Hungary 2014

Legislative elections were held in Hungary on April 6, 2014. All 199 seats in the unicameral Országgyűlés (National Assembly) were up for reelection.

Electoral system

These are the first elections being held under a new electoral system (and a new constitution) introduced by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government in 2011. Under the old system, the Parliament had 386 seats (176 single-member constituencies, 152 multi-member regional constituencies, 58 national list compensation seats) elected under a complicated two-round system (candidates in single-member seats needed to win 50% of the vote and turnout to be over 50% in order to win, or the top three candidates and all other candidates who won over 15% proceeded to the runoff; results in multi-member regional constituencies were only valid if turnout was over 50%). In the list vote, parties needed to win 5% to qualify for seats, coalitions of two parties needed 10% and coalitions of three or more parties needed 15%.

Under the new system, the size of the Országgyűlés is cut down by nearly half to 199 seats. The 106 single-member constituencies are now elected by FPTP with no turnout requirement. The remaining 93 national party-list seats are distributed using a complex system based on the result of both the party and constituency votes: to the total of party-list votes, all votes cast for constituency candidates who were not elected are added to their respective parties and part of the votes cast for the victorious constituency candidates are added to their respective parties (the votes which are added are the votes which they did not theoretically need to win: the number of votes the winner won minus the the votes won by the runner-up, minus one). From this calculation, the party-list seats are distributed using the d’Hondt method, retaining the 5% threshold for parties, the 10% threshold for two-party coalitions and the 15% threshold for larger coalitions. Unlike in the former system, therefore, there is no turnout requirement (it was 50% in the first round and 25% in the second round under the old system) and the election takes place in a single round. Minority lists can elect members if they win over 5% of the minority list votes (rather than all votes), and those which do not meet this threshold will still send one non-voting representative.

The new electoral system was supported only by the ruling party. Although the reduction of seats in Parliament and the need to redistrict the single-member constituencies (which had remained unchanged since 1990) was widely agreed upon by all parties, the opposition criticized several aspects of the new law: the inclusion of the winners’ surplus in the calculation of the national list and the redistricting of seats being decided upon by the government (rather than an independent commission), leading to accusations of gerrymandering. The government has dismissed claims that the map is gerrymandered to favour the governing party, and the map does not ‘look’ particularly egregious but, of course, gerrymandering is often far more subtle.

Background

Hungary’s political history since the fall of the communist regime bears many similarities with other formerly communist Eastern European countries. The first election following the fall of the Hungarian communist regime saw the victory of anti-communist opposition forces, while the reformed communists were trounced. The Hungarian Democratic Forum (Magyar Demokrata Fórum, MDF), a conservative and nationalist party which represented the most moderate and pragmatic faction of the anti-communist opposition during round table negotiations with the regime, won 164 out of 386 seats – largely due to a landslide victory in the single-member seats, where it won 114 of the 176 districts. The Alliance of Free Democrats (Szabad Demokraták Szövetsége, SZDSZ), the liberal and more ‘radical’ wing of the opposition, was a close second in the popular vote and won 92 seats. The Independent Smallholders’ Party, a small conservative agrarian party which had existed in the interwar era, won 44 seats. The Hungarian Socialist Party (Magyar Szocialista Párt, MSZP), formed by the reformists and moderates in the old ruling party, the MSZMP, won 11% of the vote and 33 seats. The more radical unreconstructed faction of the MSZMP fell just below the 4% threshold, and would decline further into irrelevance. The Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), a small Christian conservative party, took 21 seats; tied with Fidesz (which means ‘Alliance of Free Democrats’ or Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége), which at this point was a radical anti-communist and liberal/libertarian party largely made up of students. The MDF, with József Antall as Prime Minister, formed government with the smallholders and KDNP. The new government sought to transform the country, beginning with the transition to a market economy through privatization and other difficult reforms. Under his government, unemployment jumped to nearly 15%, inflation raged at rates over 20%, many people – especially pensioners – saw their living standards collapse and fall into poverty, corruption festered and criminality increased. Antall, a moderate conservative in the MDF, faced a right-wing nationalist faction which agitated for very conservative policies and for the support of Hungarian minorities abroad. Antall died in 1993, and was succeeded by Péter Boross.

In 1994, the poor economic performance and a certain nostalgia for the communist era led to a landslide victory for the MSZP, which won 209 out of 386 seats and 33% of the vote (it won 149 of the 176 district seats). The governing MDF, further worn down by divisions between moderates and radicals, won only 12% and 38 seats, losing all but 5 of its district seats. The SZDSZ placed second, with about 20% and 69 seats. The smallholders won 26 seats, Fidesz won 20 and the KDNP won 22 seats. Although the MSZP had enough seats to govern alone, the prospect of the post-communists returning to power so quickly discomforted some Hungarians and foreigners, so the MSZP chose to form a coalition with the liberal and pro-Western SZDSZ, which had strong anti-communist credentials. Gyula Horn, the MSZP leader, became Prime Minister. With the economy in trouble and Hungary seeking to enter the EU, the new government turned to ‘shock therapy’ and tough austerity policies including a gradual devaluation of the forint, cuts in social programs, a significant decline in real wages and more rapid privatization. The so-called ‘Bokros package’ austerity policies, introduced in 1995, were deeply unpopular and was criticized both by the left and right, but the MSZP-SZDSZ government pushed forward.

In 1998, the MSZP’s support remained stable, at 32%, but it lost many single-member seats (winning just 54) and won 134 seats in total. Fidesz, which, following its defeat in 1994, shifted from a radical liberal party to a conservative party with strong dirigiste inclinations on economic issues and a certain nationalist tint, won 28% and 148 seats. The SZDSZ suffered major loses, winning only 8% and 24 seats. Fidesz, led by Viktor Orbán, a founding member who had engineered the party’s right-wing transformation, formed a coalition government with the MDF (which fell back further, winning just 17 seats, all of them district seats thanks to an alliance with Fidesz) and the smallholders (who took 14% and 48 seats). The Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP), a far-right nationalist party, won just over 5% and 14 seats.

