As mistakes go, these are kind of serious.
The Hungarian media picked up the story. But the coverage was mostly because of the bizarre way, as I wrote in “What’s Going on Here?” that the post first appeared on Hungarian news site Galamus as a translation of an original that hadn’t been published, and was then dumped a day later in all five parts on the Krugman blog.
But no one really covered the mistakes in the posts. I’m referring, of course, to the latest from Kim Lane Scheppele, the professor at Princeton University who writes regularly about Hungary. Once again, she was taking on Hungary’s new electoral system, calling the upcoming April ballot “An Election in Question” and casting doubts on the legitimacy of the eventual outcome. The critics’ claim, repeated again and again, is that the election will be “free, but not fair.”
That’s a serious charge. Unfortunately, she makes some pretty serious errors in making it. Let me show you.
The “changes [to the electoral system] also make it nearly inevitable,” she writes in part one, “that the governing party will keep its two-thirds parliamentary majority even if it gets less than half of the overall vote.” Later, in part three, she writes that “the allied opposition parties will have to get as many as 6-8 percent more votes than Fidesz to gain a simple parliamentary majority.”
In parliamentary democracies where there are several parties competing for a plurality, not necessarily a majority, of the votes, governing majorities can happen even when the winners take less than half of the overall vote, particularly in a mixed system like Hungary’s. The Princeton scholar may be a professor of sociology, but she fails electoral math.
Accidentally or willfully, the writer seems to mistake a European, multi-party, parliamentary system with the essentially two-party system in the U.S. Her posts also fail to grasp that the Hungarian system is a mixed system, some members (106) will be elected directly in single-mandate electoral districts and others (93) will be elected on party lists. By the way, there will be more individual candidates on this year’s ballot than there were in 2010 and a record number of national party lists.
The critic refers repeatedly to an “allied opposition” as if there were one opposition bloc – a contest like Democrats versus Republicans, or Labor versus the Tories.
She’s talking, of course, about the bloc led by the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), the coalition with which she is associated. But there are four “blocs” in Hungary, the current governing parties plus three others, which are likely to get into the next Parliament. She makes no mention of the other opposition parties like the far-right Jobbik or LMP, the green-liberal party, or the other parties not currently in parliament who have put together a national list.
Could it really be true that the “allied opposition” would have to win 6 to 8 percent more votes than Fidesz to gain a simple majority? Yes, simply because that 6-8 percent of the vote she mentions is going to other opposition parties.
For readers in her U.S. audience, accustomed to a simpler, two-party system, that looks like the rules are rigged. And that’s exactly how the critics want it to appear. But that’s the way it works in many multi-party, parliamentary democracies in Europe.
Here’s an illustration. A voter that does not support the current governing parties and wants to vote for change has several choices. He or she could vote for LMP (polling between 4 and 6 percent) or Jobbik (polling at 9-15 percent), or one of the smaller parties on the ballot. In order for the MSZP-bloc to get elected with a simple majority, they have to beat Jobbik and LMP too, not only Fidesz.
This is how the current governing parties could win a two-thirds majority in the parliament with less than 50 percent of the overall vote. If a Fidesz candidate wins a district with, let’s say 40 percent, the MSZP-bloc candidate gets 30 percent, Jobbik wins 15 percent, LMP takes 5 percent and other candidates share the remaining 10 percent, then the seat goes to Fidesz in the Parliament. If that happens in many districts – Fidesz won 173 of what was then 176 districts (!) in 2010 – then Fidesz can reach a two-thirds majority. You see how it works.
Along with the fuzzy math, we get the tired argument about how the electoral districts have been gerrymandered to favor Fidesz. To prove her point, she relies on an electoral map from a study published by the Patriotism and Progress Foundation (Haza és Haladás Alapítvány). The professor neglects to mention that this is the political foundation of Gordon Bajnai, number two on the “allied opposition’s” party list and head of the opposition movement Together 2014. The academic also neglects to mention that this study was discredited in Hungary long ago because the authors there also made a rather serious mistake. In their model that supposedly shows how the districts are gerrymandered, they didn’t count the votes given to smaller parties!
This brings us to the general problem with the Princeton professor’s work on Hungary. A Hungarian academic, who describes himself as a critic of the current government, commented on her writing about Hungary saying, “What annoys me immensely, however, is when members of reputable academic institutions abuse their credit and mislead their audience verbo, opere et omissione.” That is, in word, deed and omission.
The Princeton professor presents herself as an independent academic and clearly enjoys using the prestigious Princeton brand name. An independent academic, though, should not cite only sources affiliated with one side of the political spectrum. But that’s what she does consistently. And she relies on human sources for her Hungarian-language research that are closely tied to today’s opposition and to former governments of Hungary.
It should be no surprise then that these writings are so biased. But, for an academic, that is at best poor scholarship and at worst it’s intellectually dishonest.