ECMI Minorities Blog. How to Lose (the Almost) Guaranteed Representation – Recent Developments concerning Roma Parliamentary Representation in Hungary
Author: Péter Kállai | https://doi.org/10.53779/DJPM0924
* Péter Kállai is Assistant Professor at Eötvös Loránd University, Faculty of Social Sciences. At the same university he obtained a PhD in the Interdisciplinary Program in Sociology and a master’s degree in International Relations with a specialization in International Human Rights. His research focuses on minority rights.
According to the Fundamental Law of Hungary, national minorities living in Hungary shall participate in the work of Parliament (Section The State, The National Assembly, Article 2 (2)). Based on this provision, the Act on the Election of the Members of the National Assembly introduced a system of minority representation in 2014 (Sections 9, 12).
In Hungary, voters may cast two votes: one for a candidate in a single-member district and one for a party-list. Members of nationalities may register as national minority voters based on self-identification. In order to guarantee that all voters may cast an equal number of votes, national minority voters can vote for minority lists and for single member district candidates, but not for party lists. By this system, all thirteen nationalities recognized by the Act on the Rights of Nationalities (2012) -- Armenian, Bulgarian, Croatian, German, Greek, Polish, Roma, Romanian, Ruthenian, Serbian, Slovakian, Slovenian and Ukrainian -- can be represented in Parliament.
The system is favourable to minority groups in two ways. First, under a preferential quota, one-quarter of the votes needed to obtain an ordinary mandate on the electoral list is sufficient for a minority mandate. In practice, this means that minorities can elect the leader of the list as a fully-fledged Member of Parliament by 20-25 thousand votes, depending on the general turnout. Second, in case this preferential quota is not reached, the leader of each list automatically becomes a minority advocate, which is a parliamentary representative without voting rights.
The system was used for the first time in 2014, when all 13 minorities sent advocates to Parliament. In 2018, the German minority quite successfully mobilized voters (first to register as minority voters and later to vote) and by doing so managed to obtain a mandate for a member of parliament. The other 12 minorities sent their advocates.
Several problematic issues can be highlighted regarding this system.
First of all, for most of the minorities, due to their modest size, the possibility of electing a member of parliament is only a theoretical option. In practice, only the two largest minorities, namely the Roma and the German ones, can fulfil the preferential quota.
Second, registration as a minority voter is based only on self-identification. The lack of any other requirements opens the possibility for “ethno-business”: people belonging to the majority can participate in national minority elections, thereby manipulating electoral results. As the institutions exercising the non-territorial autonomy of minorities, the so-called national self-governments may be highly influenced by the government; there is a possibility that those in power use the system in their own favour. For example, the German representative used to be a member of the governing party Fidesz, and frequently votes in line with the government. The exposure is more prevalent regarding the Roma minority, as it is in a peculiarly difficult situation in Hungary, because in addition to justified cultural claims there are discriminatory and social issues to deal with as well.
Third, the rights the advocates can exercise are truly limited, as they may only speak “if the House Committee considers that the item on the order of the day affects the interests or rights of nationalities.” (Act on the National Assembly Section 29 (2)). Thus, the Act distinguishes between the interests of the public and those of minorities, and advocates are only able to speak for the latter.
Fourth, as preferential quotas apply to one mandate only, namely to the first candidate on the electoral list, and as minority voters cannot choose among minority candidates, their only choice is to either vote or not for the list. Thus, the competitive element of democratic elections is almost completely supressed. As national self-governments are responsible for drawing up minority lists, political competition is pushed down to their level. According to the structure of minority election system, the political composition of national self-governments is decided alongside local/municipal minority elections. Political competition is prevalent then, but later (in practice even years later), when the national self-government assemblies decide on the electoral lists for the parliamentary elections, there is no possibility for voters to influence the decision.
Regardless of the problems outlined above and the question of effectiveness, this unique system provides a legitimate solution strengthening minority representation in Parliament. Since quasi-delegating of an advocate is not dependent on the number of votes, but results from the fact of having registered an electoral list, in a sense it can be seen as a(n almost) guaranteed form of representation (even though with limited parliamentary rights) for minorities.
As it was already mentioned, national minority self-governments have the responsibility to draw up the electoral lists, separately for each minority. As on 11 January 2022 the general elections were set for 3 April by the President of Hungary János Áder, self-governments had to draw up the lists until 31 January 2022. Twelve minorities did so, but the Roma minority could not meet the deadline.
The latest developments regarding the Roma minority list centre around the fourth problem mentioned above. Following from the structure of the system, electing an MP, an advocate or even just drawing up the list requires a high degree of unity on the part of the minority, thus preventing competition among candidates. For less populous minorities this is not a considerable difficulty, particularly because the stake is obviously not to elect an MP but quasi-delegating an advocate. However, for Roma, as the largest minority, not competing internally, but instead requiring unity from the whole community and also from the national self-government leads to serious tensions.
According to news from late 2021 coming from the National Roma Self-Government (Országos Roma Önkormányzat; hereinafter ORÖ), it aimed to reach the preferential quota and elect a member of Parliament, instead of settling for an advocate. The majority of the 47-member self-government had the intention to nominate a new candidate as a leader of the list, and thus ‘dismiss’ Félix Farkas, the two-term parliamentary advocate of the Roma community, who is member of Lungo Drom, a Roma organization in close alliance with the governing Fidesz party.
