How do elections work in Hungary?

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 1st April 2022

Hungarian voters are just days away from electing a new parliament. The country has, of course, become known for its democratic backsliding under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – being the only EU member state not classed as ‘free’ by Freedom House. Ahead of the election, we thought we’d take a look at how Hungarian elections work, the damage Orbán has done to Hungarian democracy and the electoral alliance hoping to re-democratise the country.

The Hungarian Voting System

The 199 members of the Hungarian National Assembly are elected using a mixed-member majoritarian voting system, with voters having two votes. 106 members are elected by First Past the Post in single-member constituencies and the remaining 93 seats are decided by a closed list PR system in a single national constituency.

This may, at first glance, sound like the system we use in Scotland and Wales. But, the proportional seats are neither allocated in a fully compensatory manner, as per Germany, nor simply added on, as in Italy. In addition to counting party list votes, votes for losing constituency candidates and surplus votes for winning constituency candidates are also added to the party list totals. Ultimately, the proportionality of the system is fairly limited and there is a strong bias towards the largest party – Fidesz-KDNP won 67% of seats on 49% of votes last time.

For the party list seats, a 5% threshold applies to single parties, with it rising to 10% for alliances of two parties and 15% for electoral coalitions of three or more parties. However, parties representing the various national minorities of Hungary are exempt from the thresholds, able to take a seat on just 0.27% of the vote – a party representing German Hungarians was able to take a seat this way in 2018. Minorities that do not reach the threshold get to send non-voting spokespeople instead.

This will be the third election using the current voting system, with a different mixed-member system being used until the 2010 election.

Parties and Government

Since 2010, Hungary has been ruled by the right-wing populist Fidesz-KDNP government of Viktor Orbán. Officially, Fidesz and the KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party) are two separate parties, but they have been in a close alliance for nearly 20 years and so de facto function as a single party. They have held more than two-thirds of seats for their entire time in office.

Fidesz was originally a pro-western liberal party established during the fall of communism – the name is, in fact, an abbreviation of Alliance of Young Democrats, with membership originally restricted to the under 36s. Other than a brief period in the early 2000s, Orbán has been leader of the party since 1993 and has gradually shifted it in an illiberal direction. In power, the party has used their two-thirds majority to rewrite the constitution – weakening checks and balances, undermining the judiciary and election authorities, and taking control of much of the media. They have also extensively targeted minority communities – particularly Muslims and LGBT people. Indeed, this election coincides with a controversial referendum that aims to weaken LGBT rights.

In an attempt to end Orbán’s ‘soft autocracy’, most opposition parties from across the political spectrum have teamed up to form the ‘United for Hungary’ alliance. The current largest such party is Jobbik – whose history is somewhat the opposite of Fidesz’s. Originally a far-right party, Jobbik has reformed itself into a mainstream conservative party in the last few years – even applying to join the moderate European People’s Party (though scepticism over the speed of the change led to the application being rejected).

The rest of the United for Hungary alliance is of a more centre-left persuasion – the strongest components of which are the Democratic Coalition, an officially liberal party who sit with the social democrats in the European Parliament, and the more conventionally liberal Momentum Movement. The traditional centre-left force, the Socialist Party (MSZP), and two green parties are also part of the alliance, though with fairly low levels of support.

Polls indicate a close race, though with Fidesz still ahead. Opposition parties hope to exploit Orbán’s historic closeness to Putin, but they are still fighting an uphill battle and face many obstacles designed to hamper their chances.

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