Election preview: Hungary

Hungary goes to the polls on Sunday in an election that seems both vitally important and completely predictable. All the polls predict that the conservative government of Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party will be returned comfortably for a second term.

Orbán has been one of the most controversial leaders in the European Union. Since winning an overwhelming majority at the 2010 election, he has rewritten the country’s constitution and electoral laws, introduced restrictions on the media, quarrelled with international lenders and moved to a more isolationist foreign policy. But no-one expects that he can be beaten this time; the most that might happen is that Fidesz could lose its two-thirds majority in parliament.

The election will essentially be contested by the same four parties that won almost all the vote between them last time, except that what was the Socialist Party is now a coalition called “Unity”, in which the Socialists are the largest component but which also includes several liberal groups. In addition to it and Fidesz (which incorporates the Christian Democrats on its list) there is the far-right Jobbik and a small Green party, the LMP.

In 2010 Fidesz finished with 52.7% of the vote and 263 seats. The Socialists had 19.3% and 59 seats, Jobbik 16.9% and 47, and the LMP 7.5% and 16. There was also one independent.

This time, however, the voting system has changed radically. The size of the parliament has been reduced from 386 to 199. It will still contain both constituency seats and list seats, but the 106 constituency seats will now be first-past-the-post instead of elected in two rounds. The boundaries have been completely redrawn to make them more equal in population, although critics say this has involved a degree of gerrymandering in Fidesz’s favor.

Most importantly, the basis of allocating the list seats has been changed, tilting it more towards the party that wins most of the constituency seats – particularly if it wins them comfortably. In 2010 Fidesz won all but three of the constituency seats but only 90 of the (then) 210 list seats; under the new system, it would probably have won the majority of the list seats as well. (The details are complicated:  one attempt to explain them is here.)

Opinion polls show Fidesz maintaining its vote around or slightly above the 50% mark, about double that of Unity, with Jobbik not far behind and the LMP struggling to stay above the 5% threshold. There’s some thought that in Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian climate, some respondents may be reluctant to tell pollsters that they’re voting for the opposition, but there’s no way that such an effect would make up for that big a deficit.

So it looks as if Orbán will be back for another four years, to give more headaches to the EU and provide Russia’s Vladimir Putin with at least one friend in central Europe. It’s an interesting commentary on Putin’s supposed fear of “fascists” in Ukraine that his own strongest support in the rest of Europe seems to come from the far right.

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