Voting Reforms Are Needed in Hungary

John F. Peto: Take Your Choice // Public domain

A large number of spoiled ballots were reported during Hungary’s local elections, indicating dissatisfaction with political parties. However, not all valid wishes regarding the choice of one of the candidates on the ballots led to an invalid vote, causing much confusion.

On June 9, Hungary held the elections for the European Parliament along with its local elections to choose mayors and councilors. The elections saw a record turnout of 58.1 %, but the most interesting election, the Budapest mayoral election with a turnout of 60.51%, resulted in a very high number of spoiled ballots, at 2.98%. Voting is not mandatory in Hungary so the fact that people bothered to show up and chose none of the possible candidates is indeed telling. Even more telling is the systemic problem in Hungarian election law, which validated many ballots clearly intended to be spoiled.

Probably more people wanted to vote invalidly, but according to election laws, if there are at least two intersecting lines within the circle next to the candidate and only one vote is given among the candidates still running, it is considered valid.

At first, 4 candidates competed for the seat: the incumbent mayor Gergely Karácsony from a micro green party Párbeszéd, supported by most left-wing opposition parties Dávid Vitézy, and independent urbanist, backed by another small green party, LMP, Alexandra Szentkirályi, former Deputy Mayor of Budapest and former spokesperson for the governing party Fidesz, in whose colors she was running, and Dr. András Grundtner, the candidate of the far-right party, Mi Hazánk (who only received 4.99% in the end)

Szetkirályi resigned her candidacy only a couple of days before the elections, endorsing Vitézy. Karácsony’s campaign warned this might happen and many voters were not surprised. The ballots were already printed to the name of the Fidesz candidate and had to be stricken through manually by pen on every single paper. Due to the last-minute palaver, Fidesz voters did not get the message to vote for Vitézy, and Fidesz’s support scared off a lot of potential Vitézy voters who opted for a spoilt ballot.

The incumbent mayor also seems unpopular as the opposition parties backing him are not aiming for a victory, only a comfortable seat and funding without the responsibility of governing. This is proven by the popularity of a new emerging party, Tisza, which is only a couple of months old, trumped up by a former Fidesz insider, Péter Magyar who left his former alliance and campaigned on not wanting to see either Fidesz or the current opposition in power. He is a wild card as he has not taken a position on any issue, instead campaigning mostly negatively against other parties.

Tisza managed to win 10 seats on the Budapest council (which is elected by a list) the same as Fidesz, securing the most seats alongside the governing party at the table. They came up second in the EP elections and their MEPs have already joined EPP, Fidesz’s former family.

Karácsony and Vitézy were head to head, overtaking the latter after the last ballots were counted and winning by only a few hundred votes. On Vitézy’s appeal, the invalid votes were recounted but Karácsony called it a farce, wanting to repeat the whole elections with only the candidates who appeared on the ballot, whatever the results of the recount might be, as he feared the ballots had been tampered with.

After the recount, Karácsony was still pronounced the winner, but he only had 41  more votes than Vitézy, a staggeringly small number in a city with 1.3 million eligible voters, 60% of whom actually cast a ballot.

Due to the election law, even those ballots where there was an X (two intersecting lines) next to Szetkirályi’s name and that of another candidate were considered valid, as the law states that since Szentkirályi was not running, any vote for her should be dismissed. There were ballots illustrated with vulgar drawings with not overly flattering messages for candidates, but if they had an X next to a valid candidate, they counted.

Both Karácsony and Vitézy appealed the result so the mayor of Budapest is not legally named yet. However, other results are more definite: people are fed up with the existing status quo of the parties, a situation which can be capitalized on by the newcomer Tisza.

The other conclusion is that the election law should be reformed to better reflect the intentions of the voters or to make matters easier, faster, more transparent and in line with the expectation of the rule of law in a democratic process. E-votes are gaining in popularity, with more than half of Estonians already using this. It was also successful in India. This could help those living far from voting stations or abroad far from the consulate to participate in the elections. It would not take so long to count the votes and human error and debate over the validity of the ballots could be overcome.

So far no party in Hungary is campaigning for a hit, but given the dissatisfaction with them, an up-and-coming new party like Tisza would be wise to consider.

Continue exploring: 

Who Should Punish Orbán?

Race for Budapest: Upcoming Municipal Elections in Hungary

Mate Hajba
Free Market Foundation