Translation of Szilárd Teczár’s interview with László Róbert, election specialist at Hungarian think-tank Political Capital, appearing in the May 4th, 2017 edition of print weekly Magyar Narancs under the title “From Minority to Majority: Election specialist Róbert László on the idea of a proportional representation electoral system”.
The electoral rules play a part in the weakness of the opposition, but this is not primarily due to a lack of proportionality in the system, according to the analyst at the think-tank Political Capital. Regardless of high levels of dissatisfaction with the government, unless it makes a huge blunder, it will be difficult for Fidesz to lose the 2018 election.
Magyar Narancs: You told hvg.hu that it is not worthwhile for those seeking for a change of government or regime to challenge the electoral system. Why not?
Róbert László: A necessary condition for an election boycott, just as for a successful performance in an election, is that you have a significant support base behind you. If the opposition bases its campaign on the idea the electoral system must be changed because Fidesz is unbeatable under present conditions, and then nothing happens, it will only teach voters that it is not worth going to the ballot box. Anyway, it’s quite certain that Fidesz is not going to change the electoral system. And it is possible that it would be just these lost votes that the opposition will miss next April. I’m afraid that, for all his good intentions, [activist] Márton Gulyás has not factored in these risks, though it’s true that in the weeks since his announcement, he has fine-tuned the details of his initiative.
MN: Is the reason Fidesz won’t change it because a unanimous boycott is unthinkable, or because the governing party is not concerned about the threat?
RL: It doesn’t seem realistic that every self-respecting party besides Fidesz would join the threat of a boycott, or go through with it. Not only Jobbik would stay out of it, but also parties to the left of Fidesz. And that is to say nothing of the mass of bogus parties. But even if the governing party did feel itself under pressure, one thing we have learned from the past seven years is that Viktor Orbán does not allow himself to be blackmailed. Concerted attacks have usually led to a closing of ranks. Amid the issue of Sunday closing for shops and the withdrawal of the bid to host the Olympics, they stayed out of the referendum and its campaign period, and they were able to drop the internet tax without losing face because it wasn’t integral to the System of National Cooperation. On the other hand, the electoral system is a systemic part of the Fidesz party’s power, and it is not an issue on which a referendum can be held. If criticism had no effect on Orbán during the reforms of 2012 and 2013, why would it have any effect a year ahead of the 2018 elections, and when the left-wing parties have already legitimised the system by participating in the 2014 elections?
MN: Setting aside the political reality, would you support in theory a proportional, or more proportional system?
RL: Rather than a proportional electoral system, it would be more useful to demand a fair electoral system, since this would be easier for voters to digest, and you can point to real drawbacks in the current regulations. You would have to address many different elements of the electoral system, as Political Capital has long advocated. We have confronted [Fidesz vice-president] Gergely Gulyás with various anomalies at our conferences, which he usually evaded, but he did promise change in the area of party financing, and undertook to ensure that the names of dead people would no longer feature on lists of voters living abroad. Now we can see that nothing will come from any of this, that Fidesz will clearly oppose it, because a couple of weeks ago they really did table a reform package following a five-party compromise. But there was no mention of dead voters, it only skirted around the issue of party financing, and 95% would have served to simplify the process of postal voting for Hungarian citizens living abroad. So the opposition clearly won’t support the reform. Yet there are omissions that can be criticised on a technical basis. In any case, there is no expert answer – even if it causes many people’s sense of justice to protest – to the question of whether a proportional or a first-past-the-post electoral system is the “best”. Neither is more democratic than the other, and the choice between the two, or going for a mixed system, is based on political values and interests.
MN: Those who support proportional representation argue that enforced coalitions would be good for Hungary’s political culture, and would more effectively protect the constitutional order.
RL: The two-thirds rule was put in place to ensure that no single political power could tinker with the basis of the constitutional order. No one expected that anyone would secure a two-thirds majority under the earlier electoral system. But they did. This would be a lot more difficult in a proportional system, although not impossible. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that things would have gone any better after 2010 if Fidesz had only been able to muster a two-thirds majority in tandem with Jobbik.
MN: You also wrote that the electoral system plays a part in the weakness of the opposition, but not the rules governing the distribution of mandates. What do you mean by this?
