Bursting the Bubble

Hungary’s Democratic Standards: a Slippery Slope to Autocracy

26 March 2014 | by

A litmus test for any democracy is free and fair elections. Since accession to power in 2010, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party has worked hard to enact legal and often constitutional changes which have, in consequence, moved the country away from democratic principles. Hungary has become a country where all executive and control mechanisms have been assumed by representatives of Fidesz. What is more worrying, however, is that in light of the enacted changes it seems very likely that the country, irrespective of the majority opinion of Hungarians, will remain a system governed by one party and one party only. On 6th April, Hungary will hold parliamentary elections. With the new legal frame in place it is safe to conclude already that the contest will be, and is, everything but fair.

On 18 April 2011 the Hungarian Parliament adopted the 4th Amendment of the country’s Constitution which has, among other things, brought about a change in the electoral system. Traditionally, Hungary’s elections have been held under a mixed system whereby Hungarians cast two votes: one for the party list in multi-seat constituencies at regional level, and the other for the single-seat constituencies at district level. This system had been very similar to that of Germany, but not any more. Changes introduced by the Hungarian government have altered the workings of both elements of the electoral system – single-seat constituencies and the party lists.

As for the single seat constituencies, we can safely say that the two-round majoritarian system has been turned into a first-past-the-post (FPTP) one. In this system, a candidate no longer has to warrant the majority of the votes, as was previously the case. Instead, he or she only needs more votes than any other candidate running against him/her. That in itself would not be a problem if, however, this change has not been undertaken in conjunction with the re-drawing of borders of electoral districts. Not only has this process been utterly biased in favour of the ruling Fidesz, worse still the changes have been enshrined into the constitution, making any future change of districts subject to a 2/3 Parliamentary majority. This in effect cements Fidesz into a more beneficial position than would be the case on the ground and creates institutional hurdles for the opposition.

Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton scholar, illustrates the point of unfair re-districting on the case of the Hajdú-Bihar County, where in the 2006 elections three of the nine districts went to Socialists and the rest voted for Fidesz. Following the reform of the electoral system the County has shrunk its nine districts into six. The re-drawing of the districts was not arbitrary, however. As Kim Lane Scheppele explains, “If the results from the 2006 election were tallied in the newly drawn six districts…Fidesz would now win every district”.

Furthermore, Fidesz has also tampered with the party list system which forms the other dimension of the country’s electoral system. In order to boost the number of his MPs in the future Parliament, Orban has come up with a truly revolutionary interpretation of compensation for the so called “lost votes”.

Under the previous Hungarian system, parties which failed to win an outright majority in single seat districts would get their votes ‘compensated’ for, by having them added to the tally at the regional level consisting of multi-seat constituencies. This means that parties not successful at the district level would see their performance somewhat improved at the regional level. In a rather perverse logic and under the newly established system, a party that wins (!) and secures a district mandate will now be compensated too! This is because in the FPTP system a party does not always need all its votes to win a seat. It only needs one more vote than the second best candidate which makes all the other additional votes on top of that “lost” (or so Fidesz believes). Compensating a winner only because he/she won by a larger margin is truly unorthodox. This obscure measure will negate the purpose of vote compensation in the first place: to close the gap between the winner and the rest of the parties.

The upcoming parliamentary elections will also be skewed by a number of other measures. From unequal treatment of Hungarians living abroad (i.e. the opposition-leaning expats facing disproportionate difficulties when registering to vote); unequal media access for the opposition parties; to campaign financing where rules on spending caps do not apply to Fidesz (here). There are many flaws with this year’s elections, but one knows the country has turned a corner when the Election Office, charged with non-partisan overseeing of fair elections, promotes a video with Viktor Orban himself.

All or any of the above should be a cause of concern for Europe. In light of these issues, the European Parliament passed a Resolution on 3 July 2013 in which it found Hungary in breach of the European values as defined in Article 2 TEU on a number of counts. The Parliament criticized Hungary’s constitutional changes which have, among other things, weakened checks and balances, undermined independence of the judiciary and unfairly reformed the electoral system. The resolution called upon Hungary to bring its constitution in line with EU values, but has been largely ignored due to its non-binding nature.