Orbán’s government, as far as economic policy went, was not markedly different from the previous government. It pledged to continue the MSZP’s stabilization policy and to reduce the budget deficit, and the government aimed to reduce taxes and social insurance contributions while fighting inflation and unemployment. Showing the Hungarian right’s more interventionist penchants, Orbán abolished university tuition fees and reintroduced maternity benefits. The government successfully reduced inflation from 14% in 1998 to 9% in 2001 (and 5% in 2002), while the GDP grew by 3-4% throughout his term. Unemployment, declining since 1996, stabilized at about 5.5%. Orbán’s term was marked by a very bad relationship with the opposition and a marked autocratic tendency by the government. The cabinet and Prime Minister largely ignored the opposition and National Assembly, swiftly replaced the heads of some key institutions with partisan figures and the government was criticized for seeking to increase its influence in the media.

The 2002 election was extremely closely divided between the two major parties, Fidesz and the MSZP. They both won roughly the same number of votes, 41-42%, with a slight edge to the MSZP, but Fidesz won more single-member seats (95) than the MSZP (78) and therefore ended up with ten more seats overall, 188 against 178 for the MSZP. Only one other party won seats in the National Assembly: the SZDSZ, with 5.6%, won 19 seats. The MDF ran in alliance with Fidesz (and garnered 24 seats through it), while the smallholders, who had been embroiled in a bribery scandal, disintegrated and what was left won less than 1% of the vote. The far-right MIÉP won 4%, falling just below the threshold for seats. Although Fidesz and the MIÉP challenged the results of the election, both the electoral commission and OSCE ruled against a recount. In coalition with the SZDSZ, the MSZP’s candidate, Péter Medgyessy, a former finance minister under the first MSZP government, became Prime Minister.

The incoming government fulfilled its populist election promise of ‘changing the welfare regime’, by increasing wages of public servants by 50%, granting a one-time pension supplement to retirees, increasing academic scholarships. The policies were very popular with voters, but economists criticized it because it was a heavy drain on the budget (at the cost of 190 billion forint). In 2002, an opposition newspaper revealed that Medgyessy had been a counterespionage officer during the communist regime; he admitted this, but claimed that he was charged with defending Hungary from the KGB and securing IMF membership over Soviet opposition. In 2004, after the MSZP was defeated by a large margin the European elections, internal divisions and tensions with the SZDSZ eventually forced Medgyessy to resign from office in September 2004. Ferenc Gyurcsány, a popular sports minister in Medgyessy’s cabinet and one of those who had been agitating for his resignation, replaced him and renewed the coalition with the SZDSZ.

In 2006, both the MSZP and Fidesz won in the vicinity of 42-43% of the vote, with a slight edge to the MSZP both in the district seats (98 vs 68 for Fidesz) and in the regional constituencies, giving them 186 seats against 164 for Fidesz. The SZDSZ won 6.5% and 18 seats, while the MDF, running independently and opposed to a coalition with Orbán, won just over 5% and took 11 seats. Just a few months after the April 2006 election, the MSZP’s collapse into fiery inferno began with the leak of a secret speech given by Gyurcsány to MSZP MPs a month after the election. In an expletive-filled speech, the Prime Minister said that the government had been lying since he took office and that it had done nothing it could be proud of. There were massive demonstrations demanding Gyurcsány’s resignation in Budapest and across Hungary for most of September 2006, organized by Fidesz. The political conflict and deadlock, which lasted until 2010, poisoned the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. The government was also hurt by its austerity policies and the worsening economic situation, which saw unemployment rise from 7.5% in 2006 to 11% in 2010. In 2008, the government was defeated in a three-question referendum organized by Fidesz in which voters voted to abolish healthcare user fees, daily fees for hospital stays and tuition fees introduced by the MSZP government. Turnout was just above the 50% threshold to be valid, and over 80% of participating voters voted in favour of the repeal of these reforms.

In April 2009, Gyurcsány resigned and was replaced by Gordon Bajnai. A little-known politician, Bajnai was the result of a compromise between the MSZP and the SZDSZ, which had left Gyurcsány’s government in April 2008. He cobbled together a coalition with the SZDSZ, and took office on a program of major spending cuts. The Hungarian economy was badly in crisis in 2009, with growth falling by nearly 7% and the country struggling to cope with a high deficit and the largest debt in Eastern Europe (80%). In 2008, the IMF and the EU granted Budapest a $25 billion loan, but Hungary needed to cut spending and implement painful structural reforms (pensions, most notably) to keep up with IMF guidelines. The government, despite resistance from sectors of the MSZP, cut spending by nearly 4% of GDP, cut social spending and public sector wages and cut social security contributions (to increase Hungary’s low employment rate). The government won plaudits abroad for its orthodox fiscal management, but with high unemployment, high corruption, criminality problems and the legacy of 2006, the MSZP remained deeply unpopular at home.

Fidesz, which strongly opposed the government’s austerity policies, handily won the 2009 European elections, taking 56.4% of the vote and 14 MEPs against 17.4% for the MSZP and 14.8% for the far-right Jobbik. The economic and political crisis reawakened Hungarian nationalism, which had largely been dormant since the 1990s.

