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.