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Presidentialism vs. Parliamentarism. A case-study of Hungary.

STUDENTS: Mariona Busquets, Jordi Falcn, Judit Gal and Roger Pallars.
DATE: October 21st, 2014

1. Introduction
The aim of this essay is to discuss whether a parliamentary or a presidential institutional
design fits Hungary the most. Our argument is that, in normal conditions, that is, when
there is no extraordinary majority in the legislative1, a parliamentary system is the best
in fitting Hungarys features. However, as it has been the case after 2010, when a
majority controls two thirds or more of the legislative, the Hungarian system of checks
and balances may be undermined.
We will firstly look at the main features of parliamentarism, and we will highlight the
specificities that Hungarian parliamentary system has. Secondly, we will argue that, in
normal conditions, a parliamentary democracy is the most suitable system in Hungary:
we will do so by justifying why Hungary should have become a parliamentary
democracy in 1989, as it did, and by arguing that parliamentarism provides with cabinet
stability to Hungary. Finally, we will conclude by explaining why, in extraordinary
conditions such as the super-majority achieved in 2010 by Fidesz2, the Hungarian
institutional system may be undermined, and therefore, it needs a rigid Constitution and
a strong Constitutional Court.
2. Hungary as a Parliamentary System
For the purpose of this essay, we identify three main features of parliamentarism:
firstly, the legislature elects the Prime Minister, and he and his cabinet are responsible
to it. Thus, the legislative can depose the Head of Government and his administration.
Secondly, elections are not held on fixed terms nor they define the government
composition. Thirdly, Lijphart (1999) suggests the dual executives feature: a symbolic
Head of State and a Head of Government with effective power. Therefore, such features
show how parliamentarian systems account for a diffusion of power, where the relation
between the legislative and the executive is blurred.
Although Hungary constitutes a pure parliamentary system, it has some relevant
specificities (Krsnyi, 1999). Firstly, it has a unicameral Chamber, which is the only
institution capable of dissolving itself: neither the Prime Minister nor the President have
effective dissolving powers. Secondly, Hungary has a flexible Constitution as only two
thirds in the legislative are needed to change it. Therefore, the third feature is that, due
to such flexibility in the Charter, a strong Constitutional Court is needed to act as a
check to the power of the legislature.
Our first argument regarding the need for a parliamentarian system in Hungary refers to
the transition towards democracy in late eighties. Two main points reinforce such
statement: firstly, Hungary had had a parliamentarian tradition back in 1867, which
according had an impact into the 1989 and 1990 democratic transition, as activists were
claiming the return of a 1867-like regime, as Krrsenyi (1999) argues. Therefore,

We refer to conditions were there is no extraordinary majority as normal following Hungarys

democratic history: only Fidesz in the 2010 General Elections has achieved an absolute majority.
Therefore, political normality in Hungary is based on the absence of extraordinary majorities.
Fidesz was founded in 1988 as a liberal anti-communist party. Because of its negative results in the
1994 Elections, it changed its ideology towards a conservative-nationalistic view. It won the 1998
Elections and took office in coalition with the Hungarian Democratic Forum. After being defeated in the
2002 and 2006 Elections, Fidesz returned to power in 2010 with a extraordinary share of 68% of seats in
the legislative.