RL: It is the rules on political campaigning that most strongly favour the governing party, and the richest ever political force. From its position in government, Fidesz has been campaigning more or less constantly for seven years, and the opposition cannot compete with this. Moreover, the law prohibits the opposition de facto from political advertising during the campaign period, since the commercial television and radio channels can only run advertisements for free and under equal conditions. Clearly no channel is going to accept this. By contrast, the government can continue to run public service announcements with impunity, not only during the campaign season but any time. There is no counterweight to Fidesz’s advantage in the current Hungarian media landscape, and that means bogus NGOs can help in the campaign without restriction. If the Lex Simicska goes through it will be far more difficult for the opposition to reach the huge numbers of people who are not actively politically engaged.
MN: Does this cause a greater imbalance than the manipulation of winner compensation or the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries?
RL: Certainly more than winner compensation, from which a strong opposition can also benefit. The manipulation of constituency boundaries has not yet been tested, and this will only come out if two leading political forces go head to head. Our mandate calculator shows that the electoral map could offset a 2-4% point opposition lead in Fidesz’s favour by the constituency map, but not a larger one. Gerrymandering rarely counts, but when it does, it counts a lot. In general one can say, however, that the real distortions arising from the electoral system do not occur on election day or in the allocation of seats in parliament, but it makes the run-up to that point extremely difficult for Fidesz’s opponents.
MN: You also said in the ongoing debate that Fidesz would only agree to a proportional system if it feared defeat. Might it?
RL: Right now there appears to be little chance of Fidesz being beaten, it is betting on a sure victory, and it doesn’t really look like any of the old or new political players will become a contender in 2018. Of course, it is possible that Fidesz will commit between now and the election some sort of enormous blunder that would cause trust in the party to dwindle. But all opinion polls thus far show that even the series of demonstrations in support of the Central European University (CEU) hasn’t dented the ruling party’s popularity. Otherwise, we’ve known for a long time that Fidesz would appear more open to a proportional system if it thought defeat was coming, because a proportional system would minimise that defeat. In this situation, however, the standpoint of the opposition would change. Whether a party prefers a proportional or first-past-the-post system is rarely based on principles: it rather depends on the size of a party and its political interests.
MN: Is this a problem?
RL: Not in itself, but one of the main problems with the current system is that it is in no way based on consensus. Fidesz had a two-thirds majority, and wasn’t remotely interested in what its critics had to say, and it showed to the West that on certain issues it agreed with certain opposition parties such as, for example, Jobbik on the issue of votes for Hungarian citizens abroad. However, not a single opposition party supported the new system in its entirety, because it had not been the subject of any meaningful negotiations.
MN: Many are saying that abolishing the second round of the election has forced opposition parties to begin talking about uniting. Do you agree?
RL: Not at all. Where there are lots of small parties, even an entirely list-based electoral system, but with a 5% threshold, would force them to unite. The single-round solution noticeably limits the opposition parties’ room for manoeuvre, but if we weren’t talking about parties under the 5% limit, then they would have had the option of coordinating their fielding of candidates, as emerged in 2013, Coordinated standing at the level of individual constituencies pretty much resembles the erstwhile second round.
MN: There is a lot of confusion at the moment. What do you expect, will there be cooperation in the end?
RL: There will probably be no unified, joint electoral list, which a fairly broad consensus agrees would be a bad idea – although that wasn’t itself the cause of the failure. It is hard to imagine that today’s left-wing opposition parties – who, if such a thing were possible, hate each other even more than they did four years ago – could divide both the list and constituency seats between themselves. So far only László Botka has come forward as a candidate for prime minister, and it is an open question whether he will be accepted outside his own party. Now everyone is trying to build support for themselves or their own network, and looking for local candidates to stand in the individual constituencies. During this phase, the parties are saying they will have their own candidates in the bulk of constituencies, and are working to be as strong as possible in the January and February opinion polls. Based on this, it is conceivable that, at the last minute – as before the last second round – they will begin to stand down in favour of one another. This seems the most likely scenario today.
MN: Will it not be disadvantageous if, in the last months when the campaign should be in full swing, everyone starts arguing about who is going to stand down in favour of whom?
RL: Look, it would not have been much different in the last electoral system either! The difference is the wave of withdrawals would have come between the two rounds. In fact, it would have been in the interests of the sub-5% parties to strike a deal with a larger party even ahead of the first round in the two-round system.