Nationalism has been a key issue in Hungarian politics since 1920, and Hungary’s contemporary politics and political culture cannot really be understood without understanding the legacy of the Treaty of Trianon (1920) on Hungary. Defeated in World War I, Hungary lost 72% of its pre-war territory and 64% of its pre-war population; it also lost access to the sea and the country’s industrial base was separated from its sources of raw materials. Although the territory which Hungary lost had a non-Hungarian majority, large ethnic Hungarians minorities now lived outside the country’s border, especially in Slovakia and Romania. Hungary’s conservative, nationalist and autocratic interwar government, led by Regent Miklós Horthy sought redress for Trianon. Horthy’s Prime Minister between 1932 and 1936, Gyula Gömbös, was a fascist sympathizer and anti-Semite (but, upon taking office, he toned down his anti-Semitism on Horthy’s orders), and his government built alliances with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy to push for territorial concessions. The alliance with Germany, built out of necessity and strategic calculations, was rather uneasy and Hungary’s slow drift into being a Nazi client state (culminating in Hungary being forced into joining the 1941 invasion of Yugoslavia) was strongly resisted by many conservative politicians. In return for its cooperation with Hitler, Hungary regained lost territory between 1938 and 1941 – southern Slovakia (1938), Carpathian Ruthenia (1939), Northern Transylvania (1940) and BačkaBaranjaMeđimurje and Prekmurje in Yugoslavia (1941). After World War II, Hungary returned to its Trianon boundaries (for good this time). The communist government muted all irredentism and nationalist claims.

Since 1990, Hungarian governments have not sought a revision of the borders, but it has, from time to time, advocated for the rights of Hungarian minorities in neighboring countries. Hungarians form 6.2% (1.2 million) of the Romanian population, with majorities in Székely, 8.5% of the Slovakian population (458k), 3.5% of the Serbian population (253k, mostly in northern Vojvodina) and over 156,000 in Ukraine (overwhelmingly in Zakarpattia Oblast, where they form 12% of the local population). Budapest’s intermittent interest in Hungarians outside its borders (which has come under Fidesz governments) have created tensions with Hungary’s neighbors, especially Slovakia which has restrictive linguistic legislation and strong nationalist sentiments clashing with Hungarian nationalism. Under Orbán’s first government, Budapest passed a ‘status law’ which provided education and health benefits to Hungarians in neighboring countries. The law sparked tensions with Romania and Slovakia. In 2009, a reform of Slovakia’s language laws by Robert Fico’s government (which was in coalition with the far-right and virulently anti-Hungarian SNS) led to tensions with Hungary.

The economic crisis led to an upsurge in nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiment in Hungary. Politicians on the right, including many in Fidesz, lashed out at ‘foreign speculators’ and foreigners (and Jews) who allegedly controlled Hungary’s wealth, and irredentist visions of Greater Hungary also increased. One Fidesz MP, later removed from the party, said that Israel was trying to colonize/buy out Hungary. In 2012, a Jobbik MEP with anti-Semitic and borderline neo-Nazi views was asked to resign after revelations that he had Jewish ancestors, although Jobbik claimed that they asked him to resign because he had tried to suppress the disclosure through bribery.

Anti-Roma views, a favourite of the far-right across Eastern Europe (and now Western Europe), also gained steam. The Romas numbered around 309,000 in 2011 (3-4% of the population). The Hungarian far-right depicts them as criminals, stealing Hungarian jobs and leeching on welfare money. That same ex-Fidesz MP, for example, claimed that ‘he knew’ that Roma women deliberately induce birth defects on their children so that they can receive higher government subsidies.

Jobbik is a far-right and ultra-nationalist party founded in 2003; it is one of the EU’s most distasteful far-right parties, in a league of its own with the likes of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, so disreputable that parties such as the FN, FPÖ, PVV and SD don’t want to publicly associate with them. In 2007, Jobbik founded its own civilian militia/paramilitary group, the Magyar Gardá, a charming collection of uniformed thugs and fruitcakes. The Magyar Gardá was ordered to be disbanded by a court order in 2008. Jobbik has the traditional populist, anti-establishment, anti-globalization, ethno-nationalist, socially conservative anti-European rhetoric of much of the far-right, but it adds particularly virulent anti-Israeli/anti-Semitic ramblings (it denies claims that it is anti-Semitic, claiming to be anti-Zionist/anti-Israeli, but denunciations of Israel/Jews as ‘conquerors’ and greedy capitalists is commonplace; and many Jobbik politicians have said anti-Semitic things in the past, and in 2012 a Jobbik deputy leader famously asked for the Jews in Parliament and government to be ‘tallied up’). Jobbik supports Hungarian irredentist claims and is supportive of Miklós Horthy.

Fidesz roared towards a landslide victory in the 2010 legislative election, winning an outright absolute majority by the first round of voting and ending up with 52.7% of the vote and 263 out of 386 seats when all was said and done. The MSZP, which was led by Attila Mesterházy, won only 19% and 59 seats. Jobbik won 16.7% and 47 seats; Politics Can Be Different (Lehet Más a Politika, LMP), a new green-liberal party, won 7.5% and 16 seats. Both the MDF and SZDSZ, leading forces in the 1990 transition, were wiped out: the MDF-SZDSZ won 2.7%. In the single-member seats, Fidesz won all but three of the 176 seats – 2, both in Budapest, were won by the MSZP while one seat went to an independent (who happened to be the charming ex-Fidesz MP mentioned previously for his anti-Semitic and anti-Roma inanities). Viktor Orbán returned to power with a huge majority, on a vague platform which promised many new jobs, cracking down on crime and played on nationalism by warning that Hungary would not be subordinated to the EU or IMF.