The EU does have, however, a tool at its disposal to push Hungary into complying with the EU standards, though it has so far refused to deploy this option. Article 7 TEU allows the EU to strip Hungary of its EU voting rights for being in breach with the values defined at Article 2 TEU. Given that the use of this so called ‘nuclear option’ is indeed controversial, it is increasingly unlikely that the EU will ever resort to using Article 7 against Hungary.

Despite or maybe because of only resorting to the rhetorical bravado on the part of Europe, introduction of a score-board by the Commission and the Parliament flirts with reforming the EU’s way of monitoring and enforcing fundamental rights, though little has changed. In fact, it seems that the results of the upcoming elections in Hungary are a foregone conclusion. It is undeniable that Fidesz has been enjoying high support from the Hungarian citizens but it is equally fair to assume, that at least part of this support is a result of a Fidesz’ monopolistic dominance in the public sphere. Similarly,  success in the polls will be, to a great extent, a result of an unfair electoral system which heavily favours the governing party and which no longer even pretends to be fair or balanced.

Hungary has dangerously moved away from democratic principles upon which Europe should stand. Fidesz is not an undemocratic force because it holds a 2/3 majority in the Parliament. After all, it won the 2010 elections fair and square, but what is undemocratic is the abuse of power the party has since indulged in. Once having used the fair democratic system for getting in power, Fidesz has now pulled the ladder behind to ensure others will not enjoy the same benefit. The EU itself is not an entity of perfection but if it upholds ideals that it requires Member States and itself to obey by, then with letting this go it may just as well remove those altogether. Europe needs to act now before we get too comfortable about the current state of play.


For the full account of the recent changes affecting the free and fair elections in Hungary, please read Kim Lane Scheppele essays here.


  1. Frankie boy! It’s hard to appreciate your article when one is aware of the political climate in Hungary. What if I told you that the socialist opposition is so bad for the country and so incredibly corrupt that we need to take measures to minimize the chance that they can come back in power again steal and rob Hungary from it’s citizens. The only way to do this is via unorthodox routes, because democaracy in this sense fails big time. Democarcy allows foreign invaders (or natives with foreign interests at heart) to basically take over a country and destroy it from within. Until this flaw is fixed the majority of Hungarians are totally fine with Fidesz and Orban running things. In 4 years there is hardly anything to really worry about. Yes they are attracting more and more power, but hey, they are just taking it from the socialists who stole them from the Hungarian public. Most of the negativety is exagerrated and some are just outright lies.

    What Fidesz is doing, is making sure that even IF the corrupt socialist ever do get back into power (possible because they get support from almost all western media outlets) they are unable to fully abuse their power for their own and foreign interests.

    Think about it dude and support one of the few political parties in the world that is able to pull a poor country from bancrupcy without public austerity measures.

    • The level of corruption and nepotism has not decreased since Fidesz came into power.
      Poverty has not decreased in the latest 4 years, more than 50% of the Hungarian population experience some kind of poverty.
      I don’t know who you are talking about when you are talking about foreign invaders.
      Is it the foreign companies in Hungary which stands for about 70% of the export from Hungary and which employes more than 25 % of the Hungarian workforce?
      Is it Eu from which Hungary is amongst the countries which receives most funding in percentage of GDP.

      Fidesz is a neo-communist party, and their goal is to turn Hungary into a one party “democracy”.

      You can’t say that the majory of Hungarians are fine with Fidesz. At the 2010 election where they won the “landslide victory”, only about 30-34 % of the electorate voted for Fidesz.

    • You cannot build a thriving economy without reducing Hungarian social benefits. Hungary’s tax burden on wages and salaries is easily the highest in Europe. Employee social contribution is 25%. Employer social contribution is 20%. And flat income tax is 16%. Austerity is inevitable.

  2. Frank

    Dear Not Frankie,

    (It would show more imagination if your chose somewhat more original name than that but each to their own 🙂 )

    Just a couple of points. If Orban is the saviour of Hungary then why the mass exodus from the country? And why then legally prevent students from leaving the country? He has been in power for long enough for his magical solutions to materialise. Sadly that has not been the case as more and more Hungarians would agree. The economy of the country is not doing half as well as Orban’s propaganda media portray. And people know it and they vote with their feet.

