Hungary adopts controversial new electoral system

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Hungary's parliament approved late Monday a shake-up of the electoral system that critics say is a cynical attempt by Prime Minister Viktor Orban to boost his chances of winning another term in 2014.

The overhaul, the latest in a series of new laws that have seen Orban accused of being undemocratic, benefits the government by restricting campaign advertising and requiring voters to register no later than 15 days before election day, critics say.

The bill was passed with 231 in favour, 62 against and 2 abstentions.

The government argues that pre-registration exists in other countries such as France and the United States and that the measure would streamline a system that is currently inefficient.

But opponents say it is unnecessary since an efficient ID system is already in place and that it could exclude hundreds of thousands of voters.

They also note that the move comes just as poll ratings for Orban's Fidesz party, which won a two-thirds majority in parliament in the last election in 2010, have been sliding.

"Fidesz wants this for political reasons," said Robert Laszlo of the Political Capital research institute.

"They know their popularity has fallen sharply since the last election, so they are trying to make institutional frameworks in which they can manage to win with a lot less voters than they needed in 2010."

According to a November opinion poll, just 22 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Fidesz in 2014, while 37 percent were undecided.

Ferenc Gyurcsany, a leftwing former premier, said he believes pre-registration could mean a drop in turnout of two million voters or more in the country of 10 million.

"Around six million Hungarians participated in the last elections. Now there is a big chance that fewer than four million will vote," he told foreign journalists.

"Last-minute voters are people the government wants to exclude as they fear they will vote against them."

Gyurcsany said last week his party will ask the European Commission -- which has already taken a dim view of other Orban policies -- and the Venice Commission to assess whether it infringes European law.

The 386 deputies also voted to cut the campaign period from 90 to 50 days, as well as an effective ban on campaign advertising on private TV stations, whose viewer ratings are far superior to the state-run channels.

The government says the new regulations will mean lower costs for parties but opponents counter that the ability of opposition parties to reach voters will be severely limited.

"The government is making a lot of effort to keep voters at home and for that they need a low-profile election," said political analyst Csaba Toth of Republikon Institute.

"A big TV campaign can boost voter participation."

In changes to the election law approved in 2011, parliament already voted to redraw constituency boundaries and introduced a first-past-the-post system that favours Fidesz.

"Taking all the changes together, the 2014 election campaign will be very strongly tilted towards Fidesz, it will be a very difficult election for the opposition," said Toth.

Toth added however that the use of social media and "creative" campaigning techniques would help ensure that the changes are "a hindrance to the opposition, not in itself a gamechanger".