In a committee hearing on Tuesday, János Lázár, leader of the governing party’s parliamentary caucus presented the official proposal of the Hungarian government to reform the country’s electoral system. Fidesz had already rewritten the country’s constitution following their landslide electoral win in 2010; the law regulating the election of the parliament however has yet to be brought into alignment with the principles laid down in the constitution. The reform of the law must be approved this year, before the constitution comes into effect in January 2012.
The electoral law of the country would structure the electoral process in 2014, the first time voters would get a chance to go to the ballots since the political changes undertaken by Hungary’s current government. It is worth remembering that the currently governing party has enough votes to push through any system it finds advantageous for its own political survival. Nevertheless, only weeks before the “yes” vote on the proposal in the parliament, no one from the government is willing to confirm concrete numerical details.
As such, this is only a preliminary list of what is problematic with the proposal. Where available, I link to my original Hungarian sources.
Problem #1: The proposal transforms the current multi-party system into a two-party system.
Smaller parties could still run in the elections, but the system would favor the party that secures the greatest number of the votes. According to the first expert calculations, a party with a 50% electoral win would obtain 85% of the seats in parliament, but even 30% of the votes cast would translate into a 66% super-majority (Fidesz candidates currently occupy 68.13% of the seats in the parliament after receiving 52.73% of the party votes).
Problem #2: The current system of compensating opposition parties for votes lost in electoral contests would be offset by a new mechanism, which would provide similar compensation to the winner of district elections.
As of right now, after each vote cast for a candidate, “partial” votes are awarded to the party he or she represents. This mechanism was originally created in order to counteract a “winner takes all” outcome. But the new proposal would also compensate the winner for any votes received above the number necessary for defeating the candidate finishing in the second place. The impact of this would be minimal if the difference between the winner and the second runner-up is negligible. The greater the difference between winner and the second candidate, and the more parties compete, the less net impact would the compensation system have in avoiding a “winner takes all” scenario.
EXAMPLES (inspired by János Áder’s own explanation)
If the candidate with the most votes receives 8003 votes, and the candidate in second place receives the remaining 7997 votes: The winning candidate’s party receives partial compensation for 5 votes (because 7998 votes would have sufficed for defeating the second-place candidate), while the party of the second-place candidate is compensated for 7997 votes. In a situation like this, the net compensation is after 7992 votes and favors the second-place candidate.
If the candidate with the most votes receives 8000 votes, the second candidate receives 5000 votes, and two more candidates share the remaining 3000 ballots: The opposition candidates are compensated for the votes they received, but the winning candidate’s party also receives compensation for 2999 votes. The net compensation still favors the opposition, but to a considerably smaller degree than in the above scenario. The compensation is distributed among a number of parties, and some of it may be lost (there is a minimum threshold of becoming a party in the parliament – the exact number is still under discussion).
If the candidate with the most votes receives 10,667 votes and a second candidate receives the remaining 5,333 votes: winning by 66% of the votes is the point at which the compensation mechanism would benefits winner and loser equally. Nobody would be compensated in this scenario (anywhere above a 66% electoral victory, the winning party’s compensation would in fact offset the opposition’s compensation in other races).
If the candidate with most votes receives 10,666 votes and a number of opposition candidates share the remaining 5,333 votes: the net benefit from the compensation would be with the winning candidate. S/he would get compensated for the number of votes received minus the votes cast for the second candidate, which, if the opposition votes were distributed among more than one candidates, would be more than 5,333.
Clarification: Compensation is calculated in conjunction with the result of the party vote. In the Hungarian system, only about one half of the representatives are elected directly, while about half of the seats are distributed in proportion of party votes. This ratio used to be 46:54 in favor of the party vote – in 2010, 176 local and another 210 party candidates were elected (all but 3 of the opposition party’s seats were obtained through the party line). In the new system, the ratio between local and party representatives is likely to flip: more candidates are going to be elected from the districts than from party lines, though exact numbers have not yet been confirmed. Note that the more seats are awarded in local contests the closer the system gets to a “winner takes all” setup.
Problem #3: Voter registration rules could disqualify voters from exercising their right to vote.
According to some versions of the proposal, those who wanted to exercise their right to vote would have to register three months in advance of the election. It’s called an “active” voter registration system, because it would replace the current system in which the electoral rolls are taken from municipal records. This would most likely have an impact on the “undecided” vote – in so far that they are least likely to register in advance.
The introduction of the new voter registration system was not a part of the official presentation today. According to reports, there is a strong push among government politicians in its favor, though the matter is still subject to debate.
Problem #4: The parliamentary representation of minorities would exclude minorities from voting for their party preferences.
A new feature of the proposal would ensure the parliamentary representation of minorities residing in Hungary. Currently, every voter casts two votes: one for their local representative, and another for the party they support. Those who choose to vote as a member of a minority however would have to do so instead of voting for a party line – this in turn could artificially deflate the official number of minorities seeking political representation of their minority status.
Problem #5: Ethnic Hungarians residing outside of Hungary would be given a vote for their party preference, but not for a local candidate.
The most important concern with this issue is that the electoral campaign would export political tensions internal to Hungary to its neighboring countries (Hungary’s inner tensions often have nationalistic overtones and irredentist aspirations). As far as democratic and not diplomatic matters are concerned, this arrangement would set a precedent of differentiating between first and second-class citizens: one group of citizens would have full, while another only partial voting rights.
As stated above, this is just the beginning, and only the initial assessment of the most recently revealed plans for the 2014 election. I am sure there is going to be reason to return to these issues before long.