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    Posted April 5, 2014 by

    Hungary’s Opposition Before Elections: Chronicle of an Organized Defeat

    The parliamentary elections in Hungary that will take place next week, April 6, look quite strange. If we are to believe the latest opinion polls, the current majority – the conservative coalition of Fidesz and the Christian Democrats led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – will be easily re-elected with support from nearly half of likely voters. The opposition on the left has support at around 30 percent; the far-right party Jobbik has 15 percent; and the green party LMP (Politics Can Be Different) trails at 5 percent.

    Neither the far right, nor the greens can play a decisive role. The real confrontation is between the center-right majority of the current government and the union of parties on the left, led by the president of the Socialist Party, Attila Mesterházy. But the attitude of the latter, and his associates, regarding the coming elections never ceases to amaze.

    After having strongly criticized the new electoral law, which it saw as an instrument to cement another victory for the current majority, the opposition alliance reconciled itself to the law and even announced that its popular support was such that it could even capture the mythical, qualified majority of two-thirds of the seats. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Such claims, even those that are beyond reasonable, are permissible and quite normal in an electoral campaign. But things have changed recently.

    The campaign of the opposition coalition has been a disaster. The alliance of five different parties has proved incapable of forging a shared and coherent election program. The leaders struggle for internal influence, more preoccupied with neutralizing one another than waging a campaign. Repeated scandals blow up in their faces (a vice president of the Socialist Party was caught red-handed with several undeclared bank accounts in Austria and Switzerland holding huge amounts of money). The opposition seems to have lost all hope in winning, and so it has changed its tune. To emerge from the contest with minimal damage, it has resorted to the classic weapon of those facing certain defeat: the opposition has turned to denigrating the electoral system, calling into question the fairness of the rules.

    During a recent visit to the United States, Mr. Mesterházy stated publicly that he would prefer that the OSCE not send election observers to Hungary because they could possibly legitimize the elections. Later, at another gathering, he told his supporters that when asked by polling agencies about their voting preference to say “Fidesz” and then cast their vote for the opposition alliance. The behavior of other leaders of the coalition, particularly that of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány whose appearances are more like electoral suicide than a proactive campaign, clearly show that they are already thinking about the post-election period. Some seem to be wishing for a large defeat to better position themselves for the re-construction of the left. That’s a curious attitude for a team that pretends to represent, here and now, the alternative force to the current majority.

    This confused group has received unexpected and disturbing support from the United States by the initiative of a teacher at Princeton University. Kim Lane Scheppele devoted a recent blog to endless details that supposedly show that the dice are loaded, that Fidesz has managed to put in place an electoral system whereby “even if it loses, it will win” (sic). Madame Scheppele is known as a white wolf for her visceral hostility toward the current conservative government, so she has little credibility in an academic debate. Her outrage over the technical elements of the system shows that she has not understood a word of the political stakes in an election. Her arguments, which are laughable to even a first-year law student, attempt to explain how the new Hungarian electoral system is profoundly unfair and “anti-democratic” because it does not assure an accurate representation of the electorate. Big deal! With the exception of a system based on “one man, one vote, one seat,” whose chances of application are perhaps best found on the moon, all electoral systems around the world are “unfair.”

    In fact, the Hungarian system is more balanced. It combines a vote for individual majoritarian districts, which are slightly more than half of the seats, with a vote for national party lists. The losing votes in the single mandate districts are added to the party list votes to guarantee the representation of the non-winners. The system rewards the winners but by a measure much smaller than in France, or even less so than in the United Kingdom, where no one questions their democratic commitment.

    It appears certain that, according to current trends, voters will give preference to Fidesz this year. But Fidesz has the advantage because it has won the trust of voters. In the future, any other party that succeeds in attaining the good graces of the voters will also be able to enjoy the advantage.

    This much must be clear: it is not the electoral system, but the ability of parties to mobilize voters based on their political credibility that will determine the results of the elections. To forget that is an admission of ignorance about the most basic fundamentals of political life and the democratic process carried out in elections. The winner of the Hungarian elections of 2014, 2018 and beyond will be the party that is most deserving of voter trust. The electoral system will be neither an excuse for the defeated nor an opportunity for the winners.

    Georges Károlyi

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