With a two-thirds majority, Fidesz and the very strong-headed Orbán quickly moved to shore up their own power over Hungarian politics. The result has been extremely contentious, giving Orbán (to outsiders, and many Hungarians) all the trappings of a Vladimir Putin-like autocratic leader who crushes independent institutions. Soon after settling in, Orbán dismissed the heads of several government agencies and institutions (the electoral commission, the state auditor, the state prosecutor, public spending watchdog, a financial regulator), tried to fire András Simor, the governor of Hungary’s central bank. While he was not fired, he lost his ability to nominate two of the seven members of a body which sets interest rates, which fell under Fidesz’s control. Pál Schmitt, a former Olympic fencer and Fidesz MEP, was elected President in 2010, replacing the independent-minded László Sólyom. He resigned in 2012 after revelations that he plagiarized his doctoral thesis.

The government forced all public buildings to display a notice proclaiming that Hungary had finally achieved ‘self-determination’, called the 2010 election victory a ‘revolution in the voting booth’.

In late 2010, the government picked a fight with the courts, after the Constitutional Court invalidated a law which would impose a 98% tax to all public sector severance payments over $10,000, backdated to January 2010. Fidesz reacted with legislation which removed the Court’s power over the state budget, taxes and other financial matters. The opposition, especially LMP and the MSZP, were very critical. In November 2010, after the head of the Fiscal Council, an independent body which monitored the budget, criticized Orbán’s ‘crisis taxes’, a Fidesz MP introduced legislation to dissolve the body. It was replaced by a new council stacked with Orbán allies.

In 2010 and 2011, a new media law attracted significant controversy, especially as discussion of the media law coincided with Hungary’s presidency of the Council of the European Union in the first half of 2011. The new law forced all media outlets (print, broadcast, online) to register with a new media authority, which can revoke licenses for infractions and a new media council, which can impose fines for violating some very vaguely defined content rules, allegedly to protect the people’s ‘dignity’ or for ‘inciting hatred’ against minorities, majorities and so forth. The members of these new bodies are all nominated by the ruling party. The furor over the media law caused Fidesz, which, while nationalistic and strongheaded, does still take heed to justify its decisions in the eyes of the foreign media and politicians (usually by saying that other European countries do the same or have same laws, ergo what we do is fine), temporarily retreated. In 2011, the Constitutional Court excluded print and online media from the scope of the media authority’s sanctioning powers and struck down clauses which limited journalists’ ability to investigate (confidentiality of sources etc)However, in 2012, the EU still felt that amendments to the law had not addressed most of its problems with Hungary’s law. Fidesz and its allies control most of the domestic media, and government is the largest advertiser in the country. In 2011, the media council did not renew the license of an anti-Orbán radio station.

Under new media rules, the funding for the public media is now centralized under one body, which had laid off over a thousand employees as part of a streamlining process. There have been major concerns with regards to self-censorship by journalists and the pro-government sycophancy of much of the media. In 2013, Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report rated Hungary as ‘partly free’.

In April 2011, the Parliament adopted a new constitution. Hungary’s old constitution had been written by the communist regime in 1949, although it had obviously been very much modified in 1989 and in the past two decades of democracy. The new constitution, described as socially and fiscally conservative, beginning with preamble references to the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen, God, Christianity, the fatherland and family values, a constitutional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and a ‘golden rule’ limiting the public debt to 50% of GDP. Certain policy areas, such as family policy, taxation, pensions, public debt, morality, culture and religion were classified as areas of ‘cardinal law’ which may only be altered with a two-thirds majority. Clauses about ethnic Hungarians abroad, which opened the door to voting rights in Hungarian elections, irked Slovakia. The opposition MSZP and LMP walked out of the drafting process, dominated by Fidesz, demanding a referendum on the matter and decrying the lack of consultation. In Parliament, the new constitution was passed with only the support of Fidesz’s MPs, who constitute a two-thirds majority to themselves, while Jobbik voted against and the MSZP/LMP boycotted the vote. European politicians, the EU, the US, independent bodies and NGOs criticized various aspects of the new constitution. In December 2011-January 2012, protesters demanded the constitution’s withdrawal and drawing attention to serious issues with Hungarian democracy under Orbán.

In 2013, new controversial amendments removed the Constitutional Court’s ability to refer to judicial precedent predating the January 2012 enactment of the constitution and may no longer reject constitutional amendments on matters of substance (only on procedural grounds). The amendments also included other laws struck down by courts in the past, including strict limits on advertising during election campaigns (a rule seen as favouring Fidesz)

A judicial reform placed significant power over the judiciary in the hands of the new National Judicial Authority, whose head is the wife of a Fidesz MEP who drafted most of the new constitution. That body has the power to name a lot of local and higher-court justices. In July 2012, the Constitutional Court struck down a section which forced judges over 62 to retire.

In early 2013, the Constitutional Court also struck down a new electoral law which forced all voters to pre-register at least 15 days before the election (the rule was only upheld for ethnic Hungarian citizens residing outside Hungary, who gained the right to vote for the national list seats)

Upon taking office, the new government alarmed investors when some Fidesz leaders mentioned the word ‘default’ and warned that Hungary could become Greece. Foreign investors went into a frenzy, badly hurting confidence in the Hungarian economy even if its fundamentals were much stronger than those of Greece. Orbán quickly moved to smooth out the crisis by announcing new economic measures in June 2010: cuts in income and corporate taxes, the introduction of a 16% flat tax on incomes, a temporary windfall tax on banks, banning mortgages in foreign currencies and cuts in public spending. The government promised to reduce its budget deficit to 3.8% of GDP, a target agreed upon with the IMF and EU in 2008; its economic program aimed to reduce corruption, common petty scams and corrupt dealings in Hungarian businesses and create jobs.

