Election Round-Up 13th October 2019

There were three very significant elections taking place on Sunday 13th October.

  1. Hungary (locals)

Normally a set of local polls would not be top of this list, but the defeats for the ruling Fidesz Party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán are very significant.

Orbán has gradually increased his grip on the country over the past decade and has transformed himself and his party from a once liberal and youth oriented programme (the party used to have an upper age limit) to an authoritarian platform which claims to seek to protect Hungary and Europe against Islam and has clashed regularly with the EU over migration and rule of law issues.

And with changes to electoral laws also having been put in place which were seen as assisting incumbents, nobody really predicted that the results in these local and mayoral polls would be anything other than another victory lap.

What changed this time was that opposition groups worked together in many areas and backed a single candidate to take on Fidesz or their chosen representative. The opposition bloc consists of two green, a socialist and two centrist parties, as well as Jobbik, a far right party, in some areas.

And in 10 of the 23 largest cities in the country, including Budapest, it worked. The new mayor of Budapest will be 44 year old centre-left challenger Gergely Karácsony. With 82% of the votes counted he led with 51% compared with 44% for incumbent Istvan Tarlos.

In the Budapest Assembly as a whole, the opposition will hold 18 seats, Fidesz 13 and there will be two independents. This will be the first time that Fidesz won’t have an overall majority for more than 15 years ago. When these elections were last held four years ago, Karácsony was the only opposition candidate to win a seat on the Assembly.

Karácsony has compared his victory to that of the opposition in Istanbul where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s chosen candidate was defeated in the mayoral election last month. “Istanbul voted against an aggressive illiberal power in many ways similar to Orbán’s regime,” Karácsony said before the vote.

In other cities, Fidesz found itself defeated either by the opposition bloc or by independents. The party fell from holding 19 out of 23 mayoralties to a dozen with the opposition taking four and independents seven. However in rural areas the ruling party maintained an iron grip with overall majorities in every county.

Fidesz, which brands itself as Christian-conservative, were damaged by a sex scandal involving a Fidesz mayor in the western city of Győr that came to light in the closing stages of the campaign. (The incumbent mayor of Győr, former Olympic gymnast Zsolt Borkai, held his seat)

Orbán had threatened to withhold cooperation from municipalities lost by his party, but issued a concilliatory message in a rally after the results became known, saying: “We acknowledge this decision in Budapest, and stand ready to cooperate.”

The challenge for those opposed to Orbán and Fidesz will be to translate local poll gains into victory in the Parliamentary elections due in 2022. Bringing parties of the left, centre and right together for Parliamentary elections may tax the negotiating skills of even the most vehement opponents of the current regime. 

  1. Poland

The general election in Poland went according to form with the PiS (Law and Justice) Party enhancing its majority slightly.

The background to these elections was a significant move by the government to tighten their grip on the state, altering the rules for the Constitutional Court and bringing state TV and radio under government control. In 2016 there were significant protests including the occupation of the Parliament by opposition groups.

The election was held under an open list system of proportional representation in multi-member constituencies. There is a 5% threshold for parties and 8% for coalitions, although these requirements do not apply to national minorities.

The initial results are based on exit polls and therefore come with all the usual caveats. However they show that Law and Justice won 43.5% of the vote and are likely to emerge with 239 or 240 seats, up from 235 last time. The main opposition Civic Coalition won 24.1% of the vote and will hold anything from 130 to 155 seats. This would be a significant boost for Law and Justice who won just 37.6% of the vote four years ago on a much lower turnout. Attendance this time was reported to be 61.6%, the highest in parliamentary elections since the fall of Communism in 1989.

The Left coalition (Lewica) has made a return to Parliament after winning around 12% of the vote which will translate to about 43 seats. Also in Parliament will be the Confederation (Konfederacja) which won about 6.4% of the vote and will hold 13 seats, up from 5 last time.

Ironically, Civic Platform’s leader, Grzegorz Schetyna campaigned with the slogan “There will be no Budapest in Warsaw!”, a reference to PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s oft-quoted claim that his long-term intention was to emulate the so-called “illiberal democracy” pioneered by the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán. However he has seen his party fall on the same day as Orbán lost control of the city of Budapest.

UPDATE:

OSCE/ODIHR has held their press conference giving a preliminary statement on the election. As ever, this will be followed by a final report in around two months time.

Overall, the mission concluded that the election was professionally run and transparent, but highlighted specific concerns in three areas – media bias, the use of state resources to favour one side and the use of inflammatory rhetoric.

On media bias, they said that the media, although diverse, divided on political lines and, most worryingly, state media was used heavily to favour the ruling party. There was little opportunity for the media or voters to quiz candidates on their programmes or past performance. They said that other state resources were also used by the government and the line between official pronouncements and campaigning became blurred.

Although contestants were able to campaign freely, the mission highlighted the use of nationalist and homophobic language and other divisive rhetoric which they said was a serious concern in a democratic society.

Finally, they noted that many stakeholders express doubts about the impartiality of prosecuters and courts following judicial reforms.

  1. Tunisia

The second round of the Tunisian Presidential election was held on 13th October with a run off between the top two polling candidates from the first round held on 15th September. The polls had originally been due in November but were brought forward following the death of incumbent president Beji Caid Essebsi on 25 July to ensure that a new president would take office within 90 days, as required by the constitution.

On 18 June 2019, the Assembly of Representatives passed amendments to the country’s electoral law, accused by some of blocking candidates like Nabil Karoui and Olfa Terras from being eligible to run in the election. The amendments prohibited those with a criminal record, as well as those who run charitable organizations or received foreign funding for political advertising in the year preceding an election.

The results of the first round saw no candidate win more than 18.4% of the vote. Independent Kaïs Saïed topped the poll with Nabil Karoui coming second with 15.58%, having won a court case to get onto the ballot. Karoui was also arrested on corruption charges after the first round and only released shortly before the second round. Significant losers included Abdelfattah Mourou of the moderate islamist Ennahda Movement.

“The tremendous disappointment with the lack of economic reform was paramount on Tunisian voters’ minds,” said Safwan Masri, a professor of Middle Eastern and north African politics at Columbia University, quoted in the Guardian.

“The fact that presidential candidates such as the country’s defence minister or its prime minister didn’t do well sends a strong message that ‘we’re done with you, we’re done with the establishment and their failed promises’.”

In the run-off, Saïed is estimated to have gained more than 70% of the vote, easily defeating his challenger. The winner is a low-profile academic with a conservative platform. He polled very highly with younger voters, winning more than 90% of the votes of the youngest age group. His opponent, a high profile media magnate, had only recently been released from prison and complained that he had not been able to campaign freely. He has reserved the right to appeal the result. The verdict of International Observer missions such as the EU’s will be keenly watched.

Saied was considered the favourite and had the backing of the Islamist Ennahda party, which won the largest share of parliament though fell far short of claiming a majority. He has pledged to reform the country’s constitution to create a decentralised democracy although without a party in Parliament (where he will need a two thirds majority to push through his reforms), he may end up being a powerless figurehead.

UPDATE:

The joint IRI/NDI mission has released its statement of preliminary findings. Overall they give a positive report on the election but raise questions about the fairness of having a candidate in prison for much of the second round campaign, as well as making recommendations about campaign finance and media coverage.