Many of the mainstream globalist liberal media outlets called Hungarian conservative PM Viktor Orbán an “authoritarian” on the occasion of his CPAC speech—and for years before. CNN even suggested adopting a guideline for reporting on “authoritarian leaders.” Sometimes he is said to be building a “dictatorship,” or more diplomatically a “hybrid regime,” or simply his leadership is called an example of a “falling democracy.”
The leftist media treats every democratically elected conservative leader in this way, suggesting that such figures are the sign of a “backsliding democracy,” because they are able to win only by “manipulating the media,” “playing with the fears of the people,” etc. Also, conservative politics are described as per se anti-democratic. And in the case of Mr. Orbán, he is said to have taken over the Hungarian media (the whole of it!) and changed election rules in a way that leaves them looking democratic, but are not in fact.
I would like to address both these charges. I am going to present the Hungarian media landscape. After that, I will analyze the election of 2010 with its first Orbán-style supervictory, under the old (allegedly more democratic) electoral system; then his victory under the new (allegedly less democratic) one, and I will analyze the second’s critics. Finally, I will reveal interesting details of electoral results from 2014 to 2022, resulting in the “orange country maps,” and draw my conclusions. (Those maps are of individual electoral districts colored by the color of the winning party; orange is the color of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party.)
Changing narratives of Hungarian opposition
The Hungarian Left acknowledges that Viktor Orbán won the election in April by a big margin (even their PM-nominee Péter Márki-Zay and the ex-president of the opposition party Momentum Anna Donáth openly acknowledged it). Before the election, the opposition—and many in the government and leading the Fidesz party—expected a narrow Orbán-victory. The opposition’s plan was to question it based on the allegedly biased electoral law.
But voter turnout was more than 70% (almost five and half million voted out of 7.6 million who were eligible), with more than 3 million people voting for Mr. Orbán and his party alliance. The margin between him and the opposition was more than a million votes. Fidesz won 87 out of 106 individual districts (Fidesz won only one at Budapest out of 18 there, the opposition won only two outside Budapest out of 88); and 3,117 constituencies out of 3,155, leaving to the United Opposition only 38. All of that happend with the presence of 900 foreign observers and 20 thousand vote counters sent by the opposition, who declared that there was no fraud.
This huge Orbán-victory made it impossible to employ the original plan of the opposition. So, they deployed a more indirect case: people in the countryside have acces to only state media, which is in the hands of government, which means Viktor Orbán. So, they said, the election was won legally with a big margin by the Fidesz-KDNP party alliance, led by Viktor Orbán, but only because they manipulated people beforehand by use of the media.
Hungarian media landscape: balanced
What you have to know about the recent Hungarian media landscape is this. State media historically makes up a great part of that media, and it has always been government-leaning. But—given our digital age—it plays a less and less important role, even in relatively statist Hungary. Hungarian media was dominated by postcommunists until 2010. Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz won in 2010 its two-third majority from the opposition position against a lefwing coalition in power, amidst a storm from a leftist state media and a leftist private media. And this first Fidesz-victory was bigger by certain measures than the three that followed—allegedly manipulated by Fidesz. But I will go into details later regarding 2010 and the other elections.
Today, the Hungarian media landscape is far more balanced than before 2010. It is true that conservative right-wing media building has been partly helped by the Fidesz party and Viktor Orbán. But there was no other way to do it. Hungary has a population of ten million with a small market, which simply means there aren’t the financial means to build such media outlets as there are in the U.S., for example. A usual readership here is in the thousands. The biggest new sites reach out to around 1.5 million people at best. The biggest printed newspapers—I mean political ones—have a readership of maybe ten thousand. Plus, the advertisement market is dominated by Google, Facebook, and sales agencies. Despite that, almost every politically revelant media company—running either right- or left-wing media—is profitable. So governmental- or state-owned compaines’ advertisements are crucial. And left-wing, oppositional media outlet get institutional support (for example the leading daily print Népszava).