The windfall tax on banks, aimed to raise 0.5% of GDP ($560 million), worried foreign banks in Hungary. In July 2010, the EU and IMF broke off talks with Budapest over the renewal of a $26 billion loan. The EU-IMF were worried about the windfall tax on banks, and demanded stronger commitments to spending cuts and structural reforms in state-owned enterprises. With talks broken off, Budapest announced new economic measures in October 2010: temporary ‘crisis taxes’ on largely foreign-owned telecommunication, energy and retail companies, renegotiation of public-private partnerships, a tax break for families with children and redirecting private pension fund contribution to the state. Orbán said that it was time for those with profits to ‘give more’. The main victims of the ‘crisis taxes’ on telecommunication, energy and retail were mostly foreign companies. The government announced that those in the private pension system who didn’t opt back into the state pension fund would lose all rights to a state pension.

In 2011, the government detailed its spending cuts to reduce the budget deficit to a targeted 1.9% of GDP in 2014. These included an extension of the bank tax, but also cuts in state subsidies for disability pensions, drugs and public transportation and a postponement of corporate tax cuts (from 19% to 10%) until 2013. The government refused to call these measures ‘austerity’. In November 2011, after disappointing economic results, the government reopened talks for assistance (which it called ‘a safety net’) from the IMF. Although the government successfully cut the deficit in 2011, growth remained low, the forint fell and bond auctions failed. The government’s opponents gloated at the failure of Orbán’s ambitious gamble of ‘economic independence’ from the major global financial institutions. In December 2011, the EU and IMF once again broke off preliminary talks, over concerns over new legislation which weakened the powers of the governor of the central bank at the expense of the Prime Minister. The EU was concerned over threats to the independence of the central bank, which added to its concerns with a judicial overhaul which included the forced retirement of over 200 judges over 62 and the independence of a new data protection authority.

In January 2012, the European Commission launched legal action against Budapest on those three issues. With mounting European concern over Orbán’s policies and legislative changes, the EU and IMF decided to play hardball with Budapest, whose poor economic record was forcing Orbán to be slightly more conciliatory. The government decried the EU’s actions as an inexcusable assault on its sovereignty, and pointed to its two-thirds majority won in a free election as a sign of its legitimacy. But the EU and IMF’s behaviour did take its toll on Fidesz, which quickly u-turned and appeared more conciliatory. The government’s new approach had a beneficial impact on the forint and the economy’s health. Nevertheless, in March 2012, the EU suspended nearly 500 billion euros in aid to Hungary, punishing it for failing to keep the deficit in check

Soon after taking office, Orbán’s government amended Hungary’s citizenship law, removing the residency requirement, requiring that applicants only have ethnic Hungarian ancestors and command of the Hungarian language. The law was designed to allow Hungarians in neighboring Slovakia and Hungary to easily acquire Hungarian citizenship (as a second citizenship). Slovakia’s government, under Robert Fico, retaliated by passing a law which would strip Slovak citizens who acquire another passport of their Slovak citizenship.

Parties and campaigns

Fidesz was the favourite in the campaign. The country’s unimpressive economic performance and a certain degree of annoyance with Orbán’s style led to a significant erosion in the party’s popularity in opinion polls, especially in 2011 and 2012, but it has recovered in 2013, partly thanks to populist policies including cuts in utility prices. The country’s economy still faces major issues – the country slipped back into recession in 2012 and growth was only 1.1% in 2013, unemployment has recently declined below 10% but remains high and Hungary remains Central/Eastern Europe’s most indebted country (79% of GDP). The deficit, however, has now fallen below the EU’s 3% limit. However, the economic performance of the country is not entirely negative, allowing Fidesz to take credit for the first signs of recovery. Many aspects of Orbán’s populist and nationalist economic policies (denouncing the IMF/EU, high taxes on banks and largely foreign-owned companies, cuts in income taxes for families, a law allowing Hungarians to repay their mortgages in foreign currency at very good terms while banks are forced to swallow the difference, have been very popular with Hungarian voters. To the crowds, Fidesz plays very heavily on nationalist sentiments – with speeches from Orbán and his stooges decrying ‘colonization’, lashing out at foreign bankers, European bureaucrats and IMF technocrats (compared to Soviet men during the communist era). During the campaign, Fidesz said that the utility price cuts needed to be defended against foreign utility companies, To the IMF and EU technocrats, Fidesz tries to be far more polished. Its nationalist grandstanding is not always matched by its real behaviour with EU leaders.

Fidesz also never missed an opportunity to blame the MSZP for Hungary’s problems or to justify its actions by the necessity to ‘clean up’ the mess it had inherited from the MSZP in 2010.

The left has struggled to pick itself up after the MSZP’s huge defeat in 2010. It has also been hurt by divisions. In 2011, former MSZP Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány founded the Democratic Coalition (Demokratikus Koalíció, DK), a centre-left liberal party slightly to the right of the MSZP. Gyurcsány, who is the favourite target of Fidesz scorn, has become a very vocal opponent of the Orbán government. In October 2012, former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai (2009-2010), who led a MSZP-SZDSZ technocratic government between 2009 and 2010, announced the creation of his own party, Together 2014 (Eygütt 2014, E14). Bajnai’s party was created by three movements from civil society: the Patriotism and Progress Association, Bajnai’s think-tank founded in 2010; Milla, a group born on Facebook in opposition to Orbán’s media laws; and Solidarity, a trade union movement modeled upon Poland’s Solidarity movement. One Fidesz spokesperson charged that Bajnai had returned to politics to help the banks and multinationals. In March 2013, E14 joined forces with Dialogue for Hungary (PM), a green party founded by 8 dissident LMP MPs who opposed the LMP’s leadership refusal to ally with E14 in 2012 and later LMP’s opposition to an alliance with the other centre-left forces. In April 2013, former cabinet minister and SZDSZ leader Gábor Fodor (the SZDSZ dissolved in 2013, after it was wiped off the map in 2010) formed the Hungarian Liberal Party (MLP).

