel. He just announced that he will not take his parliamentary seat. And the PM people will all resign after the European parliamentary election. That would be fine if there were a second tier of politicians behind them. But there isn’t.

According to the politicians of Együtt2014-PM and MSZP, the whole Unity Alliance was a mistake. Mesterházy apparently announced right after the election that “we could have done that well alone.” Bajnai declared on Sunday night that they will “never again agree to any unprincipled political compromise.” These politicians are reinforced by the talking heads who also suddenly discovered that the whole alliance was a huge mistake. It was a forced and unnatural political amalgam of diverse political groups. Yes it was, but it was Viktor Orbán’s devilishly clever electoral law that forced that straight jacket on them. The great minds who ex post facto condemn the joint action don’t ask what would have happened if three or four opposition politicians ran against a single Fidesz candidate. In that case, surely, not one district would have been won by the democratic opposition.

Given the mood of  the Bajnai and the Mesterházy groups, it seems there won’t be a united parliamentary delegation either. Both Együtt2014-PM and DK have only four parliamentary representatives, not enough to form a caucus. Only parties with a minimum of five members can have a caucus. That doesn’t seem to bother Együtt2014, whose politicians already announced that no meaningful political activity can be conducted in a parliament in which one party holds a two-thirds majority. They will conduct most of their activities on the streets. Unfortunately, the last two years showed how difficult it is to convince sympathizers of the democratic opposition to take an active part in street demonstrations. MSZP has its own caucus and therefore could care less what the Bajnai group does.

DK politicians haven’t said much, but from the little I heard from Ferenc Gyurcsány it looks as if he is in favor of joint action and a joint caucus.  This solution now seems close to impossible. Gyurcsány did mention that DK might approach Gábor Fodor, the lone “representative” of the Hungarian Liberal party, to join them. After all, it was Gyurcsány who convinced Együtt2014-PM and MSZP to put Fodor high enough up on the party list to assure him of a seat in parliament. Yesterday Fodor said on ATV that no such request had come from DK. Today, however, in the early afternoon Fodor announced that DK did approach him and that “the leadership” of his party had decided against it. DK’s spokesman denies that they approached Fodor with such an offer.

Otherwise, DK has already begun its campaign for the forthcoming European parliamentary election. They are collecting signatures. It was decided some time ago that the three parties would try their luck individually at the EP election. Of the three parties, only MSZP has a chance of actually sending representatives to Brussels. But since people can vote only for a party list in the EP election, Együtt2014-PM and DK can use this election to get a rough sense of their relative strength among the electorate.

So, this is where we stand. Not a happy picture.

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The Hungarian election: A day after

I’m in the middle of reading a slim volume by György Bolgár, the “Dear Mr. Bolgár” of the call-in program “Let’s Talk It Over” on Klubrádió. His latest book is Poligráf, a word that needs no translation. In every short chapter he refutes another lie of Viktor Orbán.

If Bolgár had waited a month or so he could have added another chapter to the book: Viktor Orbán’s claim of “national unity.” In his acceptance speech Orbán said that what his party achieved is “a European record. This is a fact that gives us the right to say, and not just to say but also to be proud of the fact that Hungary is the most unified country in Europe.”  First of all, that “record” is nothing to be terribly proud of. In fact, in comparison to Fidesz’s most successful showing in 2010, the party lost over twenty percent of its voters. As 444‘s reporter pointed out, in 2002 and again in 2006 Fidesz lost the election with more votes than it got this time around. Others remarked that the last time Fidesz did so badly was in 1998.

As for “national unity” here are some figures. Fidesz won 44.36%, Unity Alliance 25.89%, Jobbik 20.46%, and LMP 5.24% of the votes. Do these figures suggest that Hungary is “the most unified country in Europe”? Surely not. The super majority that Fidesz may (probably will) achieve is the result of a cleverly devised electoral law, not the popular will. Unity? No, electoral manipulation. That’s the reality behind this fantastic European record.

Source: Index

Source: Index

A Fidesz super majority naturally means a system that discriminates against other parties. Both the Unity Alliance and Jobbik ended up with much smaller parliamentary representations than their actual performance would have warranted. In part that was achieved by the split between seats won outright and seats allocated on the basis of party lists. In any event, a totally unrepresentative parliament will convene after the formation of the third Orbán government.

It is now time to talk about Jobbik, the neo-Nazi party. Yes, it gained about 130,000 new voters. At the moment there are close to a million Jobbik voters in Hungary. Most of these voters came from Fidesz, which lost all told about 700,000 voters. Many people are very concerned about the growth of Jobbik. Some foresee a Hungary which will soon be run by neo-Nazis. The people who seem most concerned about Jobbik are also certain that the Hungarian Left’s poor showing will result in their total disappearance from the political scene. They envisage a second Poland where the Left was pretty well left for dead.

