While most of us have been preparing to hang up our stockings, Hungary’s parliamentarians have been hard at work: on Friday alone they passed fourteen new laws. One of these was a new electoral law – the first significant overhaul of the Hungarian electoral system since the country’s first post-communist democratic elections in 1990. In this post – the first of two on the new electoral law – I will outline the changes that have taken place. The second post will analyse the politics underlying the new law and consider what it tells us about the state of Hungarian democracy.
As a precursor to that, I should note that the new electoral law cannot be understood in isolation from the many other reforms that are taking place in Hungary today. The fourteen laws passed on Friday brought to 359 the total number of laws and legal amendments that have hurtled through Parliament since the current government came to power in May 2010. Among these laws is a new – and highly controversial – constitution, as well as a range of other measures that significantly alter the balance of power. The US government has expressed serious concerns over whether the government’s policies respect media freedom, the independence of the judiciary, and a range of other core democratic values. Last weekend, the EU and IMF broke off negotiations with the Hungarian government over concerns that new proposals would violate the independence of the central bank. On Monday, the Princeton constitutional lawyer Kim Lane Scheppele concluded that Hungary was “sliding into authoritarianism”. Days later, the Media Council – whose members were all nominated by the government – withdrew a popular liberal radio station’s frequency without clear justification. On Friday, while all those laws were passed inside Parliament, noisy demonstrations took place outside. Eleven opposition MPs were among those arrested by police. The core accusation of the demonstrators and the government’s many other critics is that it is concentrating power in its own hands to a degree that violates the principles of democracy.
So what of the new electoral law? Perhaps its most eye-catching element is a sharp reduction in the number of deputies, from 386 to 199.
Beyond this, many of the fundamentals remain the same: the system is still, as it was, a mixed system, comprising both single-member districts and party lists. It is still what the political scientists Matthew Shugart and Martin Wattenberg call a Mixed-Member Majoritarian (MMM) system with partial compensation. That is, the two parts of the system are not coordinated so as to produce a proportional outcome overall, as under the Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) systems used in Germany, New Zealand, and Scotland. But nor are they run entirely separately to each other, as in pure MMM (or parallel) systems.
There are important changes, however, in the details. I should say that I have not yet been able to find a copy of the law as finally passed by Parliament. On the basis of the original bill and the government’s press release on Friday, however, the important details seem all to be clear.
Under the previous system, deputies were elected in three tiers: in single-member districts (SMDs), in regional multi-member districts, and in a nationwide district. Voters had two votes, at the SMD and regional levels. The 176 single-member districts used a two-round system: a candidate could win in the first round only if she or he secured an absolute majority of the votes cast. The regional list elections were entirely separate from the SMD tier: here, up to 152 seats were allocated to party lists (which were entirely closed) in proportion to the regional votes. The
Droop Hagenbach-Bischoff quota was used for this allocation, subject to a 5 per cent national threshold (raised from 4 per cent after the first election in 1990). The system’s compensatory component came, finally, at the national tier. The votes counted here were, first, all those votes cast in SMDs for candidates who were not elected and, second, remainder votes from the regional tier. The same 5 per cent threshold applied as for the regional tier. At least 58 seats were available for allocation at the national level, to which were added any seats not allocated in the regions. The d’Hondt formula was used to allocate seats among the parties.
The new system is somewhat simpler than this. There are now only two tiers: 106 seats are filled in single-member districts and 93 are elected from national lists. Furthermore, the SMD seats are now filled in one round, using simple plurality, rather than two. Voters still have two votes: for a candidate in an SMD and for a national party list.
Perhaps the most complex – and certainly the most unusual – aspect of the new system concerns the allocation of seats at the national tier. In large part, the principles underlying the old regional and national tiers are combined. Thus, the votes cast for party lists are counted, and to these the “unused” votes from the SMDs are added. This time, however, the “unused” votes include not only the votes cast for unsuccessful candidates, but also all those votes cast for winning candidates that were not needed to secure those candidates’ election. That is, one vote is added to the number of votes won by the second placed candidate in each SMD, this is subtracted from the votes secured by the winning candidate, and the votes remaining are then transferred, along with all the losing candidates’ votes, to the national tier. Seats are then allocated to parties using the d’Hondt formula. Lists remain closed.
Overall, the compensatory element in the new system is weaker than that in the old. That is partly because the single-member districts now comprise 53 per cent of all the seats in Parliament, compared with 46 per cent before, and partly because of the inclusion of winners’ surplus votes at the national tier. I shall analyse these effects in more detail in Part 2 of this post.
Three other features of the new electoral law are also worthy of note. First, the franchise is extended for the first time to Hungarian citizens who do not have a place of permanent residence in Hungary. Many of these are Hungarian speakers living in the former Hungarian territories that were lost when Hungary was reduced in size in the wake of World War One.
Second, special provisions are made for the first time for national minorities living within Hungary’s borders. A national minority can gain a seat from the list tier of the system if it secures one quarter of a Hare quota of votes (a little less than 0.27 per cent of all the list votes cast nationally). Minorities that do not reach this threshold will still be entitled to a non-voting parliamentary spokesperson.
Third, the conditions for candidacy and for putting up a party list are also changed. Previously, it was necessary to gather 750 signatures in order to run as an SMD candidate. The government originally proposed to raise this to 1,500, saying that the number of SMDs was being roughly halved, so it was right to double the signature requirement. Many opposition deputies pointed out, however, that the number of SMDs was not being halved: it was being reduced by only two fifths. The government compromised, and the signature threshold was raised to 1,000. Under the old system, a party could stand a regional list if it ran candidates in at least a quarter (and at least two) of that region’s SMDs, and it could stand a national list if it ran lists in at least seven regions. This meant, in effect, that, in order to run a national list, a party needed at least fourteen SMD candidates, backed by at least 10,500 signatures, spread across at least seven regions. Now a party can run a national list if it has at least 27 SMD candidates across at least nine regions – requiring at least 27,000 signatures. This clearly raises the hurdles to running a national list. On the other hand, now voters can support a party with their list vote even if that party had no SMD candidates within the region, whereas previously a party could win list votes only in those regions where it also had the required number of SMD candidates. So the barrier to gathering votes nationwide for your national list is lower.
So much, then, for the basic description of the reforms. What should we make of them? Do they fit into the general pattern of ever greater concentration of power in the hands of the government or do they stand outside that? I shall pursue answers to these questions in Part 2 of this post.
Go to Part 2.