Home » Analyses

Political Capital’s reflections on the DGAP report

DGAP’s “Hungary in the Media, 2010–2014 – Critical Reflections on Coverage in the Press and Media” report received mixed reactions. Two Political Capital staff members were present at two out of the several background conversations organized to collect information for the study. As only a fraction of our findings and provided background materials were used in the final version, we feel compelled to react to the published report, and more specifically to the chapter on the electoral system.

Some sections of the report outline specific problems with due consideration, while elsewhere it blurs concepts, allows some factual errors to slip in and passes over a number of urgent issues besetting the electoral system. Obviously, the paper could not have undertaken a complete overview of the entire electoral regulatory environment, which is a daunting task to perform. However, the fact that some aspects of the system are covered in-depth while other equally relevant aspects are completely ignored, undermine the credibility of the report’s findings and conclusions, misleadingly ending on a positive note.

The new voting districts map: gerrymandering

In several places this sub-section of the report accepts government arguments without challenging those.

It begins with the claim that the reform of the electoral system could not have been postponed due to a planned reduction of parliamentary seats, even as the resulting savings were nothing more than false promises spread by political parties. Although a restructuring of salaries and benefits paid to representatives resulted in some rationalization, as expected, today representatives spend significantly more on staff members and little has been saved in the final tally. Moreover, the cost of the 2014 election campaign was higher by several magnitudes than ever before, not unrelated to the billions in public funds flowing uncontrolled to public pockets—a fact receiving no mention at all in the report.

Conflating the problems of electoral district disproportionality and gerrymandering with the disproportionality of the British model is even more troubling. Governmental rhetoric exploits the general public’s inability to make a distinction between the two issues uniformly described as “disproportionality” and, instead of clearing up the confusion, the report falls for this slanted interpretation. One disproportion measures the relationship between mandates won by parliamentary parties and the popular vote. How small the difference between these two factors should be is the subject of lengthy debates in all democracies (mostly following political parties’ often shifting political interests), although the proportional and majoritarian principles are equally democratic. The British model, built exclusively on individual constituencies, is not less legitimate than the national list system applied exclusively in a number of European countries. At the same time, the other disproportion is a result of varying population levels in specific election districts (the ballots of voters living in smaller districts carry more weight than of those living in larger districts), and as such it violates a fundamental right and creates a democratic deficit. Unfortunately, the report also mixes together the two concepts and in doing so it expresses a measure of sympathy for the creators of a patently manipulated district map.

Incidentally, if the authors brought up the British model, they should have rather offered the institution of the Boundary Commissions as an example, for the boundary setting commission serves the purpose of limiting opportunities for gerrymandering to a minimum.

The report’s conclusion that “Orbán’s 2014 victory cannot be attributed to the new electoral district lines alone” is also misleading.  It is widely understood that gerrymandering only works in a tight election; the fact that the 2014 election brought a different result says nothing about the potentially decisive role played by district maps.

The fact that the new map has at least resolved the problem of uneven population distribution in districts is also uncritically praised in the report. While this appears to be true at the moment, the new act does not prevent the reproduction of disproportional representation in the future. It will not do so only because the legislator went against a Constitutional Court resolution passed in 2010. The Court ruled that district boundaries are to be established in an act requiring a simple majority, while underlying principles and guarantees shall be stipulated in a two-thirds majority act. By comparison, legislators failed to create firm guarantees, and altering the district map also requires a two-thirds majority vote. In practical terms this means that if a political force has supermajority, within the county lines district boundaries can be changed at will, and if it doesn’t (as it happened between 1990 and 2010), it is all but impossible to make changes.

The paper, with the ambition to be thorough, still manages to slip in a factual error: the socialist-liberal government “during their second term in 2007, following a second call to action from the Constitutional Court” failed to meet the relevant demands. As a matter of fact, there was no such second call and, instead, the Court’s 2005 ruling expired on June 30, 2007. Furthermore, following the 2006 victory the government returning to power submitted a complex election reform bill to the Parliament, albeit it would not have offered a comprehensive solution for the voter-district problem. It was also evident that Fidesz would never have supported such a bill.  Whether being in power or not, MSZP and Fidesz share equal blame for failing to make progress in the (partial or comprehensive) reform of the election system between 1998 and 2010, a 12-year period when both parties had the opportunity to muster a two-thirds majority.

Campaign advertisements: television and posters

This chapter makes a thorough analysis of the new legislative environment created for election campaigns and points to its ostensibly fair components that overall tend to favour the government. Similarly, it does not gloss over aspects of the act that do not come under the scope of the election procedure law, and mentions as a serious concern that the government and civic organizations can run campaigns without a spending cap, leaving the incumbent with a huge advantage.

Compensation of winners

The report also arrives at an essentially correct assessment of a peculiar Hungarian phenomenon that became known as winner compensation. In fact, it could have been more vigorously emphasized that the new institution is far from violating fundamental rights since each vote is taken into the final tally only once. Even the loudest critics agree that it is a characteristic of the new election system that tends to benefit the largest party, not necessarily Fidesz. The problem with the new institution is that it makes the mechanism of distributing mandates mind-boggling, offering the average voter no chance to understand the process after a few minutes of study. While the legislator could have achieved the same goal of helping the winner through the complete elimination of the compensation mechanism, that solution would have carried more political risk by revealing its intention of further weakening smaller parties.

The report tries to minimize the importance of the oddity embedded in the Hungarian system by citing the Italian system, thus lending support to the government’s position by suggesting there is a European model that similarly grants the winner such extra powers. In the Italian system in use at the time, the mechanism referred to was indeed the only component favouring the winner simply serving to avoid a stalemate, while in contrast the Hungarian mixed system ab ovo follows the logic of majoritarian systems, where a number of tools meant to help the stability of the government are complemented by additional measures aimed to increase the winner’s mandates.

The same sub-section also includes a sentence further undermining the report’s professional credentials when it claims that opposition victories in recent by-elections offer proof that Fidesz is not invincible in the election system it has created. To date, only politicians or journalists close to the government have made a similar conclusion, and it is regrettable that this unprofessional argument has been brought up in a report meant to be conclusive. In a by-election balloting is held in a single electoral district, there are no party lists or out-of-country votes, there are no fractional votes or winner compensation, and the effects of district maps also come into play only in a general election: how could a by-election reveal anything meaningful about a complex election system? Moreover, the three by-elections held since last November did not bring any surprises; opposition candidate already won in 10 individual constituencies in the 2014 spring general election.

What has been left out

The report fails to treat a number of relevant issues, although without these one can hardly assess the election system in its entirety. Below is a bullet-point list of the most important issues:

  • A discussion of a distorted system caused by nomination and campaign financing regulations, encouraging the proliferation of sham parties and the diversion of billions in public funds, is sorely missing. While in the past the process of nominating candidates was built on a trade in recommendation-slips, today the copying of recommendation letters poses the same problem (see details here and here).
  • In respect to the method of casting ballots, there is no mention of the gratuitous discrimination made between ethnic Hungarians and Hungarian citizens living in other countries (see details here).
  • The report makes absolutely no mention of the introduction of the ethnic vote. This new institution, perhaps created in good faith, is fundamentally flawed so much so that one can’t even talk about genuine voting, because anyone wishing to vote for the ethnic list has but a single option leaving no opportunity to make a real choice. The privileged method of gaining a seat under current regulation is an invitation to fraud, and its significance should not be dismissed even if in 2014 no party tried to take advantage of this loophole.


Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.