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30 Years of Freedom: 30 Years of Elections and the Rise and Fall of Parties

In the past 30 years, Hungary has seen eight general elections. In that period, nearly everything has changed, from the electoral law around conducting the elections to the number of MPs in the National Assembly. The history of the country’s elections has been as varied as the composition of the political parties and the governments they formed.

1) József Antall Prime Minister of the MDF-KDNP-FKGP government from 1990-93 (died in office).

Since the regime change in 1990, Hungarians have gone to the polls to elect a government eight times. Between the first one, the first pluralist, democratic elections after more than 40 years of one-party system and the most recent one in 2018, several aspects of the elections have changed.  

In the beginning, the unicameral Parliament, the National Assembly, had 386 members who were elected in two rounds. Voters cast a vote twice: they first elected single-member constituency candidates, and then chose from the regional party list.

Of the 386 seats, 176 were single-member constituencies, won via the runoff voting system, up to 152 seats were distributed by on a proportional representation basis across the 19 counties and the capital, while at least 58 seats were allocated on a national list to compensate parties for disparities between the distribution of votes and National Assembly constituency seats.

This system was in use until 2010; a year later the then and still ruling party Fidesz, modified the electoral law. During these 20 years, six governments ruled the country. It was a period of constant change when it came to the different parties making up the ruling cabinet. The first, the government of József Antall and his center-right Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) party, emerged from the highest number of contenders; prior to polling, more than 50 political parties and associations had been established.

2) Péter Boross, Prime Minister of the MDF-KDNP-FKGP government from 1993-94. Seen here in August 2014. Photo by Tibor Végh / Creative Commons

Of these, 12 contested assembly seats at the national level, and six parties participated in the run-off elections and got seats at the National Assembly. These were the MDF, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), the Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKGP) – the three parties that formed the ruling coalition – along with the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), the Alliance of Free Democrats (SZDSZ), and the League of Young Democrats (FIDESZ).

Despite its in inexperience in democracy and the difficulties it had to deal with after the collapse of the previous regime, the Antall government had its merits. (see our earlier article in this series, The 1st Free Elections and the Formation of the Antal Government, June 19). After Antall’s premature death in 1993, he was succeeded by Péter Boross as Prime Minister until 1994 when the next elections were held.

3) Gyula Horn, Prime Minister of the MSZP-SZDSZ government from 1994-98. Photo taken in 2007 at the International Charlemagne Prize of the city of Aachen (Karlspreis). Photo by Aleph / Creative Commons

First Change

This time, electors voted for the party that promised improvements on the issues the previous government could not solve. Winning 54% of the seats, the MSZP, which had grown out of the old ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party, came back to power in a coalition with the liberal SZDSZ, although, given its majority, the former could have ruled alone.

The MSZP had campaigned on economic problems and a steep decline in living standards since 1990 and saw in a huge turnout of voters. MDF lost nearly half of its voters, but still formed the largest opposition party.

Despite the marked shift in power from right to left (in which there was an element of nostalgia towards the previous regime), little else had changed inside the National Assembly: in 1994, the same six parties achieved the parliamentary threshold, although it had now been raised from 4% to 5%.

The newly formed government was led by Prime Minister Gyula Horn, a politician with a questionable past during the Kádár-era who pledged to pursue free-market policies. During his reign, the country became a member of the OECD in 1996.

4) Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of the Fidesz-MDF-FKGP government from 1998-2002. Seen here in the Hungarian Parliament in 1997. Photo by Rita Molnár / Creative Commons

This government was not without controversies either. It continued to introduce economic reforms, including highly criticized fiscal austerity measures, the so-called Bokros-package, named after its creator, then Minister of Finance Péter Lajos Bokros (1995-96).

The measures came after a number of ineffective attempts to put the economy back on track. The package was aimed at improving external balances and reducing the general government deficit through measures such as the drastic devaluation of the forint, the introduction of an additional customs surcharge and other measures that led to a substantial reduction in real wages and living standards.

Bokros resigned and was replaced in the finance ministry by Péter Medgyessy (who would one day become prime minister, more on him later) who followed the steps of his predecessor. He was remembered for some unpopular moves, including a cut in the number of hospital beds and the reform of the pension scheme.

5) Péter Medgyessy Prime Minister of the 2002-2004 MSZP-SZDSZ government, seen here in August 2014 Photo by Tibor Végh / Creative Commons

Legal Changes

The government also set out to change the legislation but its efforts to get a new constitution adopted proved futile. It did, however, change the municipal electoral system from a two-round procedure to one that is based on the principle of relative majority where mayors are directly elected.

From a party point of view, internal political tensions brought division to opposition: both the MDF in 1996, and then the KDNP in 1997 suffered splits. After a disputed leadership election within the MDF in 1996, the supporters of Iván Szabó (who had been Minister of Finance from 1993-94) formed a new party, the now defunct Hungarian Democratic People’s Party or MDNP, while part of the KDNP left the party and joined FIDESZ. At the same time, the previously highly popular FKGP led by József Torgyán, lost many of its supporters.

It wasn’t only the opposition that was meeting with growing criticism. The government’s popularity was declining as a result of a number of corruption scandals; indeed, corruption was seen as becoming more rampant in general.

