Joint opposition lists help un-skew the Hungarian electoral system, but they’ll still need a 3% lead to win

Joint opposition lists help un-skew the Hungarian electoral system, but they’ll still need a 3% lead to win

Five months from the 2022 Parliamentary elections, Hungary’s opposition is just about holding together the coalition needed to mount a credible campaign against Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government. Last month, they chose their candidate for Prime Minister: Péter Márki-Zay, mayor of Hódmezővásárhely.

Márki-Zay, a conservative politician with no national experience and practically no party of his own, seems like an odd choice to lead a coalition of liberals and social democrats. But the choice reflects the absolute necessity of opposition unity under Hungary’s electoral system.

At first glance, Hungary’s electoral system might look like a form of PR, not too dissimilar from Germany’s or New Zealand’s, but in practice it is a pluralitarian system with a heavy skew towards Fidesz. The system is design both to necessitate electoral pacts on the left while seeding as much division between opposition parties as possible.

After winning an unexpected two-thirds majority (enough to amend the constitution) in 2010, Fidesz changed the electoral system in a number of key ways. The new system had two tiers: local constituencies and national lists. The local constituencies were elected using FPTP (rather than a two-round system, as before) and were drawn in such a way that left-liberal opposition was concentrated in a small number of districts, primarily in Budapest. This helped keep the divided opposition divided, fighting over a tiny number of possible constituency MPs.

Fidesz also changed the national tier to profit from this division, with national MPs elected on the basis of both a national list vote and “wasted” votes from the constituency section – that is, votes for losing candidates and for winners above what is needed to win. Given that many constituencies split evenly between Fidesz and a large number of small opposition parties, this system effectively “compensated” Fidesz for winning a disproportional number of constituency seats by a large margin. Meanwhile, national list votes for Fidesz would also count towards national list MPs, without accounting for disproportionality in the constituency tier.

Against the odds, the opposition has managed to field a joint slate of candidates for the 2022 election. Fidesz may have been hoisted by its own petard: creating an electoral system which penalises a divided opposition so harshly that it has forced the opposition to collaborate.

Opposition unity has a number of advantages. Most importantly, it significantly unskews the national list tier. By denying Fidesz large majorities over a divided opposition, it reduces the number of “wasted” Fidesz votes in the constituency section, which perversely make the Fidesz vote more efficient overall. Secondly, it partially unskews the constituency tier, by uniting the opposition in the relatively small number of opposition-leaning districts where Fidesz has previously won with a minority of the vote.

However, the Hungarian electoral system is still tilted in Fidesz’s favour. Setting other institutional advantages aside (i.e. partisan judiciary, press, electoral commission etc), the electoral system still includes the diaspora vote, which is overwhelmingly favourable to Fidesz (96% Fidesz in 2018), is still tilted towards Fidesz in the constituency section, and still struggles to account for the constituency section in the national list.

So how much does the opposition need to win by in Hungary to oust the government? Assuming that opposition voters consolidate around the joint candidates evenly across constituencies, the opposition will need a 3% lead in Hungary to win 1 more MP than Fidesz. If the joint opposition were to tie with Fidesz nationwide, it would result in 106 Fidesz MPs to 92 for the opposition.

In a nationwide tie, the constituency tier (due to probable gerrymandering and the natural clustering of opposition voters) would produce 60 Fidesz MPs compared with 46 for the opposition (map below). The national list tier would not compensate for this disproportionality, giving both Fidesz and the opposition an additional 46 MPs, leaving a final Fidesz advantage of 14 MPs.

A national skew of 3% is relatively small for a country rapidly moving away from democracy. In fact, it is not much bigger than the skew towards the Conservatives in the UK under FPTP, which occurred despite a strictly independent boundary commission. However, in the context of a partisan pro-Fidesz media, judiciary and electoral commission, it is yet another barrier to opposition victory. Since the joint list was formed, the opposition has never scored a lead higher than 2% in Politico’s polling average.

The 3% figure also conceals some other risks for the opposition. Firstly, the opposition’s electoral geography may be even less efficient than in 2018. With the fall of Jobbik and continued strength of left-liberal politics in Budapest, it may be that the opposition disproportionately increases its vote in a small number of urban districts, at the expense of suburban/rural marginal districts. Last October’s by-election result is one piece of evidence pointing in this direction. Another risk is that a candidate other than Márki-Zay or Orbán might run. “Porn tycoon” György Gattyán has announced his candidacy. This could divide the opposition vote, strengthening Fidesz.

Finally, there is the risk that an election victory in 2022 does not strengthen Hungarian democracy. This might sound impossible (if the dictator loses an election, democracy is restored, right?) but given the huge institutional constraints any non-Fidesz government would have, it might end up as a lame duck administration which paves the way for Fidesz’s return to power. Most significant changes enacted by Fidesz can only be reversed by a two-thirds majority, which the opposition is all-but certain to fall short of (it would need a 13.5% vote share lead). Meanwhile, the media, judiciary and civil service would still firmly be in the hands of Fidesz supporters, and undermining the government at every turn.

Given all of this, the path to opposition victory in 2022 and democratisation afterwards is very narrow. Polls showing an opposition lead are encouraging, and may eventually result in electoral victory, but Orbán has successfully embedded a deep Fidesz bias into all areas of the Hungarian political system. It will take far more than one election to undo.

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