I’m a great deal less gloomy on the subject. First of all, in the twentieth century Hungarian extremist parties didn’t have long life expectancies. One year the Arrow Cross party had at least a million voters but a year later they lost most of their support. Moreover, these extremist parties have a tendency to splinter. A number of Jobbik members of parliament have already left the party for ideological reasons. In my opinion, Jobbik’s recent rise in the polls has two main causes. One is that the party leadership toned down their racist propaganda. And second, Fidesz made no attempt to curb their activities. Fidesz’s propaganda was directed against the Unity Alliance and specifically against Ferenc Gyurcsány; Jobbik remained untouched by the Fidesz propaganda machine. Although Jobbik did well at the polls, its leadership is still dissatisfied. Party chief Gábor Vona himself lost to a Fidesz candidate in one of the strongest Jobbik strongholds in northeastern Hungary. Moreover, his unreasonably high expectations for Jobbik’s performance might prompt a serious debate within the party about the efficacy of the new ideological line which didn’t bring about the desired results. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some serious disagreements about the future course of the party.

Finally, let’s talk about those who are ready to condemn the whole nation for voting for autocracy, semi-dictatorship, and servitude. Again, let’s see the figures. Out of the whole electorate only 27.30% voted for Fidesz, 17.87% for Unity Alliance, 12.31% for Jobbik, 3.23% for LMP, and 2.61% for other smaller parties. And yes, 38.81% didn’t bother to vote at all. It is true that almost two-thirds of those who did vote cast their votes for the Right–that is, for either Fidesz or Jobbik. But that is still not the whole country. And at least a vote for Jobbik was not a vote for autocracy.

One problem is that Hungarians’ attitude toward democracy is ambivalent, due mainly to ignorance and undereducation. Instilling an understanding of the importance of democracy should be the first task the democratic parties to tackle. Without a democratically-minded population one cannot build a democratic society.

Finally, let’s see what the International Election Observation Mission of OSCE had to say about the election:

The 6 April parliamentary elections were efficiently administered and offered voters a diverse choice following an inclusive candidate registration process. The legal framework for these elections was amended substantially in recent years. While some changes were positive, a number of amendments negatively affected the election process, including important checks and balances. The main governing party enjoyed an undue advantage because of restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage and campaign activities that blurred the separation between political party and the State.

The Fundamental Law (the constitution) and a large number of cardinal laws, including electoral legislation, were passed using procedures that circumvented the requirement for public consultation and debate. This undermined support and confidence in the reform process. A number of aspects of this legal overhaul undermined checks and balances, such as a reduction of the oversight powers of the Constitutional Court.

In a widely welcomed change, legal amendments reduced the number of parliamentary seats from 386 to 199, necessitating alteration in constituency delimitation. The legal requirement to have constituencies of a more equal size is positive. However, the need for a two-thirds majority for redrawing of constituency boundaries may make it difficult to change the boundaries in the future. The delimitation process was criticized by several OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors for lacking transparency and inclusiveness. There were allegations of gerrymandering; it remains to be seen how this translates into results.

Well, by now we know how all this translated into results. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Embassy in Washington wrote to “Friends of Hungary” that “during the course of the election, monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) said they were satisfied with the voting process.” Surely, if we think of process as “a series of actions, changes, or functions bringing about a result,” then the Hungarian government isn’t telling the whole truth. The Election Observation Mission’s report didn’t express complete satisfaction with the process and the final word will be coming only when the results are final. I assume that, after analyzing the votes and how they got translated into seats, the final report will contain serious reservations about the “process” carefully devised by Fidesz to retain a super majority far into the future.

A quick look at the results of the Hungarian election

The interest in the Hungarian election is incredibly high on Hungarian Spectrum. The number of visitors more than doubled today. I’m sure that some of them were disappointed to see no new post analyzing the results. But the numbers began to trickle in very late, and the fate of some districts is still undecided. It looks, however, as if Fidesz will have 132 seats in parliament, enough for a two-thirds majority. This feat was achieved with only 44-45% of the popular vote. The new electoral system favors the winner that much. Four years ago Fidesz needed at least 52.5% to achieve that magic number.

Yes, the democratic opposition did very badly, but still better than four years ago. If you recall, in 2010 there was only one district in Budapest that was won by an MSZP candidate. This time that number will be considerably higher. Yes, it is true, as many of you remarked in the comments, it looks as if the Left lost everything except the capital. But four years ago they also lost practically the whole city. There are some high points. I find it amazing, for instance, that Szilárd Németh, the grand prophet of utility decreases and mayor of Csepel, lost to the candidate of the democratic opposition. And that Ágnes Kunhalmi was able to win in the district in which Gábor Simon was supposed to run. And that Ferenc Papcsák of Zugló lost the election. These are the bright spots.

Valasztasok 2014 Budapest

It is also true that the election campaign that was orchestrated by Fidesz cannot be considered a campaign in the traditional sense of the word. In democratic countries the parties of the opposition have a more or less equal opportunity to reach the electorate. This was not the case in Orbán’s Hungary.

