Why Hungary Won’t Pull Off A Poland Any Time Soon

Hungary and Poland

Poland’s 2023 general elections marked a pivotal shift in European politics as pro-EU liberal factions unexpectedly triumphed over the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party. Contrastingly, Hungary’s 2022 elections saw Viktor Orban’s conservative government secure a decisive victory, highlighting how Hungary’s unique voting laws have entrenched the ruling party’s dominance.

General elections in Poland in October last year opened a new chapter in European politics. Pro-EU liberal factions pulled off a surprise victory over the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, whose eight-year rule was marked by populism and deteriorating democratic institutions. 75% of the electorate turned out to vote in the highest turnout the nation had ever seen, surpassing even the 63% turnout of 1989, which ended its communist dictatorship.   

The real surprise, however, was that this result came only a year after the incumbent conservative government in Hungary — the Polish right’s reliable partner in taking on Brussels — convincingly held onto power in its general elections, with Viktor Orban’s alliance winning over half of the popular vote. While pundits continue to theorise what worked in Poland and what failed in Hungary, we believe that the answer lies in Hungary’s voting laws, which make it unusually difficult for any challenger to dislodge the ruling government’s vice grip, no matter who is in power.  

Why voting rules matter 

According to microeconomic theory, party platforms prioritise the policy preferences of the so-called “median voter” to maximise their vote share, known as the median voter theorem. As voting rights expanded in jurisdictions across the world, the policy preferences of newly enfranchised voters have influenced major governance outcomes. Policy commitments, in turn, became affirmations of their newfound voting power. Such expansions, however, generally involved previously unrepresented constituencies that were part of the same territorial jurisdiction. For example, after women won the right to vote in the US in the early 20th century, politicians were forced to improve quality standards in schools. As a newly enfranchised group, American women could influence personally relevant political matters as denizens of constituencies they had previously only been a powerless part of.  

In Hungary, however, the expansion of voting rights and the consequent effects of the median voter theorem have influenced governance very differently compared to other cases. This is because, since 2012, voting rights have dramatically expanded not among the previously unrepresented within Hungary’s geographical limits but among ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Ukraine, where these dual constituents also vote and expect delivery of their policy preferences. 

In 2022, there were two million such ethnic Hungarians living in adjacent countries, of whom 1.1 million had taken up dual Hungarian citizenship. Their opinions influenced the election and running of a government in Budapest whose writ chiefly extended not to them but to the resident population of 9.6 million living within national boundaries. This meant that diaspora voters had a say in the arrangement and provision of public services in Hungary — from infrastructure and education to courts and the military — that would seldom cater to their own needs. 

We think that this shift in the median voter since 2012 has created a political economy problem. Political candidates in Hungarian parliamentary elections are now less incentivized to commit to policies that involve the delivery of public services for which they can be held accountable. Instead, they increase their chances of getting re-elected by focusing on populist narratives that capitalise on the sentiments of newly enfranchised expat citizens, who have since become a crucial factor in elections. 

Diagnosing the problem  

To fully grasp this political economy challenge, it is important to understand the history and circumstances of Hungary’s diaspora community. 

In 1920, the Treaty of Trianon, a pact signed after World War I, severely shrank the erstwhile Kingdom of Hungary by up to two-thirds of its land mass. This forced millions of ethnic Hungarians living in the region to get displaced out of their “home” country without ever physically moving residence. The severed parts of this region, roughly called the Carpathian Basin, were subsequently merged with Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Ukraine, where these ethnic Hungarians formed and continue to form sizable minorities. This was followed by the communist period, in which dictatorial regimes that ruled these states repressed the Hungarian diasporaand violated many of their rights. Religious freedoms were curtailed, the Hungarian language was restricted in education, and their political agency was denied. 