    Btw who is he saving the country from? Certainly not from oligarchs such as Lajos Simicska who are doing EXTREMELY well. The country is turning into oligarchy and you don’t seem to mind as long as these are not Western corporations.

    The sad point that you may not have realised is that even though you say that until “foreign invaders” are stopped Hungarians will be ‘fine’ with Fidesz running the show. Well, my friend, once their job is done you may be surprised to learn that an option of removing Fidesz from power is no longer there because they have cemented their position for ever. That is why changing constitution the way Fidesz has is dangerous. But you already know that.

    I would appreciate if you, instead of offering general phrases such as “Most of the negativity is exaggerated and some are just outright lies” presented FACTS. What is distorted. What is not true?

    Thank you!

    • This is also inaccurate: “And why then legally prevent students from leaving the country?” Students are not legally prevented from leaving the country.

      No one is saying, Frank, that “any opinion that is not that of Fidesz is not objective”. I have many criticisms of the current government. The problem is when arguments are not backed up by facts. Your article above – and the sources you site – are hurt by really basic fact problems.

      • Frank

        Their tuition fees would not get reimbursed unless they stayed in the country once they graduate. I think this is a legal impediment on people’s freedom – those who cannot afford it, of course.

        • Frank, I’m sorry but you’re not correct. if a student accepts a scholarship then he/she has 20 years after graduation to fulfill the “service requirement” by working in Hungary for a number of years commensurate with the scholarship. If the Hungarian state pays for the education, then Hungary should get the benefit of the trained/educated worker. But if he or she gets a job somewhere else then they can pay back the scholarship over 20 years. Nobody’s freedom of movement is being denied.

          You really should have a better knowledge of facts, if you’re writing about this.

          • Frank

            As I said before: those who can afford to pay will pay and will be free to leave. For the rest the following logic applies: one is made stay in Hungary not because of incentives offered by the state but quite the opposite. People are being disincentivised to leave not incentivised to stay. That is not right, nor fair.

            • Don’t be such a dick, Frank. The student grant thing is not a limiting freedom at all. In many European countries there are no student grants. In the Hungarian system you get your entire education payed for at as long as you work for a number of years in Hungary out of the following twenty years. If not you have to pay it pack. If you had a system like that in the UK people would be lining up around the block to sign up for it.

              • Frank

                Dave, with all due respect, just because the UK’s system is even worse does not make that of Hungary any better 🙂 There is a difference between the UK and Hungary, however. In the UK all students pay while in Hungary it’s only people who wish to live abroad that pay. I’m not against paid education per se but let’s make it equal and instead of discouraging people to leave lets encourage them to stay.

                Please, beware that the blog respects its own ethics codex which you can find here: http://www.europeanpublicaffairs.eu/ethics/ . Just to avoid terms like “dick” and the like. Thank you

            • Frank… the Hungarian “brain drain” has been a scourge on Hungary for decades due to war, occupation, and the effects of communism (many still lingering). Requiring students who receive state scholarships to stay put is a valid and welcome requirement used elsewhere and says nothing about the state of democracy. In fact, it may say Hungary is preparing for the future and and even stronger democracy through a more highly educated citizenry.

              But the real problem is your regurgitating the talking points of the illiberal left and the largely discredited Kim Lane Scheppele who we now know has been in bed with the socialists. As a European on the center-left, I am dismayed by this US Fox News-like “talking points” approach and the lack of truly independent, fact-based investigative journalism and open, honest debate. I have an idea what side of the political spectrum you fall, but you should temper that in your writing which should be based on true facts, not half-truths or even false, politically motivated, propaganda.

              • Frank

                Dear George,

                The fact that one is “in bed with socialists” does not discredit one’s facts. You say facts on the “left” have been discredited. But so far we have not heard any alternative facts (if there is such a thing) except for the Fidesz politicians screaming murder whenever the EU would try intervene. I may go by the so called facts of the left supported by the European Parliament’s own conclusions or the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission’s report or I can rely on the official line coming from Budapest. I’ll choose the former time and time again.

