The Background, Adoption and Content of Hungary’s New Electoral System

Part I


Why? Why so fast? How? How did it happen? Was it legitimate? Concerns about Hungary’s new electoral system have been raised by domestic and international intellectuals and commentators, as well as European Union institutions. As head analyst of the Centre for Fundamental Rights, I would like to address these questions, as well as other important ones regarding the new laws.

Although the first piece of election law legislation was adopted back in 2011,journalists, politicians, and even the interested broader European and worldwide public have continued to ask about the necessity, legitimacy and impact of the new regulations already in effect. Some argue that the adoption procedure was too fast and that with the timing “just before” the elections, the governing majority failed to provide sufficient time for consideration and consultation. Others contend that the new system provides undue advantages for the current governing parties – including the redrawing of constituencies or providing for a new mechanism for allocating surplus votes – and only serves as an “undemocratic guarantee” to keep the governing parties in power.

The following addresses the above-mentioned contentions and provides insight into the Hungarian political system, the adoption procedure used regarding the new Hungarian electoral system, and the legal content of the subject laws and their evolution and impact. A basic premise to this argument is that elections and the electoral system are the core foundation of the legislative power’s legitimacy, as only with free and fair elections may we speak about the democratic mandate of a Parliament. It is important to underline the democratic principles at the core of the new laws and to emphasise the universal parliamentary rules with which they were adopted. The new Hungarian electoral system and related laws provide – and will continue to provide – a democratic framework and transparent procedural process for elections, enabling all political parties to join the race and strengthening political competition.

Concerns and doubts that have been raised relate primarily not to the legal side of the legislation, but rather to the political one because the phenomenon of a stable and unified supermajority was unprecedented in post-Communist Hungary before 2010, when the alliance of Fidesz and the Christian Democrats gained two thirds of the parliamentary seats in democratic elections. It is true that using their mandate the governing parties changed the electoral system. But the “shock” – and the criticism – was merely based on the “surprising” and unprecedented fact that one political force was able to adopt such changes, while previous governments – due to their lack of supermajority power, their inner conflicts or even their lack of purpose – had never been able to implement similar reforms, even though they planned or promised them.

This paper seeks to dispel the doubts regarding the new Hungarian electoral system–both on general and specific levels. The basic principle of the system did not change, and it continues to remain a mixed (or hybrid) system, composed of both proportional representation and first-past-the-post constituencies. Furthermore, the changes were not only necessary, but inevitable due to the decisions of the Constitutional Court. The new Fundamental Law of Hungary (the new constitution) provides universal voting, secret ballots and equal suffrage, and all related regulations had to be brought in line with democratic standards.(2)

Last but not least, my paper gives a brief summary of the elections of 2014 and how the new system worked in practice.


Hungary has been a “chancellor-type parliamentary democracy” since the regime change of 1989–1990. The country’s basic constitutional system – as well as the electoral system – was highly influenced by the (West) German one. The Constitution, which was fundamentally rewritten at the regime change but formally dated back to 1949, the dawn of the Communist era, adopted structures and protocols from the German Grundgesetz pertaining to the form of cabinet (according to the Hungarian terminology and hereinafter referred to as the “government”), the system of checks and balances, the Constitutional Court, etc., and even the so-called “motion of no-confidence”, serving as a “constructive” way for the Parliament to remove the incumbent Prime Minister and elect a new one at the same time.

So the Hungarian “chancellor democracy” was originally constructed to fulfil two basic requirements of democracy: to guarantee stability – to avoid continuous government crises like in post-war Italy – and provide democratic control over the executive by the Parliament. Unlike the United States, where legislative and executive powers are elected separately, the Hungarian government’s mandate relies on its parties’ parliamentary majority – thus on the outcome of the parliamentary elections – as the Parliament elects the Prime Minister.

In a “chancellor democracy” system the Prime Minister essentially becomes more or less synonymous with the government itself, as he or she is literally the head of it.(3)

This means that the Prime Minister is responsible for the executive to the Parliament as he or she nominates and dismisses the ministers. Although formally a minister is also responsible to the Parliament while carrying out designated activities, the Parliament has no power over the position. On the other hand, the Parliament – more precisely, a majority of the Parliament – may also remove the Prime Minister, even for purely political reasons, either by the above referenced “constructive motion of no-confidence” or by a simple “vote on confidence”. The Prime Minister’s role is also described tellingly by the Fundamental Law: “upon the termination of the Prime Minister’s mandate, the mandate of the Government shall terminate”.(4)

As the government’s mandate relies on its parliamentary majority and such a majority results from fair and open elections, one should also look at the past and present of the Hungarian electoral system.


