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16 October 2017

The Varying Degrees of Autocracy in Russia and Hungary

Politics in Hungary and Russia seem similar these days. A closer look shows two rather different shades of authoritarian rule

Hungary scores 2.5 on Freedom House’s index of political freedom, meaning it is still a “free” country, but with authoritarian inclinations. The Hungarian press is rated “partly free.” This Central European country is a far cry from Russia’s score of 6, however, which means “not free.”

Important elections – presidential ones in Russia and parliamentary ones in Hungary – will be held in spring next year. The outcome is just as important as the procedures. Hungary’s electorate is at a fork in the road; one route leads to illiberalism and the other to European values. In Russia, it is more a uestion of whether the opposition can win the right to participate in the election at all.

These two countries are often compared, partly because of a multitude of joint projects and good bilateral relations, which contrasts with most other EU member states’ attitudes to Russia. There are also resemblances in the steps both countries have taken toward authoritarianism, and their particular style of cracking down on political freedoms. Already by 2012, Hungary had mirrored many of the measures introduced by the ruling elite in Russia. Although the political situation in both countries exhibits fundamental differences, both leaders could write a similar handbook for a would-be autocrat.

Electoral games

The main methods used in Russia to ensure the victory of the ruling party are well known. Changing the electoral system is a standard trick (from proportional representation to a mixed system and vice versa). Gerrymandering (manipulating district boundaries) is also a well trodden path. The Russian regime has used various techniques to suppress voter turnout. If that does not suffice, there is always blocking candidates by requiring a collection of signatures, mechanisms such as carousel voting and ballot stuffing during early voting, the use of the notorious “administrative resource,” not to mention controlling media outlets and keeping them inaccessible to the opposition. Fidesz, the right wing political party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has learned from these authoritarian best practices; the party embarked on redrawing constituencies as early as 2011, scattering left-leaning voters into historically right-leaning districts.

The electoral system itself favors the success of Fidesz. Like Russia, Hungary has a mixed electoral system: 106 representatives are elected from majoritarian single-member constituencies, and the remaining 93 seats are allocated by proportional representation from national lists. Hence, the coalition of Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which won 45% of the overall vote, obtained a constitutional majority, i.e. 133 seats, in 2014. It was no accident that the system played into the hands of this party. Having received a constitutional majority in a coalition with the KDNP in 2010, Fidesz reformed the electoral law: the second round was cancelled for the majoritarian part and replaced by a plurality system; the threshold to enter parliament was raised to 5-15% depending on the number of parties on a list; the minimum turnout threshold was abolished; votes in favor of a candidate who loses in a single-member constituency, as well as the number of votes beyond those necessary to win, are now allocated to the party that the candidate represents.

What does this mean in practice? Due to the use of the administrative resource and limited opposition access to the media, Fidesz members can win with approximately 20% of the vote, in districts drawn up with them in mind. Moreover, marvelously, the “winner compensation system” created by Fidesz provides that all the “surplus” votes of a winning candidate in a single-member constituency are transferred to their party. In other words, if a Fidesz candidate wins 1,000 votes while their opponent gets 100 (which is usually the case in Hungarian elections), the Fidesz list receives the additional 899 votes plus one seat. Apart from that, small parties and coalitions of small political alliances find it almost impossible to overcome the threshold barrier within a nationwide proportional system. To prevent potential consolidation of opposition voters, the procedure for establishing parties was simplified. As a result, dozens of spoilers have been introduced, to fragment the opposition and snatch away precious votes. All this is reminiscent of the Duma elections; what’s different is that the low turnout during the Hungarian election counted against Viktor Orban’s party in 2014 and drew opposition supporters to polling stations, which made Fidesz’s victory a little less convincing compared to 2010.

New patrimonialism – Hungarian style

The power of Orban's party goes far beyond the parliament. Corruption is rampant. Relatives and people from the prime minister’s inner circle win the largest tenders. One of the highest-profile cases, which shook Fidesz’s approval rating, was a scandal related to the transfer of several EU economic development grants to a company owned by Orban’s stepson. A number of Hungarian retailers, banks and private companies are also affiliated with the party or with Orban himself. Additionally, 11 of the Hungarian Constitutional Court’s 14 judges were appointed by Fidesz.

Finally, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) was established in 2011. All media outlets must register with the authority, which can revoke their licenses. The Media Council under the NMHH consists of nine members appointed by the parliament. The NMHH is tasked with monitoring media content, and applying sanctions and fines for violations of the body’s rules. For example, the NMHH banned content featuring refugee children during the EU migration crisis in 2015; the decision received wide publicity and stirred public discontent, but the NMHH explained that the ban was imposed in order to protect children from traumatic content. Litigation over libel against politicians by bloggers, media outlets and authors of Facebook posts is widespread.

This resembles the Russian system, where distribution of the largest financial assets takes place within Vladimir Putin’s own inner circle, while the majority of high-ranking officials have been involved in corruption scandals in recent years. Monopolization of the information space, and attempts to curtail freedom of the Internet and social media, are only too well-known to Russians; the “Yarovaya Law” is one of the most recent and farthest-reaching measures, introducing harsh restrictions and control over mobile and Internet connections.

Do institutions matter?

The Hungarian political system is an example of parliamentarianism, despite the existence of a president. The current holder of that office, Janos Ader, elected by parliament and having some legislative and representational prerogatives, has very limited power in practice, and usually signs the laws adopted by parliament. Power is in the hands of Orban, as prime minister and leader of Fidesz. In other words, the political struggle takes place primarily at the party level during parliamentary elections. Russia, with its semi-presidential system, is institutionally more inclined to having a strong leader – the president. This figure is strongest if the party loyal to him has a majority in parliament. Although similar systems exist in well-established democracies such as France, the figure of the president, coupled with an obedient majority, guarantees the widest range of powers vested with a single individual, who enjoys a certain autonomy from his party and faces temptations to consolidate power by reducing the role of the opposition, forming puppet parties and manipulating the electoral system at the stage of parliamentary elections and political life in the country in general.

Fundamentally different?

Still, Russia’s authoritarianism is a very different story from that of Hungary in the wake of the fight between Fidesz and Jobbik over the anti-migration agenda during the upcoming election. The difference is intuitively sensed in the feeling of danger during anti-government rallies, as well as the public outcry elicited by corruption scandals or closing down a university that “propagates Western values.” This public outcry represents at difference in the extent of what is permissible in each country. In Russia, one of the most prominent opposition leaders is not allowed to run for president at all, while Hungary opts for more sophisticated ways to ensure the victory of pro-government forces. Another important difference is inclusion in the international agenda: Hungary does not want to lose grants and co-financing from the EU, and Fidesz tries not to sever its ties with the European People’s Party. It has been a member, and the object of criticism, for many years. Economic and political dependence on international institutions restrains some of Hungary’s authoritarian tendencies. That’s more than can be said of Russia. Russia’s boldness is entrenched either in its greater economic potential and resources, or its lesser fear of the reaction from a dissatisfied population. That may stem from the length of the citizenry’s experience with authoritarianism. Perhaps the Hungarian electorate has not yet grown accustomed to all decisions being made by a party-monopolist, without fair competition from the opposition.

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