Hungary – the EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

Hungary joined the EU in 2004 as part of the mass expansion of that year. Hungary is not a Eurozone member.

Ethnic Hungarians, often known as Magyars, are one of the three nations in Europe whose official language is a Finno-Ugric language (rather than the usual Indo-European) along with Finland and Estonia. Magyars arrived in the Carpathian basin, where Hungary sits fairly late in around c. 800 AD

Hungary was a major state in medieval Eastern Europe, but was eventually subsumed into competing Empires, eventually becoming a part of the Austrian Empire. The Hungarian War of Independence in 1848 (the year of revolutions in Europe) was a failure, but eventually led to the transformation of the Empire into Austro-Hungary. This unique political structure had a dual political structure without a unified parliament. Austro-Hungarian ministers were accountable to both the Austrian and Hungarian parliaments and could not act without the support of both.

After WWI Austro-Hungary was split up and under the terms of the Treaty of Trianon Hungary lost 72% of its territory as substantial pieces of its territory were given to Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. 31% of ethnic Hungarians were left outside Hungary’s borders. To this day there are Hungarian majorities along the other side of the border with Slovakia and in central Romania. There are also substantial Magyar minorities in Transylvania (in modern-day Romania) and in Vojvodina, an autonomous region of Serbia. There are around 2.2 million ethnic Hungarians living in countries which neighbour Hungary. This has often led Hungarian nationalists to claim that the Treaty of Trianon recognises national self-determination for every nation except Hungarians and that Hungarians received, proportionately, the worst ‘punishment’ for WWI.

Hungary became a Communist state after 1945, but the Hungarian revolution of 1956 demonstrated that Hungary’s Communist government did not necessarily have national support. While the revolution was brutally suppressed by the USSR, Hungary began to practice what became known as ‘Goulash Communism’ (named after Hungary’s national dish) which was a more liberal and humane form of communism than that practiced elsewhere in the Eastern bloc, with a better human rights record and limited markets. Hungarians were freer to travel, and speak freely than in other Eastern bloc states, though Hungary was still a repressive dictatorship by comparison to the developed democracies of the West. Hungary was a destination for Eastern bloc tourists, and queues for groceries and empty shelves were almost non-existent unlike other Eastern European states.

After Poland, Hungary was the second Eastern bloc government to revert to non-communist government. In 1989 the Communist government, whose pro-democracy reformist faction had taken control, radically rewrote the Hungarian constitution to transition to democracy. Hungary also took down its border fence with Austria, in doing so dismantling part of the Iron Curtain. This created a ‘Hungarian corridor’ through which East Germans could escape to the West. During a ‘friendship picnic’ between Austrians and Hungarians in August 1989 900 East Germans rushed the border and escaped into Austria. This hole in the Iron Curtain would later lead to the events which resulted in the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of communism.

In the post-communist era Hungary developed a bitterly polarised politics. The Hungarian left/right spectrum is somewhat unlike that of Western European, being divided between a predominantly pro-globalisation, liberal, urban, left, and a nationalist, protectionist, rural, and more socially conservative right. The ‘left’ has generally been more pro-market than the ‘right’, therefore. However, in reality the differences between the main parties is not all that big, and polarisation exists for cultural reasons.

The main political parties try to delegitimise one other, with the right saying the Socialists are illegitimate due to their history as a Communist Party and the left accusing the right-wing Fidesz of authoritarianism. Polarisation is so extreme in Hungary that political affiliation is said to be able to affect someone’s employment prospects. An electoral system which tends to benefit large political parties (it is the least proportional system in Eastern Europe), strict party registration laws and a lack of neutral media outlets help to compound this problem. Hungary has a very two party system.

There is also a sense that the two main parties will do almost anything to defeat their opponents.

In 2006, the Socialist PM, Ferenc Gyurcsany, was the victim of a massive scandal after a tape of his speech to his parliamentary party was leaked to the public. In his expletive laden speech the PM outlined the true problems of Hungary’s economy, which he declared was being covered up by the government. He declared that “we lied morning, night and evening.”, “There aren’t many choices. That is because we have fucked it up. Not just a bit, but much.”, “You cannot name any significant government measures that we can be proud of except pulling our administration out of the shit at the end. Nothing!” and “No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have.”

These statements, and others, caused immense controversy in Hungary. A month and a half of mass protests followed. Tens of thousands of people were involved. Almost 400 police officers and more than 300 civilians were injured. Almost 500 people were arrested. The government, however, refused to resign, throwing the country into an almost permanent political crisis and creating an impression that politicians could not be punished for their failings. The Socialists’ support in opinion polls collapsed.

