Referendum in Hungary: The Art of Questioning

The referendum per se does not have the power to change anything on the deals made in the EU. But it is a good indicator of the public attitude to the current political situation and the decreased number of determined Fidesz and Jobbik supporters.

hu referendum

2015 was the year when the Hungarian government launched its long-term anti-immigration campaign. It was the year when the EU faced the significant increase in numbers of refugees coming from the East to Greece via Turkey, and realized that the Dublin III agreement doesn’t work, that it is not prepared for a bigger number of refugees, and that nationalism and anti-immigration sentiments are on the rise in the member countries.

The EU put a bigger emphasis on the refugee quotas the member countries should agree to. This is nothing new: the quota system existed for quite some time, but last year the issue of redistributing the increased number of refugees arriving to the EU became especially hotly debated. Countries on the Eastern border of the EU whose quotas were quite low before, turned out to be the biggest critics of this system. E.g., Hungary was expected to accept 1,294 refugees from Italy and Greece.

In February 2016 Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán held a speech in which he for the first time mentioned a nationwide referendum at which the country should say ‘no’ to the EU quota system. According to him, this system threatens Hungary’s and Europe’s ethnic, cultural and religious identity. The referendum was scheduled for October 2, 2016.

The rhetorical question is why exactly the issue of refugees became such an important one for Hungary as to require a referendum, while other internal issues like construction of additional blocks of the nuclear power plant in Paks or cutting trees in the City Park of Budapest to build museums stayed silenced. And was it about refugees or the EU expecting Hungary to fulfil its responsibilities?

Huxit or what?

The question at the referendum was as follows: “Do you want the EU to be able to prescribe mandatory relocation of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without an approval of the Hungarian parliament?” The whole wording was quite problematic, since it was too vague and used redundant words to confuse voters.

Also, very little information was given to the public about the goal and consequences of the referendum: some people were afraid that the question is about “HuXit” (Brexit Hungarian style).

shana tova

The question is not about quotas, which can be a subject of negotiation. The government mentioned ‘prescribing’ which means ‘ordering’, making it mandatory, imposing something that cannot be discussed anymore. Then, instead of refugees or asylum seekers, the referendum question mentioned ‘non-Hungarian’ citizens, i.e. literally anyone including fellow EU citizens and ethnic Hungarians who do not have Hungarian citizenship. This also harks back to the usual populist trope from the previous year, when Fidesz made a point of calling refugees ‘economic migrants’.

Finally, the closing part of the question was referring to an approval by Hungarian parliament. This may imply that even if a country is a part of the EU the latter has no right to ask for any responsibilities from it without approval of its government as it will be anti-democratic – or rather against the interests of the nation-state which still wants to create and implement only its national policy and accept only those international policies that are convenient.

One may actually agree that it does not make sense to send refugees and asylum seekers to a country without or with very little integration mechanisms in place, with bad conditions in the closed camps for refugees, with quite a high proportion of refusals to give refugee status and with ongoing anti-migrant and anti-refugee campaign. It is understandable that Hungary is struggling with poverty and bad conditions in hospitals and schools, and it does not have the capacity to finance incoming refugees unless sponsored by the EU. Still, the country decided to be a part of the EU and therefore it should have some obligations.

Billboard wars

The government decided to ‘educate’ public about the upcoming referendum in its favourite way – with billboards. This seemed to be quite effective last year, so, instead of analytical articles and TV programs the blue billboards and TV advertisement started to appear. In 2015 the billboards had the following messages to the people who could understand Hungarian: “If you come to Hungary respect our culture / laws / you should not take jobs away from Hungarians.” The price for those was around 950,000 Euro.

This year’s billboards had quite strange and factually empty messages. One of the first billboards had the following words: “Let’s send a message to Brussels so that they also get it!” The later billboards had a question ‘Did you know?” and a bunch of xenophobic statements (one statement per billboard), like “…that since the beginning of the immigration crisis more than 300 people died as a result of terror attacks in Europe?” (2) “…that Brussels wants to settle a whole city’s worth of illegal immigrants in Hungary?” (3) “…that since the beginning of the immigration crisis the harassment of women has risen sharply in Europe?” (4) “…that the Parisian terror attacks were committed by immigrants?” (5) “…that from Libya alone around one million immigrants want to come to Europe?” (6) “…that last year one and a half million immigrants arrived in Europe?”