Yet one must admit that the democratic opposition’s performance in the last four years, ever since Gordon Bajnai offered himself as the man around whom the parties of the opposition could gather, has been abysmal. This is not the time to list all the mistakes he and Attila Mesterházy made. It is enough to say that they wasted at least a year and a half of precious time. It doesn’t matter how often one repeats that a month or even two weeks are enough time to campaign, this is self-delusion, especially when one’s opponents are campaigning all through their four years in office.

When I began this post, there was no word yet from Attila Mesterházy. Gordon Bajnai made a nice speech but, if I understand him right, he is planning to go it alone and sever relations with the others in the Unity Alliance. If that is the case, I can’t think of a worse reaction to the defeat. As it stands, Együtt 2014-PM will have two parliamentary members: Gordon Bajnai and Tímea Szabó. One needs at least five people to form a parliamentary caucus. DK, if all goes well, will have four members. Again, not enough to form a caucus. Ferenc Gyurcsány hoped to be able to form a separate DK caucus, but now that it is unlikely. I assume he has the good sense to promote a joint effort of the parties within the Unity Alliance in the next parliament unless perhaps he can convince Gábor Fodor of the liberals to join him. That is the only reasonable thing to do under the circumstances. If Bajnai, who perhaps spoke too hastily, decides against cooperation, I believe he will seal the fate of Együtt 2014-PM.

In order to cheer up those who kept fingers crossed for the anti-Orbán forces I suggest taking a look at the electoral maps of 2010 and 2014 on the site of the National Electoral office. Yes, this year’s map looks terribly orange but four years ago it was even worse. That’s some consolation, albeit admittedly small.

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.

Another election trick: Bogus parties; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 5″

Although the Hungarian media is absolutely full of the story of a forthcoming book written by János Zuschlag, a former MSZP member of parliament who spent six years in jail for embezzling about 50 million forints while he was undersecretary in the short-lived Ministry of Sports. He alleges that MSZP paid him 50 million forints to refrain from entering the 2006 parliamentary election as a candidate. I am not wasting time on the Zuschlag allegation because I consider it a bogus issue being used by Fidesz as yet another weapon against the opposition, strategically released a month before the election.

Instead, I would rather call attention to another election trick introduced by Viktor Orbán’s team that will make the democratic opposition’s chances on April 6 even slimmer. They decided to change the rules for getting on the ballot. According to the old rules, each voter received a piece of paper which he could hand to a canvasser from the party of his choice. The number of endorsements each candidate had to collect was pretty high, and therefore it was difficult for bogus parties to enter the race. But as a result of the changed rules voters now can endorse several parties, and the candidates need only 500 signatures. In addition, Fidesz decided to be generous with public money. They allocated 6 billion forints to distribute among all parties, including these new no-name parties and candidates. As things stand now, there are so many new parties that the 6 billion forints most likely will not be enough. It may cost the budget 10.5 billion forints to pay off those who are ready for this ugly game.

Originally, Fidesz claimed that eliminating the second round of elections would save a great deal of money. As it is turning out, with these generous subsidies the cost of the election will be exactly the same as if there had been two rounds of elections. I should also mention that although the European parliamentary election could have been held together with the national one this year, the combined election was torpedoed by Fidesz because they calculated that its results would be unfavorable to them.

The total subsidy to each party will depend on the number of districts in which their candidates run. Those parties which manage to have at least 27 candidates in Budapest as well as candidates in 9 counties will be able to have a nationwide list. The well known, established parties naturally had no difficulty gathering the necessary 500 signatures in all 106 individual districts. They are Fidesz-KDNP (Viktor Orbán), Jobbik (Gábor Vona), LMP (András Schiffer), MSZP-Együtt-PM-DK-MLP (Attila Mesterházy), and Munkáspárt (the communist party headed by Gyula Thürmer). They were joined by a new party I had never heard of called A Haza nem Eladó Mozgalom Párt (The Homeland is Not for Sale, Árpád Kásler). Given the name, I assume that it is a far-right opposition party.

Yesterday twelve new parties were registered: Sportos és Egészséges Magyarországért Párt (Party for Fit and Healthy Hungary, Patrícia Pásztori ), Szociáldemokraták Magyarországi Polgári Pártja (Bourgeois Party of Social Democrats of Hungary, Andor Ákos Schmuck), Független Kisgazda-, Földmunkás és Polgári Párt (Party of Independent Smallholders, Farmworkers and the Middle Class, Péter Hegedüs), az Együtt 2014 Párt (Party of Together 2014, György Tiner), Új Magyarország Párt (New Hungary Party, Péter Táncsics), Közösség a Társadalmi Igazságosságért Néppárt (Community of Social Justice, Katalin Szili), Magyarországi Cigánypárt (Gypsy Party of Hungary, Aladár Horváth), Zöldek Pártja (Party of the Greens, László Ács) , Új Dimenzió Párt (New Dimension Party, Szabolcs Kovács), a Jólét és Szabadság Demokrata Közösség (Democratic Community for Welfare and Freedom, Zsolt Makay), Összefogás Párt (Party of Unity, Zsolt László Szepessy), and Seres Mária Szövetségesei (Associates of Mária Seres). Now you understand why the name change from Összefogás (Unity Alliance) to Kormányváltás (Change of Government) was necessary. Of course, there’s still the potential confusion between az Együtt 2014 Párt and Bajnai’s party that belongs to Kormányváltás.

