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Opinion

Understanding the choice of Hungarian voters

Hungarians re-elected PM Orban because of a recovering economy and a failed opposition.

Last updated: 29 Apr 2014 09:32
Ferenc Kumin

Dr Ferenc Kumin is deputy state secretary for International Communications in the Office of the Prime Minister of Hungary.
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The electoral victory of the Fidesz-KDNP alliance in Hungary follows its successful economic policies, argues Kumin [AP]

On April 6, Hungarian voters re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orban, handing him a second landslide victory and an unequivocal mandate for his government to continue its work for the renewal of Hungary.

Candidates of the governing Fidesz-KDNP alliance swept 96 out of the 106 single-member electoral districts, winning 2.3 million of the 4.8 million ballots cast and finishing 20 percentage points and nearly 1 million votes ahead of the Socialist-led opposition Unity coalition.

Like the 2010 election, when Fidesz-KDNP won a staggering 173 out of what were then 176 districts, this second landslide touches historic proportions. In an era when most governments in Europe are being turned out of office by electorates impatient with tough economic times, Hungarian voters have given Orban four more years and another two-thirds majority in parliament.

Remarkable, indeed, but some international accounts suggest this second landslide is just not credible. Surely, they argue, there must be something unfair about all of this. Some critics have gone to extremes, pointing to what they claim are skewed election laws and wondering whether Hungary has become the European Union's only dictatorship. Others blame a biased media and the poor, unenlightened Hungarian voter.

But the Hungarian voter deserves more credit than that. Important details of the story provide simple explanation for Orban's landslide re-election. If we take a step back from all the breathless criticism from the government's opponents and have a look at the Hungarian economy and what has been happening politically to the country's opposition, it is not all that difficult to understand.

Optimism about an economic recovery

The most important part is the economy. Hungarians have begun to sense that things are turning around and are more optimistic about economic prospects than they have been in years. The economic sentiment index for Hungary, published each year by GKI, reached a 16-year high in April while domestic consumption hit an eight-year peak. According to the German Chamber of Commerce, the economic sentiment of German investors in Hungary is the highest it has been in three years.

Hungary was long in the EU's doghouse for running fiscal deficits that far exceeded the limit of 3 percent of GDP, but the Orban government has reined it in, cutting it to 2.2 percent in 2013. Domestic interest rates are down and so are the country's borrowing costs. When Orban took office in 2010, Hungary's labour force had grown woefully welfare dependent. Since 2010, unemployment has fallen three points to 8.6 percent, below the EU average. From market analysts to the EU, most are revising upwards their growth forecasts for Hungary, the more modest projections are 2.1 percent for 2014.

The recovery is still getting on its feet, but stability and growth are a far cry from the dire economic straits Hungary found itself in prior to 2010, under the Socialist-led government. The country's economy was seriously underperforming and its debt-to-GDP was climbing. The Socialist prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, was caught on tape admitting to lying to secure re-election in 2006, leading to mass demonstrations and political gridlock.

When the global crisis hit in 2008, it found Hungary particularly exposed. The country was among the first that failed to sell state bonds on the market and had to turn to the IMF for an emergency bailout to avoid default. Before Europe had the Greek crisis, it very narrowly avoided a Hungarian crisis.

A troubled and unpopular opposition

By 2010, voters had had enough. They voted overwhelmingly for change, giving Orban a landslide in which his Fidesz-KDNP alliance won 98 percent  of the single-member districts. The Hungarian Socialist Party, once one of the region's strongest, lost one million voters. Their long-time coalition partner, the liberal Free Democrats, failed to meet the five percent threshold and fell out of parliament altogether, vanishing along with the Hungarian Democratic Forum. In the political upheaval, two new parties got into parliament, the green-left LMP (or, Politics Can Be Different) and the far-right Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary).

Few outside Hungary have grasped the extent of this decline in popularity of Hungary's Socialist-led opposition. Following their resounding defeat in 2010, they struggled to form the unity coalition this year and ultimately put forth the very same faces that the voters had rejected at the last ballot. Their candidate for prime minister, Attila Mesterhazy, was also at the top of the ticket in 2010. Numbers two and three on the list were the former Prime Ministers Bajnai and Gyurcsany.

Following them were figures from the old Free Democrats that the voters had excused from parliament. The coalition's campaign struggled with message and organisation and, as if all that were not enough, it was hit by a major financial scandal involving secret foreign bank accounts holding millions of dollars in the name of a high-ranking Socialist Party figure.

These details of the campaign have gone largely unreported in the international press but they had a major impact on the voters. A Socialist leader admitted that the loss could not be explained away by an unlevel playing field but was because voters did not consider them worthy of governing. Confronted with the same faces and new scandals, the voters said no. Hardly surprising.

But ignoring the story of Hungary's economic recovery and these political dynamics, critics have insisted that the election was not fair. How, they argue, could the governing parties win 44.5 percent of the popular vote but capture two-thirds of the seats in parliament?

The answer, of course, is the same as it is in other countries where many members of parliament are elected in first-past-the-post races in single-member districts.

Hungary's Center for Fundamental Rights uses the British House of Commons as an example. Its members are elected by simple majority, which made it possible for Tony Blair's Labour Party "to take 63 percent of mandates while winning only 40.7 percent of the vote in 2001".

When Blair won re-election and a huge majority in what was called the "quiet landslide", nobody called it unfair. Recall that on April 6, Fidesz-KDNP won 96 out of 106 districts, more than 90 percent. The fact that Hungary has a mixed system - the remaining 93 seats elected from the party list vote - reduces the majority to 67 percent.

But what if the rules had not been changed for this election? What would have happened then? Hungary's Nezopont Institute ran the April 6 results through the old system and found that Fidesz-KDNP would still have won an overwhelming majority of 61 percent of seats. It turns out to be higher according to the new rules because a larger percentage of parliamentary mandates are elected from the single-mandate districts. Again, like in the British system, the parties have to be able to win the first-past-the-post races. The far-right Jobbik failed to win any of those races, so while they won a larger percentage of the popular vote than in 2010, their percentage share of parliamentary mandates is smaller.

In 2005, Hungary's Constitutional Court ruled that the electoral districts had to be redrawn because they were too disproportionate. In a later ruling, the Court annulled the old districts. There was no other alternative; the system had to have new districts. The charges that these were gerrymandered have proven flimsy. Critics claimed that opposition strongholds were deliberately placed in larger districts (in terms of voters), thereby diluting those opposition votes, but data from the April 6 results how this to be simply false.

We would have a hard time finding another example of European voters re-electing a government by such a huge margin. But there is nothing wrong with the Hungarian voter, nor the country's election rules. Hungarians re-elected Orban because a weak opposition failed to offer a credible alternative when, more importantly, his government has given voters reason to believe that Hungary and its economic prospects are turning around.

Dr Ferenc Kumin is deputy state secretary for International Communications in the Office of the Prime Minister of Hungary. Formerly, Dr Kumin led the Department for Strategic Analyses and Communications in the Office of the Hungarian President of the Republic. He has served as a senior analyst at the Hungarian think-tank, the Szazadveg Foundation, and is a regular guest lecturer at the Budapest University of Economic Sciences, the Pazmany Peter Catholic University and other institutions in Budapest.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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