It may seem odd, but the democratic Hungarian electoral system had been unique in that most of the governing process, rules and laws – including numerous amendments to the previous Constitution or election laws – were adopted by the last Communist-controlled Parliament in 1989 and 1990. The implemented changes were basically agreed on and resulted from the National Roundtable Discussions, which was an informal forum for negotiations between the representatives of the collapsing Communist party and the emerging new democratic political parties. These early changes were the preliminaries to free and democratic elections and became the first steps in building a system of checks and balances (e.g. the Constitutional Court, State Audit Office, etc.). On the other hand, both the Roundtable and the last Communist-controlled Parliament lacked legitimacy, as they had not been democratically elected or popularly empowered.

During and at the end of the National Roundtable Discussions in 1989, democratic parliamentary elections seemed to become an eagerly awaited opportunity, but which would not take place in the near future.(5) In a country just awakening from its more than 40-year long Communist nightmare, people lacked access to modern, professional political knowledge – only the Communist party disposed of any such knowledge and the people that came with it. Without being familiar with up-to-date political techniques (e.g. campaigning, political PR, how to make or use opinion polls, etc.) and bearing in mind that the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) was still a large and influential political actor at the time, the new democratic parties of the opposition intended to incorporate more and more checks into the system to counterbalance another possible Communist majority of the new Parliament. There was no lustration against former Communist officials to provide accountability for human rights violations as there was in some other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, and former Communist leaders safely entered the newly created Hungarian Socialist Party.

Leaders among the freshly established democratic parties had to consider a scenario in which the post-Communist party could gain a significant proportion of the mandates in the upcoming elections. Although such fears proved unreasonable, they led to an excessive number of cardinal laws. Such laws require adoption by a two-thirds majority of the Parliament, thus making it difficult to accomplish anything significant without a broad consent. The basic idea was that the most important fields of legislation – including those related to election law – can only be passed by the mutual agreement of several parties; a two-thirds majority concentrated in the hands of a single party was out of the question around 1990. This construction would have prevented even the Communist party – if still in power – from turning back any progress towards the democratisation of the country or from implementing important changes without the consent of the opposition.

This mistrustful atmosphere was mirrored by the National Roundtable Discussions during 1989. The Communists favoured a purely first-past-the-post system, while most of the democratic parties had been lobbying for a more proportional representation (PR). The parties ultimately agreed on a special, hybrid system of a “mixed member proportional representation”, which consisted of both PR and constituencies. The constitutional lawyers of the opposition favoured the system pertaining to the federal elections of the German Bundestag when looking for adoptable solutions.(6)

The construction was clear: based on an extremely cumbersome and multi- attributed system, none of the political parties would gain an overwhelming majority in the Parliament, at least in a balanced political situation. As a matter of fact, this kind of “level playing field” marked the popular support of the Left and the Right during the 1990s and 2000s – none of the parties was able to establish a truly dominant position until 2010. Mandates could be obtained via a “three- channel” system, although the electorate had only two votes: one for a candidate running in a constituency and one for a regional (county-level) party list. The third “channel” was composed of “virtual” compensation lists of the parties, although citizens could not vote directly for these because they were constituted only to absorb surplus votes from constituencies or from regional party lists. This mechanism compensated losing candidates as the votes cast for them – or the unspent votes of regional lists – were transferred to the compensation lists. More votes on these lists meant more mandates for the parties.

Elections were held in two rounds, where the second one was exclusively for constituencies where none of the candidates gained more than 50 per cent of the votes in the first round. Altogether, 386 seats were allocated for Parliament: 176 from constituencies, a maximum of 152 from regional lists and a maximum of 58 from compensation lists.

Only those parties that crossed the five per cent threshold on the national level were eligible to receive mandates from the lists. This arrangement was based on a wide cross-party agreement, and was intended to reduce the chances of a Marxist left-wing party to create a parliamentary group in the National Assembly.


While political rotation and ups-and-downs were a natural part of Hungarian politics during the 1990s and 2000s, the political landscape had changed by 2010. The first three democratically elected governments had not been popular enough to get themselves re-elected. The first government which survived its first term, being re-elected in 2006, was led by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, a talented but highly controversial leader of the Socialist Party. Gyurcsány was elevated to the premiership after organising a party coup against his fellow Socialist, Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy in 2004. With a successful campaign, the Socialist Party won the April 2006 elections and formed another government with its ally, the liberal Alliance of Free Democrats.

