I must have written at least four or five blogs on the forthcoming referendum and its questionable constitutional underpinnings. According to most respectable constitutional experts the questions posed by the Fidesz should never have been the subject of a referendum for at least three reasons. First and foremost, according to the Hungarian constitution no referendum can be held on any topic that can have an influence on the budget. In this case all three questions have direct relevance to the financing of health care and higher education. If the referendum is valid and successful from the point of view of the Fidesz the missing income of family doctors, hospitals and universities cannot be replaced from the central budget. This would be unconstitutional. Second, most experts consider a nationwide referendum a constitutional tool that should be used only rarely to decide questions of critical importance to the country. For example, the country’s membership in NATO or the European Union. Petty questions concerning a co-payment of $1.50 for medical care or a modest contribution by students toward their own education surely don’t qualify. Third, the questions themselves are ridiculous: no one in his right mind would want to pay money for something that until now was free. A fairer way of putting the questions would have been, for example, to ask "Do you prefer to pay 300 Ft as co-payment for a medical visit and 500 Ft for a hospital stay or would you rather have your social security contributions raised by X amount?" One has the feeling that the voters in this case would opt for the small co-payment. However, the geniuses of the Hungarian Constitutional Court decided otherwise.
Well, the reason I’m writing again about the referendum (however boring a subject) is that at last we know the date when the referendum will be held. It’s amazing how fast President Sólyom can decide when he wants to. The Constitutional Court gave its final okay on Tuesday and on Wednesday Sólyom spoke. He had fifteen days to decide, but he was in an awful hurry. Other times he waits until the very last day: for example, when he sends something back to parliament for reconsideration. According to the law he could choose a date between March 9 and April 20. And which one did he pick? March 9. His spokesman claims that he picked the date in order to save money and to have the whole thing over with before the national holiday, March 15. However, many people think that this early date helps the Fidesz. After all, the Fidesz has been actively campaigning for months while the other side has waited until the word came from the Constitutional Court and the President. Some people also worry that in case the referendum is not valid (i.e. fewer than 2 million people vote) those who sympathize with the opposition might express their disappointment in a less than peaceful way on the holiday. That would not be a first.
As for the predictions of the outcome: not surprisingly the majority would vote "yes" to all three questions. According to the latest poll 48% of the people now say that they would vote. This number is very high, though most pollsters claim that this early enthusiasm usually doesn’t pan out on the day of the actual referendum. (Of course, this time it’s a pocketbook issue. Just think how much you could save if you spent a few minutes voting.) Another consideration is that the government parties haven’t really started their campaign which will be a mostly "common sense" approach to the necessities of the reforms. Whether this will be enough to convince Hungarians that $1.50 co-pay will not ruin them and upset the whole economic future of their families, no one knows. Also, there seem to be cracks of late within the medical community. Perhaps the family doctors who stand to lose quite a bit of money if the co-payment question passes will no longer campaign against the reforms and will convince their patients to say "no" to that ridiculous question.
A lot will depend on the effectiveness of the government propaganda and the medical profession’s attitude. There are after all almost six more weeks to turn things around. In any case, it is too early to predict one way or the other.