Guest post on the Hungarian elections

This comment from James Farrell, who’s spent a lot of time in Hungary, got stuck in moderation, but it’s worth a post of its own. See also Eszter at CT

Of course we should keep an eye on the Italians. But I feel confident in guessing that it’s the other European election that people really want to know about. So here are some observations on the Hungarian elections, also starting on 9 April. The election was for the National Assembly, which has 386 seats, and fixed four-year terms.

Hungary uses the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting, along with New Zealand, Italy, Albania, Venezuela, Mexico, Bolivia, Lesotho and Germany (where it originated). Without understanding the Italian system, I’m confident that the Hungarian is at least as complicated.

In the first round, you cast two votes: one for your single-representative district, and a second one for a party. The party votes elect members to each of 20 multi-member districts. If your favoured candidate in the single-member district isn’t in the top three, or your party doesn’t reach the threshold in the multi-member district, these votes are ‘wasted’. The wasted votes are pooled and used to fill national seats reserved for this purpose from lists of candidates supplied by the parties. In the second round, two weeks later, the single-member seats are contested again if no one got a majority the first time, and only the top three can run. Also, allied parties do deals withdrawing candidates to maximise their votes in these districts.

The mixed system seems a good one, except that only about one in twenty people seems to understand it. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Having two rounds is strange, though. The first round grips the nation’s attention. But if the result is close, no one concedes defeat, and the campaign resumes again. By the time the second vote comes, people have largely lost interest, and voter turnout is much lower. At least the drawn–out process eases the pain of disappointment for the losers. If your loved one languishes in a coma for two weeks before dying, you have time to adjust. But compared to our sudden death elections, the Hungarian ones create a sense of anti-climax.

The result was that the Hungarian Socialist Party was returned to office, along with its small coalition partner, the Alliance of Free Democrats (liberal party). This is the first time a government has been returned in Hungary since elections started in 1989. It’s easy to produce a trite explanation for the pattern up to now: oppositions have succeeded in portraying themselves as less corrupt and nepotistic than incumbent governments in a period of scary social and economic transformation. Until a year ago the opinion polls, along with the European Parliamentary Elections, predicted another change of government. But the socialists managed to turn it around by replacing their uncharismatic leader with a groovy new, 44-year-old, 190cm tall millionaire, who even has his own blog.

Apart from that, actually, I have no idea why Hungarians vote as they do. The local BBC correspondence interpreted this, in very knowing tones, as a ‘vote for continuity and stability’. If you ask ‘ordinary’ people why they vote for Party X, they’ll usually mention something that Party X has promised to spend money on. In fact both sides promised the earth despite the fact that the budget deficit is around 7 percent of GDP. The government boasted that it wouldn’t be pushed around by the IMF; the opposition offered tax cuts with shameless Laffer-curve arguments.

In most countries, at least Anglo-Saxon ones, your average person in the street is averse to characterising his politics as left or right. Hungarians, however, if they divulge their views at all, will tell you they vote for ‘The Left’ or ‘The Right’. The left means the Socialists, who are essentially the party of European integration, trans-national capital and tax churning. The right means FIDESZ, which, depending on whom you talk to, is either a conservative party, a radical right party, or the only real left-wing party. The last characterisation seems mainly due to the party’s opposition to privatization, especially recent government proposals for hospitals. But as far as I can gather, this was pure opportunism, in line with most of their policies. The one element of their platform that is consistent is nationalism, reflected in their plans to give passports to ethnic Magyars in bordering countries, in definite protectionist tendencies, and in their general rhetoric and symbolism.

Hungarians tend to define themselves by, and are indeed polarised according to, how they respond to this approach, and to FIDESZ’s leader Viktor Orbán. He is pretty much a one-man show, and people who don’t see him as a messiah, tend to regard him as a dangerous demagogue. Campaigns are nasty and personal. Families and friendships are split by political allegiances in a way I’ve never seen elsewhere, and people are cagey about their politics for this reason. It’s all very paradoxical to an outsider. If the differences between the parties’ policies were substantial, families would tend to be affected in the same way, and vote the same way; the same applies, to some extent, to work colleagues. On the other hand, if the differences are so insubstantial, why do they elicit such strong emotion?

Anyway, FIDESZ now face a dilemma. Orbán has lost two elections, and, like a certain Australian opposition leader, will carry that baggage with him if he contests the next one. On the other hand, he is the only real face the party has. His departure might cause a fragmentation and realignment of ‘conservative’ forces. But this might not stop the ‘right’ winning the next election. Loyalties are fickle in a new democracy and small parties can make a run from nowhere and win government, as FIDESZ itself did in 1998. In the meantime, the Socialists will have to break half of their promises if they serious about adopting the Euro by 2010.

2 thoughts on “Guest post on the Hungarian elections

  1. “On the other hand, if the differences are so insubstantial, why do they elicit such strong emotion?”
    Symbolic politics (just like in the US).
    And the differences are not insubstantial!
    The socialists are blind market-lovers, of the worst right-wing sort. Not all of them, there are a number of traditional marxists/communists, leftist (varying colours) and technocracts without any personaly held political ideas (the majority).
    Fidesz subscribe to a developmental state.
    They are nationalists, but not in their economic policy, which they call patriotic economic policy (rightly).
    It is important to note, that the mass media are under the contoll of Mr. Gyurcsany and his allies. Also, Fidesz had a very strange, inefficient, erratic campaign.
    Besides this it is not over. There will be municipial elections in October (or September) and there is an imminent threat of a deep and serious financial crisis.

  2. Eszter’s post has a link to the famous video of the President dancing. The big questions are, did this get Gyurcsány over the line, and if so could it work for Beasely in ’07? (And, could someone called Gyurcsány ever be elected to anything in Australia?)

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