The triumph proved to be short-lived. After renouncing its promises of tax cuts, the government introduced additional tax and utility price increases in the summer of 2006. Its popularity began to shrink as it lost credibility, but the situation got worse in September 2006 when an audio tape of a confidential speech delivered by Gyurcsány to his fellow Socialists just one month after the elections leaked out and was broadcast on the radio. In the tape, Gyurcsány admitted having lied throughout his time in office and in the election campaign, including about the financial situation of the country. “I almost perished because I had to pretend for one and a half years that we were governing”, the Prime Minister said. “Instead, we lied in the morning, at noon and at night… We have f***ed it up. Not a little but a lot. No European country has done something as boneheaded as we have.”(7)

On the day it was broadcast, the speech ignited spontaneous protests demanding the Prime Minister to step down. Gyurcsány refused to do so and claimed his speech was a “speech of truth”, stating that “these words were the words of rebuke, passion and love”.(8) His comments made the centre right furious and led to continued mass demonstrations in Budapest and throughout the country during the autumn of 2006. The fury and public anger culminated as police forces brutally and violently struck down a peaceful political rally by the then-opposition Fidesz party on 23 October, commemorating the Revolution of 1956 against the Communist regime. Even ordinary passers-by and tourists who were not part of the rally were beaten on the streets and others were allegedly abused by officials at police stations, while the Prime Minister and his Minister of Justice declared the actions of the law enforcement forces to be “in line with the law”.(9) The demonstrations failed to meet the goal of getting Gyurcsány to step down. However, his character remained irreparably damaged, and it was only a matter of time before he would lose his office.

The speech and the response to protests were not exclusive factors in the marginalisation of the Hungarian leftist parties. While Gyurcsány’s government had hurt itself with its misconduct, it further mishandled the economy and global crises beginning in 2008. Hungary’s debt rose by almost 30 per cent of the GDP in eight years and then reached 80 per cent of the GDP by 2010. The annual budget deficit had been between 5–10 per cent of the GDP in the mid-2000s, years before the global crisis hit the Hungarian economy. Failing to fulfil the European Union’s euro convergence criteria (“Maastricht criteria”), the country had been subjected to the Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP), a procedure for supervising poorly performing economies (which was finally lifted in 2013). The previously continuous GDP growth slowed down, then fell below one per cent by 2007–2008, reaching a nadir in 2009 with nine per cent.(10)

Gyurcsány’s government also underestimated the impact of the international economic environment, believing that the crisis would not affect seriously the Hungarian economy. At the end of 2008, when the consequences of these misjudgements became evident, the Gyurcsány administration applied in haste for a bailout package of USD 25 billion from the EU–IMF–WB “troika” – in order to avoid the approaching bankruptcy. While the package temporarily helped the Hungarian economy, Gyurcsány – after acknowledging his untenable situation – stepped down in 2009, just one year before the next election, leaving the implementation of the unpopular austerity measures to his successor Gordon Bajnai.

All of this produced mistrust not only toward the then governing parties but regarding the whole political system. Finally, the consequences of the tensions aggregated during these years manifested themselves in the results of the 2010 elections.


The negative political and economic environment eliminated popular support for the Left. Some elements of the planned reforms of the Socialist–Liberal government were rejected later by a referendum of 2008; the Socialist–Liberal parties were thereafter unable to win a single nationwide vote, but lost eight in a row up to 2014, beginning in 2006 with a severe defeat in local elections. In the April 2010 general election, the alliance of Fidesz and Christian Democrats (Fidesz–KDNP) won a landslide victory, gaining nearly 53 per cent of the total vote and winning 173 constituencies out of 176 (98.3 per cent), while the Socialists won only 19 per cent of the votes cast and 2 constituencies, and the Alliance of Free Democrats literally ceased to exist at all. Out of the total number of MPs (386), Fidesz–KDNP had 263 and the Socialists only 59. The far-right party Jobbik gained 47 seats and the newcomer LMP (Politics Can Be Different), a Green party, received 16.

