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President sets date for municipal elections

July 28th, 2014

Left-wing and liberal columnists accuse the government of rewriting the Budapest municipal election rules in order to secure their victory at the October election, and the Constitutional Court of assisting the government in what they consider as a limitation of basic rights. A conservative analyst contends that the new rules will make the governance of Budapest more effective. Another suggests that  accusations of malpractice against the government is a sure sign that the Left anticipates another defeat.

On Wednesday, President Áder announced that the local elections will be held on October 12. The announcement was made two days after the Constitutional Court upheld the main regulations adopted by Parliament in June. According to the new rules, the twenty-three Budapest district mayors will automatically become members of the Budapest Council. In the past, inhabitants of Budapest elected the members of the Budapest Council on party lists. The Mayor of Budapest will be elected by direct vote, as in the past. In the Budapest Council, nine seats will be distributed among parties as a compensation for votes cast for mayoral candidates not  winning seats in the districts. The government claims that the new rules will secure a smoother cooperation between the districts and the Budapest Council. According to the calculations of the opposition parties, the new system favours Fidesz, unless the left-wing parties manage to cooperate and nominate joint candidates in most districts.

In Népszava, György Sebes accuses the Constitutional Court of making a political and biased evaluation of the new Budapest municipal election rules. The left-wing columnist contends that thanks to its two-thirds majority in the House and in the absence of a strong and independent Constitutional Court, Fidesz can do whatever it wants, including tinkering with the electoral rules in order to increase the party’s chances in the local elections.

In its weekly editorial, Magyar Narancs (print edition) suggests that in its ruling, the Constitutional Court “declared that the government wants to rig the municipal election through restricting basic rights”. The liberal weekly interprets the several concurring and dissenting opinions submitted by the judges as an indication that the new rules are indeed highly problematic. Paraphrasing a sentence by Chief Judge Péter Paczolay (“In this matter, the obligation to base court judgements on constitutional values is particularly binding”), Magyar Narancs states that the Court followed political considerations rather than constitutional concerns in approving the new Budapest municipal election rules. Another judge noted in his concurring opinion that it was less than elegant to rewrite the rules just months ahead of the elections, Magyar Narancs recalls, as evidence for its thesis.

In Budapest, the winner takes all, Miklós Hargitai writes in Népszabadság. If the left-wing parties fail to agree on jointly supported candidates in the individual districts, Fidesz can secure a majority in the Budapest Council with as little as one third of all votes cast, the left-wing commentator calculates. As a result, Fidesz will have the power to do whatever it wants in Budapest, Hargitai contends. In an aside, he remarks that the government rewrote the rules after the European Parliamentary elections in May, when Fidesz won 44.8 per cent of the Budapest votes, which would not be enough to win the majority of the seats in the Budapest Council through the old municipal election rules. “Instead of rewriting the electoral law, they might just s well have simply declared that Orbán’s party should have a majority in all elections,” Hargitai concludes, ironically.

The new rules will make voting in Budapest less proportionate, Bea Bakó notes in Mandiner. The conservative analyst points out that despite the nine seats distributed on the basis of votes cast for losing candidates, voters in smaller districts will have a higher influence on the constitution of the Budapest Council. In the smaller districts, mayors who will be members of the Budapest Council are to be elected by far less votes than those in larger districts which will lead to an overrepresentation of inhabitants of smaller districts, Bakó points out. (Under the new rules, however, in order for a resolution to pass in the Council, “yes voters” should represent over half of the population of the capital).

Magyar Nemzet’s Anna Kulcsár contends that a more unified and stronger Budapest Council will have a bigger chance to come up with a common vision instead of being paralyzed by partisan disputes. The pro-government commentator recalls that in the past twenty-five years, the Budapest Council has often got bogged down in nasty disputes with the individual districts about the distribution of the budget and strategic planning. Kulcsár hints that the new rules will confer more efficiency on the Council.

The Left questions the fairness of the elections well ahead of the vote so that it has a comforting excuse in view of a possible defeat, political scientist Zoltán Kiszelly writes in Magyar Hírlap. The conservative analyst believes that while the Orbán government bailed out indebted municipalities by taking over their debts, the Left instead of offering a credible alternative opposes everything and repeats what Kiszelly sees as the empty liberal clichés of the past. Kiszelly also notes that left-wing parties need to cooperate in Budapest, otherwise they have no chance to defeat Fidesz at the municipal election. But if they manage to broker an agreement on joint candidates, they will get no clear picture of the support of individual parties, and the intra-Left disputes may continue well after the local election, he concludes.

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