While their situation generally improved after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent integration of most former satellite states into the European Union, the memories of repression and of a “Greater Hungary” continued to be emotive topics for many among the diaspora. 2011, thus, came as a year of celebration when the Hungarian government decided to award these communities with citizenship in an effort to address historical wrongs. Voting rights followed a year later. 

These voting rights are exercised as follows: Currently, the Hungarian Parliament consists of 199 members, of which 106 are elected through the first-past-the-post system and 93  through proportional representation under national lists. Hungarian dual citizens, mostly made up of this World War I-era diaspora, vote only for national lists and not in territorial constituencies.  

This diaspora is also afforded special privileges. Because they do not have a registered address in territorial Hungary, the Hungarian government allows them to vote by mail. Expat Hungarians, on the other hand, constituting a much smaller group of around 300,000-400,000 people who have left Hungary post-EU integration and still have their official residence within Hungary, must physically go to a polling station set up by Hungary’s election authorities to be able to vote.  

Not unexpectedly, diaspora votes have since substantially affected the conduct and outcome of parliamentary elections by shifting the median voter. In the 2018 and 2022 election campaigns, the Hungarian diaspora voted by more than 90% for the right-wing FIDESZ party of incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Their share translated into 4-5% of the final results. For years, FIDESZ has adopted nationalist and populist rhetoric, assuring Hungarians outside the country that they are part of the same people and that they are not “forgotten”. This messaging is believed to have contributed to the repeated landslide mandates in the party’s favour.  

While right-wing power is generally increasing across Europe, even in countries without a large, enfranchised diaspora, we posit that Hungary’s electoral rules actively incentivise a doubling down on rhetoric. In the 2018 campaign, an analysis of topic word categories in FIDESZ Facebook posts showed that 39% were related to nationalism, 28% to populism, 15% to immigration, and only 1% addressed the economy. 

This has two major implications: First, politicians campaigning for diaspora votes know they must employ the rhetoric currently in vogue to get their support. They are aware that these voters will rarely benefit from Hungary’s internal policies, given that they live abroad. Therefore, it is of little importance what Hungarian parties have to offer in terms of government agendas and economic, political, or social measures they want to implement. Second, the median voter in Hungary shifts increasingly towards the extreme right as major parties are compelled to increase the ideological distance among themselves, while centrists inevitably fail to inspire confidence. 

What we think could work 

Under Hungary’s electoral code of conduct, the official campaign starts 50 days before election day and ends when the polls close at 7 p.m. During this period, a slew of measures come into force. Posters are prohibited in protected areas, natural sites, and government buildings, while television and radio outlets publish political advertisements free of charge under uniform criteria. On election day, a complete ban on airing political advertisements will be issued. 

Since election authorities only have the mandate to enforce these rules within Hungary, we believe that a lack of application of the same code of conduct in diaspora areas could seriously undermine the integrity of Hungarian elections. These concerns have impeded a similar expansion of extraterritorial voting rights in countries as far as India

We, therefore, suggest that Hungarian election authorities should seek the help of their counterparts in neighbouring Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Ukraine in gathering and potentially policing information on Hungarian election law infractions in their jurisdictions during Hungarian elections. The obvious challenge complicating this suggestion lies in the administrations of these countries seeing this as an additional expenditure. Without the provision of means to make this happen, these administrations will likely not agree to increase their workload.  

Another solution we suggest is that expat Hungarians residing in Hungary should be treated on par with diaspora Hungarians. Not being allowed to vote by mail significantly reduces the voter turnout within the former group. In the 2022 elections, for example, there were only three polling stations for 155,000 Hungarian expats living in the UK. Hungarian expats deplore this differential treatment and allege bias, insisting that they are left out for being more liberal-leaning. It would make sense to extend postal voting to this group. It is a robust mechanism serving over a million people and would not be jeopardised by adding a few hundred thousand more. 

Om Marathe

Om Marathe is a journalist turned policy professional and data analyst.

Virgil is an expert on Eastern Europe and intra-EU politics.