In August 2013, the MSZP and E14-PM formed an electoral alliance, with joint candidates in single-member constituencies but no agreement for a single prime ministerial candidate between Bajnai and MSZP leader Attila Mesterházy. In January, the two parties agreed to field a common list and appointed Mesterházy as their joint top candidate. A few days later, DK and the MLP, which had originally declined to join the alliance, joined forces with the MSZP and E14-PM, under the name ‘Unity’ (Összefogás).

As might be expected, the left-wing Unity’s campaign focused heavily on Orbán. Mesterházy said that Hungarians had the choice between a ‘modern, European republic’ or ‘the restoration of the Horthy era’. Bajnai said that Hungary was at risk of becoming a ‘post-Soviet country’ (which he called ‘Orbanistan’). The opposition also denounced a ‘Putin-Orbán pact’ over an agreement with Russia on the upgrade of a nuclear power plant, under which Russia will lend Hungary €10 billion of the €12 billion required to finance two Russian-built reactors. Orbán had been fairly anti-Russian and critical of the Kremlin in his first stint as Prime Minister between 1998 and 2002, but since taking office he’s been far less critical of Russia and, without being an ally, hasn’t had much to say about Putin’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine recently.

Unity’s economic platform talked of a ‘New Deal’, with pro-growth policies and the abolition of the flat tax (Gyurcsány mentioned a tax rate of 30% for top earners), and a campaign against corruption. However, Fidesz, which described Unity as an alliance of old politicians with no new faces, scored a huge point with the revelation that Gábor Simon, a former MSZP deputy chairman, had the equivalent of $1,000,000 in an undeclared Austrian bank account. Simon, who denied all wrongdoing, was later arrested on charges of tax evasion and falsifying documents (he owned a false passport from Guinea-Bissau). It isn’t as if Fidesz is a shining example of probity either – under Orbán, many contracts and government jobs have been given out to friends and allies of the ruling party, and a new circle of petty oligarchs have replaced the old petty oligarchs who prospered under MSZP rule. However, while the pro-government media has played unrelentingly on the opposition’s corrupt politicians, it hasn’t talked much about corruption in the ruling party.

Jobbik has moderated or altered its rhetoric, toning down the anti-Roma and anti-Semitic rhetoric in favour of a traditional populist and nationalist platform. Jobbik styles itself as a defender of the weakest members of society; its economic platform proclaims as its main objective the defense of Hungarian industry, farmers, businesses, produce and markets. It supports state intervention in the economy to support poor families, farmers and small businessmen (it opposes privatization, the flat tax and promises tax cuts for families and lowering the VAT on basic goods), cutting taxes and regulations which stifle job creation and protectionism. A key aspect of Jobbik’s appeals to voters is resentment against ‘multis’ – multinational/foreign companies which took a large role in the Hungarian economy after 1990. Jobbik accuses them of exploiting Hungarians as cheap labour, job loses and for hurting Hungarian companies. Jobbik is strongly opposed to the EU (it wants a referendum on continued membership) but admires Vladimir Putin’s Russia, supporting closer economies ties with the east at the expense of the west.

Results

Turnout was 61.73%, down from 64.4% in 2010 and the lowest turnout since 1998. The results were as follows (popular vote data is for the national list vote):

Fidesz-KDNP 44.87% (-7.86%) winning 133 seats (96 FPTP, 37 PR)
Unity 25.57% (+6.27%) winning 38 seats (10 FPTP, 28 PR)
Jobbik 20.22% (+3.55%) winning 23 seats (23 PR)
LMP 5.34% (-2.13%) winning 5 seats (5 PR)
Workers’ Party 0.56% (-0.45%) winning 0 seats
Others 3.44% (-0.32%) winning 0 seats

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s governing Fidesz was reelected in a landslide, securing a second straight term in office. With 133 out of 199 seats in the new National Assembly, Orbán’s party has narrowly held his two-thirds majority which he won in 2010. The two-thirds majority allows Fidesz to amend the constitution, change several laws and appoint the heads and members of many government agencies and departments on its own. As explained above, Fidesz had made heavy use of its two-thirds majority between 2010 to 2014, to adopt a new constitution, change a whole array of laws and fill government agencies with its own men – all over the head of the opposition.

Gordon Bajnai, the leader of E14, said prior to the elections that they would be ‘free, but not fair’. His comment is somewhat valid. While the OSCE observer mission said that the April 6 election “efficiently administered and offered voters a diverse choice following an inclusive candidate registration process”, they also pointed out that “the main governing party enjoyed an undue advantage because of restrictive campaign regulations, biased media coverage and campaign activities that blurred the separation between political party and the State.” In its report, the observer mission further detailed how Fidesz was helped by government advertisements which were almost identical to party ads; a significant bias by a majority of TV stations in favour of Fidesz. It raised concern about “increasing ownership of media outlets by businesspeople directly or indirectly associated with Fidesz and the allocation of state advertising to certain media undermined the pluralism of the media market and resulted in self-censorship among journalists.” New rules limiting the type of political ads which commercial TV stations may air effectively led to the absence of political advertisements on non-public TV, meaning that the ad war on TV was heavily dominated by Fidesz.

The new electoral system allowed Fidesz to retain a two-thirds majority despite losing nearly 8% support from 2010, and winning ‘only’ 44.9% against over 52% in 2010. The new electoral system is less proportional than the old one. While it is not a purely parallel MMM system like that of Japan, unlike Germany or New Zealand’s MMP system, the national list seats do not compensate for disproportional results in the single-member seats. Fidesz won all but 10 of the 106 new single-member districts. In Hungary, where there are relatively little marked regional differences in voting, a landslide election in whatever direction guarantees that the winning party will win all but a tiny handful of seats. The fact that the national system makes no effort to compensate for disproportional results – even the old system had a weak compensatory element – allows the outcome of the FPTP element to stand. Fidesz also benefited a bit from the extension of voting rights to Hungarians living abroad with no address in Hungary (the so-called ‘Transylvanian votes’, because most are from Romania), something engineered by Orbán to benefit his party. Fidesz won 95.5% of the foreign postal votes, although that only amounted to 122,588 ballots for them.

