Sorry, not sorry

According to a recently surfaced voice recording, House Speaker László Kövér admitted during a private discussion that Fidesz manipulatively redrew the borders of single-member constituencies for its own benefit.

Teaser Image Caption
László Kövér, speaker of the National Assembly of Hungary

The speaker  László Kövér tried to defend the practice by claiming that the governing party did not do anything other political forces had not done before. This claim – besides being factually incorrect – is mainly important because it adds to our picture of the nature of power holders: the governing side is perfectly familiar with the fact that it abuses power, tailoring the entire political system to its own needs and interests. Furthermore, they do not believe this to be a problem at all, and they do not consider it something to be ashamed of either. They even think it is completely justified.

The issue

Kövér admitted to the open secret that Fidesz transformed the single-member constituency map to suit its own interests in 2011. The phenomenon known as gerrymandering is not a panacea and it did not play a significant role in 2014: Fidesz won, but not because of this, and their supermajority in the National Assembly did not depend on it. However, in the case of a tightly-contested election, the single-member constituency map could turn a few percentage points of advantage for the opposition into a Fidesz victory.

This has been proven by numerous analyses and model calculations in recent years, including one by Political Capital as well. The governing side has never been able to refute these results, just to consistently deny their existence, and they have also tried to discredit those arguing that bias is inherent to the reformed electoral system.

“But [there was] only as much manipulation [when drawing the new map in 2011] as in the law the socialists did in the 90s”. The 1990 “law” mentioned by Kövér (a governmental decree in fact) drew the borders of single-member constituencies before 2010. It is a fact that it had been approved even before the first free elections in 1990. Since there had not been any elections for decades before then, nobody could have known which party would be strong or weak in which city districts or small settlements. In contrast, Fidesz’s mappers had modern software solutions and detailed results of six elections in each polling district at their disposal after 2010.

The bigger picture

Kövér’s argument is not unique. Fidesz’s politicians and the party’s intellectual backers have frequently defended the governing party’s criticised measures by alleging that other governments have also taken similar steps and such things often happen in mature Western democracies as well. This argument was used by the party to explain away almost all issues from the post-2010 one-party constitution, and placing independent institutions under the informal control of the Government and restricting media pluralism, to systemic governmental corruption. The functions served by this approach are the following:

Self-vindication: During the first Orbán Government between 1998 and 2002, Fidesz still had a set of values: this was the concept of “civic Hungary”, which was deemed nothing but a political product after 2010 by one of the main advisors of the Government, Gábor G. Fodor. In the case of the second and third Orbán cabinets we cannot even talk about a coherent set of values that would morally justify the Government’s actions. Thus, all that is left for them to do is to state that this behaviour is not any worse than what previous governments did.

Relativisation: The fact that Fidesz considers the norms giving democracy its political framework to be relative is closely related to their lack of values and their need for self-vindication. The party argues that Fidesz does not infringe upon any democratic values or the rule of law, as such concepts  are not universal and only serve the interests of their political enemies. This can be used to justify the need for an illiberal state instead of a liberal democracy.

Holding followers together: Without a positive set of values, Fidesz supporters are held together by nationalist populism, by constant enemy-creation, and by conspiracy theories. An integral part of this is that the supporters of the system and its beneficiaries must constantly feel threatened. In this world view, “we” only do what “they” also did to “us” before, and if “they” were to return to power, then “we” would once again become those who suffer from similar steps directed against “us”.

Consequently, as László Kövér said, “God help us if they [the opposition] were on an equal playing field”. Naturally, Kövér also formulated that statement as if every Government wants to ensure its irreplaceability as Fidesz does: “Of course, I say this as a politician from the governing party, all politicians from the governing forces say this, or at least think like this. At the most they are afraid to state it publicly.”

Covering up the systemic changes: Ultimately, the self-vindicating arguments pointing the finger at the ruling party’s predecessors and others also serve the purpose of hiding all clues that, taken together, prove the construction of an authoritarian system. They do this by separating the clues from each other. Previous Hungarian governments or foreign governments are also corrupt, manipulate the electoral system, and influence the media, claims Fidesz, always focusing on one isolated component or example.

The leaked words of the speaker of the house suggest that Fidesz truly believe the tools they use are not at all extraordinary and that they almost have to make themselves irreplaceable to serve the greater good.

This article is part of our dossier "Focus on Hungary".