Hungary’s 2018 general election likely to be less fair than 2014’s after Fidesz media takeover

February 6, 2018

Hungary's 2018 general election likely to be less fair than 2014's after Fidesz media takeover
Inaugural session of the freshly elected National Assembly in 2014. | Photo: Facebook/Orbán Viktor

“It is very difficult to win a football match where your opponent writes the rules, draws the boundaries and tilts the field, and also manipulates the size of one of the goals.” –

With just 61 days until Hungary’s general election, opposition parties are scrambling to project the image that they are capable of ousting the Fidesz-KDNP government. But analysts and pundits across the spectrum state with certainty that Fidesz isn’t going anywhere. Barring some extraordinary turn of events, what’s at stake in the upcoming contest really boils down to whether Fidesz will get another two-thirds supermajority.

In a piece entitled “The tricks Fidesz will use to ensure that the opposition won’t stand a chance,” summarizes the main reasons why opposition parties are fighting an uphill battle through April 8th.

Gerrymandering — Fidesz unilaterally crafted its new election law under the second Orbán government (2010-2014). One of (the many) changes introduced was to reduce the number of MPs from 386 to 199. The number of electoral constituencies was reduced from 176 to 106, with the remaining 93 MPs to enter parliament through the so-called “party lists.” This naturally necessitated a redrawing of Hungary’s electoral map. Critics of the new electoral boundaries argue that the borders were gerrymandered in favor of Fidesz at the expense of traditional left-wing electoral districts.

First past the post — The same package of electoral “reforms” did away with two-round elections in constituencies. Under the previous electoral system, a second round of voting was required in the event no candidate received an absolute majority of votes cast, giving opposition parties the opportunity to withdraw candidates in favor of the opposition candidate most likely to win. The elimination of the second round meant that the opposition was likely to be split among multiple opposition candidates.

No stepping back — In response to opposition efforts to overcome the hurdles created by the scrapping of the two-round elections, the Fidesz-dominated National Election Committee (NVB) recently reinterpreted election rules in a manner making it more difficult for opposition parties to field joint candidates without sacrificing their own party lists.

Media dominance — A hallmark of the Orbán regime since 2010 has been the complete restructuring of Hungary’s media landscape to skew coverage in favor of the governing Fidesz-KDNP political alliance. The effects of such a policy can be seen virtually everywhere: public media, legacy media (radio, television, print), and online. While the impact of this trend was clearly evident in the 2014 general election, the problem has become more acute since with the takeover of the regional print market and the closure of Népszabadság, Hungary’s largest opposition print newspaper. The pro-government media conglomerate is fueled not by the market but by lucrative state advertising contracts. Among Hungary’s new class of Fidesz media barons is Felcsút mayor Lőrinc Mészáros, a close friend of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán suspected of being the prime minister’s straw man, who now owns more than 200 publications in Hungary.

Billboard dominance — Billboards have always played a significant role in Hungary’s elections. Recently, it was reported that Fidesz had reserved the majority of billboard space for 2018. The move came months after Fidesz voted to restrict opposition parties from running political billboard campaigns outside of official election campaign periods. Meanwhile, Fidesz can continue to spread its message under the guise of government-sponsored public information campaigns at Hungarian taxpayer expense.

As points out, “It is very difficult to win a football match where your opponent writes the rules, draws the boundaries and tilts the field, and also manipulates the size of one of the goals.”

It is important to note here that Fidesz would not have been able to secure its supermajority in 2014 had it not been for two additional factors:

Votes from the “near abroad” — Another feature introduced to the election law by Fidesz was to give ethnic Hungarians living outside the country (many of whom had never lived in Hungary) the right to vote. The “near abroad” vote gave Fidesz the extra “party list” parliamentary mandate it needed to secure a two-thirds. To read more about the “near abroad” vote (and its potential impact on the 2018 general election), click here.

Reallocation of partial votes – The product of multi-party roundtable discussions of 1989, the previous electoral law favored smaller parties by applying the so-called partial votes that losing candidates received in electoral districts to the party lists of their respective parties. The electoral law adopted during the second Orbán government turned this practice on its head by applying the “partial votes” of winning candidates – defined as the difference between the votes the winning candidate received and the votes he or she actually needed to win the election – to the winning party.  The effect of this was to give the winning party a disproportionate number of parliamentary mandates. In this way, Fidesz was able to achieve a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2014 despite receiving only 47 percent of the vote.

To learn more about how Fidesz won the 2014 general election, watch our interview with Princeton professor Kim Lane Scheppele (below):

Princeton’s Kim Scheppele on Viktor Orban and his Fidesz supermajority from Budapest Beacon on Vimeo.