This was the first election in democratic Hungary that resulted in a two-thirds majority for a single party-alliance.(11) The mandate was clear because Prime Minister candidate Viktor Orbán had already underlined prior to the elections that some fundamental changes were needed (e.g. the adoption of a new constitution), and if elected, the new government would implement them.(12) Moreover, the campaign between the two rounds of the elections was exclusively about the possible “Überpower” of Fidesz. Following the unprecedented defeat of the Left in the first round, the results implicated a secure majority for Fidesz, so the Socialists encouraged all of the electorate to vote for their remaining candidates in order to avoid a “dramatic outcome”. The answer was rapid and unquestionable: out of 57 constituencies in question, Fidesz carried 54 in the second round. The political landscape changed dramatically; not only due to the overwhelming victory of the centre-right alliance, but also to other new trends.

Some of the parties playing a significant role since the regime change of 1990 simply vanished, while new anti-establishment parties emerged on both sides of the political spectrum. Relying on an exceptionally strong public support, the new government began to implement changes that other governments lacking a two-thirds majority had been unable to introduce in the past.


As Thomas Jefferson once put it, “I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions”, but “with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times”.(13)

This applies to changing electoral systems as well. As mentioned before, since 1990 Hungary has always had a democratic but very complex electoral system. While the core elements of the system have never been questioned, some changes to the regulations had been on the political agenda for decades. Politicians and experts had been urging for a reduction in the number of the political class: even then-Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány promised in February 2009 to halve the number of elected representatives at the national and local levels and to have a 199-member Parliament. The changes became inevitable because the Constitutional Court declared different elements of the applicable laws unconstitutional twice, in 2005 and 2010.

Several major factors served as a background for the changes:

Unconstitutional disproportionalities between constituencies infringed the basic human right of equal suffrage. The Constitutional Court called on the Hungarian Parliament in 2005 to eliminate disproportionalities between the sizes of constituencies, as in several cases the number of voters per district varied by a factor of two or three. The Court obliged the Parliament to rectify the boundaries of the constituencies by June 2007 in order to have an election system based on equal suffrage. The Parliament, ruled by a Socialist–Liberal majority, did not do justice to the decision of the Court, thus violating the Constitution by nonfeasance.

Unconstitutionally low level of regulation on constituencies. In 2010, the Court annulled several provisions of the then-effective election laws and a decree of the Communist Council of Ministers from 1990. The Court strictly underlined the fact that as the right to vote is part of basic human rights, the boundaries of the constituencies shall be regulated by acts of the Parliament and not by decree, as between 1990 and 2010.

The number of MPs was reduced from 386 to 199 in 2010.

Hungarian citizens living beyond the borders (without a permanent residence in Hungary) were granted the right to vote by the new Fundamental Law adopted in 2011.(14)

As Hungary has always borne constitutional responsibility for the fate of Hungarians living beyond its borders, the drafters decided to remove the barrier of “permanent residence” as a prerequisite to voting, thus guaranteeing suffrage for all Hungarian citizens around the world.(15) The basic idea behind the move was to involve all Hungarians in domestic decision-making.


To fulfil the criteria laid down by the Constitutional Court, MPs of the governing parties – on the basis of their mandate – introduced bills in 2011 and in 2013. The comprehensive reform of the electoral law became necessary, not only because the Constitutional Court annulled the previous regulatory framework, but also because of the demand to reduce the number of MPs. Extending the right to vote to Hungarians abroad also required changes to the law. The new electoral law was adopted in 2011, three years prior to the 2014 general election and after a month- long debate, whereas the electoral procedural law was adopted in 2013, one year before the recent election, following a seven-month-long debate in Parliament.(16) The legislator observed all constitutional requirements during the adoption procedure and the government sent the adopted electoral law to the Venice Commission and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for review. In their 2012 report, they referred to the new legislation as “a good basis for the conduct of genuine and democratic parliamentary elections” in Hungary.(17) In Freedom House’s latest annual Freedom in the World report, released in January 2014, Hungary was called “an electoral democracy” and a “free” country, with a freedom score of 1.5 out of 7 (1 being the highest possible rating) and a perfect 12/12 for its electoral process.(18) (Another 2014 Freedom House report, Nations in Transit, raised concerns about “worsening conditions” in Hungary as well as other countries of East Central Europe, but still characterised Hungary as a “consolidated democracy”.)(19)

Additionally, upon the proposal of the President, the Constitutional Court revised the procedural law a year and a half before the last election. Besides rejecting articles related to voter registration, the Court found the law generally within constitutional standards.

To be continued

1 A reference to the closing line of the Fundamental Law of Hungary.

2 In 2011, the Venice Commission – a well-respected advisory body of the Council of Europe – welcomed “the fact that this new Constitution establishes a constitutional order based on democracy, the rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights as underlying principles”. Opinion on the New Constitution of Hungary, Adopted by the Venice Commission at its 87th Plenary Session (Venice, 17–18 June 2011). http://lapa.princeton.edu/hosteddocs/hungary/venice%20commission%20hungarian%20constitution.pdf.

