In Part 1 of this post, I outlined the basics of Hungary’s new electoral law. Now I turn to the question of what we should make of the changes introduced.
Before I get going, I should say that others have been following Hungary’s electoral reform debates over recent months and years more closely than I have. I offer my impressions here partly because I know many non-Hungarian-speakers want to know more than they can at present about what has happened, and partly in the hope of initiating conversation with those in Hungary who know much more than I do. I hope you will point out errors, omissions, and points that I ought to think about in more detail.
The key question in thinking about an electoral reform concerns whose interests it is designed to serve. Is it imposed by the government to protect its own interests (what I have elsewhere called elite majority imposition)? Is it agreed among politicians more widely (elite settlement)? Or does it reflect pressure from below, which politicians feel compelled in greater or lesser measure to accommodate (elite–mass interaction)?
A quick look at the final parliamentary vote on the bill shows that this was not a case of elite settlement: the governing parties (the centre-right Fidesz and its Christian Democratic vassal, the KDNP) were united in support of the new electoral law, while the opposition parties were equally united against it. One opposition party – the far-right Jobbik – voted against the bill. The other two – the socialist MSZP and the green/liberal LMP – boycotted the session and headed instead for a demonstration outside parliament.
That’s not to say, however, that all aspects of the bill were contested. The opposition parties all supported a sharp reduction in the number of deputies: as government supporters frequently pointed out during the main debate on the principles of the bill on 2nd December, Hungary’s parties have long promised a reduction in the size of Parliament without delivering. There was also general agreement on the introduction of special representation for minorities. Four of the five parliamentary parties – all except the LMP – supported the shift to single-round elections in the single-member districts. And all agreed that, if single-member districts were to be retained, there was an urgent need to redraw constituency boundaries. No redistricting had taken place since 1990, with the result that the largest districts were three times the size of the smallest. The Constitutional Court had ruled in December 2010 that the prevailing district structure was unconstitutional.
Nevertheless, two aspects of the bill appear designed to serve Fidesz’s own party interests. The first is that the new system is more majoritarian than the old. As I noted in Part 1 of this post, that is partly because the proportion of single-member districts (SMDs) is greater than in the old system and partly because winners’ surplus votes are now included in the transfer of remainder votes from SMDs to lists. One estimate, which seems to be widely accepted, is that, whereas the old system translated Fidesz’s 53 per cent vote share in 2010 into a 68 per cent share of the seats in Parliament, the new system would have given it 76 per cent of the seats.
Fidesz justifies this move in two ways (I’m drawing again here and in the next few paragraphs on the parliamentary debates on 2nd December). First, in terms of the mechanics of the new system, it argues that including winners’ surplus votes in the transfer ensures that all “wasted” votes from the SMDs are treated equally. Fidesz’s Lajos Kósa said:
The goal of the new method of counting remainder votes is that no vote should be lost – that every citizen’s vote should count. The bill thus treats all votes that are not used in the single-member districts equally. Only some of the votes cast in single-member districts are needed to win a seat. The bill’s goal is that every vote should be used: those cast for losing candidates in the same way as those cast for the winner that were not needed to obtain the seat.
This part of the bill was ridiculed by opposition deputies: the MSZP’s Zsolt Molnár, for example, likened it to giving social security benefits to bank directors. And, indeed, the government’s reasoning is very strange. If the equality of votes is an aim, that surely needs to be gauged across the outcome of the election as a whole: few voters pay much attention to how their votes are treated at particular stages of the count process. And in terms of the outcome of the election, the new system manifestly treats votes more unequally than the old: disproportionality, as already noted, is markedly higher.
Of course, disproportionality can be justified if it produces more effective or more accountable government. And this is Fidesz’s second argument. Lajos Kósa continued:
The question of proportionality and governability is a key question for every electoral system. In considering it, we must recognize that each of these values can be realized only at the expense of the other. Increased proportionality endangers the formation of a governing majority, while realization of the majoritarian perspective reduces proportionality. … I believe that the bill offers an appropriate solution to this.
But none of Fidesz’s speakers explained why governability requires even greater disproportionality than already exists in Hungary. Every parliament in Hungary over the last twenty years has lasted its full four-year term. No election has been followed by problems in government formation. Voters have been able to throw out the existing government and replace it with a wholly new coalition in four out of the five elections since the first post-communist election in 1990. As the far right’s Dóra Dúró said in Parliament on 2nd December, “Election results have not caused problems for governability in Hungary, whereas proportionality – or, rather, disproportionality – has been much more of a problem”.
Fidesz points out that some European countries have entirely majoritarian systems, and if these are classed as democratic then, a fortiori, so too must be a system that combines majoritarian and proportional elements. But this argument is again tendentious. The UK – the example most commonly cited – has relatively entrenched parties that retain stable bastions of support even in lean times. As a result, no government has commanded two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons since 1945 – never mind the three-quarters share that Fidesz could have won under the new Hungarian rules in 2010. By contrast, the parties’ weaker entrenchment and the greater homogeneity in voting patterns in Hungary mean that a popular party can virtually sweep the board in the SMDs: Fidesz won all but two SMDs under the old rules in 2010; the MSZP and their allies won all but ten in 1994.