  3. “What is more worrying, however, is that in light of the enacted changes it seems very likely that the country, irrespective of the majority opinion of Hungarians, will remain a system governed by one party and one party only.”
    The author hasn’t read anything recently in Hungary (or Hungarian) that mentions opinion polls. All of the polling agencies — pro-gov and pro-opposition — show a huge lead for Orban. The fact of the matter is, there’s nothing basically unfair about the new system. The current opposition parties are so disliked by the voters that they would suffer huge loss in the old electoral system too.

    The author seems to be from the copy-paste school of journalism, or blogging, or whatever this is.

    He cites Kim Lane Scheppele’s, um, “essays” as a “full account”, but she has been discredited as a surrogate for the opposition parties. No objectivity.

    The curious reader could also read the study published by Szazadveg http://www.scribd.com/doc/165062712/THE-NEW-HUNGARIAN-ELECTORAL-SYSTEM
    maybe give reader some balance.

  4. Frank

    “It is undeniable that Fidesz has been enjoying high support from the Hungarian citizens but it is equally fair to assume, that at least part of this support is a result of a Fidesz’ monopolistic dominance in the public sphere.”

    Briefly: I’m aware of Orban’s popularity. I also say that this may to some extent be a result of stifled public debate dominated by Fidesz. Fidesz is going to win – the margin of by how much, however, is a reason for concern as I explained above.

    Again, if we accept that any opinion that is not that of Fidesz is not objective the debate dies. But I assume that is the purpose and logic behind current leadership of Hungary

    • Frank, To say that this “may to some extent be a result of stifled public debate dominated by Fidesz” betrays, I don’t want to be unpolite, a terrible ignorance. I don’t blame you if you don’t speak Hungarian, but there is no small amount of debate and critical coverage in Hungary. To suggest, as you do, that that could be the only reason for Orban’s popularity among voters shows a significant ignorance of what’s going on here.

      The economic indicators are, though you overlook them, turning positive. And they have been for a while. These are not according to Government’s reporting but now we see more optimistic forecasts on the Hungarian economy from the European Commission and the IMF. Results put out this week by a research institute that is not pro-Government — GKI — said that economic sentiment index has hit a 12-year high

      That and consumer confidence is up too. If you want to look for a reason why Orban is winning, that’s one of them.

      The big problem in Hungary is that there is no opposition. It has been in terrible shape since 2006, and that makes the huge unbalance in political life. Over the long term, that’s not good for Hungary.

      But it’s not because the elections rules are unfair.

      • Frank


        I did not suggest that Orban’s popularity hinges solely and entirely on him being an unorthodox democrat. In fact it is in the quote that I’ve already given to you and if you wanted to you would find it there.

        Secondly; the fact that Hungary’s economy is turning the corner is good news but let’s be honest. It is happening DESPITE Orban rather than thanks to him. All European economies will grow at some point and in all honesty Hungary is one of the worst performers in the region (since Orban has been in power).

        I don’t deny for a moment that the state of the country’s opposition is abysmal. And this to some extent explains Orban’s popularity but this is no reason or excuse for Fidesz to usurp power in the fashion that it has. In fact if Orban was a statesman he would recognise his crucial role and he would uphold democratic principles especially when he has the power to do whatever he pleases. For the sake of the country.

        • Frank, I see that you have strong opinions but you don’t have strong facts, unfortunately.

          Your article and the quote you cite suggest that the prime minister and his Government are stifling debate, and that’s ridiculous. Nobody who speaks and understands Hungarian would say that debate is stifled. The previous president was forced after a popular opposition-oriented media reported on his alleged plagiarism. I could go on.

          Economy is turning the corner “despite Orban rather than thanks to him…and in all honesty Hungary is one of the worst performers in the region.” Again, a strong opinion. But facts do not support your point.

