Ad hoc hurdles to holding a referendum on Sunday store closings

It’s becoming crystal clear that Viktor Orbán will do everything in his power to prevent a referendum on the question of Sunday store closings. The reason is most likely his fear that, in spite of the tough conditions the government enacted for a referendum to be declared valid, there is a good likelihood that a referendum on this issue would bring out more than the requisite half of the approximately eight million citizens eligible to vote. Polls show that 70-80% of Hungarians, quite independently of party sympathies, find the Sunday closings introduced on March 15, 2015 cumbersome and annoying, especially after having been accustomed to liberal store hours in the last twenty years or so.

About two weeks ago I described in some detail the latest attempt to submit a valid referendum question on abrogating the law that made Sunday closing compulsory for the majority of outlets selling food. To recap briefly, no referendum question can be submitted to the National Election Office, which is a kind of clearing house, while another referendum request on the same issue is still on the docket of the National Election Commission (NVB). Once the field is cleared, the new petitioners begin a mad dash to submit their own versions of the referendum question. In this case, as soon as a referendum question on Sunday closings was rejected by the NVB, the Hungarian socialist party (MSZP) and a civic group called Új Magyar Köztársaság Egyesület (ÚMK) both tried to submit questions. MSZP lost out because, according to the head of the National Election Office, they turned in their question immediately after the decision regarding an earlier question appeared on the website of the National Election Office. They should have waited, she argued, until the decision also appeared on the site of the NVB. Therefore, she said she would send on ÚMK’s question, not MSZP’s.

But this was not the end of the story. It turned out that a third person also submitted a referendum question on the same day. It was his question that was eventually accepted for consideration.

In order to understand this complicated story, we have to go back to the day that the MSZP referendum question was certified by the National Election Office. MSZP’s version was submitted in the name of Zoltán Lukács, one of the vice-chairmen of the party, and was delivered by András Litresits, a lawyer who is MSZP’s delegate to NVB. When he arrived, he saw a man standing in front of the security guard’s cubicle. He didn’t have to sign in. He already had a valid pass to the building. So he proceeded upstairs and handed the referendum question to the appropriate official, who stamped it, indicating the exact time of the document’s arrival.

It turned out that the man standing in front of the security guard’s cubicle was a certain Zoltán Wodicska, who is a member of Andor Schmuck’s Hungarian Social Democratic Party. Schmuck is, as far as I’m concerned, a political adventurer who has pulled quite a few dirty tricks in the past few years. For example, he was the one who registered the name “Együtt 2014 Párt” before Gordon Bajnai and Viktor Szigetvári got around to registering the name of their party. They then had to scramble around for another name that included the word “együtt” (together).

Yesterday the National Election Commission decided that because Litresits had a pass to the building and did not have to make a stop at the security guard’s cubicle, he had an undue advantage. His petition would therefore not be accepted. Wodicska was declared the winner even though the Election Office found his question “Do you agree that Sunday should be a day of rest for everybody and that stores be closed?” ambiguous. Ambiguous? I think it is outright nonsensical. It is impossible to guarantee everybody a day of rest on Sunday. Wodicska is obviously one of those people who are determined to delay the referendum by submitting questions that are guaranteed not to be approved by the Kúria, Hungary’s supreme court. Whether these people are hired by the Orbán government, as some people suspect, or simply act on their own is hard to say. In any case, the Kúria has 90 days to decide whether Wodicska’s referendum question passes muster or not. It will not, but for three months the question of the referendum is set aside again.

András Patyi, chairman of NVB, is a close associate of Viktor Orbán

András Patyi, chairman of NVB, is a close associate of Viktor Orbán

And what, you may ask, happened to the third contestant, the one who was originally declared the “winner”? NVB decided that posting the decision not to accept a referendum question on the website of the National Election Office (not the National Election Commission) is the signal that the court procedure is over. NVB also decided that the petition of the person who enters the building of the Election Office first will be sent on, no matter when that document is time stamped. Zoltán Lukács, who submitted MSZP’s question, rightly pointed out that this ruling shows a peculiar mindset. Let’s assume that two people enter the building at the same time but that one of them cannot find the right office in that large building. What will happen then? My hunch is that the decision would depend on who the two people are. The person who knows his way around, such as the MSZP “courier,” would probably be deemed to have an undue advantage. It’s easy to create rationalizations for not accepting any referendum question that might actually get on the ballot.

A woman who called into KlubRádió today offered a convincing analysis of NVB’s ad hoc decision. She is certain that a referendum will never be held in Hungary as long as Viktor Orbán is prime minister because he remembers only too well the outcome of the referendum held on March 9, 2008, which resulted in the fall of Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány a year later. The reforms the second Gyurcsány government introduced in 2006-2007 were opposed by Fidesz from the very beginning.The party eventually succeeded in putting forth three questions regarding the introduction of (1) tuition fees in colleges and universities, (2) a co-payment at doctor’s offices, and (3) a daily fee at hospitals. With a very large turnout (50.9%) 82% of the voters said no to these fees, although they were minimal amounts. It was a reaffirmation that a large segment of society didn’t approve of the reforms introduced by the government. The argument goes that a referendum on Sunday store closings would produce similar results, and it would signify more than people’s annoyance with Sunday restrictions. It would be, just as in Gyurcsány’s case, a massive opposition to the government itself.

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July 21, 2015 7:20 pm

“Unfortunately, other countries around the world, from Cambodia to Ethiopia to Azerbaijan, have sought to copy Russia and China’s repressive examples, passing laws to stifle NGOs and restrict what their people can access on the Internet and other media.

You might recall Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s speech last summer, declaring his intention to build an “illiberal state” modeled on the likes of Russia and China. When authoritarian leaders are challenged at home and abroad by demands for more inclusive and transparent government — demands that cite universal values and international law—they find it convenient to point to an alternative model being displayed and promoted by influential world powers like Russia and China.”

July 22, 2015 5:32 pm

BIG challenge there I’d say for today’s democracies in Europe and around the world. I’d suggest it is THE problem for our exceedingly precarious times.

With Russia constantly probing and pushing aggression and poking here and there, China building ‘real estate ‘ on water in contested seas, ISIS seemingly having a great run with bloody beheadings, murder and brutality and Iran never retreating from its statement of destroying Israel, the West will be having a hell of a time dealing with all that. Let us hope it is up to the task or it will suffer for perhaps its illusions. Indeed we see two personages (the ‘V’ bros ) here already who are playing the ‘new’ game favored by autocrats.

July 22, 2015 3:24 pm

This is not complicated, it is called abuse of law. If it were a true democracy no governmental institution would dare to be such impertinent to its citizens.