The date of the upcoming local elections has recently been moved both in Hungary and Poland. At first sight, the two cases seem to be very similar to each other, but upon closer scrutiny it turns out that there are significant differences both to the legal and the factual background that led to the changes of the election days. In this article, I will compare the two situations, with special attention to constitutional and political aspects, while also keeping a close eye on how it is all connected the to Covid-19 pandemic.
1. The events in context
In both countries, local elections are held every 5 years. The last one was organized in October 2019 in Hungary and in October and November 2018 in Poland. Thus, in a normal schedule the next time to elect local representatives would have been October 2024 in Hungary and before November 2023 in Poland. Instead, Hungarian voters will be able to cast their ballots some time in May 2024, while the municipal election will most likely take place in April 2024 in Poland.
It is worth discussing these events in a broader context. As it has already been detailed by a fellow contributor in this project, Hungary was the only country in the Visegrád group where no regular national election had to be postponed because of the pandemic in 2020, while in Poland the presidential election was pushed back to a later date amid great political turmoil. Thus, extraordinary Covid measures serve as a pattern for the current date reshuffling only in Poland, and not in Hungary.
Nevertheless, the Hungarian date-switching also comes after a precedent which is not connected to the pandemic, but rather to the 2022 general elections. This was the first time a general election was combined with a nation-wide referendum in Hungary. In order to achieve this, the Act on the Election Procedure had to be amended, since previously it was prohibited to hold an election and a referendum simultaneously. However, the proposition of an opposition MP was, quite irregularly, supported by the parliamentary majority, and made into a law at the end of 2021. Thus, in 2022 a referendum could legally be organized on the same day as the parliamentary election. The main argument in favor of the change was that it meant a significant cut of costs.
Briefly, in the past few years both countries saw modifications of the rules relating to election dates in one way or another, and these recent events served as a point of reference for those supporting the intervention into the date of the local elections both in Hungary and Poland.
2. Basic differences between the Hungarian and the Polish incidents
As already indicated in the above paragraphs, the only common point of the Hungarian and Polish cases is basically that the next local elections will be held on a different day from the one originally determined. However, the Polish government moved the election precisely because it coincided with the parliamentary election, while the Hungarian government followed the entirely opposite agenda, as its main aim was to hold the local and the European elections on the same day. The Polish goal was achieved by pushing back the election to a later date, while the Hungarian election had to be brought forward. Another difference is that the Hungarian government avoided modifying the term of the current local governmental bodies, while the Polish administration had no concerns to do so. Thus, in Hungary the elections will take place in May, but the newly elected representatives and mayors will only assume office in October. In Poland, the term of the present officials was extended until the holding of the next municipal elections.
3. Constitutional aspects
The constitutional context of the new Polish law has already been elaborately discussed in a previous contribution to this project, which was written when the act has not yet been adopted. Nevertheless, in this article I will only repeat briefly what has already been said, and rather intend to concentrate on comparing the Polish and the Hungarian states of affair.
Regarding the Polish situation, it is important to note as a start that the governing party does not have a majority in the Senate. The proposition of delaying the election was highly debated in the political arena, and the opposition parties that possess the majority in the Senate rejected to support the bill. However, according to the Polish rules of lawmaking, the resistance of the Senate can be overturned with an absolute majority in the lower chamber, which also happened in this given case. The President signed the bill on 22 November 2022. Thus, the Senate only managed to make the process slower, but not to halt it completely.
While in Poland it has not been determined on the constitutional level when the local elections must be held, thus the change of an act sufficed, in Hungary the constitutional framework is different. On top of amending certain acts, the Basic Law also had to be amended. The President signed the constitutional amendment on 22 July 2022.
In Poland, it has been communicated in official sources that the extension of the mandate is an ad hoc measure, only valid for the next election period, and things will get back to normal afterwards. In Hungary, it is clear from the new words of the constitution that local and European elections will always have to be organized on the same day from now on.
It is worth raising the question of constitutionality in case of all amendments to the election procedure, given the huge significance elections carry in the way a country is governed. Yet in Hungary this question is not relevant, since the date of the local elections is enshrined in the Basic Law, and an amendment of the Basic Law took place, thus it is formally impossible to raise constitutional concerns (they can by no means be enforced by the Constitutional Court). According to the article of this project I have already referred to, the Polish act could be attacked on the basis of the alleged violation of the rule of law principle, but not on the basis of any more specific provision of the Constitution.
4. Political narratives
Turning from constitutional issues to more political ones, it is also necessary to shortly describe why the idea of rescheduling elections might have seemed appealing to the Hungarian and Polish governments in the first place. There are of course two narratives in both countries, and all of these will be reproduced. The Hungarian and Polish governments have certain arguments in favor of the new dates, while the opposition suspects bad faith motives in the background.
In Hungary, the main argument of the government was the possibility of saving money. They always pointed to the economic hardships caused by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Furthermore, they also emphasized that the joint election and referendum was successful in April 2022. The opposition claimed that the true motive behind the modification was to make it more difficult for them to run. Opposition strategy is usually different for European and local elections. In 2019 the opposition parties reached moderate success by running together in the local elections, while in the European vote it pays off more for them to run separately. Thus, if the two elections are on the same day, these two opposing strategies must be followed simultaneously, which will be, so say the opposition parties, extremely difficult, if not impossible.
In Poland, the government gave a different explanation. They pointed to the fact that in the original schedule two different elections should have been organized within a few weeks which in their view would complicate things unnecessarily from a practical point of view and would make the administration of the votes inefficient. It was no longer a novelty to postpone an election, with the Covid postponement serving as a previous example. In the interpretation of the opposition, the governing party was in fact in fear of losing the local elections a few weeks before the parliamentary contest. The Polish governing party traditionally performs worse on the local level than on the national level. Thus, the opposition is of the opinion that the government tries to avoid a bad result so shortly before the general elections because it would throw a bad light upon them and lower their chances.
Whichever of these versions is true, it is clear from both the political and the constitutional analyses that it is highly unlikely that the Polish and Hungarian cases directly influenced each other. Nevertheless, it is still interesting that there is a new trend among the Visegrád countries to change election dates not only on public health grounds but also in the consolidated post-Covid surrounding. Although direct connection to Covid can only be detected in Poland, it is not far-fetched to assume that governmental approaches to election postponement became more flexible as a result of the pandemic. If this is the case, this would mean that in the field of electoral law, the global pandemic not only led to innovations and dynamic development of new voting techniques but also to more frequent reschedule of elections. As a consequence, one should rely on this tendency on the longer run as a significant additional risk factor.
International Visegrad Fund project no. 22120065. (Democracy in the shadow of the pandemic in the V4 countries).
The views expressed above belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Centre for Social Sciences.