          • Frank


            The facts are clear: Hungary went through two recessions since 2010 until 2013! It is by far one of the weakest performing economies in the region (especially with regards to Hungary’s northern neighbours or Romania). In 2012 Hungary’s economy contracted by 1.7% while the Czech Republic’s by 1%. Romania grew by 0.7% and Slovakia even by 1.8%. The tax system, in order for the country to meet its 3% GDP debt ratio goal, has become complicated due to additional taxes introduced by Fidesz. Quoting from the OECD study: Growth potential is held back by weak investment, low employment among low-skilled workers and shortcomings in labour and product markets, making further structural reforms essential.

            But the best thing is that it doesn’t matter what I say or what I think. It is people of Hungary who flee the country in thousands, disenchanted with the political and economic situation back home, who speak loudest.

            • Then why is the economic sentiment index at a 12-year high? Why is consumer confidence up? And growth is headed up — by everyone’s forecast from the European Commission to private financial companies.

              And the tax system? Are you kidding? The additional taxes are on sectors like banking and telecoms. For the low-skilled workers that you mention, for workers in Hungary, the taxes got simpler — a flat tax on income.

              Your thesis, Frank — that the country is on a slippery slope to autocracy — simply doesn’t hold water. The problem with Hungary is the terrible state of the left, the political opposition.

              Here’s a point where we agree: I’d also prefer not see a landslide on April 6. It would be better for Hungary. But to win an election, you have to run candidates and parties that people want to vote for.

              • Frank

                For simple reason Michael. An economy which is stagnating or contracting for a long period tends to bounce back at some point. No one is saying Hungary’s economy is doing badly at the moment but up until now the state of it has been very negative. What will show the real state of the economy is the long-term sustainability of the growth and the level of the GDP vis-a-vis pre-crisis level.

                I agree that the opposition is weak. No doubt about that. And yes, it remains extremely unpopular. I am not denying that Fidesz IS the most popular party in Hungary. What I do have an issue with, however, is that Oran is in effect pulling the ladder behind him in hope that when the opposition comes back in force it will take it twice the efforts to defeat him.

              • Michael, I was trained as an economist and worked as one for many years. Hungary is not doing well and won’t do well. The total tax burden on salaries and wages is over 60% and Orbán cannot reduce because he is unwilling to reduce Hungarian social benefits. Hungary will continue to grow slower than other Eastern European countries and when 2019 arrives the very dumb Hungarians will realize that they squandered an entire decade chasing the mirage of 19th century Hungary nationalism.

  5. “Kim Lane Scheppele, a Princeton scholar, illustrates the point of…”

    That alone is enough to dismiss the post entirely as yet another desperate leftlib propaganda piece. 😀

  6. Wow – Obviously some of your writing these comments are very extreme Pro Fidesz and Orban, trying to discredit the Author – who by the way never presented himself as a Hungarian expert. Honestly some of the statements made against the author are the ‘Fox News’ type comments. Anyone who has watched fox news can clearly see that.
    The author is not saying that he is publishing a finite quantitative study done over years – he is writing an article looking at some of the voting changes made which lead to democracy not being wholly, & fairly upheld. Perhaps some of you critics should review some of the Hungarian commitments as part of the EU, and reflect on the lack of objectivity in your analysis – which in my opinion is an unsubstantiated rant, though you are most likely Fidesz supporters so you are naturally scared that someone writing based on logic and what is being done regarding elections – will discredit you. To personally insult the author is inexcusable, you may disagree with him, but at least explain yourself in a respectful way so the rest of us do not think that Magyar, Dunn, and Letto are just anti democracy individuals running scared about someone voicing a chain of logic about changes being made.

  7. “There are many flaws with this year’s elections, but one knows the country has turned a corner when the Election Office, charged with non-partisan overseeing of fair elections, promotes a video with Viktor Orban himself.”

    I don’t want to be the Ferenc Kumin of the moment, but National Election Office denied any contribution to that video.

  8. Just to give you a picture about Hungarian autocracy of today: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3jfOpNP-Frs

  9. Thank you Frank for this excellent article. The defenders of Orbáns postcommunist maffiastate always point out that somewhere else one can find also corruption and elements of autocracy.
    However the fact that more Hungarians left during the last 4 years Hungary (most of them to the UK, Germany and Austria) shows that young and qualified Hungarians not connected to the ruling maffia look for a better future outside their homecountry.

What do you think?