Countries that have debated introducing semi-presidentialism – Hungary

This is another in a series of occasional posts on countries that have actively debated introducing a semi-presidential constitution, but that eventually decided not to do so.

In the rush to democratisation in Central and Easter Europe in the late 1980s/early 1990s, Hungary very nearly adopted semi-presidentialism. I am no expert on Hungary (so comments are welcome), but there seems to have been a two-stage process.

Hungary was one of the early democratisers in 1989. As I understand it, one of the reforms introduced by the old regime was the direct election of the president. This election was scheduled to take place on 3 December 1989. However, the democratic opposition to the regime was concerned that it would not be able to compete effectively and that Imre Pozsgay would be elected. Pozsgay had played a major role in reforming the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party, but the opposition considered that his victory would have legitimised the old regime in its new form. In November 1989 the opposition was able to force a referendum at which voters were asked to decide whether the presidential election should take place in December or be delayed until after parliamentary elections scheduled for 1990. The vote was very close and the delay was approved by 2,145,023 votes to 2,138,619.

Parliamentary elections took place March 1990. Unlike most other countries, Hungary did not immediately adopt a new constitution. Instead, the old constitution was reformed. As part of this incremental process another referendum was held on July 1990 about whether or not to introduce the direct election of the president. This would have made Hungary semi-presidential. There was an overwhelming majority for the proposal (85.9%), but turnout was only 14% and so the result was invalid. Therefore, Hungary continued to elect its president indirectly and remained parliamentary.

So, Moldova and Hungary, if memory serves me correctly, are the only two countries to have rejected the direct election of the president in a referendum. On both occasions, this was due to low turnout.

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