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.