Originally the National Election Commission registered 80 parties and 2,600 individual candidates. Total chaos reigned at the Commission. The first list they released still had 31 parties, which then was reduced to 18. The word is that this may not be the final version. This is what the ballot would have looked like with 31 parties in their allotted places on the list:

partlistaEarly enough it became clear that at least 1,000 of the individual candidates couldn’t get 500 signatures. But still there remained more than 1,500. However, 300 of the 1,000 appealed the decision and their cases are pending.

Among the smaller parties there were several who did surprisingly well–for example, the Social Democrats of Andor Schmuck and Democratic Community for Welfare and Freedom of Zsolt Makay, a party that is a revived segment of the old MDF. They will receive 400-450 million forints. Even Aladár Horváth’s Gypsy Party will get about 300 million forints. I might add here that individual candidates will each receive 1 million forints, and these people will have to account for every penny they spend. The parties themselves have a great deal of freedom and can easily cheat.

So, we are talking about more than 1,500 candidates representing 18 parties. That means they had to collect 750,000 signatures altogether. Admittedly, a single voter can sign several endorsement lists, but still this is a very high number especially when better known small parties couldn’t manage to get the necessary number of signatures. Suspicion lingers that some of these bogus parties got their signatures illegally, by swapping data bases. If Party X had a lot of signatures in Baranya but few in Csongrád, they swapped names with Party Y which was strong in Csongrád but weak in Baranya.

Fidesz politicians refuse to admit that their generosity toward smaller parties served the purpose of confusing voters and weakening the opposition. They proudly point to the democratic nature of the procedure. But the fact that the threshold of parliamentary representation was not lowered from the existing 5% reveals Fidesz’s real goal. They didn’t want to give small parties a chance to share power with them in parliament. They simply wanted to use them.

The parties’ place on the ballot was decided by lottery. Here is the (perhaps) final list: 1. Magyarországi Cigány Párt, 2. A Haza Nem Eladó Mozgalom Párt, 3. Seres Mária Szövetségesei, 4. Független Kisgazdapárt, 5. Új Dimenzió Párt, 6. Fidesz–KDNP, 7. Sportos és Egészséges Magyarországért Párt, 8. Lehet Más a Politika, 9. Jólét és Szabadság Demokrata Közösség, 10. Új Magyarország Párt, 11. Munkáspárt, 12. Szociáldemokraták Magyar Polgári Pártja, 13. Közösség a Társadalmi Igazságosságért Néppárt, 14. Együtt 2014 Párt, 15. Zöldek, 16. Összefogás Párt, 17. MSZP–Együtt–PM–DK–Liberálisok, 18. Jobbik.

The National Election Committee already announced that it will be necessary to have more voting booths and that there might be long lines because of the slowness of the procedure. It is also likely that the final results will not be released as promptly as in the past.

Good luck, Hungarian voters!

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question

Part V: The Unequal Campaign

Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton University

 Officially, the election campaign in Hungary starts 50 days before an election, so the race began in earnest on 15 February for the 6 April election. Once the campaign period starts in Hungary, special rules ensure that all parties are treated equally.

 But as Anatole France once said, “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”

We’ve already seen how the new system in Hungary was designed to push opposition parties into an uncomfortable alliance and to require they win by a substantial margin to win at all. And we’ve seen how the system of minority and foreign voting has opened the doors for Fidesz voters while closing them to those who would vote for opposition parties.

Not surprisingly, the rules for the campaign period itself also have a similar logic.

A free and fair election requires that all contesting parties have equal access to the media to get their message out. The new Law on Election Procedure, which regulates media access during the campaign period, formally complies with formal equality. For the first time since the first post-communist election, the parties running national lists will receive equal numbers of free minutes on public television to make their case to the public. This is a victory for equality and transparency.

But a closer look at the small print reveals that it is a trap. The law allocates only 600 minutes total for all parties with national lists (including the “nationality” lists) and it requires that these minutes be equally divided. If, as the head of the National Election Commission predicted in his 29 January press conference with the Hungarian Foreign Press Association, there are 10 or 12 national lists contesting in the April election, each party would be entitled to 50-60 minutes to be used over 50 days. One minute per day on television is not much – especially when those minutes appear on the public television station, which is the least watched major television station in the country.

In addition, what the law gave with one hand it took away with the other. The election law originally gave free minutes on public television while simultaneously banning paid advertising on commercial television, a move which the not-yet-packed Constitutional Court struck down in December 2012 as a violation of free speech rights. The government then added this provision directly to the Constitution in April 2013 through the infamous Fourth Amendment. The European Commission found this provision contrary to European law and threatened a legal action over it. Eventually, the Hungarian government backed down and modified the commercial broadcast ban in the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution passed in September 2013, permitting all parties to advertise in the commercial broadcast media during the election campaign.

