On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Hungarian government retains absolute control of parliament

Despite winning only 48% of the national vote overnight, Hungary’s dominant Fidesz party has again taken around 67% of the seats in the nation’s parliament.

The two-thirds majority will allow the party and three-term Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to make future changes to the nation’s constitution, preventing further challenges to its control over the country.

Fidesz is a highly unusual political party. Founded in the 1990s by its continuing leader Orbán, the party has crab-walked from being a liberal centre-left entity over to the political right. Fidesz’ platform is now nationalist, anti-immigration and authoritarian.

Orbán and Fidesz formed the national government from 1998 to 2002, before losing to a Socialist government. Fidesz came back into power at the 2010 elections.

The governing party’s voter support was at 52% in 2010, falling to under 45% in 2014. At this weekend’s election it appears to have recovered to 48%, with turnout also up.

Orbán’s government, and campaign, have leant heavily on a hard line on controlling the large numbers of immigrants moving up through Europe from the war-torn middle east. In 2015 the government rapidly constructed a 175km security fence along its border with Serbia, bringing immigrant arrivals to an immediate and almost complete halt.

Instead, populations in the millions of people have diverted through Slovenia and other contries.

Orbán’s campaign also prominently features continual attacks on the figure of US billionaire George Soros, himself a Hungarian émigré who has invested heavily in civil society movements in Eastern Europe and elsewhere around the world. A significant donor to the US Democratic party and – through his network of NGOs, many governance and civil society movements – Soros has become something of a hate-figure for conservative political parties in many countries.

When the current Fidesz Hungarian government took office in 2010 it reformed the constitution and electoral law to design a composite parliament made up of 106 seats filled by plurality (first-past-the-post/FPTP) voting, and 93 more seats allocated to political parties by proportional representation.


2014 local division results: Fidesz (orange) won 96 out of 106 of these seats with 44% of the vote (graphic: Wikipedia)

Under this electoral system Fidesz benefits enormously from a divided opposition. By winning 45% and 48% in the two recent elections, with the remainder of the vote scattered among numerous rivals, Fidesz sweeps the great majority of the 106 local seat contests.

Picking up a further share of the 93 proportional seats has twice allowed it to reach the target of 133 of the 199 seats – a two-thirds majortity – which gives it the power to further amend the national constitution.


Hungarian opinion polling 2014-2018: Fidesz (orange), with popular support ranging between 40% and 55%, dominates a fragmented array of small parties (graphic: Wikipedia)

While a slim majority of the nation (at least since around 2014) does not support the internationally controversial Fidesz government, the alternatives include the far-right Jobbik party, which has been winning 19-20% of the vote. The fragmented Hungarian political ‘left’ collectively wins around 25% of the vote.

Fidesz is clearly the best-supported of the nation’s political parties, but it has also leveraged the design of the electoral system to give it disproportionate control over the nation’s future.

Fidesz’ election results would make Hungary a one-party state under a system if universal plurality (FPTP) voting. But the composite design of the electoral system, part plurality and part proportional, is still yielding enormously distorted political outcomes.

Hungarian voter turnouts are not particularly high: 64% in 2010, 61% in 2014 and now apparently 68% in 2018.

Fidesz’ absolute support from the electorate vote fell from around 34% in 2010 to 27% in 2014, before rising again to around 33% yesterday. Vote counting is not yet final.

The fragmented minor left parties cannot even co-operate among themselves to withdraw candidates strategically to target local seats. Four of the left parties ran a Unity ticket in 2014, but that arrangement collapsed for this election. The strongest left party has won just 12% of the vote.

A public funding mechanism which rewards parties for every seat nominee they make may also be a factor in the large numbers of unsuccessful non-Fidesz candidates.


More commentary:

Prior to the election, this excellent report in the Washington Post by  John Ahlquist, Nahomi Ichino, Jason Wittenberg and Daniel Ziblatt, April 8 – Hungarians go to the polls today. But are voters enough to protect democracy?

“If voters don’t think about the fairness of the electoral rules, independently of their personal partisan commitments, then democracy may be less secure than we normally think.”

Another insightful report by political writer Yascha Mounk – Slate, April 9 – Hungary’s Election Was a Milestone in the Decline of Democracy – goes into the deeper political nature of Viktor Orbán, Fidesz and the changes to the electoral system in 2012.

“Orbán owes his immense power to the big changes to the electoral system he pushed through in a highly partisan manner. Indeed, it is only because the new laws he championed give huge advantages to the biggest political party that, even though only about one-third of eligible voters supported him, he now commands more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament”

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