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Hungary: left without a party in a two-party system

Opposition voters may be left party-less in the Hungarian two-party system unless opposition politicians carry out a project similar, at least in its logic, to that implemented by Viktor Orbán.

Hungarian protesters show dissatisfaction with the election results, in Brussels. Wiktor Dabkowski/Press Association. All rights reserved.

Having suffered the third election defeat in a row, the losses of the Hungarian left were not simply caused by a lack of competitiveness or a decent manifesto (they did in fact have programmes). It is rather due to a defect in the concept of how to run in elections. Unlike four years ago, when left-wing parties ran the race with joint lists and jointly-endorsed candidates, this year each entered their own lists albeit in a coordinated manner.

It is important to note that this coordinated candidacy only applied to the actual leftist parties, i.e., the Hungarian Socialist Party-Dialogue (MSZP-Dialogue) election alliance and the Democratic Coalition (DK) as these parties did not run their candidates against each other. Meanwhile, the liberal parties (Together, Momentum) and the eco-party (Politics Can Be Different; LMP) were only partially involved in any cooperation while Jobbik, a party wanting to go from radical to mainstream, decided not to withdraw any of its candidates from the race.

As a result, none of the single-member constituencies had one opposition candidate facing the governing party’s candidate. In short, the consequence was that the opposition only won three single-member constituencies out of the 88 outside Budapest. You could argue that in any electoral system where the first-past-the-post results of single-member constituencies largely determine the final outcome, total sabotage of a coordinated opposition will inevitably lead to a two-thirds (government) victory. And it did.

No such coordination took place despite the fact that few theses have been so convincingly proven right both in theory and practice as the ‘law’ laid out in the 1950’s by French political scientist Maurice Duverger: any electoral system of single-member constituencies will eventually lead to a two-party construct. Although this statement only applies with certain reservations to mixed electoral systems (combining party-list proportional representation with first-past-the-post single-member constituencies) like that of Hungary, the dominance of the 106 single-member constituencies over the 93 mandates available through the party lists justifies a comparative analysis of the electoral system and the party system.

Let us begin with three hardly disputable statements:

1. Of the 106 single-member constituencies, Fidesz-KDNP won 33 without gaining an absolute majority (which automatically generates a mandate)[i]. If you add the constituencies won by the pro-government candidate with less than 50 per cent of the votes to the 15 single-member constituencies won by the opposition (including those in Budapest), you can see that the government won an absolute majority in 58 places. As far as the party lists are concerned, Fidesz-KDNP’s performance was below 50 per cent; the only thing to make them the clear victor is the “compensatory seat allocation” which always benefits the current winner. (In 2018, compensatory seat allocation was altered: in addition to taking into account the votes cast for losing parties in the single-member constituencies in the particular party’s national list – as was done in previous elections – this time the compensation also involved taking into account the winning candidate’s votes that made up their margin over the runner-up in the national party list).

2. In light of the above, the position that the opposition parties’ “half-hearted” coordination was not the decisive factor in the opposition’s failure to push Fidesz-KDNP below 50% in terms of parliamentary seats (the opposition’s only realistic and oft-declared goal in the campaign) is hardly justifiable. (This logic is not affected by the fact that, due to crossover voting, Fidesz-KDNP probably would have prevailed in the constituencies won with 48-49% this time, even if there were only two candidates.)

Parties with candidates in many constituencies, such as the ones who formally refused to coordinate (Jobbik or the jokester party Two-Tailed Dog) or who only limited their coordination to a few constituencies (LMP, Momentum) obviously adopted a political strategy different from than MSZP-Dialogue or DK, which both refrained from running a candidate in several dozen places (we must also note that one of the above-mentioned liberal parties, Together, was unable to run candidates in over half of the constituencies in the first place). You cannot dispute the rights of any democratic and purely political (non-scam) parties to decide on their own discretion whether or not they want to coordinate their candidacy with other parties (or cooperate with them). However, neither can the affected parties honestly claim that their political strategy was primarily focused on maximizing victories in the single-member constituencies.

3. The need for coordination does not mean that you must coordinate in all 106 places. In fact, the data clearly show that such a strategy would actually harm any opposition. This should give food for thought to political forces as well as would-be influencer intellectuals and analysts who maintain that the lack of common candidates in all 106 places is bound to undermine success. It is clear that in constituencies where the Fidesz-KDNP candidate gained a majority over 60 per cent, for example, the loss of the compensatory fragment votes negatively affected each party which did not run a coordinated candidate. The error of this strategy is clearly demonstrated by the approximately 5% result of several quasi-joint MSZP-Dialogue-DK candidates. Furthermore, the joint campaign failed to generate the expected voter involvement (just like “running a joint list” did not prove to be a decisive factor in 2014, contrary to expectations at the time).

The three statements above allow us to draw certain conclusions regarding Hungarian parliamentary elections (assuming that the rules remain unchanged). The most important conclusion is that, without a somewhat coherent opposition strategy, this particular electoral system does not allow any means for preventing the absolute majority of Fidesz-KDNP unless some landslide-like changes occur in Hungary’s socio-economic conditions. Without a joint “party”, the opposition has no chance in an electoral system “devised” for a two-party construct.

The key for creating such a quasi-party lies in the single-member constituencies. If the opposition is able to find a candidate in 50-60 constituencies who could trigger cooperation between the left-wing parties and Jobbik, the opposition’s declared goals could still be met even in this electoral system. Of course, the other pre-condition is to properly promote such joint candidates and/or help voters understand that voting for the candidate of the otherwise rejected Jobbik or DK is the only possible way to oust the government. Neither of these is an easy task, and there certainly may be several factors – such as the parties’ long-term strategy, party financing and other issues – preventing the reoccurrence of such cooperation. However, there might not be any other way than this, supported by both common sense and empirical data.

Of course, the election results may also be influenced by such factors as better campaigns, fewer or at least more reasonably timed confrontations or finding better (locally more recognized) candidates. Partial coordination still gives a chance for the opposition to win the majority of constituencies, even in this skewed electoral and media system.

Developing a quasi-two-party system

Besides this vital condition, the opposition has several other ways to develop a quasi-two-party system. The 2018 campaign clearly revealed the opposition’s infrastructural divides, including in such areas as the media, opinion polls, political analyses or even the delegation to the electoral commissions. Clearer and more balanced campaign conditions cannot be provided unless the opposition creates a joint infrastructure utilizing all available resources.

In this odd two-party system, the opposition does not necessarily need to form a joint Opposition party to achieve its declared goals. Also, victory may be accomplished by an approach rather different from the one adopted by Fidesz since 1994, i.e., co-opting partners or pushing them out of the political market. However, opposition voters may be left without their own party in the Hungarian two-party system unless opposition politicians carry out a project similar, at least in its logic, to the political agenda implemented by Viktor Orbán.


[i]  Budapest 02, 03, 04, 13, 14; Baranya 02, 04; Békés 01, 04; Borsod 01, 02, 03, 04, 05; Csongrád 02; Fejér 01; Hajdú-Bihar 01, 06; Heves 01, 02; Pest 01, 02, 03, 05, 06, 07, 08; Somogy 01; Szabolcs 01, 02; Veszprém 01, 03; Zala 03.

About the authors

Miklós Sebők is a political scientist, senior research fellow of the HAS Centre for Social Sciences Institute for Political Science.

Balázs Böcskei, political scientist, is the head of the IDEA Institute; interested in the Hungarian Left and social-democratic responses to populism.

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