following a historical perspective, Hungary already had the experience of a

parliamentarian institutional framework.
In parallel to that, presidentialism was not the most suitable option for the newborn
democracy in Hungary since most of the states which had chosen a presidential system
in the post-communist transition, presidencies were occupied by former communist
leaders, as Wiatr (2001) points out. Hungary had the structural conditions to follow the
tendency underlined by Wiatr, since former leader Poszgay was allied with the media
and, therefore, would have had the capacity to monopolize popular support in the form
of a presidential system Indeed, Linz (1996) affirms that, in Hungary a June 1989
survey indicated that they [reformer Communists] would win the first plurality elections
by 26% and that if presidential elections were held soon, no opposition candidate had
the name, recognition and support of Poszgay3. Following this line of argument, if
presidentialism had been implemented, it could have meant the perpetuation in power of
former communist leaders.
Our second argument is that, following Lijpharts rule4 (1999) on Cabinet Stability,
Hungary is an effective parliamentarian system. As Nikolenyi (2004) has demonstrated,
the country has had a remarkably balanced government, both in terms of individual
cabinet stability and average cabinet stability. Moreover, all transitions in the executive
have been produced by scheduled elections.
Up to this point, we have argued that Hungary should have become a parliamentary
democracy due to two reasons: firstly, because of its historical legacy, and, secondly,
since presidentialism would have meant the perpetuation of communist leaders. We
have also argued that parliamentarism should have continued, as it has done, since it has
fulfilled Lijpharts rule of cabinet stability. Let us address, from now on, the variation
occurred after the 2010 elections, when Fidesz obtained more than two-thirds of the
seats in Parliament.
3. Post-2010 Hungary: undermining the institutional framework
As aforementioned, Fidesz won the April 2010 General Elections with 53% of popular
vote, which accounted for 68% of seats in the Parliament5. Such an extraordinary
majority paved the way for the election of Viktor Orbn as Prime Minister. Among
other controversial measures, the Orbn cabinet adopted a new Constitution, approved
in Parliament on 25 April 2011 and entered into force on 1 January 2012. It was
possible for Fidesz to promote such a fast change only one year after being elected- as
one of the main features of Hungarian parliamentarism was the possibility to change

Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Hungary: A negotiated Transition from Mature Post-Totalitarianism,
in Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America and PostCommunist Europe (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996). 308.
Arendt Lijphart (1999) suggests that, in order to measure efficiency in parliamentary systems, the best
measurement is to consider Cabinet Stability. Such concept is operationalized by measuring how long
Cabinets last. The more cabinets last, the more stable they are.
As Bnkuti et al (2013) point out, the fact that Fidesz was able to obtain 68% of the seats in the
legislative with only a 53% of the popular vote is produced by the complex Hungarian electoral law,
which benefits big political parties.

Two main measures were especially significant within the new Constitution (Bnkuti et
al, 2012): firstly, the undermining of the once powerful Constitutional Court; it
narrowed the list of individuals capable of taking a case to the Court and it changed its
size, its jurisdiction and the procedures for nominating judges in a way that only
benefited Fidesz interests. Secondly, the new Constitution gerrymandered electoral law
by changing the number of seats in the Parliament from 386 to 199. All in all, by
controlling both the executive branch of power and the unicameral chamber of the
legislative by more than two thirds of the seats, Fidesz has disabled checks and balances
in the Hungarian institutional design.
4. Conclusion
All in all, we have firstly shown how, when there is no two-thirds majority in the
Chamber, a parliamentary system effectively works in Hungary. Two arguments
support that statement: firstly, the need for parliamentarism rather than presidentialism
when Hungary became a democracy in 1989 and, secondly, the fulfilment of the
Cabinet Stability rule suggested by Lijphart. Therefore, in normal conditions, a
parliamentarian system works best in Hungary.
However, we have also considered the case-scenario of a two-thirds majority in the
Parliament, as happened in the 2010 elections with the Fidesz victory6. We have argued
that, due to such an exceptional majority, the diffusion of the legislative and executive
powers that parliamentary systems entail has empowered a single power-holder, in this
case, Orbn in the executive and Fidesz in the legislative, to undermine checks and
balances. Our main argument is that this has occurred due to Hungarys institutional
design: a unicameral parliamentarian system with a flexible Constitution. Therefore, the
main lesson that Hungary provides is that, within unicameral parliamentarian systems, a
rigid Constitution and a strong non-politicized Constitutional Court are needed to
ensure checks and balances within the system.
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The two-thirds majority case-scenario is unique in the sense that allows the parliamentarian group
holding such majority to change the Constitution without any consensus or negotiation with other groups.

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