In Hungary’s circumstances, therefore, a pure SMD system would be wholly indefensible: it could at some elections prevent the existence of any meaningful parliamentary opposition. The new mixed system also risks leaving Hungary without adequate checks against majority power. No justification has been offered for why that might be needed.
The second highly contentious aspect of the system that seems designed to serve Fidesz’s interests is the new structure of single-member districts. Article 4 of the new electoral law states that SMDs must not cross county boundaries, must comprise contiguous territory, and must contain roughly equal numbers of eligible voters. It goes on to state that district electorates should deviate by no more than 15 per cent from the average (unless that is necessary to respect county boundaries and maintain contiguity) and that Parliament must act if any deviation rises above 20 per cent. An annex to the bill then sets out each district in precise detail.
The general principles set out in the bill are perfectly reasonable. As government speakers repeatedly pointed out during the parliamentary debate, they conform to the principles laid down by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission in its Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters.
What none of those speakers cared to point out, however, is that the Code of Good Practice goes on also to suggest procedures for drawing up precise boundaries. It says:
When constituency boundaries are redefined – which they must be in a
single-member system – it must be done:
- without detriment to national minorities;
- taking account of the opinion of a committee, the majority of whose members are independent; this committee should preferably include a geographer, a sociologist and a balanced representation of the parties and, if necessary, representatives of national minorities.
The third of these points has not been followed: there is no information at all on how the government has drawn the map described in the new law. Furthermore, it appears that the first principle has been violated too. During the parliamentary debates, the LMP’s Gergely Karácsony showed two graphs: you can watch the clip here and see the graphs here. The first graph plots Fidesz’s share of the votes in 2010 in the new SMDs on the y-axis against each SMD’s population on the x-axis. It shows that the districts are smaller where Fidesz’s vote is higher, suggesting that the boundaries have been manipulated to Fidesz’s advantage. Interestingly, the second graph (obtainable by clicking on the arrow to the right of the first graph), which plots the same data using the old SMDs, suggests that, although variation in district size was much greater under the old system, the bias against Fidesz was smaller than the bias in Fidesz’s favour that has now been introduced.
I have not been able to verify these figures – which do, of course, come from one of the opposition parties. Nevertheless, they fit closely with others: analysts writing on the Haza és Haladás blog find, simulating 2006 election data with the new SMDs, that the average number of voters in districts where Fidesz were ahead by more than 5 per cent is 74,639, while that in districts where the MSZP were ahead by the same amount is 80,428. They find evidence of various other boundary manipulations in Fidesz’s favour and conclude, largely on this basis, that “this is not a democratic electoral system”.
To draw up district boundaries in a non-transparent and partisan way is a gross abuse of democratic principle. Fidesz will probably get away with it: such abuses are common in several other SMD-based systems, and Hungarian politicians have a depressing tendency to compare Hungarian practice with what happens elsewhere rather than with what should happen. But we should be clear all the same that Fidesz is skewing the system to its own advantage. Furthermore, by placing the district boundaries in the electoral law – a law that can be changed only with a two-thirds parliamentary majority – it is seeking to entrench its unfair advantage for the future.
Overall, then, this is basically a case of reform by elite majority imposition: the government has designed an electoral law that will serve its own power interests against the opposition of all parties outside government and with little real involvement from the wider public. Everyone agreed that an overhaul of the electoral system was necessary, but the government has used this opportunity ruthlessly for its own purposes.
The only possible qualification to this picture concerns the reduction in the size of Parliament from 386 to 199 members: why would Fidesz deputies back such a change if they were thinking only of their own electoral interests?
I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on this. One point may be that the unanimous support for the bill from the government benches shows how far Fidesz is controlled by its leadership. But is there also a concession here to public opinion? In other countries, including the UK and Ireland, reductions in the number of deputies in the past year have been justified on the basis that, when public services are being cut sharply, politicians should feel the pinch too. The same reasoning was expressed in the Hungarian Parliament on 2nd December: Fidesz’s Gergely Gulyás, for example, said, “At a time when the country’s difficult economic situation demands sacrifices from numerous parts of society, it is particularly justified and rational for Parliament to set a good example”. More often, however, Fidesz deputies simply pointed out that parliamentary downsizing has been promised for twenty years but never achieved. This justification appeals to a populist discourse according to which Fidesz is the party that can slice through the lethargy of a corrupt and self-serving elite to act in the interests of the ordinary people of Hungary.
In this respect then, Fidesz is pandering to popular distaste for politicians. But it is doing so in a way that does the party’s leadership no harm. To use the language introduced by political scientists Steven Reed and Michael Thies, act- as well as outcome-contingent considerations matter here. In all respects, however, it appears that the government has worked out what will serve its own power interests and has taken as much of this as it thinks itself able to get away with.