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Hungarian voters are far wiser than the parties assume, says election expert Róbert László

Translation of interview with Hungarian election expert Róbert László appearing in the April 5th edition of liberal print weekly Magyar Narancs, pp. 8-10.

Opposition supporters realized before the parties did that the key to defeating Orbán lay in strong individual candidates. In this way, tactical voting could work even without formal coordination.  Róbert Lázló believes we are before one of the least predictable elections since 1990. And it is not clear what would happen if Fidesz ends up in the minority.

Magyar Narancs: In your joint analysis with Attila Juhász, you write that Hungary is before one of the least predictable elections since the system change (of 1989-tran.).  What causes the uncertainty?

Róbert László: The one cause is that, apart from Fidesz and Jobbik, there is no party that is 100 percent certain to get into parliament. Never have so many parties polled in the vicinity of the 5 percent threshold (necessary for candidates appearing on parties’s national lists to enter parliament-tran.). The situation is complicated by the fact that a 10 percent threshold applies to the MSZP-Dialogue for Hungary alliance. Of course it is highly likely that MSZP-Dialogue will get into parliament, but LMP’s situation is far more uncertain, and it is not possible to know how well Momentum will perform. Együtt and the Two-Tailed Dog Party have little chance, but it is not zero. The proportion of discarded votes counts for a lot if a lot of parties fail to achieve the 5 percent threshold and the votes for their party lists go into the rubbish bin.

MN: If, for example, Momentum ends up with a result of 4 percent?

RL: The nightmare scenario is if MSZP-Dialogue just misses with 9.7 percent and if, out of the trinity of DK, LMP and Momentum, two were to end up with less than 5 percent.  In 2014 four percent of votes went to parties (failing to reach the 5 percent threshold necessary to send delegates to parliament from their national lists). Perhaps this time there won’t be much more, but it is possible this number will reach 10-20 percent. The other thing contributing to uncertainty is the coordination of candidates. Although it will not be comprehensive, it can be far more expansive than the coordination between MSZP and DK announced in December, while in 2014 LMP was unwilling to cooperate with other democratic opposition parties. The parties are afraid that the voters are not following which candidates step back, but in reality the mechanism is rather reversed: the electorate is pressuring the parties to step back to one another’s benefit in the individual electoral districts.

MN:  If we only look at party preference, how much is the picture different now than in 2014?

RL: To begin with, the difference is significant because of the range of parties on offer. In 2014 nobody calculated that anybody would enter parliament other than the four parties that did (Fidesz-KDNP, MSZP, Jobbik, LMP).  This time it could again happen that three or four parties get into parliament, or five or six, even seven in an extreme case.  More important are changes among the parties’ supporters, and how leftwing relations with Jobbik have changed.

MN: What do you mean by the change in voting camps?

RL: A recent Medián poll showed that Fidesz has weakened in middle class, conservative intellectual circles. The typical Fidesz voter is more provincial, older and less educated. Jobbik’s repositioning appears to have been successful even if it does not appear in the polling data: the general perception is that Jobbik is Viktor Orbán’s main challenger.

MN: According to the latest public opinion polls, Fidesz’s national list is expected to get between 36 and 54 percent of the vote, Jobbik’s between 14 and 24 percent, and MSZP-Dialogue’s between 11 and 18 percent.  Is it usual for there to be such disparities between the results of research institutions?

RL: It is a widespread belief that it is not possible to trust in public opinion researchers, but for the most part they show rather well the status of the parties relative to one another. The data is pretty much the same. However, the market has become more and more splayed. Here, too, there are fake companies as well as serious ones. True, among the measurements of the latter there are significant disparities. This can arise from differences in methodology, the growing proportion of those refusing to answer, and the fact that in recent times Fidesz has tended to be over measured.

MN: Do you agree that Fidesz is in a downward spiral in comparison to 2014?

RL: When at the beginning of 2014 the opposition unity came about, it could be seen on the actors’ faces that everyone hated one another, and this increased the resignation of voters.  Nor could a mood of breakthrough change be sensed at the beginning of the year.  The (surprising outcome of the) Hódmezővásárhely by-election, however, gave everything a boost. A previously almost unknown candidate was able to win by a landslide in a strong Fidesz city. This sent a message to the electorate that there is no electoral district Fidesz cannot lose. Of course, (Hódmezővásárhely winner) Péter Márki-Zay’s are not to be found everywhere. The opposition did not complete this work over the past three or four years, even though Zoltán Kész’s victory in Veszprem had demonstrated by February 2015 at the latest that the antidote to Fidesz is building up a strong local candidate.

MN: Can one sense that the opposition party leaders are more confident that they have more to hope for now than in 2014 and that Viktor Orbán has more to fear?

