Jobbik ‘wins first seat’ and other journalistic foot-in-mouthisms on Hungary

(Comments are open)

Hungary’s extreme nationalist party, Jobbik, won a tightly-contested by-election on Sunday. In Hungary’s mixed-member majoritarian system, a little over half the seats are elected by plurality from single-seat districts (before 2014, a two-round system was used). The by-election was held to fill one of these seats, previously held by government party Fidesz.

If you read the BBC’s headline, you could be excused for thinking this is a major political breakthrough for Jobbik: “Far-right Jobbik party takes first seat in Hungary”. This is of course not the case; Jobbik has been represented in parliament since the 2010 election, where it secured about a sixth of the vote, consequently growing to more than a fifth of the vote in 2014. In both elections it was unsuccessful in winning any constituency seats, so all its MPs (23 out of the total 199 in 2014) were elected from the party list. The text accompanying the video-article is more accurate, but is probably still confusing to those unfamiliar with Hungary’s electoral system:

The far-right Jobbik party in Hungary has won its first ever individual constituency in parliament, taking the Tapolca seat with a majority of just under 300 votes. It is now the most successful nationalist party in Europe and will challenge the governing Fidesz party in parliamentary elections due in three years’ time.

The video doesn’t offer any clarification. One might wonder, if this is really only its first-ever seat, how exactly its the most successful party of its kind, and how such a small force might challenge Fidesz for government.

Of course, being able to win a constituency seat is a great achievement for Jobbik and indicates it may even be in the running for first place in 2016; considering its political position, however, it will almost certainly only enter government if it wins a parliamentary majority. This is however rendered more likely by the change in electoral system from two-round to single-round plurality, which means Jobbik can benefit from the split in the vote for its more mainstream rivals, as it did in Sunday’s by-election.

Jobbik’s win is a further blow to Fidesz, whose approval ratings have tanked since winning the general election last year. It has already lost a seat in another by-election in February, causing it to lose its two-thirds majority required to unilaterally amend the country’s constitution. Strangely, this was reported by some news outlets as being a loss of its three-quarters majority. One truly wonders how such a detail could be lost in translation.

Hungarian Socialists plan an alliance

According to politics.hu, the Hungarian Socialist Party is committed to forging a broad pre-electoral alliance in order to defeat the ruling Fidesz in the 2014 general elections.

The Socialists committed themselves to entering joint lists for the election last November. A week ago, however, E14-PM ((ex-PM Gordon Bajnai’s faction.)) raised the idea of coordinating whom to nominate in individual constituencies but fielding separate lists.

The Socialist board confirmed, however, that setting up a common list would offer the biggest chance for a change in government.

This is a reminder that the Hungarian electoral system is not MMP. Since the first post-Communist election of 1990, it has been a fundamentally majoritarian mixed-member system. It became even more so with recent reforms.

Hungary’s new electoral system

As long expected, Hungary is about to get a new electoral system, which will include a sharply reduced assembly size. The current system, in use since 1990, has been a mixed-member majoritarian (MMM) system, with partial compensation. Not enough compensation to make it MMP–seats are allocated in parallel, but with unused votes from the nominal tier augmenting the party list votes prior to list-tier allocation. In fact, the evolution of party behavior showed just how much the fundamentally majoritarian nature of the system shaped incentives.

The new system will remain MMM, but perhaps even more so. The following details come from Alan Renwick (of the University of Reading, and one of the leading experts on electoral-system change). Alan has generously agreed to be referenced here.

The assembly size will drop from 386 to 199.* The nominal tier will continue to consist of single-seat districts. However, the formula for these districts will now be plurality, rather than two-round majority-plurality. This tier will amount to 106 seats, or 53.3% of the total.**

The list tier will be one nationwide district, unlike the current system which actually has two tiers of list allocation (regional and national). These 93 seats will continue to be elected from closed lists. As Alan explains:

For the distribution of the list seats, both the list votes and the remainder votes from SMDs are added together, where remainder votes are votes for losing candidates and votes for winning candidates after subtraction of the second-placed candidate’s votes. Seats are then distributed by d’Hondt, subject to a 5% threshold. There are also special provisions for minorities.

For nominations in the single-seat districts, the number of signatures needed is doubled from 750 to 1500,*** even though the increase in the size of these districts is much less than this.

Alan also offers two links, in Hungarian.

This change of the electoral system is in the context of a new constitution, which takes effect on the 1st of January. I previously branded this constitutional reform process as de-facto authoritarian. Alan also recommends a blog entry by Kim Lane Scheppele, who notes that the new constitution also contains a major attack on the independence of the judiciary, the Election Commission, and the electoral district boundary delimitation process.

Thanks, Alan, for this information!

As for Hungary, these are all very troubling developments. In fact, the electoral system change may be the least troubling of this set of changes.