MN: How many transfer votes could a party list miss out on if its candidates do not stand in many constituencies?
RL: If they stand on a joint list, and the alliance has a candidate in all 106 constituencies, then the transfer votes all go to the joint list. In coordinated running, there is also a candidate in every constituency, and the transfer votes also come in, but not to a single list – they are shared between several party lists. From a mathematical point of view, the difference is minimal: the question is rather the extent to which an MSZP [Hungarian Socialist Party] voter would be prepared to vote for a perhaps less appealing Democratic Coalition candidate, and vice-versa. And there would also be a risk that if one of the parties failed to reach the 5% threshold, because then all the votes given to its individual candidates would be lost. Coordinated running is viable when parties well over the 5% threshold take part.
MN: A party needs to field candidates in 27 constituencies to be able to run a national list, so more than three parties are not really going to be able to do this.
RL: The opposition parties can get around this by running against each other for the 15 to 20 least favourable constituencies, thereby easily fulfilling the national minimum then dividing the swing seats amongst themselves.
MN: But it’s not a great message for the voters in those constituencies, that they have given up on them.
RL: It is a bad message, but at least the voters there have the luxury of being able to choose between the opposition candidates at the local level. Naturally, coordinated running can cause complications in the campaign. It is partly a question of the extent to which the campaign teams will be prepared to get behind each other’s candidates, and partly about how far voters will be able, or want, to join in the cooperation.
MN: Coming back to electoral chances, Dániel Róna wrote a long article in which one of his conclusions was that the opinion pollsters were overestimating support for Fidesz by 4-6%.
RL: It is conceivable that some of them overestimate the Fidesz vote, because there are more potential opposition voters among the undecided, but this cannot change the ratio very much when Fidesz has such a huge lead. What is certain is that the opposition is making the biggest mistake if on the basis of their personal experiences they start to question the poll results. We often heard in 2014 that the opposition was doing better than the polls suggested: the result is well known.
MN: If you see the position of the opposition as so helpless, why is it a problem to demobilise the voters by challenging the electoral system?
RL: If the opposition decides that it wants to upset the government, then it should occupy itself over the final year with preparing for the election, not flying the flag for electoral reform. This would in all probability be unsuccessful, and would send the message to voters that the left is only losing because of Fidesz’s cheating system. On the contrary, the situation is that there aren’t enough people behind the opposition parties, and they should work on attracting undecided voters. I doubt a call to reform the electoral system would achieve this aim. It is hard to predict whether there will be an earthquake in the coming year, but as far as I can see, only a mistake by Fidesz could cause one. The opposition forces are hardly going to take wing now if they haven’t managed it over the past seven years.
MN: If the maximum impact on Fidesz’s standing in the polls of dissatisfaction with the government and street protests is within the margin of error, is that also because of the unpopularity of the opposition parties?
RL: The number of those dissatisfied with the government surpassed the number of those who are satisfied a long time ago, but this dissatisfaction is not being diverted into support for the opposition. It makes no difference how much people dislike the government if they don’t see anyone who they think could do a better job. The majority of these dissatisfied voters turn away from politics entirely, which is clearly Fidesz’s intention. This can be seen in the simplification of the political discourse, the dumbing down of the education system, narrowing the campaign and numerous other interventions. At the same time, it seeks to maintain, inspire and motivate its own camp, and with this minority it can win a majority in parliament. They are well aware that they can only be a relative majority, and there won’t be the number of people behind them as in 2010. Every aspect of their electoral reforms have served the goal of being able to maintain an absolute majority of seats from a dwindling minority of voters.
MN: The French election was a good example of how great shifts in party support can take place in a short time. Why are the political actors in Hungary so mired in the party structures, or is there some sort of institutional reason for this?
RL: There is a huge level of hopelessness in Hungary, and a lot of disenchantment with politics, and so the past 27 years have done a lot. Hungarians find it hard to believe that a new political force could arise to do battle with such an entrenched regime. The majority-based electoral system could bear some of the responsibility for this. After 1990, very few new parties have been able to gather strength. MIÉP [Hungarian Justice and Life Party] was the first, the LMP [Politics Can Be Different] and Jobbik came in 2010, and for now that’s it.