RL: The message from voters to parties has clearly been one in favor of a more effective and broader coordination. The voters learned the winning strategy faster than the parties, perhaps because they were accustomed to the two-round election system (the second round was eliminated by the Fidesz-KDNP-controlled parliament in 2013-tran.) and for this reason tactical voting was not unknown to them. The parties’ behavior, however, was variably rational. It was not surprising that Jobbik was not willing to openly coordinate since a significant part of its voters would have a screaming fit if they had to vote for an MSZP or DK candidate. Although there, too, there are quite a few voters who are exclusively interested in defeating Fidesz. In LMP’s case it is the least understandable why it insists on running 104 candidates, because while it is a national party, and a campaign to build up Bernadett Szél’s person took place in small settlements as well, it is clearer than day that their voters would like coordination.

MN:  It is commonly said that in order to prevent Fidesz from gaining a two-thirds majority, the opposition needs to win over 15 electoral districts, 40-45 in order to make Fidesz a minority.  Do your mandate calculations show this?

LR: 10-15 seems realistic because in 2014 Fidesz just managed to hold on to its two-thirds majority despite losing 10 districts. From this it follows logically that if they lose some more they will not have a two-thirds majority. But precisely because of the uncertainty factors mentioned, this is not certain. If 10-15 percent of the votes for national lists end up being discarded, some additional Fidesz defeats will not necessarily deny it a two-thirds majority.  In such a complex electoral system it is difficult to set the cut-off for a two-thirds majority or even a simple majority. A lot depends on participation. A lot depends on the foreign vote, would could grow to twice that of 2014. Also relevant is the fact that, according to the current registration data, the German national representative will also get a mandate. So an interval of 10-14 or 40-45 is not unrealistic. But it cannot be ruled out that Fidesz would still retain an absolute majority, even if it lost in 48 electoral districts, let alone in 38 districts.

MN: In vain do the voters apply pressure, it seems certain that only limited coordination will take place between the opposition parties. According to our information, Jobbik is not withdrawing candidates in a single district. Without candidates being recalled, how well can it work for voters to vote for the more likely candidate?

RL: Voters have been practicing tactical voting since 1990 in some way. From this we can conclude that voting for other candidates can also work now. A more recent basis for reference are the two 2015 by-elections. Zoltán Kész had a Jobbik opponent and an LMP opponent. And Lajos Rig had a socialist and an LMP candidate. And yet both performed better than the Fidesz candidate. In Veszprém the performance of the Jobbik candidate was weak, while in Tapolca this could be said of the socialist candidate. This was obviously due to cross voting. Voters are far wiser than the parties assume. In the 106 electoral districts it is still not clear who the opposition candidates with the best prospects are. And this is not only questionable in relation to the left-wing and Jobbik. In Budapest’s 4th electoral district most research shows DK’s Péter Niedermuller and LMP’s Péter Ungár neck and neck. Without one of them standing down it is difficult for the tactical voter to decide which one to vote for.

MN: Is it even possible to measure which candidate has the best prospects?  There are disparities among the results of the numerous civilian and non-civilian measuring initiatives, and precisely in the important districts.

RL: The reason the whole thing is difficult to measure is because voters have to imagine a fictional life situation that would even be challenging for those wallowing in domestic politics. Public opinion pollsters measure as best they can, but they cannot necessarily figure out what is going on inside voters’ heads. It is very difficult to give a considered answer when talking to a researcher as to how they would vote if X, Y, Z opposition candidates appear on the ballot, and how if only Y and Z, and how if only Z. On the other hand, there is no better method, and these data are at our disposal, and form a starting basis.

MN: There started a discussion on the leftwing that tactical voting helps Jobbik because the leftwing-liberal voters will vote for Jobbik, but not so much vice versa. Do you see such a danger?

RL: This risk exists in both directions. Probably this fear exists within the Jobbik barracks as it is difficult for them to imagine that a leftwing-liberal voter would vote for them. Anyway it is rare when Jobbik and leftwing candidates compete with one another, and the two voting camps are very different. Nobody expects the people of Budapest to vote for Jobbik, as here almost nowhere does the Jobbik candidate have a chancer of winning.  In the countryside and more rural territories, on the other hand, there are very few districts where the leftwing would stand a chance.

MN: And yet an asymmetry exists in that in the capital city a lot of leftwing candidates can win even without votes from Jobbik supporters.

RL: Even more would win if Jobbik supporters cross voted in a more disciplined manner. It is worthwhile looking at the districts Fidesz lost in 2014. If only a small number of Jobbik supporters had cross voted, the results in a number of districts would have been different. And that is without mentioning LMP.

MN: According to analysts, high voter participation favors the opposition. But after the defeat in Hódmezővásárhely, Fidesz also started to mobilize its supporters. Does the governing party still have reserves?