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* As the first-linked F&V item above discussed, Hungary has had a significantly “oversized” parliament. The Cube Root Rule would suggest an assembly size of around 200 to 215, or right about where they have now settled.

** Previously the nominal tier was 176 seats out of the total 386, or 45.6%.

*** In the final version of the law, the number was set at 1000, as noted in Alan Renwick’s overview.

Mixed-member system changes?

Wilf Day sent me a link on a proposal to change the MMP system in Wales.

Alan Renwick, in a feed I get on electoral reform, says there are plans to change Hungary’s system as well. Apparently to remove the partial compensation linkage between the tiers, change to FPTP for the nominal tier, and reduce the size of the (overly large) assembly. (Link in Hungarian, in case someone can read or translate it).

Hungary’s new constitution

Hungary has a new constitution, effective 1 January 2012. It may not be an exaggeration to say that it represents an authoritarian turn in the country’s institutional framework.

There are numerous troubling provisions, but Jan-Werner Mueller, writing at The Guardian‘s Comment is Free, emphasizes what I would take to be some of the worst features:

[F]irst, a comprehensive weakening of checks and balances – notably a much enfeebled new constitutional court – and the fact that the new constitution will be virtually impossible to amend, while much legislation, notably budgets, can only be passed with a two-third majorities. Second, the systematic staffing of the judiciary and other nominally independent agencies with Fidesz appointees for exceptionally long periods.

What is the result? Fidesz’s nationalist vision has potentially been enshrined forever: even if the party loses future elections, its appointees will keep exercising power, while the party itself will in all likelihood retain considerable influence, since no other political grouping is likely to muster a two-thirds majority. Any potential leftwing government will be highly constrained; its budget could be vetoed by the (Fidesz-staffed) budgetary council, upon which the (Fidesz-appointed) president can dissolve parliament.

Currently, and unusually for either Hungary or other European countries, the ruling party, Fidesz, has a two-thirds majority. This has enabled it to pass a constitution without need to take into account opposition preferences. Yet, as Mueller notes, the constitution increases the range of legislation that requires two thirds votes to enact. In other words, this constitution is the work of a single party, which has put in provisions that will allow its representatives in parliament to veto many future policy changes as long as Fidesz retains at least one third of the seats.

It is worth noting how Fidesz got this two-thirds majority: it was manufactured out of a narrow simple majority of votes cast. The Hungarian electoral system, which some sources continue erroneously to classify as mixed-member proportional (MMP), made this possible. I have noted before why calling it MMP is wrong, in terms of the mechanics of the system. The results of the April, 2010, election, show just how disproportional the system can be: Fidesz won 263 of the 386 seats on 52.7% of the party-list votes (and 53.5% of the nominal votes).

Proportional systems do not turn 53% into 68%. But excessively majoritarian systems can facilitate democracies turning in to autocracies.

Electoral reform and assembly-size reduction in Hungary?

Bargaining is under way between Hungary’s political parties to change the electoral system and reduce the size of the national assembly, reports Politics.hu.

While the parties are agreed on key points, the smaller parties are concerned that their two big counterparts–the governing Socialist Party and the main opposition Fidesz–are attempting to squeeze them out. Currently, almost all of Hungary’s parties are in one of two broad (and mostly pre-electoral) coalitions, headed by each of the big parties. The electoral system is one of the world’s most complex: a mostly parallel form of mixed-member system, but one with some compensation for smaller parties. The single-seat districts are in two rounds, by majority-plurality. Several features of the system, including the partial compensation of the list seats, the two rounds of the SSDs, and the presence of a third-tier national list, provide room for the smaller parties to retain representation despite the overall majoritarianism of the system. (See my previous overview of the system and its majoritarian impact.)

The proposed reforms would eliminate the second round. The debate appears to center around whether the national list will be retained and, if so, how many seats will continue to be allocated in it.

With 386 seats, Hungary is currently one of a small number of democracies with an over-sized parliament, relative to the cube-root law (see graph). With a population of around ten million (and just over eight million registered voters in 2006, two thirds of whom turned out), the cube-root law would suggest an assembly size of around 200 to 215. “The parties are more of less agreed that the chamber should be cut to around 200 seats,” according to the Politics.hu report. (So how about that!)

The reduction of the size of parliament would, even without a change in the tier structure, tend to reduce the space for smaller parties. Currently the national list accounts for 58 seats (15%) and the regional lists account for 152 seats (39%). The remaining 176 (46%) seats are the single-seat districts. If those proportions were retained in a 200-seat parliament, the national list would have just 30 seats; more importantly, the magnitudes of the regional list constituencies would be sharply reduced, especially in rural counties. While the national list is currently compensatory (relative to the regional list districts, but not to the entire parliament), with lower regional magnitudes and just 30 national seats, proportionality for the smaller partners within the broad blocs could be substantially reduced.

