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May 18, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

Elections in Hungary: Where are the ‘free but not fair’ critics now?

A week ago Sunday, something interesting happened on the elections front that went largely unnoticed outside of Hungary. On the 8th, Hungary had a Super Sunday of sorts with nine by-elections taking place in municipalities around the country. Some of the elections turned out as the polls predicted, but others produced a few surprises. Some brought mandates for the governing party, some to the left-wing and right-wing opposition, and a couple of independents were also successful.

Nothing particularly newsworthy at first sight, but there is an important takeaway.

Prior to the 2014 elections, Hungary carried out a much needed reform of its electoral system – implementing many steps recommended by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in the preceding years and decades – for example, evening out the size of electoral districts in terms of number of voters per district. We came under heavy fire for the changes. The new system, critics cried, created an “uneven playing field” that would result in elections that would be “free but not fair,” suggesting that the governing party was rigging the rules to ensure its own victory.

The critics were wrong. Their criticism lacked foundation. But to the average reader, who is by no means expected to be an expert, it came down to our word against theirs. Now, anyone bothering to pay any attention can see that the “free but not fair” argument is becoming more and more difficult to defend.

This month’s nine by-elections, not to mention all the by-elections held in Hungary since 2014, serve as practical evidence that the system works. With every vote cast, citizens have the chance to express their preferences. Their satisfaction or lack thereof is mirrored in the results, bringing re-election or new winners.

It turns out that the key to winning a local or a national election in Hungary is the same as everywhere else: win voter sympathy and get more votes than your political opponent. Not surprising and not big news, as this is the way it should be. But perhaps the critics owe us, and even more so, owe the citizens of Hungary, an apology.