What is more important: the media landscape is balanced. Far from being dominated by “government backed right-wing propaganda,” it is more or less fifty-fifty between Left and Right. And even in the countryside people love to enrage themselves by reading stuff from those opinion leaders who they really do not like. Half of Hungary wakes itself up every day with a cup of coffee that way. 6.8 million Hungarians read conservative papers and 6.7 million opt for liberal political media, with 6 million interested in both right- and left-wing media. Many leftist media news sites—24.hu, Telex, 444—are on the top ten list of most read outlets, with each having more than one million readers.
Hungary, as it happens, is better covered by the internet than the U.S. There are many online leftist pages, and also most TV channels, including left-wing RTL Klub, which has the biggest audience, are accesible everywhere. Most important newspapers are available in every supermarket and small shop, even in small villages. This is also true for radio. And there is Facebook. The trope that people in the countryside do not have acces to oppositional, left-wing media, is simply untrue. Countryside and rural areas have access to every kind of media on the whole range of the political spectrum. In the countryside, 20% voted for the coalition of opposition—how did this happen, if all of the countryside is fed with “government propaganda”?
In any case, the one-way theory of mass communication has been shown to be highly flawed for decades. People stomach the information they receive and then decide what to think of it. If any kind of “government propaganda” does not fit their everyday experience, they won’t believe it. They are not stupid.
The election of 2010
Viktor Orbán and Fidesz came back to power in 2010 with their first two-third majority after eight years in opposition. Back then, the country had 176 electoral districts. How many of those did Fidesz and its leader Viktor Orbán win with its ally KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party)? 173. That’s right, the right-wing party alliance of Viktor Orbán, coming to power from opposition in 2010, under the old electoral law, won 173 out of 176 individual electoral districts—that is, 98.3% of them.
In any Anglo country, be it Great Britain, the U.S., Canada, Australia, etc., this would have meant that the winning party would control 98% of the parliament, because of the “first pass the post” or “winner takes all” system.
Not in Hungary, because it has a combined electoral system of individual districts and party lists. And party lists compensate parties of individual losers for their voters on lists, in order to be represented somehow in the parliament. It is an adaptation of the German system. Under Hungarian electoral law, which was valid from 1989 to 2012, the Hungarian parliament had 386 seats: 176 seats for individual districts, and 2010 for MP-s coming from party lists. Because of this system, Fidesz-KDNP controlled not 98% of seats, but only 68%: 263 seats. It meant two-third majority by only one MP.
Again, it was a big win from the right-wing opposition, under the old electoral law, which is said to be much more democratic by the current opposition than our recently instituted system. The point is, Orbán had his biggest victory under the previous system.
The new electoral system
The conservative government, backed by this two-third parliamentarian majority, which entitles it to make constitutional changes and allows for it to legislate even those laws which require this supermajority, changed the electoral law.
The Constitutional Court had urged parliament to equalize electoral districts for years because of their diverging population, but it wasn’t able to do so because of the lack of a two-third majority or any agreement between government and opposition between 2002-2010. Now was the time to do it. Fidesz not only equalized the electoral districts: it reduced their number to 106, as it reduced seats in the parliament from 386 to 199, to make it similar in size to other assemblies of small countries.
This meant that the electoral system became slightly more majoritarian. Under the old law party list seats were a majority, now individual districts make up the majority. This means party lists weigh a little bit less, but they are still important. Fidesz abolished the institution of second run (used in districts where there was no absolute winner, to decide between the first and second, who will be the MP), because it was a major source of political machinery: coalitions were decided between the two runs or after. Now, with only one run, every political force has to decide everything before any election, and has to be more honest to voters about its coalitional plans.
Fidesz established a curious principle, which is a target of constant attack from the Left: “winner compensation.” It means not only that the looser gets its lost votes counted on its party list, but also the winner. This may seem strange, but I think it is justifiable. The 5% threshold remained in place.
