Democracy island (28 March 2006)
More than any of its neighbours, Hungary has a robust system of political parties with strong popular roots.
Elections in Britain have become increasingly invisible. The tradition of putting posters in windows seems to be dying, and the parties are less inclined to spend money on advertising hoardings than before. It would have been quite possible for a moderately observant person to have visited Britain in April 2005 and not to have noticed that an election was under way.
In Hungary, on the other hand, elections are in your face. I was there at the end of last week on a flying visit, unaware until I arrived that the poll was in full swing. This state of ignorance did not last: Budapest is plastered with hoardings favouring the causes of FIDESZ and the MSZP, the two main parties. Viktor Orban, the leader of the Fidesz opposition party, looks down sardonically from thousands of bright orange billboards, wearing the expression of a man who has just been told a joke he did not consider very funny. Ferenc Gyurcsany, the prime minister and MSZP (Socialist party) leader, is just as omnipresent, although he presents a kinder visage, looking like an academic who is worried that his seminar group’s attention has wandered away from his presentation.
The most striking political advertisement in Hungary covered the entire side of a building in one of the main squares of Budapest with a massive image of Gyurcsany – a piece of political gigantism even the communists did not manage.
But campaigning in Hungary does not seem to be a competition just of advertising budgets (the ubiquity of political billboards suggests either that the two main parties are awash with funds or advertising is very cheap in Hungary). There is the occasional splash of campaigning activity in the streets, with young MSZP and Fidesz supporters giving out bags of political goodies at underground stations, and- a joy for election nostalgia buffs, if nobody else – loudspeaker vans in the streets.
An MSZP candidate in Buda was giving out pocket-sized brochures containing useful telephone numbers and even local public transport timetables. This technique might not catch on in Britain, where public transport timetables are even more unreliable than most political promises.
Another original feature of the Hungarian electoral system is that it is illegal for parties to keep databases of electors with information on how they intend to vote, rendering British-style direct marketing and telephone canvassing impossible. Any Hungarian politician making claims about what their canvassing returns suggest would face a police investigation and would be exonerated only if those claims turned out to be false. Perhaps seasoned Liberal Democrat campaigners could take this up for use in Britain?
Such charming oddities aside, Hungarian election campaigning is slick and modern. The MSZP goodie bag contained something that any politically aware Briton would recognise as an exact equivalent of a Labour party pledge card, down to the five statistics-laden bullet points on one side and the leader’s face on the other.
When not promoting Orban or his team, Fidesz advertising has very US-style images of women and families, in contrast to the more political content of MSZP material. There have been allegations in the campaign that Fidesz has used the technique, well honed by the Republicans in the 2004 US presidential election, of outsourcing negative campaigning to surrogates.
In contrast to much of central and eastern Europe, Hungary seems to have developed a robust system of political parties, which have put down genuine roots in the electorate. In some other countries, parties are little more than personality cults or vehicles for ambition, and come and go with each election (Poland seems particularly prone to this sort of instability) or dissolve into splinter groups; in Hungary, public opinion seems to be consolidating around Fidesz and the MSZP, with their combined share increasing from 40% in 1994 to 84% in 2002 and possibly even more in 2006. Turnout is respectable by most comparisons, with 73.5% making it to the polls in 2002 (although only 56.7% made it in 1998).
Hungary has an intriguing party system, with a post-communist party that seems to have entirely mutated into a New Labour (but Europhile) organisation, which the European Tribune characterised as being composed of politically connected entrepreneurs, technocrats and a few naive old socialists.
The MSZP is in coalition with the SZDSZ, who are something like the pro-business, pro-Europe Free Democrats of Germany. The centre-right Fidesz opposition is the descendant of a youthful liberal dissident organisation from the late 1980s that has moved steadily to the right. Its party colour was orange before events in Ukraine in 2004, but the subliminal associations are no doubt helpful. Fidesza has absorbed a lot of the vote that went to the conservative nationalists of the MDF (who won the first election in 1990) and a big chunk of the SZDSZ vote when that party first teamed up with the socialists in 1994. There are several small parties that may or may not get parliamentary representation, including the remnants of the MDF and a far-right party with the (to English ears) more ridiculous than sinister acronym of MIEP-JOBBIK. This party, whose emblem bears the outline of Hungary’s pre-1920 borders (including large chunks of what is now Romania, Croatia and Slovakia), aims to force itself into coalition with a reluctant Fidesz.
The electoral system, however, is distinctly strange. British journalists habitually describe anything more sophisticated than scrawling a big X on a piece of paper as “a complex system of proportional representation”, but in Hungary there really is a complex PR system. It has a set of overlapping regional and local electoral districts, candidate and list votes, thresholds and a two-round election.
Despite this, Hungarians seem to manage, and contrary to many assertions about list-based PR, there is vigorous local campaigning centred around individual candidates. It has also, so far, produced clear choices of government in all the elections since the end of communism.
The first round of the 2006 election is on April 9 and the second round on April 23. Opinion polls until recently showed Fidesz having a clear lead, but the MSZP seems to have climbed back to a level position, with the fortunes of the small parties uncertain. The main hope of the MSZP is to excite a high turnout: the elections it has won, in 1994 and 2002, have had higher turnout than the ones it lost, in 1990 and 1998.
Hungary has always been a bit of an unusual case in its history, language and customs; it now seems to be an island of flourishing two-party politics in a Europe (“old” and “new”) awash with disenchantment and the breakdown of old political loyalties. And how odd is that?