The Itinerant Psephologist: Hungary

THE HUNGARIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, 2012 

This is probably an odd way to start off what I’m hoping will become a series of articles on elections, as the election that I’m writing about is anything but standard.  It’s also something of an odd choice, given most commentators have been driven to the verge of spasm by the Egyptian presidential elections and I might very sensibly be supposed to deal with that first.  However, the Hungarian presidential election neatly encapsulates the problems the country faces at the moment, and since it’s a somewhat obscure part of the world, nobody’s talking about it.  So let’s.

On the 10th of May, a new President of Hungary took office: János Áder.  The situation surrounding this new appointment is somewhat complex.  Let’s have a quick run-through.

 THE BACKGROUND

    This all started back in 2006 when Ferenc Gyurcsány, the then-Prime Minister with the Hungarian Socialist Party, was taped giving an expletive-laden tirade about Hungary’s economic circumstances to other Socialist Members of Parliament, in which he managed to use the prefix ‘kurva-’ (fucking, whore, bitch, etc.) seven times, many of them referring to his own country.  He also confessed that the Party had lied to win the elections, which had been held one month earlier.
Understandably, this did not go down at all well.  Protesting spread across the country for weeks, but despite the unrest Gyurcsány somehow managed to remain in office for a further three years.  Simmering resentment against him took the form of repeated no-confidence votes and blossoming local election results for the conservative Fidesz Party.  In 2009 he resigned.  His successor, Gordon Bajnai, completed the rest of Gyurcsány’s term but refused – wisely, as it turned out – to lead the party into the 2010 election.
In the event, Attila Mesterházy, who was chosen as Socialist candidate, presided over the greatest collapse in votes the party has witnessed.  Hungarian Parliamentary elections run in two blocs, with constituency seats based simply on FPTP and a more complex allocation of regional and national list seats based loosely on an overall percentage of votes.  Fidesz won all but two of the 176 constituency seats.  More worryingly, the far-right party Jobbik (short for ‘the movement for a better Hungary’, Jobbik Magyarországért Mozaglom) obtained nearly as many seats as the Socialists.  LMP (Politics Can Be Different, Lehet más a politika) also won seats.  The results were:

    Fidesz: 262 (+99 since 2006)
Socialist Party: 59 (-131)
Jobbik: 47 (+47)
LMP: 16 (+16)

As the Presidential election is held within the Parliament, it was no surprise that Fidesz’ candidate Pál Schmitt was selected months after the parliamentary election.  Before this it had been conventional, for about a decade, that the President should be non-partisan.

But that’s all background.  This is the particularly interesting bit.Fidesz’ two-thirds majority allows it to alter laws and the Constitution without needing to ask anyone else for approval, something which they have distinctly taken advantage of.  Last year, a new Constitution was promulgated.  It was designed on the assumption that Fidesz’ electoral majority would automatically lend popular validity to virtually anything they did.  This new document, created by Orbán and signed blithely into law by Schmitt, came into effect at the beginning of January.  The Republic of Hungary (Magyar Köztársaság) became simply ‘Hungary’ (Magyarország).  Protests broke out, mostly in Budapest, and a friend of mine there said that a revolution was on the cards.
The particular provisions of the new Constitution are not especially relevant; their ultimate effect was to enable Orbán to personally appoint virtually any previously independent position in government (as well as a few other organisations) and extend their term limits.  The halls of Hungarian power will therefore be seething with Orbáni sympathisers for years to come.

 THE ELECTION

A few months ago, Schmitt resigned over rather amusing charges of plagiarising his doctoral thesis on the Olympics (incidentally, the Socialist Party’s least favourite member, Ferenc Gyurscány, is also under investigation for plagiarism).  The interim man in charge was László Kövér, a man who spent three years looking just like Kaiser Wilhelm – look it up if you don’t believe me – because he rashly promised in 2007 that he would not cut his hair until Fidesz got back into power.  Although staunchly Fideszi now, he was not one of its founding members.
And now we get to the election.  Initially the Socialists and the other small left parties decided that they would try to force Orbán to appoint someone who wasn’t a member of any party in order to give the whole affair a semblance of respectability; Hungarian voters have in the past endorsed the idea of a neutral President.  However, Orbán refused to do this, and produced Áder.  Jobbik fielded Lajos Für, who refused the nomination, and then MEP Krisztina Morvai – famous for once telling the Israeli ambassador to Hungary that she hoped Hamas would kill him – who wasn’t even a member of the party at the time.  The other parties boycotted the vote in disgust and abstained, leading to the inevitable conclusion.
This is – to be fully objective for just one moment – a disaster.  Áder founded Fidesz along with Orbán, and is one of his closest political allies.  The opportunity for conciliation represented by Schmitt’s resignation on a technicality has been thoroughly squandered.  Until 2017, the Presidency will be held by a man who can be relied upon never to challenge Fidesz on anything.  Even if the next election destroys Fidesz, the party’s supporters will still have the executive branch and the legislative branch on their side, and they can be relied upon to make it difficult for any other party to operate securely in government.  In fact, it would be theoretically possible for them to tie up a future leftist government, much as the Republicans have done in the US, and force it to resign in the hope that the new election would return a more palatable result for them.

One of the reasons this distresses me is that I am in the midst of reading Andrew Wilson’s splendid book Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship as a preparatory measure for my visit to Belarus next eek..  While their rises to power have been different – Lukashenko more or less took power by accident because everyone else had been discredited, while Orbán was legitimately elected against a genuinely unpopular opposition – their methods of consolidating power are similar and I am worried that the party at large, if not Orbán himself, is trying to maintain an unwarranted hold on the country.  It will be easier to judge Fidesz’ attitude to staying in power by how they behave during the 2014 parliamentary elections – although the fact that Orbán’s constitution has tinkered with that process as well, reducing the number of MPs from 386 to 199, probably heralds sinister motivation.  Time will tell.
Additionally, the tactic of both Belarussian and Hungarian opposition parties seems to be to abstain and boycott any vote held by the government.  This has been going on longer in Belarus, but the abstention of the left-wing parties from the Presidential poll indicates that if Fidesz continues along this path, they may encounter minimal electoral resistance.  Boycotting elections is a tricky tactic – although the removal of opposition from a theoretically democratic process highlights the degree to which that democratic is not functional, if carried out too frequently it can bring allegations of complicity and ‘cutting off the nose to spite the face’.  All those Jan25 activists in Egypt who made such a point of not voting must certainly have been kicking themselves earlier when the gap between Hamdeen Sabahi and Ahmad Shafiq was narrower.  If we’ve learnt anything from history, it’s that if you’re going to have a revolution, at least do it properly and kill the people you overthrow.

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