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Hungary’s Voting System: a Challenge to Understand

The complexity of the Hungarian election system is already the stuff of legend: according to one tale, after an expert had outlined the intricacies to American observers in Budapest for the 1990 elections, one visitor supposedly retorted: “Now I understand why a Hungarian invented the Rubikʼs Cube.”

In 2010, after Fidesz’ sweeping election victory, the governing party unilaterally introduced a new election law in 2011. Among the key elements, the new system has one round of voting (previously two), while it has reduced the number of individual constituencies to 106 (was 176) and slashed the parliamentary seats to 199 (from 386),

The government championed the new system as fairer, cheaper and less complicated. Critics, while welcoming a smaller parliament, accused the government of systematically gerrymandering the new constituencies in favor of Fidesz.

Whatever the truth, many ordinary Hungarians (let alone foreigners) have an unclear understanding of the new system, along with its electoral implications.

“The system has many majoritarian elements, meaning it favors the largest party, even if it only wins a minority [i.e. less than 50%] of the constituency votes,” says Róbert László of Political Capital.

A Simplified Explanation 

Hungarians with a registered address in the country receive two votes. One is for their choice of candidate for their individual constituency. It is a first-past-the-post race, meaning the candidate with the most votes wins the seat.   

The second vote is for the so-called “party list”. Citizens vote for the party of their choice, which is added to a pot. Up to 93 MPs are then chosen according to the proportion of votes in the pot.

Parties must achieve a threshold of at least 5% of the total list vote to qualify for seats.

Also added to the pot are the “surplus” votes of the losing candidate(s) in the individual constituency fights. This practice is quite common in European elections, the whole purpose of the list being to compensate losers in the first-past-the-post individual constituency vote and give them some representation in parliament.

However, in an element unique to Hungary, the new election system includes what might be called the winner’s “surplus booster” component, whereby the excess votes of the winning candidate are also added to the pot.

As an example of how it works, let us consider the result of the constituency vote for the fictitious seat of Margitváros.

Candidate Party Votes

Ágnes Blues 20,001

Balázs Greens 15,000

Csilla Independent 10,000

Dénes Reds 1,000

In this example, Ágnes becomes the new MP as the individual winner, with 20,001 votes.

It is also clear how multiple candidates divide the opposition vote: Ágnes wins the seat with just 43.5% of the total vote.

The votes for Balázs and Dénes go to the compensation pot for their parties, Greens and Reds.

Csilla, as an independent, does not have a party list, so her 10,000 votes are lost, yielding no result whatsoever.

In addition, according to the new election rules, Ágnes would only have needed 15,001 votes to beat Balázs and win this seat. Therefore, if you subtract that amount from what she actually polled you arrive at 5,000 “surplus” votes. These 5,000 votes are therefore also added to the pot for the Blues.

Hungarians Abroad

Those Hungarian citizens living abroad but with a registered address in Hungary get two votes (like their compatriots at home) but they can only vote at an embassy or consulate.

Hungarian citizens with no registered address in Hungary may vote by post, but only receive one vote – for the party list.

Complicated as it is, the above is only a simplified explanation and does not list all the elements.