The 4th of June marks the 102nd anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, which stripped Hungary of two-thirds of its former territories and – due to the utter ignorance of language barriers by the French (who ultimately decided the outcome of the peace) at Versailles – a third of all ethnic Hungarians. To this day, roughly one in every five Hungarians live in neighbouring countries – often treated as second-class citizens on the same land their ancestors had been living on for a millennium. After a century of hardships, it was the second Orbán government that understood the symbolic and emotional importance of the nation’s political reunification and chose to undertake the historic task by extending Hungarian citizenship to all who wished to take it in the annexed territories in 2010 – soon to be followed by the extension of political rights as well. Members of the historical diaspora have been able to vote in national elections since 2014, and consequently, they became one of the favourite scapegoats of the Hungarian left for every defeat they suffered from Fidesz and especially for the two-thirds supermajority it has continued to enjoy for twelve years now. Well, the math says otherwise.
But first, we should ask the question why would a country even grant citizenship and political rights to people who do not and will likely never live within its borders? After all, that is what bothers the Hungarian left, especially in terms of its economic and political aspects. Extending citizenship to non-residents means increased spending on people who effectively pay no taxes in the country, while the introduction of political rights essentially means giving influence over internal matters to a community only indirectly affected by them. In other words, why should people who live in Romania, Slovakia or Serbia have a say in who should be governing Hungary?
Public opinion polls among the resident citizens of Hungary make it seem that the majority of the country harbours some kind of concern regarding the extension of voting rights. A poll done by the leftist Publicus Institute in 2017 showed that while most Hungarians supported the extension of citizenship to the historical diaspora, more than half still opposed the diaspora’s voting rights. When asked what they thought the reason behind the extension of political rights was, 55 per cent answered that it was solely for the Fidesz government to gain more votes, showing clear concern about the possible influence of these votes on the outcome of the elections.
Nevetheless, there are very good arguments that support the extension of political rights beyond the borders. Besides its symbolic value (making diaspora members feel like they truly belong to the nation), it can foster economic growth as well, creating more direct trading and investment opportunities between our countries. Furthermore, while the existence of large communities of citizens in neighbouring countries can create tensions in foreign policy, it can also be viewed as leverage in certain negotiations. Besides, the practice is not unknown to Europe at all; there are numerous examples just in our immediate neighbourhood (in case of Romania, Serbia or Croatia, for instance), where political rights have been extended to non-citizens of a historical diaspora. Moreover, the idea is also backed up by serious theoretical argumentation.
“Residence-based status … cannot fully substitute for access to citizenship”
The German political scientist Rainer Babuböck has coined a rather illustrious term in order to solve this conundrum. In his 2008 research paper, Babuböck argues that a “residence-based status … cannot fully substitute for access to citizenship” and instead proposes the reinvention of such status around the “stakeholder” principle. By his definition, stakeholders include all of the people ‘who have a stake in the polity’s future because of the circumstances of their lives’, and this is more than applicable to members of the Hungarian diaspora, who largely depend on and regularly get more political and financial assistance from Hungary than from their own respective governments. Therefore, since their lives are greatly influenced by the outcome of the elections, diaspora members should indeed have a say in them, as it is in their direct democratic interest. Also, by introducing the concept of stakeholder citizenship, the Fidesz government not only took the necessary, symbolic steps toward national reunification but – by giving voting rights as well –also ensured that minority protection stays a bipartisan issue regardless of who is in charge in Budapest, protecting the interests of Hungarians in the historical diaspora, at least in the foreseeable future.
However, while in theory, making the outside communities stakeholders in Hungarian democracy is supposed to make all parties equally interested in minority issues, that is simply not the case. Some opposition parties have made attempts to campaign outside Hungary as well, but most of them made no effort whatsoever to win the sympathy of ethnic Hungarians and generally seem to treat the diaspora question like it is non-existent. Except, of course, when it comes handy in shifting the blame from their own electoral failures. And the reason for their ignorance is the same as why their argument regarding diaspora votes keeping the Orbán government in place does not survive the slightest scrutiny. The fact of the matter is that these votes do not carry much weight. Statistically speaking, the diaspora votes make no visible difference to the outcome of the election. Let me explain.
The democratic opinion of residents (who can vote in both ways) is worth more than three times as much as that of non-resident diaspora
While giving political rights to the diaspora meant a huge symbolic step for the communities on both sides of the border, this power – for much of the reasons outlined above – needed to be limited to a certain degree so that it would cause excessive domestic political tension, so a compromise had to be reached. The voting system currently in place in Hungary essentially grants two votes for each citizen: one can be cast on MP candidates running in individual constituencies (based on the voters’ residence), and a separate vote for an entire, national party list. By contrast, diaspora members – without having residence in Hungary – can obviously only vote for the party lists. And this has the effect of limiting their decision-making power compared to residents, because of the different weighting system of the two votes. Votes in the single-member constituencies weigh over twice more in the final outcome than votes for the party lists, so in effect, the democratic opinion of residents (who can vote in both ways) is worth more than three times as much as that of non-resident diaspora citizens.
The possible effect of diaspora citizens on Hungarian election outcomes is further weakened by the historically low turnout in these communities. For one, not every member of the historical diaspora became a citizen automatically; only after going through the application process by proving their ancestry and language proficiency can they take the citizenship vow. Then, to be able to participate in Hungarian elections, they need to apply to a voter registry (while resident citizens are automatically eligible to vote after turning 18). So if we look at the numbers, even though there are still roughly two million Hungarians living in the country’s immediate neighbourhood, only about 1.14 million have applied for citizenship in eleven years, and – as of the last election in April 2022 – only 450 thousand, or 40 per cent of them registered to vote. Therefore, when we look at the average diaspora turnout of around 65 per cent, we need to take into account that it is calculated based on the voter registry, and not on citizenship or demographic data.
When translated into parliamentary seats these meant only one seat on average
Now, after clarifying the actual number of those who actually exercise their voting rights in the Hungarian diaspora, as well as how the weight of these votes compare to domestic ones mathematically, let us examine the actual results of the past three elections and the influence of the diaspora votes on them. Many critics of the legislation have argued that the Fidesz party gains an unfair advantage thanks to the diaspora votes, and they are the only reason the government can and continues to enjoy a two-thirds majority in Parliament. It is indeed true that diaspora voters overwhelmingly favour the governing party – simply because it is the political force that gave them citizenship as a recognition of their belonging to the nation. On average, the Fidesz received 95.2 per cent of the votes cast from abroad in the past elections, so there is no doubt about that. However, when translated into parliamentary seats, these high percentages meant only one seat in 2014, zero in 2018 and two seats in 2022. Yes, that is one seat on average. At the moment, Fidesz has 135 members of parliament – with the threshold for a two-thirds majority standing at 133. It is clear that, historically, these extra votes have virtually no effect on the outcome of the elections; Fidesz would have still easily won without them, and even obtained a two-thirds majority in the past two elections.
To sum up, we can conclude that contrary to popular beliefs and general concerns regarding the voting rights of the Hungarian diaspora, it does not and cannot influence the domestic election process in any significant way. Even if the diaspora turnout somehow reached the domestic levels (which, based on previous data, is highly unlikely), the difference between the two kinds of votes (constituency and party-list) would still make sure its effect stays minimal. Only in extremely close races can diaspora votes be a decisive factor, but so far that has not happened either. Nonetheless, I believe that whatever the real and imagined effect of their votes is, as stakeholder citizens diaspora Hungarians deserve to have a say in what our common future will look like. This simple right to choose means next to nothing for a Hungarian living in Budapest, but can mean the world for the millions living outside the country’s borders.