But here, too, there was a catch: parties are only allowed to run campaign ads on commercial television if the commercial broadcasters donate the time and give this free time to all national lists equally. It is hard to imagine a for-profit television station giving free advertising time to all parties equally, especially when there are likely to be 10-12 lists. So it was not surprising that all of the commercial channels, the most watched channels in Hungary, have already said that they will not run campaign ads in this election cycle. In fact, there will be no prime ministerial debates either.

So the EU pressure and resulting constitutional amendment designed to open up the commercial media to campaign advertising have produced absolutely nothing. The only campaign ads on television during the campaign this year will be on the public broadcaster alone.

So how else can the parties and candidates get their message out?

Parties are allowed by the campaign law to advertise without limit on billboards. But, as it turns out, most of the display advertising space in the country is owned by companies in the possession of the circle of oligarchs close to Fidesz (Mahir, Publimont and EuroCity). If the opposition parties buy billboard space, the proceeds go straight into the pocket of the Fidesz family of companies.

As it turns out, however, having the opposition enrich the governing party through the purchase of billboard space was the least of the problems with the monopoly on billboards. One of the leaders of the Unity Alliance told me on a recent trip to Budapest that all of the billboards in the country are sold out for the duration of the campaign and not available for purchase. But one can see already that Fidesz-friendly billboards are everywhere. As I write, Budapest streets, streetcars, metro stations and other public spaces are flooded with Fidesz-friendly ads, using the spaces owned by the Fidesz-friendly companies.

What about newspapers? Fidesz has a large group of party-friendly newspapers, owned by their oligarch allies. By contrast, the Unity Alliance has a smaller group of much-poorer newspapers that are sympathetic to them. So far, no advertisements from the allied opposition have appeared in the Fidesz-friendly media which don’t need the money while advertisements for Fidesz have already appeared in the opposition papers which cannot afford to turn down paying ads.

So the media landscape is severely tilted against the Unity Alliance, which now needs to get a new message out to let people know what this new joint party is all about.

If most of the regular broadcast and print media are not open to the democratic opposition, however, surely, of course, the parties can plaster the light posts, bus stops, trees, walls and other public surfaces with posters and handbills, right? Actually, not.

A law from 2011 that received virtually no attention at the time it was passed bans commercial advertisements and political messages from major thoroughfares around the country. It is billed as a safety measure, designed to keep drivers’ eyes on the road. Suddenly the law came into public view, however, when a late-Friday-afternoon prime ministerial decree on 17 January 2014 added campaign posters to the list of advertisements already banned by this prior law. Now no campaign ads can be placed within 50 meters of a major road or 100 meters of a highway, joining the prior ban on other kinds of posters.

A Budapest ordinance adds to the spaces from which political posters are banned. Acting in the name of environmentalism and heritage preservation, the Fidesz-dominated Budapest City Council has prohibited political posters from going up on bridges, on metro station walls, in street underpasses, on statues and memorials – and on trees. A 26-page addendum to the law adds many specific places where posters may not be placed, and the list includes almost every major square and public meeting point in the city.

Of course, incumbent parties can find many ways to keep themselves in the public eye, so restrictions on the media disproportionately tend to affect challengers. So how is the opposition supposed to get its message out for this campaign given that all of the traditional avenues are blocked?

Well, there’s the internet. But anyone who has read the comments sections of Hungarian newspapers, blogs or other public spaces on the internet (even the Krugman blog!) knows how quickly government-supporting trolls try to occupy and dominate the space. And while internet-based media like Facebook are good at reaching the young and the educated, it is still not a universal medium.

What about mailing campaign literature to supporters and reaching them by phone? A recent announcement from the head of the data protection office (the office whose independence is being questioned in an infringement action before the European Court of Justice seems to limit even this sort of access to voters by parties.

According to Attila Péterfalvi, the government’s data protection official, political parties must notify him when they intend to keep lists of their supporters. (EU law, by the way, does not require the regulation of such lists, but confines its scope to lists kept by the government.) Péterfalvi told the parties that they may not use for campaign purposes lists of addresses in the phone book, nor may they call people who have not explicitly indicated that they welcome campaign calls. The Election Office added to this privacy protection by sending all voters a letter that explains how to opt out of receiving campaign materials. So access to voters through these traditional means has been limited in the name of data privacy.

Perhaps the opposition can hold campaign rallies and stage personal appearances by the candidates to reach voters? But already a friend in Debrecen tells me that the Unity Alliance has had a hard time finding a place to hold a rally there because all of the spaces large enough for such a gathering are controlled by the Fidesz allies. They have either forbidden all political rallies or charge so much for the use of the space that the opposition parties cannot afford it.