3 The Prime Minister shall nominate the ministers, while the President’s competence to appoint them is merely a legal formality. Although ministers shall testify before the respective committees prior to their appointment, neither the committees nor the Parliament has any legal power to block the procedure. The cabinet shall be officially established when ministers are appointed.

4 Section (1) of Article 21 of the Fundamental Law of Hungary, http://www.kormany.hu/download/e/02/00000/The%20New%20Fundamental%20Law%20 of%20Hungary.pdf.

5 The Discussions ended on 18 September 1989, and half a year passed before the elections were held in March and April 1990.

6 Being part of the Habsburg Empire (and after 1867 of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy) for hundreds of years, Hungary and the Hungarian legal culture had been highly influenced not only by Roman Law, but also by German (language) legal heritage.

7 “Ferenc Gyurcsány’s speech in Balatonőszöd in May 2006”, as translated on Wikipedia. http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferenc_Gyurcs%C3%A1ny’s_speech_in_Balaton%C5%91sz%C3%B6d_ in_May_2006.

8 Hvg.hu, “Gyurcsány saját felelősségéről” [Gyurcsány on his own responsibility], 27 September 2006, http://hvg.hu/itthon/20060927gyurcsany; Origo.hu, “Gyurcsány: Szenvedélyes igazságbeszéd volt” [It was a passionate speech of truth], 26 May 2007, http://www.origo.hu/itthon/20070526gyurcsany.html.

9 The Guardian, “Hungarian police clamp down on anti-government protests”, 23 October 2006, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/oct/23/1. Photo report on police abuses: http://indexkonyv.blog.hu/2008/09/15/kepeskonyvben_jelent_meg_bodoky_dijnyertes_tenyfeltarasa. Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cyNHfto_3E4&oref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww. youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DcyNHfto_3E4&has_verified=1.

10 Source: National Statistics Office, http://www.ksh.hu/?lang=en.

11 The coalition government of the Socialists and Liberals from 1994 to 1998 also had a two-thirds governing majority. However these parties were separate, independent entities which formed a coalition after the elections, not a party-alliance that ran as a bloc.

12 Already in late 2009, Orbán described the then existing Constitution as a “technocratic aggregation of rules” and urged for a new one: “Sooner or later, Hungary will need a new constitution, because the current one does nothing more than promote peaceful political transition.” Orbán does not support turnaround of constitutional system, Budapest Times, 9 November 2009, http://budapesttimes.hu/2009/11/09/orban-does-not-support-turnaround-of-constitutional-system/.

13 Jefferson to H. Tompkinson (aka Samuel Kercheval), 12 July 1816. In: Ford, Paul Leicester, ed.:

The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892–99, pp. 10–37.

14 Granting citizenship (“simplified naturalisation procedure”) for ethnic Hungarians worldwide had been a long-awaited measure since the failed referenda of 2004. Granting dual citizenship upon application was the very first step of the new parliamentary majority in 2010. Up to 2014 more than 0.5 million ethnic Hungarians were granted the citizenship. http://www.allampolgarsag.gov. hu/images/angol.pdf.

15 According to the previous Constitution, Hungary “bears a sense of responsibility for the fate of Hungarians living outside its borders and shall promote and foster their relations with Hungary”. This idea is echoed but also expanded by the new Fundamental Law emphasising that “Hungary shall bear responsibility for the fate of Hungarians living beyond its borders, shall facilitate the survival and development of their communities, shall support their efforts to preserve their Hungarian identity, the effective use of their individual and collective rights, the establishment of their community self-governments and their prosperity in their native lands, and shall promote their cooperation with each other and with Hungary.” Article D of the Fundamental Law of Hungary.

16 Act  CCIII  of  2011,  On  the  Elections  of  Members  of  Parliament.  http://valasztas.hu//en/

ogyv2014/386/386_4_2.html. Act XXXVI of 2013 on Electoral Procedure. http://valasztas.hu//


17 Joint Opinion of the Venice Commission–OSCE/ODIHR on the Act on the Elections of Members of Parliament, 18 June 2012. http://www.osce.org/odihr/91534?download=true.

18 Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2014, January 2014, http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/


19 Freedom House, Nations in Transit 2014, June 2014, http://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/ NIT2014%20booklet_WEBSITE.pdf.

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