It is very hard to evaluate how Fidesz might have performed with more balanced media coverage, but it is clear that its victory cannot be explained solely with reference to the undue advantages it received during the campaign. Fidesz was the clear winner, and Unity was the clear loser. They gained votes from the MSZP’s pathetic 2010 result, although it remains a rather unimpressive gain. Together with the LMP, the other party which can logically be considered as part of a broader left-wing opposition to Fidesz, they won a bit under 31% of the vote, up marginally from the 29% won by the MSZP, LMP and MDF-SZDSZ in 2010.

The results showed the clear problems faced by the left-wing opposition. Unity never offered a convincing alternative to the majority of voters. Its sophisticated attacks on Orbán’s autocratic tendencies and its publicizing of the threat posed to Hungarian democracy was not a convincing platform for the majority of voters. In contrast, Fidesz offered clear material and tangible benefits to voters: lower utility bills, a renegotiation of forex house mortgages favourable to homeowners (the bill was largely paid by the banks) and a simple populist-nationalist message which clearly struck a chord. To a lesser extent, Jobbik, which increased its support to over 20% and gained over 165,000 votes (mostly from some 2010 Fidesz voters), also offers a convincing message: vilification of imagined or real enemies (multinationals, criminals etc), identification of scapegoats and an image as a youthful rebellious party. Both Fidesz and Jobbik are very well-organized parties with strong networks, especially in rural areas, and allow people to identify as part of a community or share a clear political identity with other like-minded individuals. Orbán has a lot of dedicated, loyal and quasi-spiritual followers. For his supporters, Orbán is a leader fighting for freedom and national sovereignty, against the EU, banks and foreign companies. Orbán often expresses the need for unity and strength to take on imagined enemies of the nation, and his campaign was successful at highlighting the idea that Hungary is doing much better since 2010 (the media helps him out in that, as did a very carefully choreographed PR campaign). The expression of some sort of ‘siege mentality’ by Orbán (and Jobbik, of course) is particularly powerful in Hungary, which continues to struggle with the Trianon trauma/tragedy. Orbán has successfully created a highly-charged and very polarized political environment; criticism of Orbán from his opponents only reinforces his supporters’ admiration and attachment to him.

Some analysts make cultural arguments to further explain Fidesz and Jobbik’s popularity, especially when both parties are portrayed in the mainstream foreign media and viewed (by the few foreigners who actually know more than the raw basics about Hungary) as either autocratic (Fidesz) or outright Nazis (Jobbik). I’m always skeptical of cultural arguments, but they may hold some validity. Hungary has relatively little experience with democracy; in the interwar era, Hungary was always a conservative authoritarian regime incarnated by the forceful figure of Miklós Horthy and Hungary’s communist regime between 1956 and 1988 was an authoritarian but slightly less dictatorial and dogmatic regime under János Kádár. Both men are controversial figures in Hungary, but there remains goodwill in public opinion for both. Horthy in particular has seen his image restored through the efforts of Jobbik (tolerated by Fidesz) since 2010; a memorial to the 1944 German invasion of Hungary (Horthy’s ouster and replacement with Ferenc Szálasi’s pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party) has sparked controversy, with Jewish community leaders denouncing it as part of a continued move to whitewash Horthy’s rule and portray Hungary as an innocent and virtuous victim of Nazi aggression (rather than a willing, if reluctant at times, collaborator – Horthy’s regime joined the Axis in 1941 and had allied with Berlin and Rome since 1938). Orbán has borrowed elements from both Kádár and Horthy’s playbooks.

The argument runs that, as a result of its past and the perception of liberal democracy and capitalism since 1990 as something of a failure, many Hungarians yearn for a strong, paternalist leadership. The Inglehart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World places Hungary as having very high ‘survival’ (economic and physical security, relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance) rather than ‘self-expression’ values. Of EU member-states, only Romania and Bulgaria have higher survival scores (Latvia and Estonia have similar scores to Hungary), and other post-communist countries such as Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have much higher self-expression scores.

Capitalism/the free market economy is unpopular with a large portion of the Hungarian electorate, especially with Jobbik’s voters but perhaps with a lot of Fidesz supporters as well. The economic reforms in the 1990s did not produce the sense that things are looking up, breeding a lingering current of negative views towards ‘capitalism’. The claim is that the neoliberal reforms resulted in foreign intrusion, the cheap selling out of Hungary’s wealth and businesses, unemployment, corruption, inefficient government and increased criminality. The Hungarian left, with the exception of perhaps LMP, has accepted capitalism as the doxa or dominant paradigm of a modern European society, for better or worse. For many voters instinctively angry at the ‘capitalist’ system (vaguely defined), only Jobbik and its radical ideas against capitalism presents an attractive alternative.