6) Ferenc Gyurcsány Prime Minister of the MSZP-SZSDSZ government from 2004-2009. Seen here at a meeting of European Social Democrats in the Willy Brandt House in Berlin on March 24, 2007. Photo by 360b / Shutterstock.com

Public safety wasn’t at the highest level either, with explosions and gang retribution occurring in the most prominent parts of the city. By the time of the next general election, opposition party Fidesz, led by Viktor Orbán, had emerged as a major force and won in May 1998.

Right after assuming power, the party introduced a number of measures featured in its campaign. Family allowances were made automatic again, the first degree in higher education was declared free.

The government also had its own stab at passing a new constitution, but it lacked the sort of majority needed to force it through, and it was rejected by the opposition. Some symbolic moves were made, however; the Crown Hungary’s first ruler, King-Saint István, seen as the embodiment of the legitimacy of rule, was transferred from the National Museum to Parliament on the first day of the new millennium.

7) Gordon Bajnai, Prime Minister of the MSZP-SZDSZ government from 2009-2010, seen here giving a speech on February 8, 2013 in Veresegyház, Hungary. Photo by Photoline / Shutterstock.com

Tension Growing

In the field of politics, tension was growing both within the coalition of Fidesz and FKGP and between the government and the opposition. The government conducted a number of investigations into the alleged wrongdoings of the previous cabinet (alleged bugging and the so-called oil scandal among them), but it also had its fair share of issues, including one involving the mining companies of Orbán’s father, and another scandal about property owned by the Smallholder’s leader, and now Minister of Agriculture, Torgyán.

With that, FKGP lost all prospects of a win at the next election so eventually Fidesz and MDF set a joint list in the 2002 parliamentary elections. The election campaign was almost exclusively about scandals, the relationship between the two political sides, and the welfare promises made by the opposition MSZP whose candidate, Péter Medgyessy, took on Orbán in the prime ministerial candidates’ debate.

Initially Orbán, a gifted campaigner, took a back seat, apparently wishing to appear above the fray. But as the polls indicated a much closer race, he became increasingly visible, talking himself hoarse by the end. Despite his best efforts, the elections were won by the MSZP-SZDSZ coalition. Fidesz claimed the elections were rigged and asked for a recount of the votes, even calling the public out into street demonstrations. Shortly after Medgyessy took office, stories emerged that he had worked as a spy during the Communist era. The spy-case revealed that several sitting MPs were involved in the intelligence services.

8) Viktor Orbán Prime Minister of the Fidesz-KDNP government from 2010-14. Seen here at a press conference in Budapest, Hungary, on Monday, April 12, 2010. Photo by Northfoto / Shutterstock.com

The scandal led to a loss of trust within the coalition but it did not affect the popularity of the government. Another topic that caused some conflict among parties was the country’s EU membership, but the referendum in April 2003 ended with the majority of voters saying yes to the EU. Hungary joined the bloc in 2004.

Meanwhile, economic problems and further tension within the coalition eventually led to the resignation of Medgyessy, who was replaced by Ferenc Gyurcsány, previously Minister of Sports in his cabinet. In 2005 and 2006, parties were preparing for the next elections.

As a party in opposition, Fidesz announced many popular measures but could not handle an effective and highly critical campaign run by Gyurcsány, who won the support of the voters and the elections in 2006.

His popularity was short-lived though, right after his inauguration he introduced some austerity measures he never mentioned in his campaign. His support fell even further when a leaked tape revealed that the prime minister and the party had lied “morning, noon and night” to the public about the state of public finances in order to win re-election. This caused major public uproar.

9) Viktor Orbán Prime Minister of the Fidesz-KDNP government from 2014-18. Seen here on August 10, 2014, during the stadium opening football match (Ferencváros vs. Chelsea) at Groupama Arena. Photo by Laszlo Szirtesi / Shutterstock.com

Caretaker

The Socialist-SZDSZ coalition came apart in 2008, after the opposition called for a referendum over austerity measures introduced by Gyurcsány. The prime minister stayed in office until 2009, when Minister of National Development and Economy Gordon Bajnai succeeded him as a caretaker leader; shortly afterwards, Gyurcsány also stepped down as leader of the Socialist Party.

The MSZP suffered a crushing defeat in the April 2010 parliamentary election, in which Fidesz-KDNP won a landslide victory and secured an absolute majority in the National Assembly in the first round of voting.

The coalition went on to win a parliamentary majority of more than two-thirds in the runoff election, with all but three out of 176 single-member constituency seats, while MSZP saw its worst election result since 1990. Both the far-right Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) and the environmentalist Politics Can Be Different (LMP) gained representation in the Parliament for the first time, but the MDF and SZDSZ failed to pass the 5% threshold.

In 2011, the Parliament approved a new Fidesz-drafted constitution that opponents said threatened democracy by removing checks and balances. The EU also expressed its concern over the law and asked, without success, for its withdrawal. In December, Parliament approved a new election law that halved the number of MPs and redrew constituency boundaries. According to critics, it tilted the system in favor of the governing party. The next two elections in 2014 and 2018 also saw landslide wins for the Fidesz-KDNP coalition, with no real contenders among the opposition.

10) Viktor Orbán Prime Minister of the Fidesz-KDNP government from 2018-to date. Seen here on August 20, 2018, at Salzburg, Austria, arriving for an informal meeting of the 28 heads of state or government of the EU. Photo by Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com

Sponsored by the 30 Years of Freedom Memorial Board / A programot a „30 éve szabadon” Emlékbizottság támogatja