The Politics.hu item indicates that the smaller conservative Democratic Forum would like a national list “exclusively.” It is not clear if that means it wants a 200-seat national district, or if it means it accepts a mixed-member system, but without the intermediate regional tier. (In overall context, I assume the latter.) In any case, that party is both small and in opposition, so its voice will not count for much, but it may be indicative of discussions over changing the multi-tier structure. Unfortunately, the story is not clear on details such as whether the parallel vs. compensatory dimension of the mixed-member system is up for debate.

In any case, Hungary may be in the process of simplifying its overly complex system and reducing its overly large assembly to match the estimates of the cube-root law. Those would be good developments from the standpoint of the normative dimensions of comparative electoral-systems studies.

Confidence vote in Hungary

Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany has called a confidence vote in parliament, to be held 6 October. His Socialist Party performed poorly in municipal elections over the weekend in the wake of the revelations of his having lied about economic managament, which triggered rioting.

Unlike a vote of no confidence in Hungary, which must be “constructive,” a vote of confidence called by the PM can pass with a negative majority and without parliament’s having voted in an alternative government. However, the government is not likely to fall, at least not on this vote, as the purpose of the confidence vote is for the PM to reinforce his own authority: forcing his own rank-and-file MPs to back him or to vote against their own government. Gyurcsany leads a pre-election coalition that won a clear majority of parliamentary seats in April.

This will be the first confidence vote in Hungary, which has had very stable governments, since democratization sixteen years ago.

UPDATE: The confidence-vote procedure worked in textbook fashion, with the MPs of both Gyurcsany’s Socialist Party and its Free Democratic Party partner publicly declaring their allegiance to the PM.

Violent protests in Hungary

Hungary experienced its “longest and darkest night” since the fall of communism when violent protests were sparked by anger over the revelation of remarks, taped before April’s elections, in which the prime minister admitted falsifying budget statistics. The PM’s alliance was reelected narrowly.

Until now, Hungary had seemed to be one of the most stable of the post-communist democracies. However, given the revelations, people have a right to be angry and to demand the resignation of the PM and other high officials, though not violently. Parliament, including the opposition, has passed a resolution condemning the violence, and the PM has ordered police to use “to use all means to restore order.”

Local elections are scheduled in two weeks’ time and the ruling socialist-liberal coalition is trailing the conservative opposition party Fidesz in polls.

Hungarian second round today

Today Hungarians voted in the second round in the 114 (out of 176 total) single-seat districts in which no candidate obtained a majority in the first round on 9 April. Nearly all the 114 contests today were straight one-on-one runoffs between a candidate of the Socialist party of incumbent Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and a candidate of the main opposition party, the Alliance of Young Democrats (Fidesz) of former Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

On 9 April, in addition to the first round of voting in single-seat districts, voters also cast party-list votes. The Socialists narrowly won a plurality of these votes: 43.2% to 42% for Fidesz.

The Socialists are currently governing in coalition with the Alliance of Free Democrats, and the two parties are cooperating in these runoffs. The Free Democrats won 6.5% of the list votes, giving the incumbent parties 49.7% of the vote. The Socialists and Free Democrats need to win most of the single-seat districts at play today to remain in government. If they do, it will be the first time in five post-communist elections that the incumbent government was returned to power. (If all you care about is the result, scroll to the bottom of the post.)

The Hungarian electoral system is mixed-member, and it is sometimes erroneously placed in the mixed-member proportional (MMP) category. In fact, it is more parallel and majoritarian than it is MMP. However, it is not strictly a parallel system, either. In a parallel system–such as Japan’s–seats are allocated to parties in the nominal tier of single-seat districts (SSDs) and the tier of PR seats independently.* A party adds its proportional share of the list-tier seats to however many SSDs it has won. Under MMP–as in Germany and New Zealand–a party’s aggregate total of seats is based on its party-list votes, and it wins however many list-tier seats it needs to augment its SSDs won in order to equal its total aggregate proportional share. (This aggregate PR share can be determined regionally or nationally, depending on the system.)

If we look at the 2002 Hungarian election, it is easy to see where the assumption that it is MMP comes from: The outcome was close to proportional. The Socialists won 42.0% of the party-list votes, which amounted to 47.4% of the above-threshold list vote. Their seat total was 48.1%. The runner up Fidesz had 41.1% of the party-list votes and 46.3% of the above-threshold vote, and won 47.2% of the seats. This is a nearly proportional result. So, why is it not MMP?

Consider the 1990 election.** Same rules, other than a change in the level of the threshold required to win any list seats (4% then, 5% now). In that election, the leading party was the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), with 24.7% of the party-list vote. Fully 16% of the vote was cast for parties that failed to clear the threshold, so the MDF actually had 29.4% of the effective PR vote. Yet it won 42.5% of the total 386 parliamentary seats. Not very proportional!

