The political representation of the Roma in Hungary and in its neighbouring countries
Roma civil organizations in Hungary protest against the electoral registration of the minorities in Hungary. In the opinion of the united 36 organizations the changes of the new Electoral Law will make the minorities (including the Roma) choose between citizenship and minority identification when they vote in the next parliamentary elections.
by Mária Bogdán
By the upcoming parliamentary elections new electoral practices will be introduced in Hungary to ensure political representation for all. The changes affect mainly the minorities of the country.
The Parliament modified the Electoral Law on Elections of Members of Parliament in 2011 (Law CCIII.) with the aim of allowing the minorities to have political representation in the Hungarian Parliament – which have remained unsolved since the democratic changes took place in the country.
The background of the minority registration in Hungary
Until now the state-constructed (Minorities Act 1993) Minority Gypsy Self-Government system was supposed to provide political representation for the minorities. According to the passed 20 years, the experiences and regulations couldn’t really fulfill their mission, but rather functioned as administrative bodies on the local level and could not represent Roma rights on a nationwide level (Nationwide Self-Governments).
It was the Minorites Obmudsman who officially had the Parliament’s comission and because of this during the last two decades they were able to represent and defend minority’s rights on a state level. Closely cooperating with the local minority self-governments. In 2012 the actual Government terminated the positon of the Minorites Ombudsman among its first actions by constructing a unified ombudsman system, and creating the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights as the only one ombudsman. It is important to see that by the New Ombudsman Act the nationwide representation of the minorities and especially the roma rights in pracitce was ceased.
It’s been very clear already from the first version of the Minorites Act that the Minority Self-Government system would not be able to fulfill the effective parliamentary political representation of the minorities so by the time the Act was introduced a decision was made to work out a better practice for its realization.
The Minorities Act was modified in 2003, but that didn’t result in the establishment of the parliamentary political representation of the minorities. Instead of that it tried to resolve the dilemma of how to let only the members of the nationalities elect their own local minority self-governments (for example: letting only the Roma elect the Roma Self-government). As a solution for the problem the registration of minorities was introduced (now for the first time since the democratic political changes) which in practice means that in order to vote for a local minority list it is essential to register as a certain minority months before the election day. Opinions were and are still divided over the registration. Many refuse voting under these circumstances, their ethical concerns are associated with the ethnic registrations of the Nazis in the World War II. ( The registration of the ethnic background had been banned in Europe since the end of the war.)
Minority registration for the nationwide elections?
The new electoral law seems to offer a solution for the parliamentary political representation of the minorities by introducing the minority registration system here too. The point of the registration in this case is to give the chance for Nationwide Minority Self-Governments to run a list of candidates on the parliamentary elections. For this it is necessary to have at least 1500 citizens register as a minority (nationality) voters – for example as Roma voters in the case of the Roma Nationwide Minority Self-Government. The minority lists are created by the actual Nationwide Minority Self-Governments, which means that other civil society institutions cannot recommend or help to choose candidates. In case of the Roma minority it means that Lungo Drom the major party in the Roma Nationwide Self-Government will create this list by itself. Many Roma NGOs expressed their disagreement with this practice.
However, this opportunity for parliamentary political representation of the minorities cannot be interpreted as a positive message from the Government neither from the aspects of the voters. According to the new electoral law that citizens who register as a members of a minority exclude itself automatically from the general part of the elections: He or she will lose the right to vote for a party list and will be able to vote only for a local candidate on the minority list.
Basically it is the violation of civil rights if someone has to choose between participating as a citizen of the country or as a member of the country’s official minority on the upcoming parliamentary elections in Hungary, since originally the Constitution doesn’t regard citizenship and official minority status as categories that exclude each other. So according to the new electoral law minorities are not regarded as having equal rights.
The Roma minority is affected the most
The new electoral law affects mostly the Roma minority because in terms of numbers the Roma are the largest group among the 13 officially acknowledged minority groups in Hungary. The number of Roma in the country is only estimated according to the sociological researches because the concerning data of the previous census has turned out to be useless in this aspect. The number is between 500.000-800.000 which, with regards to the elections, means that they are a significant group of voters. All major Hungarian political parties have recognized this at the past elections and tried to gain the Roma votes in order to get into Parliament. Their means included not only political promises, but vote buying and also intimidation – that the far-right movement Jobbik used these sort of actions during the last elections in Tiszavasvári through local loan-sharks.
Roma Party – Hungary
However, it’s noticeable that poverty and marginalization is constant among the Roma, and that they continue to live in bad socio-economic conditions after each election, meaning that no parties have ever represented their rights properly during the past years. And this is what some of the Roma NGOs have recently recognized. They began to protest against minority registration together. Instead of registration they want to get real political representation in the parliament, they intend to participate in the Hungarian political life on a more effective level than what the Minority Self-Government system or the new electoral law could ensure. For achieving this some of them joined together and formed the Roma Party to participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections independently. For succeeding they would need the union and the votes of the Roma…
Independent Roma political parties with the same goal were also formed in the past few years in surrounding European countries, where besides the large number of Roma population there are also strong and fruitful Roma NGOs– such as in Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria.
