Dec 30, 2017 - Zoltán Kovács

The Hungary ‘expert’ made this same claim four years ago

I was beginning to wonder where she went. Everyone’s favorite ‘Hungary expert’ is back for her usual pre-election round of so-called scholarly analysis. Once again, Kim Lane Scheppele accuses the Hungarian government of gerrymandering and wonders at Prime Minister Orbán’s “brain melting” powers. I don’t even know where to start.

Though she does not speak the Hungarian language and has no relevant academic credentials, nothing related to constitutional law or electoral systems, Scheppele managed to pawn herself off as an “expert” on Hungary in the lead up to the 2014 elections. She seemed to disappear for a while after the Orbán Government won in another landslide, but now she’s back. As before, the “expert” and “scholar” remains wholly in the tank for Hungary’s liberal-left opposition – although this time around, following the fashion, she seems to have taken a fancy to the far-right Jobbik as well. This latest volley appears in an interview with the Hungarian weekly Heti Világgazdaság, and her claims amount to pure conjecture and sometimes just plain falsehoods.

Let me save you the trouble of looking for the interview. Here’s what they’re peddling now: Next year’s elections in Hungary may be free, but they won’t be fair. The districts have been gerrymandered. The system is rigged. And if that sounds familiar, it’s because they were making the same charge four years ago. Doesn't seem to matter that they’ve never been able to make their case.

In the interview, Scheppele insists that the electoral system has been designed in a way that makes it impossible for the opposition parties to win unless they all unite, and the districts drawn in such a way to make Fidesz invincible. “So, they sliced up the electoral districts in such a way,” she says, “that a small urban, left-wing dominated area is bundled up with a bigger rural part dominated by the political right.” You see, it’s gerrymandered.

She cannot give a single example, but I can. Here are three that crush her argument: By-elections to fill vacated seats in the Hungarian parliament took place in Veszprém and Tapolca in 2015, and Salgótarján in 2016. In each case, an opposition candidate won, demonstrating that defeating the governing parties in the constituencies is far from impossible, even if the opposition parties are not united.

The reason for the electoral reform was, in fact, the inequality of the constituencies drawn up in 1990 as a compromise and temporary solution. In the old system, for example, the 6th electoral district of Veszprém with 27 thousand voters would send one representative to the Parliament just like the 67 thousand voters of Gödöllő. It doesn’t take a maths degree to realize that this stood in serious contradiction to one of the most basic principles of modern-day elections – that is, the principle of equality of votes. The reformed electoral system allows no more than 15% difference in district size and has redrawn the districts to meet that requirement.

HVG and the international press that have carried Scheppele’s criticisms always cite her academic title but neglect to mention that she has been working hand-in-glove with the opposition parties. She was exposed in a memorable [and lengthy] Twitter spat between a Hungarian opposition blogger and Viktor Szigetvári, the Socialist Party’s former campaign manager and now a leader of the opposition party Együtt. Szigetvári, we learned, met with the scholar regularly and had been “helping her to understand the details of the [electoral] system for two years”. Apparently, that’s her idea of an objective source.

Clearly, she has a professional stake in criticizing PM Orbán’s government and hiding this important aspect from the readership is nothing less than biased, shoddy reporting.

At one point, the HVG interviewer asks her if she has ever met Viktor Orbán. Yes, she claims, and goes on to depict the prime minister as a person capable of “brain melting” powers in the way he “focuses his attention”. In a similarly odd remark, communist-era informant Paul Lendvai recently named Prime Minister Orbán the “lord and master” of Hungary who wields “dark talents” to stay in power.

It’s already getting silly, and we’re still some four months away from the elections. But rest assured that we’ll be hearing a lot more of these hollow criticisms about the electoral system.