This was due to the fact that Farkas has been criticized for being an inactive advocate. In his first term between 2014 and 2018, he only had 3 speeches in Parliament. From 2018 to the present day, he had 26 contributions, and became more active in presenting culturally important issues, whilst also seizing every opportunity to criticize the opposition.
The president of ORÖ, Jánocs Agócs, aspired to be placed on the leading position on the electoral list and thus to obtain the mandate. Regardless of the fact that Lungo Drom had the largest faction, the majority supported him, when on 9 November 2021 ORÖ held a general assembly to draw up the electoral list. Agócs obtained 21 votes, three more than Farkas, and the first position on the list. As the ballot was secret, one can only assume that most likely not just close allies voted for Agócs, but others as well, from the government-friendly Lungo Drom. Moreover, as leader and members of the list were voted for separately, another 6 candidates were elected to the list, however not Farkas. In his thanking speech, Agócs expressed his desire to mobilize Roma voters and to become a member of parliament representing the interests of the entire Roma community.
Lungo Drom immediately sought legal remedy and aimed to annul the decision concerning the electoral list. At first, the Budapest-Capital Regional Court of Appeal dismissed the pleas and confirmed the decision. However, members of Lungo Drom filed a constitutional complaint to the Constitutional Court of Hungary, populated by many government-friendly judges. The Court annulled all ORÖ’s decisions from that date. The main reason for the Court’s decision was that ORÖ’s General Assembly modified its organizational and operational regulations concerning the drawing up of the electoral list, and wrongly proceeded immediately to the election of candidates. This happened without any preparation period and without setting out a new date for the General Assembly. Subsequently, ORÖ had to convene the General Assembly once again to decide on the list in accordance with its new regulations.
In the meantime, several meetings took place between Attila Sztojka, Government Commissioner for Roma Relations and head of the Directorate General for Social Opportunities in the Ministry of the Interior and members of ORÖ. Some of these meetings were secretly recorded and leaked out to Népszava. On the recordings, Sztojka talks about different (financial) opportunities for the politicians participating in them: “Don’t get me wrong, this is not a purchase, I don’t want to buy anyone.” – said Sztojka expecting certain unspoken political results. Regarding whom to address with different opportunities he was offering, he asked Farkas for advice. He not only made promises but used light threats as well, stating that as an official at the Ministry of Interior he “knows a lot about everybody”.
These meetings are interpreted differently. The opposition stated that this was clearly a case of blackmail and bribery in order to elect Félix Farkas as a potential Roma advocate or MP. The National Roma Self-Government filed a complaint against unknown perpetrators, stating that members were offered sham contracts. The Central Prosecutor's Office named Félix Farkas in the case. Others saw it as an honest but one-sided proposal to improve the situation of Roma people, as different ‘catch-up’ and inclusivity programmes were often organized in this way, through members of the ORÖ. Sztojka and the government regarded it only as an offer to help.
Either way, it is clear that the intention and interest of the Fidesz government are to re-elect their close ally, Félix Farkas, as parliamentary advocate or as potential member of parliament.
After this prelude, ORÖ held the new General Assembly on 31 January 2022, which was the deadline to submit the minority electoral list to the National Election Office; according to rumours, Félix Farkas was expected to win the majority of votes.
In the end, the National Roma Self-government failed to draw up its list, and in this way not only lost the chance to elect a fully-fledged representative, but also to fill the seat of the Roma advocate.
The 13 hours long meeting of the Assembly was continuously covered by RomNet, a Hungarian news site “belonging to the Roma minority” and its Facebook page. The focal point of the debate was a procedural issue: whether the leader (and other members) of the Roma electoral list should be elected by secret ballots or by a show of hands. Members of Lungo Drom and allies of Farkas preferred the second method as supposedly favourable for him. Agócs and his supporters insisted on a secret ballot, in hope for votes from the government-friendly side of the body. At one point, Agócs offered to step down from candidacy if Farkas also did, but the latter did not accept the offer.
In the absence of a decision and resulting lack of a drawn-up list, it is clear that within the framework of the current preferential system, nobody will be representing the Roma community in Parliament during the term 2022-2026.
The responsibility for this situation partly rests with the opposing parties in ORÖ. It seems like the government-backed Farkas’ aim was to prevent others leading the list at all costs. In the same vein, the other side aimed to prevent Farkas to get into the Parliament again.
More importantly, it is because of the system and its flaws that this situation could have arisen in the first place. The whole process of minority election is dependent on prior agreements and exposed to external influences, since it does not guarantee voters the possibility to choose among candidates and thus pushes the competitive element of the election to the level of self-governments.
Because of this, the Roma minority wasted its opportunity to fill a(n almost) guaranteed seat for the 2022-2026 term in the Hungarian Parliament. It is quite paradoxical that the most populous minority in Hungary will not be able to send even an advocate to Parliament.
However, surprisingly, other representatives of the Roma community might get elected on party lists. President of Lungo Drom, Flórián Farkas (not related to Félix Farkas) who was a member of Parliament for 20 years is not running for parliament, but the above-mentioned Attila Sztojka is in a mandate-promising position on the electoral list of Fidesz. Roma politicians from the opposition parties Momentum, Párbeszéd and Jobbik also got mandate-promising positions on the common electoral list of the united opposition. As Jobbik earlier was a radical anti-Roma party, it is a quite unique situation.
This article would not have been possible without the reporting work of Attila Hidvéghi B. on Romnet.hu.