Regarding the Hungarian election system restructured between 2010 and 2014 it can be stated that it has not made its creators invincible. While a large number (but not all) of the system’s new components can be said to be applied by other countries as well, its constituent parts converge to create a whole where the current
governing party is granted a significant and unjustified – although not insurmountable – advantage over its rivals. However, in criticisms levelled against the election system, arguments challenging the system’s democratic credentials and choice of political values and interests are often conflated.
Below we shall make an attempt to disentangle these strands and identify components that may actually limit the scope of democratic competition and the ones that “simply” served the prevailing interests of the governing party at the time of the reform process, components that – with a shift in political winds – may even end up favouring other political forces.
It is safe to assume that Fidesz’s guiding principle in promoting the election reform was to guarantee that the new system translate the party’s relative lead in the polls into an absolute majority in the House, i.e., bring the odds of a two-thirds majority closer to reality than ever before. While in the 2014 election the promoters of the legislation managed to pull in another two-thirds victory, an election system is no life insurance: the long-term interests of a political party may shift along a number of criteria and the selected model cannot be guaranteed to work at all times.
People in the governing party are likely to keep this in mind as well and if it becomes necessary to adjust the election system to a shifting political climate, they will not hesitate to make the right moves. However, their effort may run into obstacles on several levels. First, it is difficult to foresee changes in the political landscape through 2018, which means it is unclear in what direction changes should be effected regarding a number of election system components. Second, Fidesz no longer enjoys a two-thirds parliamentary majority, which means it can no longer amend cardinal acts at will.
The votes of its 131 delegates are sufficient to modify two-thirds acts only if at least two opposition representatives vote with them, or at least three opposition representatives abstain from voting. If Fidesz finds it politically convenient to modify election laws, it can find ways to win the support of a sufficient number of opposition representatives, or at least it can offer something in return for a vote / not voting.
The policy paper looks at deficiencies in the election system from the perspective of political interests and wishes to make review recommendations exclusively in cases where a basic election principle is violated or the potential for serious fraud is detected. For instance, we shall refrain from criticising the system’s majority feature or its eased nominating requirements, although we will not pass over in silence the toxic mix created by adding campaign financing regulations. Similarly, we are not going to criticise the voting rights of non-resident Hungarian citizens, although we will definitely mention discrimination in the method of voting and will also call attention to the urgent need for preventing the abuse of deceased non-resident citizens’ personal data and ballots.
Components favouring the largest political force enjoying relative majority
Increasing the weight of single-member electoral districts
In the previous Parliament with 386 delegates, 176 mandates had been distributed in single-member districts, accounting for 45.6% of the total mandates. This rate has been increased to 53.3%: in the current Parliament with 199 delegates, 106 representatives hold individual mandates. In addition to the national list, the previous election system also applied territorial lists, distorting the system in favour of larger parties. Today there are no territorial lists; even if marginally, this change corrects the earlier effect.
Rewarding the party with victorious individual candidates
The practice of compensation applied in a number of other countries is being used in Hungary as well: votes cast for losing candidates in individual constituencies are added to the party list. However, in a unique twist in Hungary, in addition to losing candidates, winners also carry fractional votes. For instance, if in a single-member constituency the runner-up receives 10,000 while the winner has 11,000 votes and 10,001 votes would have been sufficient to win the mandate, the surfeit 999 votes are added to the winning party’s list votes. The same mechanism works in all 106 single-member constituencies. This unique rule, undermining the logic of the compensation system, in 2014 earned Fidesz six extra mandates. However, in a future election and with a different balance of power other parties may also benefit from this rule.
The elimination of the second round
The issue of a single round or two rounds cannot be interpreted as a test of democracy by any stretch: both solutions are equally legitimate. Moreover, it can only be guessed which version would offer an advantage to any political force: one can marshal arguments in favour of both the single- and the two-round system keeping only the interests of Fidesz in mind. For instance, in 1998 Fidesz would not have come to power had it not entered into an alliance with the Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKgP) between the two rounds, and if the two parties involved had not withdrawn their candidates for the other’s benefit. In 2002 Fidesz made up its first-round loss relative to MSZP in the second round, although at that time it was insufficient to win a parliamentary majority. The political landscape has shifted since then and the single-round system is better suited to the political logic of the “central power”, not to mention that the system’s “pro-winner” effect is further reinforced.
Evaluation, possible solution
As long as Fidesz leaders perceive that the party has the best chance to win an election, they are unlikely to touch components favouring the winner, none of which, by the way, violate basic election principles.
Components favourable to the right
The politically manipulated electoral district map
While sporadically government politicians informed the public about potential changes in the evolving election system, until November 20, 2011 (Sunday night when then faction-head János Lázár submitted the Bill on the new election act) reliable information on district boundaries was only known to an unidentified group of people. Since then district boundaries have not been significantly changed, although in 2011 and even in 2013 they underwent slight modifications.
The lack of transparency and a total absence of professional and political consultations have raised the suspicion of political motivation, i.e., gerrymandering, apparently supported by a number of model calculations, including that performed by Political Capital.
