Election Preview: Hungary 2010

Hungary goes to the polls on April 11 and April 25 to elect the 386 members of Hungary’s unicameral National Assembly, known as the Országgyűlés. In the 2006 elections, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and their former liberal allies (the Alliance of Free Democrats, SZDSZ) won a majority of seats: 210 seats for the Socialists and Free Democrats. The 2006 election marked the first time since the fall of the wall in 1990 that an Hungarian government won re-election.

Electoral System

Hungary’s 386 Országgyűlés is elected through a complex system. There are 176 single-member constituencies, elected through a system similar to the one used in France. To win by the first round, a candidate requires more than 50% of the vote and turnout must be over 50%. If no candidate fits this rule, a runoff is held two weeks later between all those candidates polling over 15% of the vote. A plurality is required in the runoff, and there is a 25% turnout minimum for the vote to be valid. On another ballot, voters elect 152 members through Hagenbach-Bischoff PR, in the context of 20 constituencies (Hungary’s 19 counties and Budapest). There is a 5% threshold for parties, a threshold which increases to 10% for coalitions between 2 parties and up to 15% for coalitions between 3 or more parties. The remaining 58 seats are allocated on a national list to compensate parties for disparities between the popular votes and constituency seats. No votes are actually cast for this national list, and these seats are allocated through d’Hondt among parties that qualify for the distribution of regional constituency seats.

Political History

note: Hungarian names are referred to in a last name-first name order. Names here use the Western name order.

Hungary is a polarized country, with power usually concentrated in the hands of two parties of roughly equal strength, and election results have been as such since 1998.

The first election after the fall of the wall, in 1990, saw the conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) win a large victory over the SZDSZ, which represented the old liberal middle-class opposition to the communist regime. The ‘incumbent’ government, represented by the MSZP, which was in fact the renamed but unreconstructed communist MSZMP, took only 11% of the vote and 33 seats. Fidesz, the Hungarian abbreviation for ‘Alliance of Young Democrats’, was a liberal opposition movement largely dominated by university students and young thinkers, and won only 9% of the vote and 21 seats. Jozsef Antall of the MDF became Prime Minister, but his efforts at shifting Hungary’s economy from a state-led socialist economy to a liberal free-market economy were unpopular because of the toll it took on jobs and consumer prices. The MDF’s conservative policies on matters such as religious education made it run into the SZDSZ.

In 1994, with a struggling economy and a reconstructed MSZP acceptable to the middle-class, the MSZP won a landslide victory winning an overall majority (209 seats by itself) and around 31% of the vote. The SZDSZ was unable to capitalize on the MDF’s unpopularity, and its vote fell slightly but it became the junior partner in the Socialist government led by Gyula Horn. The MDF, with only 12%, saw its caucus membership fall by 126 seats. Fidesz, after winning only 7% of the vote, under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, transformed itself from a libertarian party into a conservative party, capitalizing on the MDF’s destruction.

In 1998, the tough austerity policies (including a number of privatizations and cuts) of Gyula Horn’s government were sanctioned by voters, who turned to Orbán’s Fidesz, by now a conservative party albeit one running on some left-wing rhetoric (improvement in welfare payments). Fidesz, although winning less votes than the MSZP, won 148 seats to the MSZP’s 138. Through a coalition with the MDF and the old Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKGP),  Orbán became Prime Minister. Despite positive economic numbers (thanks partly to Horn’s policies but also tax cuts and social insurance contributions cuts), Orbán was assailed for being arrogant in his style and a number of scandals emerged, one which totally destroyed the FKGP.

Led by former finance minister Péter Medgyessy, the MSPZ and its traditional ally, the SZDSZ, narrowly defeated the incumbent Fidesz-MDF coalition. In a polarized election which saw only the three major parties/coalitions win seats, the Socialist-liberal alliance won 198 seats to the right’s 188 seats. Medgyessy, a poor leader, lasted only two years, being succeeded by Ferenc Gyurcsány, a young communist turned successful businessman.

Thanks in large part to alleged good economic times, Gyurcsány won an unprecedented second term in office, with his party winning 186 (plus 6 joint MSZP-SZDSZ candidates) and 18 seats for the SZDSZ. Fidesz won 164 seats, and the MDF won 11. However, Gyurcsány soon ran into bad waters, when a post-electoral secret tape of Gyurcsány admitting that he had lied to voters about the economic situation was released, leading to massive protests and a large Fidesz victory in the October 2006 local elections.

In addition to lingering voter suspicion of Gyurcsány’s policies, the country was hit especially hard by the economic crisis, an economic crisis which saw Hungary’s unemployment rate grow, and its budgetary deficit increase. Gyurcsány was assailed for his poor management of the economic crisis by both Fidesz (claiming his policies hurt the people too much) and by foreign economists (saying that he hadn’t cut spending enough). Gyurcsány was ultimately forced to step down in favour of Gordon Bajnai, a young businessman, who implemented radical shock treatment for the economy, including cutting spending to the delight of foreign investors and the IMF, who have bailed out, in a way, Hungary.