There were also billboards on telephone booths, in public transport, on poles etc. The design looked similar to the one from 2015 since the same companies that had printed and designed the posters last year did it in 2016. Some say these companies are from a close circle of Rogán Antal, Chief of Orbán’s cabinet.

In September a new billboard suggesting “Let’s not risk it, vote no” replaced the traditional blue ones, and Hungarian households received a brochure full of populist propaganda to convince the voters to vote “No”. You can find more details here.

szavazzunk nemmel

As in 2015 the official billboard campaign provoked an anti-campaign. Like last year, Two-tailed Dog Party (MKKP) was the first to start anti-campaign with all sorts of parody messages like “Noyes” and “The life is beautiful” and statements continuing the question “Did you know?” Some of them were: “Did you know there’s a war in Syria?”, “Did you know one million Hungarians want to emigrate to Europe?”, “Did you know? Brussels is a city”, “Did you know? A tree may fall on your head?”, “Did you know? The average Hungarian is more likely to see a UFO than a refugee in his lifetime”, “Did you know? During the Olympics, the biggest danger to Hungarian participants came from foreign competitors”, “Capital’s waterworks can add LSD into drinking water at any time?” The latest messages of MKKP that appeared in September were “Hi Brussels, we still love your money”. You can see most of the designs here.

The party spent around 100,000 Euro donated by 4,000 people. The main point of MKKP was to show the absurdity of the referendum and to ask people to vote invalidly. The party’s posters were spread all around Budapest and in smaller amounts in other parts of Hungary, which made this anti-campaign not the most visible, but quite efficient, as it turned out later. As an inspiration to vote invalidly, the party even launched a page where people could try their creativity in spoiling the ballots.

What about the rest of the parties? The mostly right-wing parties such as Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), Independent Smallholders’ Party (FKgP), Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP) and the Stalinist Hungarian Workers’ Party (MMP) supported Fidesz’ position on voting “no”. The green socialist/liberal party LMP stayed neutral. The only political party to openly campaign in favour of the compulsory quota system and to vote “yes” was the Hungarian Liberal Party (MLP).

A bunch of oppositional parties such as Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), Democratic Coalition (DK), Together – Party for a New Era (Együtt), Dialogue for Hungary (PM) and Modern Hungary Movement (MoMa) asked the voters to boycott the referendum.

The referendum and the aftermath

On October 2 the media were monitoring the referendum, and already in the afternoon it was pretty clear that it will be invalid due to low turnout. Finally, when the results were officially announced, it was confirmed that the referendum failed to gain the minimum of 50% of valid votes plus one. Only 44.08% of registered voters participated, and around 6% of all the ballots were spoiled. Budapest was the city with the biggest number of invalid ballots which is the evidence of the success of MKKP’s satirical campaign. The examples of people’s art of decorating voting bulletins can be found here.

hungary cats

Out of the valid votes, 1,64% said ‘yes’, while 98,36% said ‘no’. The latter figure was the main argument with which Fidesz tried to play in order to distort the real outcome and present the result as the government’s victory. The main emphasis was made on the big number of “no” votes. Gergely Gulyás, deputy leader of the Fidesz caucus in Parliament, pointed out that more people voted “no” to EU migrant quotas than those who voted to join the European Union in the referendum held in 2003. Viktor Orbán said that there are two things the government needs to do in light of the overwhelming “no” vote: submit to parliament a proposal to modify the constitution because public decisions should be vested in the will of the people, and make Brussels recognize the referendum results.

At the same time the opposition gladly announced invalidity of the referendum to be the failure of Fidesz government. Leading opposition politicians, as well as Jobbik spokesman Ádám Mirkóczki called for Orbán to resign.

Altogether, this referendum was a symbolic excuse for another anti-immigration propaganda and promotion of Fidesz. The referendum per se does not have the power to change anything on the deals made in the EU. But it is a good indicator of the public attitude to the current political situation and the decreased number of determined Fidesz and Jobbik supporters.

And even though it was obvious from the very beginning that the referendum will fail, it did not stop the government from throwing out of the window EUR 52 – 65 million of Hungarian taxpayers’ money (depending on the source).

Reft & Light is an independent Ukraine-based analytical project, monitoring authoritarian left-right alliances and the Ukrainian far right, launched under the auspices of Euromaidan Press. Opinions expressed in articles on this site are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Reft & Light editorial board or Euromaidan Press.

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