From Democracy to Autocracy: The Finishing Touches Are in the Electoral Law

Even before Fidesz, Hungary’s governing party obtained a 2/3 majority in the Hungarian Parliament in 2010, there were speculations about a possible game plan that could have assured that they remain in power forever.

Three things prevented such a coup from occuring before 2010:

1. In the beginning of the 1990s, Hungary’s electoral law made one party’s two-third majority almost unimaginable. A lengthy political evolution allowed for the current system, in which Fidesz’ 52% electoral party translated into a 2/3 majority in the legislature.

2. It was also deemed impossible that the Hungarian people would idly stand by or even cheer on their return to a soft dictatorship.

3. A return to autocracy presupposed the emergence of a political force with a political will to undertake these changes. Short of a party explicitly campaigning for such a system (which, given presupposition #2, could not have gained the trust of the electorate), this would have required envisioning a party which, through its populist appeal and rhetorical distortions, could convince the people that what is unfolding in front of their eyes is not a mere coup but a bona fide revolution.

By 2010, however, neither assumption 2 nor 3 was holding too firmly. Any attempt to deliver Hungarians from what Fidesz is doing to them had to focus therefore on item #1 on the list: legalities – and among them, in a privileged place, Hungary’s electoral law. As far as the other two guarantees against autocratic rule were concerned, people did decide to shortchange their democratic constitution for a preamble that stresses their national unity, but not their human rights; while Viktor Orbán never ceases to fascinate us with his megalomania or with the the ambitions to which he is driven by his own exaggerated sense of self. A double whammy like that would have been hard to predict even by the most cynical forecaster at the time Hungary’s (now past) constitution was not properly fortified against such excesses.

The government’s proposal for electoral reform was therefore met with eager interest this week in Hungary. After all, the change of the electoral system – besides the constitution, already checked off of the government’s “to do” list – is perhaps the most central piece in a game of imposing Fidesz’ rule on all subjects Hungarian, whether they like it or not, inside or outside of Hungary.

This is definitely not a new endeavor on the part of Hungary’s ruling party. In fact, electoral reform is perhaps their longest-lasting legislative agenda since their election in 2010 (which is not to say that it’s been going on for a long time – just that thus far they have passed 95 laws and amended 171 others, and a constitution since May 2010). They did start working on it early on: one of the first few decisions of the newly elected Hungarian parliament was to reduce the number of MPs from 386 to around 200 for the next electoral cycle. Since that decision in 2010, the Hungarian parliament also decided to grant citizenship to ethnic Hungarians, a large majority of whom live in neighboring countries. The exercise of this population’s newly acquired electoral rights were also to be worked  out in this legislative proposal.

Many concerns arising in conjunction with this much disputed citizenship issue have foreign policy implications (and, as such, remain on the radar of the EU). Its impact on domestic policy, however, is perhaps even more enormous. With the help of this enormous new block of voters, Fidesz could guarantee for itself electoral victory even in a scenario that involves Hungarian citizens residing within Hungary’s actual borders giving it only minority support (it is widely assumed that Hungarians residing outside of Hungary’s borders would vote for Fidesz in exchange for the citizenship granted to them by the party’s parliamentary majority). What is more, Fidesz could count on the support of these newly created citizenry infinitely because, according to the new Hungarian constitution, it would require a two-third majority to strip this population of their voting rights.

Assuming that it is true that Hungarians living outside of Hungary would all vote for Fidesz (just for the sake of argument), we would nevertheless need to run through this argument one more time. The idea is that, during its legislative streamrolling over the last year, political agendas especially dear to the Hungarian government (and controversial for the rest of the nation) were enacted as special – fundamental (or sarkalatos) – laws. Hungary’s new constitution fixes 39 policy areas in which legislature will require approval by 2/3 of the Parliament. Until 2014, the end of the current electoral cycle, Fidesz can change these, because it holds a 2/3 majority in the legislature. But unless another party is able to defeat Fidesz, and to defeat it with a large margin of victory, these laws remain in effect infinitely.