Also, Fidesz changed the rules on what qualifies a party to run in the election. Under the old law, you had to collect 750 “recommendations” as a candidate in individual districts. You were permitted to set up a national list if you had at least seven regional lists, and you were able to set up a regional list if you had at least two candides there. (Are able to follow? It was very complicated system). You were able to give your “recommendation” to only one candidate.
Under the new system, it is enough to collect 500 signatories (instead of recommendations), and you are able to sign to more candidates. But only those parties can make a list, which are able the set up a candidate at least in 71 individual districts, at least in 14 counties, and in the capital too.
So, the new system is a slightly more majoritarian version of the old. But it is still far from any “first pass the post” system.
Two systems summarized
Electoral system 1989-2012: semi-proportional or mixed-member proportional representation. 386 seats in the parliament: 176 individual seats, 2010 party list seats. Two run, with looser compensation. 5% threshold. Party lists were a combination of regional and national lists. Adaptation of the German system. It made governments stable, but practically made coalitions necessary.
Electoral system from 2012: negative vote transfer system or Scorporo (used also in Italy). 199 seats (106 individual, 93 filled from lists). One run, looser- and winner-compensation, 5% threshold. Only national lists, regional lists abolished. Easier to set up a candidate. Slightly more majoritarian than the previous, but essentially the same mixed electoral system. Very stable, coalitions are avoidable realistically.
How is the new system criticised?
The opposition criticises the new system as less democratic, less representative, because of its more majoritarian tendency, because of the abolition of the second run, and its alleged gerrymandering. Also, it has claimed over the years that the new system is a plot against the opposition because it makes it harder to run … or because it makes it easier to run, as a tool of Viktor Orbán to divide the opposition—they employed both arguments.
Their problem is that the winner takes the bigger part of the parliament than its actual electoral numbers. For example, Fidesz won 54% of the popular vote (party list vote) in April 2022, but it controls 68% of the seats in parliament. That’s true. But that was also the rule under the old electoral system: from 2010, Fidesz controlled 68% of the parliament with 52.7% of the popular vote—according to the rules of the 1989 electoral law. And this claim from the current opposition suggests that the Anglo majoritarian system is anti-democratic too, although they will never admit this: anytime I ask a Hungarian leftist politican about his opinion of the American system, they just say something like “America is an old democracy with the balance of power.”
The old electoral law gave much more seats to the winner than its actual popular vote, although the new system gives even a little bit more. The major difference, however, is not that, and this is the claim that would—on the reasoning of the current opposition—logically mean that Anglo “first past the post” systems are not democratic at all. The Hungarian opposition simply cannot stomach the fact that now they have to win actual individual districts, and not only the popular vote. Because if you transpose the 2022 Orbán-victory to an American/British “first past the post”-system, it would have meant an 82% victory for Orbán (counting with only individual district he won, 87 out of 106).
The opposition’s positions seem to be that the only truly democratic electoral system is either the old one (not just proportional, but mixed) or those that are solely proportional (no individual districts, only lists, like the Netherlands). But it is not true: the birth of democracy, the original electoral system, was the “first past the post” system. So, historically, “first past the post” systems were corrected by lists and by adding proportional modification, and not vice versa. This ensures the real connection to the territory and to the people. Also, there is a practical difference: mixed and majoritarian systems made countries more governable than wholly proportional systems—the latter brings about endless coalitional problems and fragile governance.
I really do not know why the Hungarian opposition thinks that a second run makes an electoral system more democratic, unless they simply oppose its abolition because it was done by Orbán and makes political machinery more difficult.
Regarding gerrymandering, I do not really know what the opposition understands under the term. The population of electoral districts are more equal now than before. Some historical lines were broken, and some cities’ outskirts were detached from city centers and joined to rural districts, which I think is questionable, but also justifiable because of their strong everyday connection with those areas (it wasn’t done to Budapest).