RL: In Hódmezővásárhely 16 percent more Fidesz supporters voted than in the previous mayoral election 3.5 years earlier. That is a huge accomplishment, except that the opposition managed to mobilize three times as many voters as it had previously. Fidesz does not have so large a reserve. It would be a huge plus for Fidesz if it mobilized 10-20 percent more voters than in 2014. Then instead of 2.1 million it could count on 2.3-2.6 million domestic votes, and its majority would hardly be challenged. But I have doubts about its ability to attract this many new voters. Rather they are playing with mobilizing existing voters, and their concept might be to knock on the doors of those voters whose names appear on the Kubatov list.

MN: 3.3 million voted in the referendum on the settlement quota in support of the government’s position.

RL: In vain do voters seeing danger in migration appear in circles of the Fidesz camp, this is not about that one issue. The question is who is to govern Hungary. Most of those for whom the most important point of view is migration will strengthen the Fidesz camp, and may form a small reserve for Jobbik as well.

MN: On what does the opposition’s ability to increase participation to around 70 percent depend?

RL: Voters seeing a challenger that can win locally against Fidesz helps a lot with mobilization. Where such candidates exist, one can imagine levels of participation reaching near record levels.

MN: Doesn’t it count that nationally people feel the competition can be turned around?

RL: Yes, naturally, this is the most important point of view that can greatly catalyze local power relations. The current election also differs from previous ones in the estimation of individual candidates. In 2014 an infinitesimal proportion of voters, a few tens of thousands of people divided their votes between the national list and the candidate. This time the numbers will be inconceivably much larger. Previously it was rare for a candidate to perform much better or worse than his party.  This Sunday I am counting with a much more variegated picture.

MN: Do opposition parties really degrade their campaigns where they consider another’s candidate to have the best chances?

RL: I am not in all 106 districts, but it is possible to read a lot of accounts of this, even in the Orange (Narancs) report. Of course there are contradictions where it is not clear who the main challenger is. But, for example, the Jobbik campaign is not going full tilt in Budapest, even if billboards give one this impression,. Jobbik has always been strong at field work, public forums, and in outreach. Even now much of their campaign is taking place under the radar. For this reason, we are expecting a surprise from them. But not in the capital city.

MN: Based on participation levels experienced on Sunday, how exciting will the final result be?

RL: The participation results far exceeded the usual numbers for a mayoral by-election. If we see the same thing and voter participation levels point to around 70 percent, Fidesz will be very nervous by the afternoon. If the numbers from four years ago repeat, that will probably favor Fidesz. At that time it was 61.73 percent. Within the 62-68 percent range, it is absolutely uncertain what result to expect. Making things more exciting is the fact that the results of the election may not be known on Sunday.  Around 60,000 registered to vote abroad, twice as many as four years ago. Their votes can only be counted on April 14th after the votes are tallied up along with those cast in the 106 electoral districts along with those registering to vote elsewhere within the country. Altogether this is around 200-250,000 uncounted votes on Sunday. Since LMP and Momentum may have reserves abroad, it is conceivable that their ability to clear the threshold depends on these.

MN: If Fidesz can only govern with a narrow majority, how would that change the nature of the exercise of power?

RL: It would have to be more willing to seek compromise, if only because a number of mandates requiring a two-thirds vote are due to expire during the next cycle, including that of Péter Darák, the president of the Curia (Hungary’s highest court – tran.), Tünde Hando, OBH chairman, István Stumpf, constitutional court justice, László Székely, ombudsman, Tihamér Warvasovszky, ÁSZ vice-president, as well as Péter Polt, the chief prosecutor, although the latter can remain in office for life if parliament cannot muster the two-thirds vote necessary to elect his successor. From a political point of view, it is more important in that if Viktor Orban can only form a government with a weak majority, voters will believe that he can be defeated.

MN: What will happen if nobody has a majority?

RL: Here a large number of scenarios can be imagined. The one is that coalition negotiations from Gábor Vona to Ferenc Gyurcsány tragically fail, Orbán drinks a coffee, and by fall returns to power in another election. The second one is that if the Fidesz myth of invincibility is broken, then in addition to opposition paralysis, the entire system will collapse, and the opposition profits from new elections. A third option is a kind of temporary opposition government concentrating on some important actions for which the absence of a two-thirds majority may be an important limitation. The fourth and fifth scenarios in which Fidesz rules as part of a coalition or minority government I think to be unrealistic. After such an eight years Viktor Orbán would hardly be willing to agree with another party before every parliamentary decision.

MN: Unless the German national candidate, the former Fidesz MP Imre Ritter, supports (Fidesz) from outside.

RL: He could contribute generously to a Fidesz mandate. If there is one thing I do not wish for the representative of a nationality, it is for Fidesz to have 99 mandates and for Imre Ritter to be the hundredth, and for it to depend on him whether Viktor Orbán can form a government. If this does not result in civil war-like conditions, such a situation would unleash huge passions, and would cause lasting damage, and not only to the attitude towards minority representation.

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