This is where the electoral law enters the picture. In effect, the electoral law sets the “exchange ratio” between actual votes and parliamentary systems, as well as the margin of victory that might produce a 2/3 of victory.

Of course this is still an oversimplification. But the strategy by which the government hopes to perpetuate its power beyond 2014 would depend on many more elements of this plan. It was a few of these elements that were announced on July 9 by János Áder, one of Fidesz’s highest-ranking legal thinkers. He made clear that the government is going to raise the number of “petitions” each candidate needs to collect in support of his or her candidacy, as well as decrease the amount of time allowed for collecting such “petitions” (in Hungary, parties collect what are called kopogtatócédulák – personalized tickets sent to voters in the mail). These are obvious attempts on the part of the government to prevent the emergence of new political forces in Hungary – Fidesz has the best chances of winning when the opponent pool is restricted to the country’s currently existing parties. One of these, the socialist party, is largely discredited among mainstream voters, another party in opposition is the far-right Jobbik, the party with the militia connections I discuss elsewhere on this blog – of the third, too, mention will be made very shortly.

Another important revelation – in what Áder himself characterized as “only the minimum” of information he was willing to share with the public – is that elections in the new system will have only one round of voting. Currently, Hungarian citizens cast a vote on a long list of candidates in what is round one of a two-round process. Naturally, it is difficult for one candidate to emerge as the winner in this first round: 50% of the votes are necessary to be elected through the first round and the votes are almost always scattered around too many candidates to meet this margin. According to the current law, if none of the candidate obtains 50% of the votes cast, three candidates with the most votes move on to the second round. Electoral coalitions are often formed during the two weeks that separate the two rounds of voting: a smaller party might recall all but a few of their candidates, in exchange for a similar recall by the bigger party in just a few districts, where the small country’s candidates now has a realistic chance of winning. According to Áder’s proposal, this two-round system would be replaced by only one electoral contest between the candidates.

Two important questions, much further reaching in their consequences for the game that would inaugurate Orbán and his party as Hungary’s de facto autocratic ruler remain unanswered, however. The first of these is about redistricting – which, given the planned reduction of parliamentary seats by almost 50% is evidently necessary. As of yet, there is no information on what the process of redistricting would entail, who would be responsible for it, and how often the electoral districts would be adjusted to allow for equal representation among voters.

The second set of question marks hovers about the most eagerly anticipated details of the system, and especially on the specific combination of district and party elections it would contain. We do know that the compensation system, which currently allows for “counting” in part votes “lost” on a minority candidate will no longer be a feature of the system. The “mixed” system – voting both for a local representative and on a party line – remains, said Áder, but it is unclear, as of yet, what proportion of the parliamentary seats are going to be allocated by each of these votes.

The reactions to the proposals have been hectic, to say the least. The opposition was clearly alarmed (and what better time to do that than right now?). Specifically, in their immediate reaction to the proposal, noting that under the new regulations Fidesz would not only win the next election, but its victory would translate into a 3/4 majority, Gergely Karácsony of the LMP, Hungary’s Green Party, proposed a “technical coalition” among opposition parties, including the far-right Jobbik (no need to panic: the neo-nazis rejected his advances very curtly).

Besides the atrociousness of his idea, Karácsony was also wrong about his 3/4 estimate. Since his moment of despair, experts have calculated that Fidesz would not in fact hold as much as a two-third majority in the legislature if the law they have just proposed were in effect during the 2010 election. And yet Karácsony was not entirely incorrect about the 3/4 estimate either: he is backed up by calculations on an earlier proposal of the electoral law, one which Fidesz made public, without comparable fanfare, in 2010. The only problem is that the electoral law we have come to know in its outline this week is completely different from that previous draft. No kidding you guys: you’ve been had. This time for real – LMP’s gesture to the far-right may go a long way to discrediting the party as a whole.

