Hungary has been in a state of stringently enforced national emergency and government control since March 11, when the first few cases of COVID-19 were discovered within the country. Hungary’s government has been approaching containment and treatment of coronavirus patients in a way fairly commensurate with that of other European states, only now beginning to test the waters on more illiberal measures. The new plans adopted alongside Orban’s broad executive authority include likely prison terms for quarantine violators and those who spread “distorted truths” about either the nature of the virus or the government’s response to it. Any laws that Orban seeks to implement or suspend, provided the emergency is still in place, are granted de facto approval by Hungary’s parliament.
Hungary’s opposition coalition, made up of socialists, greens, and radical conservatives unaffiliated with Orban’s Fidesz party, provisionally agreed to the measures, contingent on their automatic expiry after 90 days. But because of Fidesz’s dominance in the 199 member parliament, this objection was sidelined and the indefinite period of rule by decree began on March 30. The measure can only be lifted with a two-thirds super-majority vote in the parliament.
Officials from international organizations such as the Council of Europe, the United Nations, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) slammed the legislation, citing fears that the national emergency may never be concluded and that Hungary may pave its own way to autocratic rule. Orban’s move immediately elicited criticism from political counterparts in Italy and Germany as well, where former PM Matteo Renzi and Europe Minister Michael Roth respectively demanded greater government accountability and the avoidance of constitutional crisis. Renzi called on the European Union to even consider expelling Hungary, though no such provision exists in the EU’s charter.
Hungary has been the bastion of what Orban has termed and championed “illiberal democracy” since his re-rise to power in 2010. Limits on press freedoms abound, and Fidesz has repeatedly formed bogus “opposition” parties to split the liberal vote. Hungary’s central government controls a great majority of the media its citizens consume, and fills it with nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim rhetoric reminiscent of Orban’s own public speeches. Hungary’s fastest-growing corporations are largely run by allies of Orban’s regime, undermining the government’s claim to having one of the healthiest economies in central Europe. Hungary has been subject to Article 7 sanction by the European Union for possible violation of the EU’s core principles since 2018, after a series of removals of independent judges and revelations of mistreatment of journalists. A public falling-out between European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Orban led to the European People’s Party, a conservative continental bloc of which Fidesz is a part, voting against Hungary’s government. Recent developments indicate further sanctions may ensue.
Below, I’ve included an explainer on Hungarian electoral structure and recent political history from Zack--you will find this interesting if you’re wondering how Hungary’s previously robust democratic system arrived at this juncture.
Orban’s actions here, which required a two-thirds majority to pass through Hungarian Parliament, have been enabled by Hungary’s old and new electoral systems.
In the 2010 election, Orban’s Fidesz party and its coalition partner KDNP managed to win 68% of seats in the parliament with just 53% of the vote. At the time, Hungarians elected MPs to three different types of seats.
176 seats were allocated through single-member constituencies (similar to American congressional districts) that were won in one of two ways. If a candidate won a majority of votes in the first round of the election, then the seat was declared theirs. However, if no one won a majority in the initial round, then the top three candidates advanced to a second round that took place a few weeks later. Whoever won the most votes in this second round was then declared the winner.
In this election, the opposition was divided between the socialist, far-right, and green parties that came in second-through-fourth place. These parties all received between 5% and 21% of the first-round vote, and naturally, Fidesz-KDNP (supported by a slight majority of voters nationwide) won a majority or strong plurality of votes in almost every single-member constituency. Consequently, Fidesz-KDNP won 173 of 176 SMC seats.
In addition to voting for a local candidate, Hungarians also got to vote directly for a party. In this segment of the election, 146 seats were divvied up amongst 20 multi-member constituencies (MMCs) that were overlaid upon the SMCs. MMC seats were allocated to parties proportionally to their vote share in the region. So, for example, if Fidesz won 45% of the vote in a region, theoretically it would receive 45% of the region’s MMC seats. However, like in many other countries that employ proportional representation, Hungary implemented a threshold that mandated parties receive at least a certain percentage of the vote to be eligible for a seat (in this case, 5%). Because some party-list votes went to tiny parties that did not meet the threshold, although Fidesz-KDNP won just over 52% of the party vote, they won 59% of the vote among parties eligible to receive seats, and thus won almost 60% of these seats.
Finally, 64 levelling seats were designed to make Parliament overall more representative of Hungarian voters. Essentially, they were supposed to correct for the fact that Fidesz won over 98% of the single-member constituencies despite receiving a vote share nowhere close to that percentage. Naturally, most of the levelling seats went to non-Fidesz parties that were crushed in the SMC contests. However, the 64 levelling seats were not enough to correct for Fidesz’s 173 single-member seats, and so Fidesz-KDNP ended up with 68% of the overall seats in Hungarian Parliament.
Crucially, winning two-thirds of the seats in the 2010 election allowed Orban to change the Hungarian Constitution. Orban decided to implement a new constitution in 2011 with an electoral system even more favorable to his own party. As a result, in both the 2014 and 2018 Hungarian elections, Fidesz-KDNP won two-thirds of the seats despite winning less than 50% of the party-list vote each time.
The new system, known as Mixed Member Majoritarian, increased the percentage of single-member seats to 53% of the overall seats and eliminated the levelling seats altogether. Additionally, the single-member seats are now elected through pure first-past-the-post, which means that whoever wins the most votes in the first round wins their SMC, regardless of whether or not they win a majority. Since opposition parties were still greatly divided in 2014 and 2018, Fidesz-KDNP once again dominated the SMCs each time.
Consequently, Hungarian Parliament has remained malapportioned to actual levels of party support. Thus, Orban was able to get a two-thirds majority to support his ability to rule by decree last week despite winning under 50% of the vote in the most recent Hungarian election.
Felix Beilin is a freshman studying journalism and political science. He writes about foreign policy, politics of media, and campaign strategy/electoral politics.
Zack Lori is a freshman majoring in political science and philosophy. His primary interests are climate change, the domestic politics of European nations and Canada, and electoral systems.
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