But the 2022 results, which, as I mentioned, means that out of 3,155 constituencies Fidesz won 3,117, and the United Opposition won only 38, makes every speculation over alleged gerrymandering pointless. These constituencies are not the individual electoral districts or regions, nor settlements; they are the second smallest regional unit of the system. In such an electoral map you could draw district lines anyhow, the result will be an Orbán victory, or “orange country,” as we say.
Election results 2010-2022
So, Orbán and his Fidesz-KDNP party alliance won in 2010 from opposition under the old electoral law, 173 individual districts out of 176, and 2.73 million votes. He controlled 263 seats out of 386. With the 52.7% of popular votes he controlled 68% of seats.
In 2014, under the new, purportedly “less democratic,” “fraud” electoral laws, with 62% turnout, Fidesz and Orbán won 96 of individual district (out of 106), which means 90.6% of them, and would meet precisely the control of 90.6% of seats in an only majoritarian system. But out of 4.9 million popular votes he got 2.15 million, that is, 43.55%. This meant he controlled 133 seats out of 199—67%, one percentage less then in 2010, with his new supposedly “less democratic” law.
In 2018, Orbán won 91 individual districts out of 106, which meant 85%. In this year, 5.8 million people went to vote, and Orbán got more than 2.8 million of the popular vote, which meant 49.27%. Finally, he and his party alliance controlled again 133 seats of the parliament out of 199 (67%), precisely the same as before.
And here again is 2022: 87 individual districts out of 16 (82%), more than 54% of popular vote (more than 3 million of the popular vote out of more than 5.4 million), of which the result is 135 seats in parliament out of 199 (68%).
Winning under the the old, supposedly “more democratic” system in 2010, Orbán controlled the 68% of the parliament with 52% of the popular vote. Now, in 2022, after his fourth consecutive victory, he controls again 68% of the seats with 54% of the popular vote (2% more than in 2010).
You could even say that there is a smaller gap here than under the old law, and yet still the opposition complains that Fidesz controls more seats than its actual popularity, and that the old electoral system was more democratic (they mean that it was more proportional).
Gerrymandered or not, Orbán maintained his seats by gradually losing individual districts (although still winning the majority of them), but winning more of the popular vote. He won 98% of individual districts in 2010; 90.6% of them in 2014; 85% in 2018; and 82% in 2022. And he won 52.7% of popular vote in 2010; 43.55% of it in 2014; 49.27% in 2018; and 54% in 2022. Take note: there is no possibility of district gerrymandering regarding the popular vote.
How many seats somebody controls in the parliament comes down to a refined interplay of the two levels combined. If you count only with individual districts, similar to the Anglo systems, it would mean a much bigger majority than the actual one. If you would count only the popular vote, it would mean more proportionality and more fragile government.
The recent, slightly more majoritarian electoral system of Hungary is still a mixed system: individual districts and compensational party lists combined. It gives more seats to the winner than its percentage of the actual popular vote, but much less than under majoritarian systems. It balanced proportionality with the imperative of effective governance.
As I wrote for the Washington Examiner: the Hungarian Left’s real problem is lack of popular appeal, not any kind of election fraud, hijacked electoral system, or lack of media access. A fragile, multiparty, interest-based “coalition” with amateurish leaders and communication, attacking the most popular measures of Orbán-governments is not expected to win. Orbán is establishing a well-balanced economic policy, in which he took over many leftist goals, and made them more meritocratic. What was effective in the old programs of the Hungarian Left is implemented by Orbán, and thus what has remained for leftist politicians is dogmatic ideological claims with which they cannot win.
The current Hungarian electoral system, implemented by Viktor Orbán and his parliamentary majority, is a balanced, democratic one, ensuring both democratic representation and stable governance. He should be commended, not vilified, for bringing it in.
Gergely Szilvay is a senior fellow at Mandiner. He earned his Ph.D. in political theory from Pázmány Péter Catholic University.