Hungary was hit particularly hard by the financial crisis, and unemployment soured. Due to the economic crisis in 2008 Hungary was forced into seeking an IMF loan, this was eventually repaid in 2013.

In 2010, Fidesz won 52.7% of the vote and 263 of the 386 seats in Hungary’s parliament. This was not only a substantial parliamentary majority but enough seats to unilaterally change the Hungarian constitution.

Fidesz used this power to unilaterally rewrite the entire constitution in 2011, arguing that the previous constitution was a ‘communist era’ constitution as it was the only post-communist constitution not entirely replaced after the fall of the Iron Curtain, instead being a heavily modified form of the 1949 constitution.

The new constitution was only supported by Fidesz, and two opposition parties boycotted the vote and drafting process. It has been extremely controversial, both in Hungary and internationally. It is accused of politicising formerly independent institutions and writes Fidesz policies into the manifesto. For instance, the new constitution has written into it flat taxation and it bans abortion and same-sex marriage.  Taxation, pensions and family policy can only be changed by a two thirds majority of parliament. Had this constitution been enacted prior to Fidesz’s 2010 win every single opposition prior to the 2010 election would have been able to effectively veto government policy in these areas. Further amendments in 2013 were criticised as watering down the power of the Constitutional Court. The new constitution has been criticised by the European Commission, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, the United States, several European states, UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki-Moon, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe leader, Guy Verhofstadt, amongst others.

Hungary’s new media law was also widely criticised for setting up a system of media regulation governed by a media council composed of nominees appointed by the Fidesz-dominated parliament on nine year terms, and there are widespread fears about freedom of the press. Self-censorship is said to have become widespread.

Hungary’s new electoral law, which makes the electoral system even less proportional (and thus more likely to favour Fidesz) has also generated some criticism, albeit mostly domestically. In addition to its disproportionately there are also allegations of serious gerrymandering of the constituency seats.

However, the Council of Europe recently declared its satisfaction with recent amendments to the laws on media and the judiciary, though they still said there were potential criticisms.

Hungary held its most recent election on the sixth of April. Fidesz won a second term, winning yet another massive majority of 133/199 on 44.5% of the vote. The party once again has a two thirds majority and can change the constitution unilaterally, but the loss of a single seat would change this. The new electoral system significantly aided their massive majority.

Electoral System

Hungary will elect 21 MEPs, down from 22 in 2009. Hungary utilises a closed-list system where voters may only vote for a party’s pre-ranked list of candidates. Seats are assigned to parties on a proportional basis and to candidates on the basis of their ranking on the lists. There is a 5% threshold below which parties do not get representation.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
Fidesz-KDNP European People’s Party 56.4% 14
Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) Socialists and Democrats 17.4% 4
Jobbik None 14.8% 3
Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) European Conservatives and Reformists 5.3% 1
Politics Can Be Different (LMP) European Green Party 2.6% 0

A series of new centre-left and liberal parties have arisen since 2010. They are called the Democratic Coalition, Together 2014-Dialogue for Hungary and the Hungarian Liberal Party. They aligned behind the Socialists in the new Unity alliance for the general election and they are dealt with in the MSZP section.

Likely results

Fidesz will, almost certainly, win the European elections in Hungary. Post 2014 election Fidesz is now in a renewed honeymoon period, whereas the former centre-left Unity alliance has splintered and its member parties widely discredited. In such situations the centre-left parties are likely to suffer from differential turnout as many of their supporters may be simply too demotivated to vote, feeling that there is nothing they can do to stop Fidesz.

While prior European Parliament polls have shown Fidesz losing seats, these were taken long before the election.

The centre-left opposition, reeling from its defeat and the dissolution of the Unity alliance is likely to perform poorly. Before the creation of the alliance, the Democratic Coalition and Together 2014-Dialogue for Hungary were polling just above the threshold to win seats. They may fall below the threshold for representation.

Centrist-liberal parties like these two parties would probably have a place in Hungary, but their leadership by discredited former PMs like Gyurcsany and Bajnai only serves as a source of controversy.

The Socialists are promising to run an unambiguously leftist campaign without their more moderate former allies. This does give the MSZP a chance to experiment with whether a unified left, or one without the polarising former PMs is a more viable strategy.

Jobbik goes into the European elections on a high. Jobbik’s leader declared it the “strongest national radical party” in the EU with some credibility after its April 2014 result where it outperformed widespread expectations.

The party’s base is likely to be extra motivated for the Euros and it cannot be ruled out that the party could come second.

Politics Can Be Different only barely won seats in the general election in April. With the splintering of Unity the party now has yet more competition in the left-liberal space and it is unclear whether it will be able to repeat this feat.