Which brings us to campaign finance reform as another aspect of the campaign regulation in which rich and poor alike are banned from sleeping under bridges.

The new campaign finance law attempts to regulate campaign spending by publicly funding campaigns. Before the Fidesz reforms, campaign finance was completely non-transparent and had few enforceable rules.  It was listed as one of the policy areas most deserving of reform by Transparency International, so change is a good thing.

On the surface, the campaign finance picture looks much better. All of the parties running national party lists get equal amounts of public money (between € ­475,000 and € 2 million, depending on the number of candidates fielded) and each candidate gets a fixed amount of money in addition (about € 3400). This will provide transparent funding for all parties equally, something very much needed.

Political parties can still accept private money, though, up to a defined limit. But of course there is a catch.   Now, suddenly, no campaign may accept private money from a foreigner (understandable). But, in addition, no party may accept money from a “legal person” – meaning any company, NGO, foundation or trust. After the US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, permitting corporations to give unlimited cash to American campaigns, the ban on corporate donations in Hungary may seem a great idea to Americans. But context is everything. Fidesz is funded by a set of oligarchs tied to the party who can give virtually unlimited amounts as individuals. The Unity Alliance, by contrast, has been funded by party-allied foundations, which now cannot contribute to the campaign. The campaign finance regulations are, like Anatole France’s aphorism, designed to equally prohibit what the rich don’t need and the poor can’t do without.

But there is clearly an election coming because, on the streets of Budapest, there are huge billboards and posters everywhere attacking the Unity Alliance.

Nem erdemelnek2Civil Unity Forum (CÖF) Election Poster, seen everywhere in Budapest
CÖF is a civil society group aligned with Fidesz, unregulated by the election laws.

These ads (see above) show the three of the leaders of the Unity Alliance (Mesterházy, Bajnai and Gyurcsány) with a Socialist former deputy major of Budapest (Miklós Hagyó) who is currently facing trial for corruption. Hagyó is not running for any office in this election, so he is there on the posters to convey guilt by association. The message, which blares “They don’t deserve another chance” shows all of the men holding placards of the sort featured in police mug shots. And seen also in the photo is the clown, who has been making appearances at events of these candidates, following them around to make fun of them. These sorts of messages are unregulated by the campaign finance rules – or in fact by any campaign rules at all.

Why not? They’re not sponsored by Fidesz but instead by the CÖF (which stands for Civil Összefogás Fórum or the Civil Unity Forum). As it turns out, civil society organizations can advertise without being limited by either the campaign media rules or the campaign finance rules. As a result, CÖF has plastered the city with election ads on billboards owned by Fidesz-friendly billboard companies, and none of these ads count toward Fidesz’s money or media allocations under the election law.

Of course the united opposition could do this also, if it had the wealthy backers. But virtually all of the wealth in Hungary stands behind Fidesz.  And even if there were rich backers of the united opposition, they would still have to buy the billboard space from Fidesz-friendly companies, billboard space that is now conveniently all sold out.

 * * *

The Orbán government vociferously insists that it is still a democracy. But in its four years in power, the Orbán government has been preparing for the moment when it actually has to get through an election in order to still be able to make that claim. Not surprisingly, this government of lawyers has created a complex legal framework in which the rules may appear to be neutral, but they don’t have neutral effects.

Fidesz has designed a system that allows it to face an apparently contested election without the real possibility of losing. With this election, then, Hungary has mastered the art of appearing to be something it is not – a true democracy holding free and fair elections.

Viktor Orbán finally spoke against Vladimir Putin; Kim Scheppele’s “Hungary, An Election in Question, Part 1”

Over the next five days, in addition to my regular daily posts, I will republish Professor Kim Scheppele’s five-part series on the pitfalls of the new election law that makes free and fair elections in Hungary doubtful. The article, entitled “Hungary, An Election in Question,” originally appeared on Paul Krugman’s blog on February 28, 2014 in The New York Times.

The reason that I asked Professor Scheppele to allow me to publish her article on Hungarian Spectrum is because, although we always knew that the newly enacted law was slanted in favor of the current government party, news coming from Budapest of late indicates that the situation is worse than we ever imagined. The opposition’s advertising options have been greatly restricted. And it seems that even the few posters the opposition candidates managed to put up are systematically being torn down. Budapest and other cities are full of posters of so-called civic groups campaigning for the government while the opposition has virtually no advertising presence. So, the more people read Professor Scheppele’s analysis of the new Hungarian  electoral law the better.

And now back to the Hungarian government’s attitude toward Ukraine. It was only yesterday at noon that Viktor Orbán said anything substantive about the Ukrainian crisis. In his statement he kept his concerns narrow and provincial, presumably not wanting to criticize his newly acquired friend, Vladimir Putin. His only concern seemed to be the safety of the Hungarian minority in Subcarpathia. He sent them a message: “you can count on us.” He added that “Hungary is not part of the conflict.” Well, in a narrow sense, perhaps not, but the conflict directly involves the European Union and Hungary’s neighbor, whose territorial integrity has been challenged.

