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Election Polls Versus Opinion Polls in Hungary

There is a very strong probability that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party is going to defend its parliamentary majority in the national elections on Sunday. However, despite a disunited opposition, election laws that strongly favor Fidesz, and a political climate of intimidation and fear, there is nonetheless a minuscule chance for a political upset.

Sure, most political commentators will have gotten it right in predicting a clear, though not resounding electoral victory for the Fidesz party, which spent considerable energy during the past years in cementing their dominant role by twisting and manipulating democratic institutions and using every opportunity for a polarizing and populist voter mobilization. As Anton Pelinka, professor at the Central European University in Budapest and one of the experts of the Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) of the Bertelsmann Stiftung put it in a well-received article also published by the German weekly Die ZEIT: “No matter what, Fidesz can expect to have a substantial majority in parliament after the next election.” And indeed, election polls continuously suggest that around two-thirds of the Hungarian electorate will vote conservative, nationalist or straight out right-wing. Not only is Fidesz set to gain well over 40 and probably even around 50% of the popular vote, its main contender Jobbik, formerly located at the extreme right (and recently portraying itself as a more moderate force), is expected to gain up to 20% of the votes.

Pro-Fidesz electoral laws an opportunity for the opposition?

For any concerned observer who discerns an “illiberal drift” in East-Central and Southeast Europe in general and in Hungary in particular, what might be offering even a flickering light of hope given such a gloomy election poll scenario? It is, in fact, another type of survey, as opinion polls paint a different picture. Already half a year ago, when I interviewed Dániel Bartha, director of the Budapest-based think tank Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy, he pointed out that Fidesz “does not feel secure about the upcoming 2018 elections” and that “most voters would like to see a change in government.” (Interview for download next to this post.) The German daily Die Welt points to the unreliability of election polls that constantly overrate Fidesz, the German weekly Der Spiegel argues that there is a broader mood for change even among staunchly conservative voters fed up with the arrogance and corruption of the political elite. Do opinion polls beat election pools? Here is three reasons why exactly this might happen.

The first is the manipulation of the electoral laws that the Fidesz majority itself pushed through parliament, expecting that this would permanently cement their dominant position. A majority of representatives (106) is elected directly and with a relative majority in constituencies, and a minority (93) is nominated by proportional representation. With the abolition of the second round of voting in constituencies and the strengthening of the role of direct, relative representation, Fidesz secured a two-third majority in parliament while only gaining 45% of the overall votes. While this change of electoral law was widely criticized internationally, the BTI 2018 country report on Hungary holds that it actually offers a chance for the opposition: “[These] are all elements that favored Fidesz at time of their implementation, but they could benefit an opposition force in a later election – if its popularity was significantly higher than that of Fidesz. Therefore, the most criticized majority components of the system could provide an opportunity for the opposition.”

This is exactly what could be happening right now as public opinion runs counter to election polls and is the second reason why the election race is far from over. Being united in their wish to end the kleptocratic and semi-authoritarian rule of Fidesz, even the most unlikely cooperations are emerging. Jobbik suddenly is part of an informal alliance with Greens, Liberals and Social Democrats in an effort to determine the one candidate with most chances against the Fidesz nominee in several constituencies. Given the risen importance of direct mandates, the calculation of charismatic and popular opposition candidate Gergely Karácsony (behind whom much of the left-liberal camp rallies) is simple: “If we win 25 constituencies, Fidesz doesn’t gain a two-thirds majority. If we win 40, Orbán loses his majority. If we win 50, we have a majority ourselves.” (quoted from Die Welt, own translation).

Hope from Hódmezővásárhely

How can such a number of constituencies be won, given the conservative preferences expressed in election polls? Here the third factor comes into play, which is voter turnout, as exemplified by the urban tongue twister of Hódmezővásárhely. Already after the two by-elections lost in Vésprem in 2015 (which cost the party its two-thirds majority in parliament), Fidesz had been warned. But the defeat in the mayoral elections in its conservative stronghold Hódmezővásárhely in February 2018 was really disconcerting and sparked the hope of the opposition. Here, all opposition parties agreed on the (conservative) contender Péter Márki-Zay speaking out against blatant corruption and hegemonic arrogance of Fidesz. While voter turnout for the ruling party was still at the same high levels than in previous elections, the opposition managed to mobilize voters even more effectively, leading to a very high overall voter turnout of 62.45% and a sounding defeat of the Fidesz candidate, as the excellent election analysis of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung holds.

So, rising importance of directly elected candidates, nascent signs of opposition unity and high voter mobilization taken together as a recipe for change? In all likelihood, this is not going to happen. For one, the increased share of mandates won in single-member constituencies and the abolition of the second round of voting are not the only changes in electoral law, as a recent article in the New York Times points out: carefully designed gerrymandering, leading to obscurely shaped voting districts, are also part of the game and will make it much harder for the opposition to gain the envisioned number of directly elected candidates. Secondly, as the BTI 2018 country report states, media access and party finances are highly unevenly distributed, allowing the government to “run a virtually unrestricted campaign under the guise of public service advertisements.” And thirdly, as the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung’s analysis holds, the political situation in Hódmezővásárhely was quite particular and is not easily duplicated in all constituencies, especially given the splintered and often disunited opposition. Finally, it has to be taken into account that, as Patrick Kingsley recently wrote in the New York Times, Viktor Orbán not only purposefully damaged the political hardware by eroding rule of law and political freedoms, but he also manipulates the political software in the cultural sphere, civil society and the education system. There is a strong pro-government current in public discourse that lowers the odds of the opposition decidedly.

So, at the end of the day, the well-founded predictions of Anton Pelinka and others on the election outcome will probably come true. For the moment, however, let’s appreciate that the race is not over before it started.

Hauke Hartmann is Senior Expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung and co-directs the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) project.

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