It is no surprise, therefore, given how complex a matter this is, given how many drafts are being circulated, and considering how many minor details might make a considerable difference to whether one’s analysis is on the mark or completely mistaken about what Hungary’s electoral law holds for the future, that confusion reigns very high right now.

In the meantime, hardly any notice was made of just how unusual a treatment does this issue enjoy from the government. While Fidesz likes to push through its most controversial ideas as fast as it can, leaving just a few weeks for public deliberation between announcing the law and having its party caucus rubber-stamp it in the parliament, their electoral law has already seen three rounds of discussions and two considerably different underlying conceptions. With this specific law, they are really taking their time. What we did find out this week is that in spite of their own self-imposed deadline to finish a draft proposal by June 30, 2011, Fidesz’ leaders now estimate receipt of the full draft of the legislation no sooner than mid-October. It is thoroughly understandable why: the less time the opposition has to adjust to the new rules, the less likely it is that they will be able to come up with a feasible campaign strategy for the new system. Note that in the time allotted, technically they could pass three more constitutions – and that as far as their legislative agenda in general is concerned, there are no signs of slowing down. But as of right now, the election is still almost three years away – I would not be surprised if they deferred the matter even further.

But once we do in fact have the full information of their plans, we should look out for answers to the following questions:

First of all, is Fidesz going for a two-third victory in the next round of the elections or for a simply majority? As I already explained above, they need not have a two-third majority in the next electoral cycle in order to maintain their policies and to continue the cleansing of their opposition in every sector of public life. If the electoral law they author rewards the first party for being first more than the current system (while negatively impacting the second party for being second), they could undo their own revolution unwittingly. Fidesz is not known for their scorn for gambles, and yet my prediction would be that they are going to lean toward less radical changes on this front. In fact, they could only profit from being conservative in this respect when it comes to public opinion (not that that matters to them, but I thought I’d note it anyway). They could stick out another term with a single majority and fortify themselves enough with a single majority if there is a threat that the changes they might make to the electoral law lead to being voted out of power (remember that there is also electoral fraud to ensure a simple majority, especially with the mixed system intact).

Secondly, is it their plan to force their opposition to merge into a unitary force or would they rather marginalize each and every one of them separately? Both the issue of losing the “compensation” system and excluding smaller political forces, the two most heatedly discussed details of the week, speak to this issue. It would make sense for them to push for a system that essentially reduces Hungary’s multi-party system into a two-party system – and to complement that plan with a winner-takes-all setup (in which case they would probably want to go for a winner-take-all system – see above). Or, it might more sense to arrange for a system in which the relative difference between the winning party and the loser parties is greatest. The first option would raise the bar for the entry of new political forces but could backfire if the second party ever becomes strong enough to win the elections (which happens almost inevitably in two-party systems). The second option would marginalize every one of the opposition parties at the same time, and though it would take longer, it has the advantage of putting a democratic facade on what in effect would become an autocratic system.

The tell-tale sign that the government is moving toward the first of these options would be further tinkering with the mixed system: the more seats would be allocated in the parliament by district elections, the more we would see the second largest party systematically disadvantaged by, and the first benefitting from, the electoral results. But this week’s revelations seem more in alignment with the second strategy: the announced end to local and county-wide party lists and to the compensation system suggests that the plan would be to make each of the small parties as small as possible in comparison to a Behemoth Fidesz.

There is no doubt that the electoral law is the most subtle and ultimate piece of in the game plan by which Fidesz plans to return Hungary’s democratic institutions into a one-party system. For now, however, we wait – since this time around, we’ve been given a red herring. There is no doubt we will be in uproar over this yet again sometime soon.

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This entry was posted in autocracy, Áder János, democracy watch, electoral law, Hungarian, Hungary, international politics, parliament, sarkalatos törvények, választójogi törvény and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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