The left also has many problems of its own makings. Besides a poor and uninspiring campaign which failed to compete with Orbán and Jobbik’s populism (although the left did try its hand at populism too), the Unity coalition was terribly unattractive to many voters. The left had trouble overcoming its own divisions to present a united figure out of necessity (if it had run divided, Fidesz would probably have won all FPTP seats, and an even bigger majority). Gyurcsány is a polarizing figure, still perceived negatively by many voters (and Fidesz did not fail to play on this), and he probably did not bring much to the coalition. Atilla Mesterházy is a poor leader who did little in four years and has an overinflated ego; the MSZP, an increasingly obsolete party with huge issues, had no idea how to oppose Fidesz. Only Gordon Bajnai appeared to be a more solid leader. The left has a serious demographic challenge, because both the MSZP and Fidesz (especially the MSZP) are unpopular with younger voters. Outside Budapest, the left (=MSZP)’s base is likely a declining and aging electorate; younger voters, who are very dissatisfied with the state and direction of politics, don’t want to have anything to do with the MSZP, seen as a bunch of obsolete old communists. Jobbik, and to a much lesser extent LMP, are very popular with younger voters. Jobbik has devoted a lot of energy in the last few months to rebrand itself a youthful rebellious party, dropping the blatant racism and anti-Semitism.

All but two of the ten districts won by the left were in Budapest, where Unity won 8 of the constituencies against 10 for Fidesz. This excellent interactive map shows the results of the FPTP vote in all districts, and allows you to visualize the 2010 and 2006 results on the new borders. It won two seats in Budapest by solid margins, peaking at 51.3% against just over 30% for Fidesz in Budapest-7, which covers an area similar to the only two districts which the MSZP held in 2010. It covers Budapest’s 13th municipal district, a mix of middle-class/intellectual areas and gentrified/regenerated old working-class districts. The MSZP won all its other districts by small margins (less than 5%), although many Fidesz districts were also won by small margins. However, Fidesz performed strongly in Buda, with over 45% in the 1st, 3rd and 4th constituencies – these seats cover the 1st, 2nd, 12th and 5th municipal districts (the 5th is located in Pest, covering the bourgeois inner city), the most affluent neighborhoods of the city and traditional conservative strongholds. Budapest was traditionally a left-leaning city, and it remains the strongest region of Hungary for the left-wing opposition. Orbán is said to dislike the city, which he distrusts.

Outside Budapest, the left won only two other districts – one covering the southern city of Szeged, the only major city in Hungary with a MSZP mayor after 2010, and a district covering part of the eastern city of Miskolc. The former is a university town, the latter is a depressed and declining old industrial centre in eastern Hungary (it was a MSZP stronghold until it too elected a Fidesz mayor in 2010). Jobbik won over 30% of the vote in both districts in Miskolc.

Some maps at the settlement level here show that while the left placed second in all major cities and major suburban areas (it placed first in Szeged and in Salgótarján, an old mining city in the north), Jobbik ranked second (even first, in some cases) in most rural areas. As in 2010, Jobbik’s strongest results came from eastern Hungary, with results well over 30% in the rural areas of Heves and Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén counties. In Heves-2, Gábor Vona, the Jobbik leader, won 35.8% against 37% for Fidesz and appears to have won Gyöngyös, his hometown and the second largest town in the county. Eastern Hungary is the country’s poorest region, a depressed and run-down region of old industrial centres, mining towns and small villages (Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén county was once a leading industrial county due to the mining industry; the left still won the smaller mining towns of Tiszaújváros and Kazincbarcika, where Jobbik nevertheless polled nearly 30%). Unemployment is high, jobs scarce and it also happens to have the highest Roma populations in Hungary. Comparing the unemployment map with that of Jobbik, there is a clear correlation. In Budapest, a comparatively affluent and cosmopolitan liberal city, Jobbik performed poorly (in a few districts, especially those in the most affluent parts of the city, the LMP placed third ahead of Jobbik); it also did poorly in some Pest County suburbs and in parts of western Hungary, which have low levels of unemployment and better economic fortunes (places such as Győr are located in the Budapest-Vienna-Bratislava axis).

It is a worrying sign for the left that, outside Budapest and the cities, the main opposition to Fidesz is now Jobbik. It has lost middle-aged blue-collar voters in small towns, many of whom own homes with forex mortgages, to Fidesz or Jobbik.

Fidesz’s reelection ensures another four years of absolute power for Orbán. The Fidesz caucus is largely made up of sheep-like followers who never challenge the Prime Minister and the party leadership. Since 2010, Fidesz has placed itself in control of most state institutions. It promises ‘consolidation’ and a focus on economic policy, and rejects opposition claims that Hungary is lurching towards a ‘managed democracy’ or, worse, a dictatorship. There is little opposition to Orbán’s absolute power. The left is demoralized and pessimistic after its major defeat, and the Unity coalition already seems to have broken up. Mesterházy, who seems to have an overblown ego, has been reluctant to admit responsibility for the left’s defeat and is intent on remaining at the helm of the MSZP. Both he and Gyurcsány have preferred to blame the electoral system rather than admitting their share of responsibility for the left’s rout. In the EP elections next month, the individual parties in the coalition will seemingly be fighting alone, something which will allow them to individually measure their forces. The left nevertheless will hardly prosper as long as it is squabbling amongst itself or refusing to adapt; it has a lot of thinking to do. Jobbik, meanwhile, is increasingly attractive to younger voters and right-wing Fidesz defectors.

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Posted on April 16, 2014, in Hungary. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. 100 years ago, Hungary was the exact opposite: Its optimistic-progressistic gentry liked to marry wealthy Jews and elected the radical (=democratic) opposition. The liberal (=plutocratic) government relied on the fringes, nowadays foreign areas. P.S.: The east is/was partly calvinistic (around Debrecen), but the correlation with JOBBIK is seemingly weak or not existing. The (N)West had always been the kath.&kons. stronghold.

  2. “Unity”s 38 MPs consist of 29 MSZP, 4 DK, 3 E’14, 1 PM, 1 MLP, a unity-fraction is unlikely…

  3. In the 1990ies Orban spoke like a libertarian student. An evolution similar to his neighbour Jansa?!

  1. Pingback: EU 2014: Germany to Hungary | World Elections

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