Hungarian referendum: Yes, yes, yes for everything?

Ever since he lost the election more than a year ago Viktor Orbán has been trying to come up with different strategies by which he could topple Ferenc Gyurcsány’s government. First, his hope centered around local elections: if the Fidesz wins in most cities, the government must resign. This was a most unconventional interpretation of parliamentary democracy, and it was a pipe dream. The Fidesz won almost all local elections and Gyurcsány stayed. Then came a new strategy: Gyurcsány and his government must resign because he admitted at Balatonöszöd that he "lied." That wasn’t exactly what Gyurcsány said, but his message to his colleagues in the party was awkwardly and carelessly formulated. When the MSZP-SZDSZ members of parliament unanimously indicated their support of the prime minister, that hope was gone too. Then came the idea of a referendum. If the "Hungarian people" vote "yes" to all questions, they are surely expressing their dissatisfaction with the government and its reforms. All the questions addressed popular issues such as tuition, co-payment for medical visits, sales of hospitals, and land ownership.

Then came a crafty linguist who formulated questions that were either the complete opposite of the questions posed by the Fidesz or were designed with a different intent in mind. I talked about all this on July 11, 2007, in an article entitled "And here comes the linguist." To refresh everybody’s memory I will copy here three different questions in the competing versions.

1) Fidesz version: "Do you agree that medications available without a prescription should be sold only in pharmacies?" Kálmán’s version: " Do you agree that medications available without a prescription could also be sold outside of pharmacies?"

(2) Fidesz version: "Do you agree that medical facilities and hospitals should remain in the hands of the state or the local governments?" Kálmán’s version: "Do you agree that local governments should freely decide on the manner in which they dispense health care?"

(3) Fidesz version: "Do you agree that–as it is laid down in the Act of 1994/LV which was still in force as of June 15, 2005–the family farmer should have the right of first refusal in case of purchasing of arable land or homestead?" Kálmán’s version: "Do you agree that the cultivator of the land should have the right of first refusal in case the land is up for sale?"

And here comes an opinion poll conducted by Medián for Népszabadság between August 3 and 7 on a representative sample of 1,200 adults. The survey asked nine questions: the three questions for which there were two competing versions (so a total of six questions) and three questions for which there was only the Fidesz version. With regard to the six competing questions, the results are startling. Fifty percent of the people think that drugs should be purchased only in pharmacies, and exactly the same number answered "yes" for Kálmán’s question to have over-the-counter drugs available outside of pharmacies. Okay, one says, that’s a dead heat. But concerning the land ownership question, 63% would vote for the Fidesz version and 61% for the Kálmán version. Oops! As for the hospital question: 64% would vote for the Fidesz version and 51% for the Kálmán version. If this referendum ever takes place we will have a real mess on our hands.

In addition to these questions, the Fidesz has three other questions concerning the daily fee for hospital stay, co-payment at doctor’s visits, and tuition at universities. These questions, just like the others, were formulated in such a way that the answer has to be "yes." For example: "One shouldn’t pay a daily fee at hospitals." Needless to say, the "yes" answers were in the great majority: over 70% for the health care questions and 64% for the question about tuition.

Pollsters are trying to explain these rather contradictory results. After all, one cannot assume that more than half of the population simply doesn’t understand what he/she is reading. (Or perhaps they don’t want to admit that the Fidesz prose, particularly in the land sale question, is pretty difficult to parse. Or that it’s not apparent that for the local governments to freely decide the manner in which they dispense health care includes the option of privatizing the health care system.) The official explanation seems to be that people like questions to which the answer is "yes" as opposed to "no." To support this theory they explain that 16% of all those questioned answered "yes" to all questions, while another 34% said "no" only to the availability of over-the-counter medications outside of pharmacies. So 50% of those polled answered eight of the nine questions positively.

By the way, since November 2006 the percentage of those who think that these questions are important and that a referendum should be held on them has grown by 10%–from 45% to 55%. Thus, the government has its work cut out for it. Of course, it is still possible, as happened in the December 2005 referendum on the question of dual citizenship, that not enough voters will show up for the results of the referendum to be valid. Opinion polls taken prior to the the 2005 referendum indicated similarly high interest, but in the end not enough people voted.

P.S. I would like to announce that I don’t accept any Hungarian-language comments and will take them off the site. I will also "unpublish" writings containing hateful, extreme language.