Parties and Issues

However, still hurt by Gyurcsány’s lies, in addition to a shock treatment which is taking its toll on popular social programs and jobs, the Socialists are polling absolute lows. Fidesz, which, ironically, tends to be a more statist party compared to the Socialists, has benefited from this and it has been polling over 50% and sometimes over 60% since around late 2006. In the 2009 European elections, the party won 56.36% of the vote against 17.37% for the MSZP. Viktor Orbán, still the leader of Fidesz, is running on a vague platform supporting the creation of over a million jobs and prosecuting corrupt politicians. In fact, Fidesz has made little – if any – promises in this election. After Gyurcsány’s promises in 2006, it seems that electoral promises left a bad taste in the voter’s mouth. The party claims that it would be foolish to make promises it may not be able to fulfill.

The MSZP’s kamikaze candidate for Prime Minister is the 36-year old Attila Mesterházy. Mesterházy’s vague promises of punishing those corrupt is not striking a chord with voters at all.

Jobbik's militia (source: Der Spiegel)

However, Gyurcsány’s lies have hurt the fundamental bases of Hungarian democracy and the economic crisis, with the IMF’s shock treatment and the flow of foreign creditors, have awoken a sleeping but eternally present nationalist feeling. In fact, around 4 million Hungarians (of around 14 millions ethnic Hungarians) live outside Hungary, the result of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon which removed two-thirds of the nation’s territory (Hungary received, proportionately, the worst punishment from the Allies after the First World War). In contrast to the nationalist and irredentist policies of Hungarian dictator Miklós Horthy between the wars, the communist regime and the democratic governments have led a more pragmatic policy vis-a-vis the fate of Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia or Vojvodina. Fidesz, while in government, passed a controversial ‘status law’ for the Hungarian diaspora and supported a 2004 referendum (which was defeated) giving dual-citizenship to Hungarians abroad. The MSZP, on the other hand, is known for its opposition to such policies and distinguishes itself by its relative lack of Hungarian nationalist policies. However, the nationalist policies of the Slovakian government and worsening inter ethic relations in Slovakia between Slovaks and Hungarians have hurt relations between the two countries, and the flow of foreign investors have led to the rise of resentment of foreigners and Europe as well as nationalist feelings (a bumper sticker of Greater Hungary is one of the nation’s most popular bumper stickers).

The Movement for a Better Hungary, known as Jobbik, has managed to make itself the voice of these feelings. Taking votes from right-wingers who see Fidesz as too liberal and former Socialist voters disappointed by the MSZP, Jobbik blames Hungary’s problems on its Roma minority (5-7%), the EU, the political elite both left and right, and Jews. Jobbik’s SA-like paramilitary wing (outlawed in 2009 but recently re-created) has sparked growing tensions between Hungarians and Romas, with the result of increasing nationalist feelings. In terms of the European far-right, they’re probably the closest you can get (amongst serious parties with a significant electoral audience) to the 1930s NSDAP in Germany. The party won a record 14.77% of the vote in the European elections, much higher than what polls had predicted, leading to the fear that its support might be underestimated. Recently, Jobbik has been hit by media allegations against some of its members, including Gábor Vona.

On the other hand, the liberal and internationalist SZDSZ, which left the coalition in 2008 reducing the MSZP to a minority, won only 2% of the vote in the European elections and has been entirely wiped off the political map. The MDF, although saving one seat in the European Parliament in 2009, has suffered a similar fate. On the other hand, the green movement, known as Politics can be Different (LMP) has picked up speed, likely from Socialist voters and represents the expression of discontent with the MSZP to its left.

Here is the average of the last 6 polls on April 7 and April 8:

Fidesz 59.8%
MSZP 17.6%
Jobbik 14.6%
LMP 5.4%
MDF 2.4%

Here is an overview of the latest 3 seat predictions (excluding Nézőpont Intézet’s seat prediction – an outlier – in brackets):

Fidesz 267-284 (267-275)
MSZP 50-62 (51-62)
Jobbik 37-50 (47-50)
LMP 10-15 (10)
MDF 0 (0)

A two-thirds majority (258 or so) would allow Fidesz alone to amend the constitution, and a three-fourths majority (290) would allow Fidesz to adopt a new constitution entirely.

Fidesz will win easily, but they will have big expectations. They will need to please the Hungarian public, by creating jobs and maintaining welfare and social programs; but they’ll need to please foreign investors and the IMF in order to save the economy. Pleasing both is certainly not an easy task, and most foreign observers don’t have high hopes for Fidesz once in office. Will the 2014 election see the return of the MSZP…?

Posted on April 10, 2010, in Election Preview, Hungary. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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