Today the prime minister decided to elaborate on his position, crafting it to be more in line with EU thinking, a wise move since on Thursday he will attend an EU summit in Brussels. He will “represent the standpoint that the European Union will have to respond to the Russian military moves,” a response that has to be “immediate, unambiguous, and integrative.” He further elaborated on the theme when he announced that “the only alternative to war is negotiation. We want negotiations and not military conflict. We want peace, not blood.” Hungary wants a democratic Ukraine. Again, he stressed that “in the whole Ukrainian crisis the most important consideration for Hungary is the safety of Hungarians in Hungary and in Subcarpathia.” Note that he didn’t mention anything about the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

While Viktor Orbán talked to the media in Budapest, Vladimir Putin gave a press conference just outside of Moscow in Novo-Ogaryovo. It was a long and fairly rambling talk in which he announced that he had given up, at least for the time being, plans for the annexation of the Crimea. However, although he knows about and even condemns Yanukovych’s thievery, he still considers him to be the legitimate head of Ukraine and therefore refuses to recognize the interim government formed a few days ago.

Hungary is after all a neighbor of Ukraine

Hungary is after all a neighbor of Ukraine

Mid-afternoon the prime minister’s office released the “Statement of the Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Countries on Ukraine.” If we compare the text of this joint statement of the Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian prime ministers to Orbán’s words, we see that the joint statement is a great deal stronger. Let me quote a few sentences from this document.

The Prime Ministers of the Visegrád Countries are deeply concerned about the recent violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the fact that the Russian parliament has authorized military action on Ukrainian soil against the wishes of the Ukrainian Government…. We condemn all action threatening the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and call on Russia to decrease the tensions immediately through dialogue, in full respect of Ukrainian and international law and in line with the provisions of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

The Visegrád Countries believe that the recent military actions by Russia are not only in violation of international law, but also create a dangerous new reality in Europe. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are appalled to witness a military intervention in 21st century Europe akin to their own experiences in 1956, 1968 and 1981….

The European Union and NATO should demonstrate solidarity with and assist Ukraine in this difficult moment and stand united in the face of this dangerous development threatening European peace and security.

A few hours later Zsolt Németh, undersecretary in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, spoke to Aleksandr Tolkach, Russian ambassador to Hungary. Németh called on Russia to move its troops back inside the Russian naval base in Sebastopol. Németh repeated that Hungary insists on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and considers Russian behavior contrary to international law. So, it seems that Viktor Orbán eventually had to conform to the position held by the United States and the European Union. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow.

* * *

Hungary: An Election in Question, Part 1

Professor Kim Scheppele, Princeton University

Hungary’s parliamentary elections will be held on 6 April. And it is already clear who will win. Unless something truly surprising occurs, the governing party Fidesz is headed to victory. The only uncertainty is whether it will again win two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, a result that would continue to allow it to change the constitution at will.

Fidesz won the last elections in 2010 fair and square. But this time the election is unlikely to be judged so favorably. The whole election framework – the laws, the institutions and even the new electorate – favors Fidesz because the governing party has used its four years in office with its two-thirds majority in the parliament to redesign every aspect of the electoral system to its advantage.

Fidesz also overwhelmingly dominates the offline media and has closed off almost all avenues through which opposition parties can reach the electorate. New decrees from local Fidesz-affiliated officials around the country and misleading instructions from election officials are creating last-minute campaign obstacles that put the opposition even more on the wrong foot.

Under the new election framework, the allied opposition parties cannot win a parliamentary majority, even if they gain more votes than the governing party. Simultaneously, the changes also make it nearly inevitable that the governing party will keep its two-thirds parliamentary majority even if it gets less than half of the overall vote.

Róbert László of the Political Capital think tank in Budapest shows how Fidesz can win a two-thirds majority with less than half of the party-list vote. His model also predicts that a united center-left opposition would need about 6% more votes than Fidesz to win a simple majority in the parliament.

Central European University Professor Gábor Tóka estimates that, under the new system, a united center-left opposition might get 8% fewer parliamentary seats than Fidesz if both got an equal share of the votes.

Political Capital’s “mandate calculator” permits everyone to try out different models and different assumptions. We tried it here in Princeton and, depending on the assumptions one makes about the nature and shape of the opposition, Fidesz could get its two-thirds majority in parliament pretty easily with only 48% of the vote if the other parties perform as polls indicate they would if the election were held now. If the foreign votes split 85/15 for Fidesz (not unreasonable for reasons I will explain), Fidesz could get its two-thirds with only 44%. If Fidesz wins by the same margin it won last time, with 53% of the party-list vote, it would get 76% of the seats in the parliament instead of the 68% it won under the old system.

In short, Fidesz has designed the election to allow itself to win big, even without majority support. Or, to put it differently, Fidesz has designed the election so that the opposition loses even if it wins.