Later, many tried to excuse or at least downplay gerrymandering by arguing that ”the new electoral district map and the electoral advertising regulations may contain elements that benefit the current government, but that these were not the decisive factors in the 2014 elections, given the Fidesz party’s very high popularity”. However, this line of argument is misleading as it is well known that the effects of gerrymandering kick in only when the candidates run neck to neck; the fact that 2014 did not bring such election results says nothing about the potential importance of a district map in a tight race. According to the model calculations referred to above, in a bipolar party system it may be suitable for whittling down a 1-2 percentage point Fidesz shortfall on the national list that, obviously, may be affected by a number of other factors as well.
In short, the district map is clearly the component that favours respective right-wing parties. It is another matter that by all signs the designers of the map had a bipolar political landscape in mind and thus it is to be seen how the map will work in the event that Jobbik continues to gain more ground. Just as other components of the election system, the district map may also backfire and burn its creators.
The voting rights of out-of-country Hungarian citizens
Aside from national policy considerations, when it granted the voting right to non-resident Hungarian citizens (hereinafter referred to as out-of-country Hungarians) Fidesz must have calculated that the measure would expand the party’s support base.
As social and political debate was completely ignored in this case as well, the issue related to the voting rights of out-of-country Hungarians and the weight of their votes quickly generated two diametrically opposing views. Following the introduction of the new institution, some believed that the outcome of the 2014 election was a foregone conclusion due to the votes coming from across the border, while others described the right to cast a ballot exclusively on a party list as nothing more than a symbolic gesture, claiming that the election is essentially determined in individual districts.
Truth lies somewhere in the middle: votes cast outside the country may have a decisive impact only in exceptional cases, although the 2014 election turned out to be a case in point. Out-of-country votes delivered just that single vote without which Fidesz would not have won another two-thirds parliamentary majority (it’s another matter that in the February 22, 2015 by-election the party lost that advantage).
The weight of votes coming from outside the country can be described as rather moderate. They have absolutely no impact on the 106 individual district mandates, and only negligible impact on the 93 list mandates. In the 2014 election, at a 61.73% turnout there were 5,047,363 valid votes (of which 4,717,843 went to parties winning seats in Parliament), 3,327,395 fractional votes came from individual districts and 128,712 votes came from outside the country (of which 127,633 votes were cast for the parties winning seats in parliament).
In the end, only 1.56% of the votes included in the final party list tally came from outside the country deciding the fate of a single mandate. Even if in the coming years voter turnout increases in other countries and providing that the present rules stay in place, no measurable shift is expected in this context.
While the number of registered and voting out-of-country citizens fell short of Fidesz’s most ambitious expectations, that voter base outside the country is likely to grant the government party a lasting advantage (in 2014, the party received 122,638 votes, or 95% of the valid votes). With all that, in theory every party has the chance to address out-of-country voters even if it won’t have it as easy as Fidesz holding the reins of power.
Evaluation, possible solution
In respect to district maps, a mechanism limiting the scope of gerrymandering would be welcome, although the current governing party is unlikely to show interest in such a reform. As the voting right of out-of-country Hungarian citizens may not be challenged on professional grounds (although it may be questioned on political grounds) there is every reason to believe that it will remain a permanent fixture of the Hungarian election system. However, two technical problems in this connection remain, and the modification of at least one of them appears to require immediate action.
Deceased voters may also receive letter packages
Out-of-country Hungarian citizens must register in a central registry to exercise their voting right. For a period of 10 years after registration they have nothing to do, and their registration remains active. Since out-of-country Hungarians may vote by mail, this leads to a situation where the National Election Office (NVI), with no power to request updated information on citizens before each election, will automatically send letter packages to these citizens.
The problem comes from the fact that the Hungarian state is not informed of the death of all Hungarian citizens living abroad. Of a total of about 200,000 voters registered before the 2014 election some are not expected to be alive by the time of the 2018 and 2022 elections, and if the regulation remains in place letter packages containing ballot sheets will be sent to their addresses. Unfortunately, this may provide additional opportunities for fraud for no one will be able to check the identity of the person completing the ballot sheet, i.e., it will never be known whether it had been filled out under the name of a deceased citizen.
This potential for fraud seriously undermining confidence in the election process must be definitely eliminated from the system. A modification of the act where NVI requests out-of-country citizens to return a form before election may offer a solution. With the return of the form, citizens renew their registration until the next election. The governing party is likely to shrink from introducing yet another administrative hurdle affecting the voter base where it has the largest support, although there appears to be no other means of resolving this anomaly.
Discrimination in the method of voting
The option of voting by mail is available exclusively to Hungarian citizens with no residential address in Hungary, while other voters outside the country on the day of election (students, workers or vacationers) with residential address in Hungary must visit a foreign embassy or consulate to exercise their right to vote. While the first option is obviously more convenient and cheaper than the latter one, it must be asked whether such discrimination in the method of voting violates fundamental rights. In its report the OSCE uses unequivocal language: “In light of the obligation to equal suffrage, legislation and procedures should provide the same methods for citizens abroad, be they residents or nonresidents, to register and to cast their ballots.” However, the Constitutional Court has yet to respond to a petition submitted by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and the court in Strasbourg, using highly debatable reasoning, has not spoken out against the discrimination. Against this background the Constitutional Court is not expected to establish the unconstitutionality of the section in question, i.e., Fidesz is unlikely to introduce changes to these discriminative regulations.
To be continued