KECSKEMET, Hungary — Gordon Bajnai was once Hungary’s most powerful man. Now he’s fighting a losing battle for a seat in parliament as the country prepares for elections on Sunday.
At a campaign rally in this provincial city 50 miles from Budapest, voters gather in the packed town hall to greet the former prime minister with shouts and applause.
They clap rhythmically as Bajnai takes to the stage and quips, “We're just getting started.”
But experts say he's already finished: Polls favor the party of sitting Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Critics say that’s less a reflection of public opinion than the result of new election rules the controversial PM used to gerrymander districts in order to make the vote a slam-dunk for his center-right Fidesz party, which heads a two-thirds majority in the parliament.
Worse than that, they say, more rule changes could enable him to turn just 40 percent of the popular vote — or the support of as little as 15 percent of the population — into another two-thirds majority.
A former investment banker and CEO who guided Hungary through the worst years of the euro crisis, Bajnai helped cobble together a coalition of half a dozen left-leaning parties into an anti-Orban alliance in January — just in time for the campaign. But he has no illusions going into Sunday's polls.
“When Senator McCain was visiting Budapest, he asked me is it going to be a free and fair election,” Bajnai said in an interview using his flawless, American-style English. “I told him I think it's going to be free but it's not going to be fair.”
That’s worrying not only Hungarian civil society but also the European Union.
In January, the European Parliament slammed Orban for using his near-absolute authority to circumvent or eliminate democratic checks and balances. Among other actions, he curbed judicial authority and wrote a law into the constitution enabling security forces to jail homeless people after the measure was struck down by the courts.
Orban’s policy toward Russia is also raising concerns.
Although he defeated the rival Socialists by disparaging their historical links to Russia, he has dragged his feet on joining EU sanctions to punish Moscow for annexing the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea last month.
He also recently made a unilateral decision to award a $14 billion tender for the expansion of the country’s only nuclear plant to Russia's Rosatom nuclear agency — in a deal under which Moscow will lend Budapest most of the money.
Those actions have prompted accusations that he's nudging Hungary away from European democracy toward a Russian-style oligarchy, says the Socialist Party's Viktor Szigetvari.
“The tendencies and the structures are quite similar,” he said.
More neutral critics from civil society organizations ranging from the nonprofit sector to trade unions also say Orban has run the government like a dictatorship, eschewing consultations in favor of sudden edicts.
The prime minister spent many months ignoring the tripartite National Reconciliation Council, which was designed to resolve conflicts among the government, corporations and union workers, says Peter Fiedler, a spokesman for the Liga confederation of trade unions.
Then he disbanded the negotiating body altogether, pushed through sweeping reforms to labor laws that allowed managers at state-owned firms to fire workers without cause and effectively banned strikes — prompting union members to block roads to force the government back to the table.
“The prime minister said he's been elected by employers, he's been elected by employees, and he himself is the government, so why should he consult with anyone?” Fiedler says.
The Orban government also reorganized the education system to place it under the control of a central body without consulting stakeholders and summarily dissolved the National Development Agency responsible for distributing EU funds, says Veronika Mora, who works at a nonprofit that distributes grants to environmental groups.
“I don't say that the National Development Agency was working well,” said Mora. “But now the complete governance of distributing the structural funds is under the prime minister's office.”
Despite the criticism, Orban remains unquestionably more popular than his rivals: Opinion polls show Fidesz leading the opposition alliance by 30 percent to 40 percent compared to the left’s roughly 20 percent.
Most controversial is the belief that his relatively narrow advantage will almost certainly translate into an “overwhelming majority” in the parliament, as leading research institutes predict.
That’s because Orban used the two-thirds majority he won with 53 percent of the vote in 2010 to rewrite the election rules to guarantee the same outcome this time around with a fraction of that support, says Peter Kreko, director of Budapest-based Political Capital, an independent think tank the government accuses of supporting the opposition.
The government dismisses the concerns. Although they drew criticism from the EU, none of Orban's changes violate the principles laid down by the Venice Commission's code of practice for elections, according to Ferenc Kumin, a spokesman for the PM's office. And the new system integrated 16 out of 23 changes recommended by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) after the 2010 polls, he adds.
“Why didn't Fidesz invite the smaller parties in the parliament in the drafting period?” he said about criticism that the Socialists and others dropped out of the process. “The answer is they were invited many, many times.”
“The problem was that they didn't want to be part of something they knew could be a success story for the government because it wouldn't serve their political goals.”
The electoral system in Hungary, like a number of other European countries, requires people vote for specific candidates from their constituencies and again for political parties. The parties are awarded seats for candidates selected from party lists based on the amount of the popular vote they receive under a system of proportional representation.
Acting on a universal call to shrink the size of the parliament and redraw borders to reflect population changes that have occurred since 1990, Orban's government reduced the number of parliamentarians from 386 to 199.
But in addition to placing otherwise desirable limits on campaign financing and restricting television advertisements in a way that's made it harder for the opposition to get its message out, Orban restructured the scheme to boost the party that wins a plurality, even if it gets only a fraction of the total.
The new rules also lower the bar for the entrance of new parties, making Fidesz pluralities even more likely by fracturing the opposition.
But the simplest measure was good old-fashioned gerrymandering — or redrawing districts to divide left-leaning constituencies and strengthen right-wing ones — Kreko says.
His supporters point out that Orban corrected anomalies that made some districts as much as three times more populous than others and that the new constituency map doesn't feature any suspicious shapes that would suggest gerrymandering.
Moreover, they argue, the previous borders unfairly favored the left. In any case, since Hungarian voters don't register as members of one party or another, true gerrymandering is virtually impossible, says Agoston Mraz, who heads Nezopont Intezet, another Budapest-based think tank.
“No one knows exactly whether gerrymandering has been done or it’s just political rhetoric,” he says.
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Nevertheless, Political Capital's comparison of the previous district map with the present one suggests there was a definite strategy behind the new borders, Kreko says.
“The differences in size between the constituencies are smaller than before, but the left-wing voters are located in bigger electoral districts,” he says. “What does it mean? A left-wing vote matters a bit less than a right-wing vote.”
That's grim news for voters such as 61-year-old Szena Tibor, a gray-haired small-business owner seated in the back of the Kecskemet youth center during Bajnai's opposition rally.
“I'm a democrat, and Orban is not,” she says. “Everything he's done, from rewriting the constitution to making rules in reverse based on the outcome he wants to achieve so there's no competition in the economy, has been anti-democratic.”