These effects occur because the way that the districts are drawn and the votes are aggregated. It doesn’t even count all of the other things that Fidesz is doing to help the opposition lose, like monopolizing the media, operating an election office that is giving out misleading instructions and only selectively registering to vote Hungarian citizens who are living abroad.

If Fidesz is reelected under this self-dealing system, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the election has been rigged. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s “mandate” will be tainted.

It’s serious to accuse an incumbent party of potentially rigging an election, so the evidence needs to be strong. In this series of five blog posts, I will show precisely how the outcome of the election is cooked into the rules even before a single ballot is cast. The rules were designed to look “normal” but to allow Fidesz to win in a very particular political context, which is where we will start.

As Fidesz officials are quick to argue, they will win the election because they are the most popular single party in Hungary. Which is true (see graph below). But Fidesz’s popularity has only recently climbed above 30%, a level that would cause analysts in most democratic states to predict that an incumbent party is in trouble, especially given how low Fidesz fell over the last several years. What makes Fidesz look like a winner, however, is that all of the other parties are even less popular.

voting intentionsFor the last month, however, Fidesz has been confronted by a more substantial opponent than it has had during its tenure in office so far. Five left-leaning parties calling themselves the “democratic opposition” have combined to form the Unity Alliance (Összefogás). They have put forward a common slate of candidates for the individual constituencies and they are running a joint party list. Their joint strength might just be enough to challenge Fidesz’s domination of the elections – if there were a level playing field. But they were late to the election party, so to speak, announcing their joint effort only on 14 January 2014 just before the election date was set. So they have some catching up to do.

(The five parties in the Unity Alliance are the Socialists/MSzP headed by Attila Mesterházy; Together 2014/E-14 headed by Gordon Bajnai; Dialogue for Hungary/PM led by Benedek Jávor; Democratic Coalition/DK headed by Ferenc Gyurcsány and the Hungarian Liberal Party/Liberálisok headed by Gábor Fodor. Since the coalition was formed, the Movement for a Modern Hungary/MOMA, headed by Lajos Bokros, a conservative MEP, has agreed to support the joint ticket.)

And then there is Jobbik, which its detractors call the “non-democratic opposition.” This far-right party has become internationally known for its anti-Semitism and anti-Roma agitation, its toxic assertion of nationalism, and its ideology so far beyond the edge of the European political spectrum that its three representatives in the European Parliament cannot affiliate with any party caucus. Fidesz might reasonably worry that it would lose votes to Jobbik on the right, which may be why many – including Jobbik’s leadership – claim that Fidesz is “stealing [their] issues and ideas.”  For its part, Jobbik’s campaign ads this year portray it as substantially more moderate than its reputation in order to steal voters from Fidesz.

At the moment, Jobbik seems to have the allegiance of just under 10% of the electorate, though some worry that Jobbik’s support may climb again to the 17% of the vote it won in the 2010 election. Jobbik cannot form a government with that vote, but is the only party that can seriously challenge Fidesz’s electoral strategy by dividing the vote on the right.

Just as Fidesz faces a challenge to its base from Jobbik, the Unity Alliance is challenged by a party called Politics Can be Different (LMP) that provides an alternative for its voters as well. In the last year, LMP – a small party to begin with – split so that one fraction joined the broader opposition alliance and the rest remained unaligned. While LMP lost support since the split, it still seems to be polling around the 5% threshold needed for a single party to enter the parliament.

Though Fidesz and the Unity Alliance are the two big parties in this race, polling data show that the largest single voting bloc – a clear majority of the electorate for the last several years – is still “undecided.” That large number becomes even more formidable when one considers that more than half of the Hungarians asked do not answer surveys. Is it hard to know if those who do not answer are still engaged in politics at all, and if so, how.

In past Hungarian elections, the turnout had to reach 50% for the election to be valid. But Fidesz changed that rule too so that there is no minimum turnout required any longer. Low voter turnout, then, is no barrier to a valid election.

But even with the large number undecided or apolitical voters, the results are not in doubt. The governing party designed the system precisely to prevent surprises in this particular political landscape, and they wrote the rules to allow themselves to win almost no matter which way opinion breaks and almost no matter what the turnout is on election day. It is hard to see a realistic outcome for this election that doesn’t put Fidesz front and center in the next government. Fidesz will thrive if there is low turnout because the party has a powerful system for bringing out its voters. If Jobbik surges, Jobbik could not govern unless Fidesz were the dominant partner in a coalition. But, perhaps most importantly for judging the fairness of the election, Fidesz will win even if the “democratic opposition” were to pull ahead of them by a substantial margin.

Why is that? According to election experts, the Unity Alliance could only gain a parliamentary majority if it won by more than a comfortable margin in the popular vote. That is because of the way that the system has been designed. Unless there is swing toward the left that is larger than anything we have seen in the post-communist period or unless Jobbik’s support rises by so much that it substantially depletes the Fidesz vote, Fidesz will surely win outright and is very likely to get its two-thirds back again.

How could Fidesz win under almost any likely scenario for 6 April? I will turn to that next.