In the more fragmented party environment of Hungary’s first post-communist election, the MDF was grossly over-represented in the nominal tier, winning 114, or 64.8%, of the 176 single-seat districts (despite only 23.9% of the votes cast in that tier in the first round). It just so happens that the 114 seats it won is roughly equivalent to its party-list share of the vote (after discarding the below-threshold votes). So, if Hungary had MMP, how many list seats would the MDF have won in 1990? Zero. It already had its full aggregate proportional share on account of doing so well in the nominal tier.

So, we see Hungary’s system is not MMP. So it must be parallel, right? No. Were it parallel, the MDF would have won around 29.4% of the list PR seats and added these to its 114 nominal-tier seats. 29.4% of the 210 available list seats would be 62 (rounding). The MDF would have won 176 seats, or more than 45% of the total. In the actual allocation, it won only fifty list seats (23.8%). In other words, the Hungarian allocation process is neither fully compensatory, like an MMP system, nor completely parallel. It is partially compensatory.

The Hungarian electoral system is mechanically quite complex. However, in its actual workings, it is fairly straightforward. The nominal and list tier seats are allocated in parallel in the sense that the number of seats won in the nominal tier has no bearing on the number of list seats it will win. However, a party’s success in the nominal tier affects the total number of votes that will actually enter into the proportional allocation. The way this works is that any first-round votes that are cast for parties in the first round of nominal-tier district races in which the party is not the ultimate victor (in one round or two) are added to the party’s list total.

In this way, parties that are less successful in the nominal tier will actually win a share of list seats that is greater than their share of list votes. Yet they are not necessarily fully compensated–as they would be under MMP–because the number of seats already won at the nominal tier is not deducted from the aggregate PR total to determine a party’s number of list seats.

By 2002, the party system had mostly aggregated into two large blocs, one centered around the Socialists and the other around the Fidesz. Although parties other than top two are permitted to keep their candidates in the second round (as long as they reach 15% in the district), they usually withdraw in favor of their prospective coalition partner. The end result is that most of the unused votes for one major party are counterbalanced by the unused votes for the other, and thus the overall seat outcome is quite proportional. However, given the mechanics of the electoral system, proportionality is not at all guaranteed. And precisely because proportionality is not guaranteed, the electoral system encouraged the rather fragmented party system at the time of the collapse of communism to aggregate into two blocs–just as any properly functioning majoritarian electoral system will do. (And as the more typical “majoritarian” system–the British and Canadian-style plurality system–often fails to do.)

While it is a very complex system, it has produced its own version of “the best of both worlds”: representation (even quite proportional) for multiple political parties, but two clear blocs permitting stable government between elections and regular alternation in government at elections if the opposition gains sufficient votes at the expense of the incumbents.

PRELIMINARY RESULT:
At EuroTrib, DoDo is following the counting of the second-round results, and it looks like the Socialists and their neo-liberal partner, the Free Democrats, have won 65 of the 110 districts in which there were runoffs. Added to 34 won by the Socialists in the first round, that would be 56% of the nominal-tier. They should wind up with right around 200 seats*** once the “unused” vote adjustment referred to above is undertaken on the list vote and the national list seats are allocated. They will retain their narrow majority overall, and the result will once again be quite proportional, as after the below-threshold party-list votes are discarded, the two parties had 52.15% of the party-list vote. But once again, the result will be proportional only because the main parties work in two big blocs, and the main parties work in two big blocs only because the system is majoritarian.


Footnotes

*The party-list PR system in Hungary is itself two-tiered, but I will ignore that complication here. After parties’ list votes are adjusted via the procedure explained here, proportional allocation is carried out in that PR “tier” as if the country were a single national district with a magnitude of 210. This portion of the electoral system is a very typical European PR system. It is the relationship between the nominal tier and PR allocation that is atypical even for mixed-member systems–in fact, sui generis.

** As reported in Richard Rose, Neil Munro, and Tom Mackie, Elections in Central and Eastern Europe since 1990. Glasgow: University of Strathclyde Studies in Public Policy, 1998.

*** BBC is reporting:

The governing coalition has taken 209 of the 386 parliamentary seats.

That would be around 54%, on 52.2% of the above-threshold vote for the two parties–a slight majoritarian bonus, but not much. A bit more than in 2002, perhaps because the center-right bloc was less coordinated this time. In fact, the MDF leader was claiming she would join a coalition only if she were the PM (fat chance, given 5% of the party vote!). Such a stance may have resulted in less willingness of their voters to turn out in favor of Fidesz candidates in the runoff. That would be consistent with reports (see the EuroTrib link above) that turnout was down in the runoffs this time (unlike in 2002).