Interesting developments. Two political think tanks, Political Capital and Századvég Alapítvány, have called on other institutes busying themselves with political analysis to "rethink the very notion of referendum" as it exists in Hungary today. The most remarkable thing about the initiative is that it was introduced by think tanks that are closer to the right than the left. Századvég was started by Fidesz; one of its current heads is István Stumpf, Viktor Orbán’s mentor at law school and later his right hand man as head of the prime minister’s office. Political Capital has close ties to the MDF.
It is obvious to most thinking men and women that the current situation is untenable. No one can govern if, after the introduction of any unpopular piece of legislation, the opposition can call on "the people" to overturn it.
The suggestions that these two groups are offering for discussion are the following:
(1) A referendum can be valid only if at least half of the eligible voters participate. This would only be a return to the pre-1997 situation. In 1997, the Horn government decided that Hungary’s membership in NATO must be approved by popular vote although according to law this was not a prerequisite. However, they were afraid that the referendum might be invalid because not enough people would show up at the polls. Thus, they changed the constitution accordingly: for a referendum to be valid it was enough to have only one-quarter of all eligible voters cast ballots. Keep in mind that in 1997 changing the constitution was a relatively easy matter: the government had more two-thirds of the votes in parliament. If the law governing the holding of plebescites had not been changed in 1997, this year’s referendum most likely wouldn’t have been proposed in the first place.
(2) All expenses connected to holding a referendum, including advertising and campaigning, must be at the state’s expense. That is, the state must underwrite the efforts of both sides. A party could not initiate a referendum or support either side. The recent referendum failed on this score: the questions were turned into the electoral office by two or three Fidesz parliamentary members and Fidesz supported the campaign from day one. Only civil organizations could initiate plebiscites which, of course, could be manipulated. But it would be much more difficult to launch a referendum without the support of a party.
(3) They consider the dragged-out procedure disruptive of the country’s political life. For example, it took about a year and half to get to the point of actually holding the referendum from the time that Fidesz first came up with the questions. They consider about half a year sufficient.
(4) Somehow one must limit the number of absolutely ridiculous requests for consideration as topics of plebiscites. For example, I’m sure everybody who follows Hungarian affairs remembers the question of free beer, which had to be treated with all due procedural respect. This time around about 500 requests reached the electoral office, most of which were similarly ridiculous. Századvég and Political Capital don’t want to stifle or limit such initiatives but would like to ensure that the questions more serious and weighty. Thus, they suggest a monetary deposit that would be lost if the question is not deemed worthy of a plebiscite.
(5) In case of a valid and successful referendum there must be a five-year limit before another referendum can be held on the same question.
I’m very much hoping that the other political research institutes will make changes and add new items to this list which, in my opinion, needs refining. As the spokesmen of Századvég and Political Capital emphasized, these suggestions are not addressed to the general public . They are intended for consideration by parliament. The two sides must agree because any change to the constitution requires a two-thirds majority of parliamentary members.