The birth of Hungary’s Franken-voting system

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 13th April 2018

The three-time two-thirds majority winning political party Fidesz has been able to reshape Hungary’s political institutions because of the 2010 election, in which it won 53% of the vote, and won its first two-thirds majority.

The process by which you can get two-thirds of the seats on just over half the vote was created from the rather unusual electoral system developed after the end of the cold war. Hungary’s current system is a modification of this original design.

The original system was born of a compromise reached in the negotiations between Hungary’s Communist Party and the opposition during the roundtable talks that heralded the start of the transition to democracy.

The Communists had favoured a Westminster-style voting system, believing that their successor party, the Socialists, would do well with their higher visibility and organisation. The Communists had also used first past the post, in theory (of course, only candidates from one party could run) and so did not want to depart from this experience.

The opposition parties were split but came to favour a mixed-system, but mixed systems can vary widely in their functioning, depending on the details.

Hungary’s original post-communist system was based on a system of three ‘tiers’. In the first tier, 176 seats were elected using a French-style two-round system. In the second, 152 were elected from regional PR lists and finally, 58 were allocated from lists to compensate parties that fell below their proportionate share.

In order to qualify for compensatory seats, a party had to run candidates in a sizeable number of constituencies.

The system was designed to institutionalise the six-parties that sat at the roundtable into a permanent six-party system. But, like all great plans of mice and men, it didn’t work out as they hoped. The high level of candidates you had to stand to qualify for compensatory seats meant that small parties soon fell away and new ones couldn’t enter. By 2002 only 3 parties entered parliament, and two of those – Fidesz and the Socialists held 95% of the seats.

After re-election in 2006, a leaked, speech of the Socialist PM to his party caucus circulated in which, littered with curse words, he was quoted as saying that they had lied about the country’s economic situation.

“We lied morning, night and evening…. There aren’t many choices. That is because we have f****d it up. Not just a bit, but much…. We must change this f*****g country.”

Trust in the Socialist Party hence collapsed overnight, and with few other options, support drove its way to Fidesz, and the then-nascent far-right party Jobbik.

Fidesz’s two-thirds majority gave it enough seats in the Hungarian parliament to have carte blanche on changing Hungary’s constitution, which it did unilaterally, without any discussion with the opposition or mention of this in its election campaign.

Hungary’s voting system was always an attempt by politicians to design an electoral system with a result in mind. As the other five parties at that roundtable learnt, choosing an electoral system because it would help your party at one point in time, is no guarantee that it will in future. Just as we don’t let politicians in the UK design their own constituency boundaries, neither should we let them choose their own voting system.

Citizens’ Assemblies around the world have proven that, given the time and space, normal people can make well-informed decisions on complicated political matters. Rather than a roundtable of party grandees, or a Hobson’s choice of a referendum, it should be citizens that take the lead in reforming Westminster’s broken voting system.

Read what happened in Hungary’s recent election in part one of this two-part blog

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