Romania has a bicameral parliamentary system where the party or cultural associations of each ethnic minority is entitled a seat – with the limitation that each national minority is to be represented by one organization only. They are elected and each has to reach the 5% threshold to obtain the reserved seat. A party can get more seats in the Chamber if it reaches more percentages of the required votes. The Party of the Roma (Partida Romilor) has been representing the Roma minority in the lower house for long amount of years now. They have gained political recognition in the past years to such an extent that the Romanian political scene consider them as the only relevant Roma political representative of the Roma minority in Romania.
However an other challenging new Roma political formation (Roma Civic Democratic Alliance) appeared and participated in the last elections (2012) with the goal of getting in the Senate instead of running for the reserved seat in the Chamber of Deputies. They regarded the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ) as their model political formation, which while being an ethnically-based party has been always playing a significant role in the country’s political life and basically has always positioned itself successfully as the other non-ethnic party. The Roma Civic Democratic Alliance (ACDR) united more than 12 NGOs and wanted to cooperate with the Democratic Union of Hungarians in Romania to represent the rights of the Roma minority (which takes around 5-10% of the country’s population), and in the meanwhile they were about to form an independent an significant political power in the Romanian political life. They didn’t succeed but definitely left their mark on the Roma politics nationwide.
Since the establishment of the Slovak Republic (1993) there have been many attempts for the development of the nationwide Roma political representation in the country but none of them succeeded with long term results. Until 2010 it’s been very typical that the major political parties included Roma candidates on their party lists but positioned them usually too far down that they could never win a seat in the National Council (the parliament) of Slovakia. The Roma Coalition Party wanted to make an end to this practice when they participated in the parliamentary elections in 2010. With their program for the development of the social and economical situation of the country they tried to reach out not only for the Roma, but for everyone in Slovakia. Contrary to all expectations they couldn’t get enough votes to be able to win seats in the National Council, although there is a large number of potential voters among the Roma minority since their number is between 300.000-500.000 in the country.
The Roma Democratic Party has been formed recently in August 2013 with the goal of participating in the early legislative elections held late October. This is the first time in the political history of the country when an independent Roma party appears in the elections. There are around 300.000 Roma live in the Czech Republic. They’ve been continuously facing discrimination and racism and live among very bad social and economic conditions. The Roma Democratic Party wants to bring change to this by representing the Roma rights in the nationwide political life. They intend to cooperate with other parties which consider this issue important. The candidates of the party want to run only for local elections, in 4 districts where mostly Roma live, because they don’t consider themselves strong enough to reach the 5% threshold which is now necessary to get seats in the parliament. The Party plans to get strong politically in the upcoming years, however starting on the local level, and wants to run for seats in the nationwide elections afterwards.
Roma political organizations began to appear right after the democratic changes in Bulgaria. One of the most significant ones was called the Democratic Union Roma (DUM). The political representation of the minorities in Bulgaria differs a lot from those of surrounding European countries, because the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria forbids the existence of ethnic political parties.
Despite the ban there have been many ethnic parties formed which participated in the political elections of the country – in the case of the Roma parties they usually choose names which don’t clearly show that they are an ethnic party. There were 30 officially registered Roma parties in the country in 2012. In spite of this big number during the last two decades none of them could succeed independently in the political elections. Roma politicians could only get seats in the the parliament as members of the major political parties. This situation has changed slightly when the first Roma woman won a seat in the parliament as the only elected candidate of the Euororoma party, which is a Roma political party.
There are around 700.000-900.000 Roma people who live in Bulgaria, which means that they constitute around 10% of the population. The nationwide electoral threshold in the country is 4% so from all this data it seems clear that the Roma ethnic parties could easily reach this rate if they gained most of the votes from the Roma voters.
According to analysts only a small number of Roma trust the Roma parties and believe that these political formations want to help them and represent their rights once elected. Most of the Roma fear that Roma parties would rather advance their leaders’ personal and family interests and would use politics as means for acquiring wealth.
The lack of trust slows down the formation of the real Roma political union in Bulgaria. In order to prevent the major political powers utilize this habitually at elections times this conflict has to be resolved, otherwise the Roma will continue to suffer more in all aspects of life.
The power of union
It can be seen that the Roma political representation began to develop alongside the democratic changes in the European countries which have a large Roma population. The development processes show similarity in many aspects. One of the main similarities is recognizing the need for the union in order to improve the social situation of the Roma.
This recognition can be traced in the common action of Roma NGOs in Hungary too, when longtime fighting- Roma political organizations, which were often considered as rivals- joined together to explain to the Roma voters the problems existing in the minority registration and the importance of the Roma political representation.
 Act LXXVII of 1993 on the Rights of National and Ethnic Minorities