I’m sure that few regular readers of Hungarian Spectrum have forgotten the story of the mad dash to be the first to submit a referendum question to the National Election Committee on the Sunday closing of retail stores. The Orbán government obviously doesn’t want such a referendum and, in my opinion at least, MSZP’s question was good enough that approval by the Kúria would have been forthcoming. That is, if the Election Committee had accepted it. The socialists’ question was rejected twice: once in favor of another question on the same issue formulated by the Új Magyar Köztársaság Egyesület (ÚMKE), a civic group, and the second time for one that didn’t have a chance of ever passing the scrutiny of the Kúria.
The socialists’ question was: “Do you agree that parliament should annul Law CII of 2014 that forbade performing work on Sundays in the retail sector?” While ÚMKE’s read: “Do you agree that no law should limit the opening times of retail businesses?” At that time I expressed my worry that since ÚMKE had already submitted a number of referendum proposals, of which the National Election Committee had approved four, if the committee approved this proposal, the organizers of the referendum would add the very important question of Sunday closings to the other four. And the other questions are not the kinds that would bring millions out to vote. Therefore I preferred the question submitted by the socialists because, if approved, it would have stood alone as a single referendum question.
Viktor Orbán knows the power of a referendum. After all, it was the 2008 referendum, initiated by Fidesz, on tuition and co-pay that sealed the fate of his adversary, Ferenc Gyurcsány. He wanted to make sure that such a calamity will not befall him. He changed the law on holding referendums. While before 2 million valid votes were enough for passage, he doubled the requirement: now one needs 4 million votes. ÚMKE’s questions would never bring out that size of a crowd. In order to have a valid referendum the opposition would have to come up with one important question that has a chance of gathering very large support. Just for comparison, at the 2008 referendum that truly moved the population, only 3.3 million people showed up to vote. I believed and still believe that the issue of Sunday closing is one that just may have a chance of being a valid referendum and that perhaps could also seal the fate of Viktor Orbán.
Why am I returning to this topic? The answer is simple. Although the referendum question on Sunday closing is still in limbo, ÚMKE went ahead and began collecting signatures for their four questions: (1) to raise the compulsory age of school attendance, (2) free lunches for needy children, (3) abolishing compulsory membership in professional associations, and (4) termination of paying pensions to serving members of parliament. These are the questions with which ÚMKE wants to start “dismantling the system” of Viktor Orbán.
The collection of signatures began three weeks ago, and they have managed to collect 46,000 so far. There are still 154,000 to go. Zoltán Vajda, one of the organizers, told Budapest Beacon that all democratic parties, with the exception of the Demokratikus Koalíció (DK), pitched in. MSZP managed to collect 16,000, the Magyar Szolidaritás Párt got 9,000, and the Magyar Liberális Párt and the Modern Magyarország Mozgalom (Moma) added a few hundred.
Why did DK keep away? After all, DK has been the most zealous on the question of cooperation with other parties. Ferenc Gyurcsány often expressed his belief that without unity of the democratic parties Fidesz cannot be defeated. I can think of only one possible explanation for why the leadership of DK came to the conclusion that even if ÚMKE’s referendum questions have the support of the necessary 200,000 people, the chance of a successful referendum is practically nil. In fact, if the turnout is low, as I assume it will be, it will actually strengthen the position of Fidesz by showing the weakness of the democratic opposition. There was a reason why the National Election Committee approved these relatively unimportant questions while making every effort to block the question on Sunday closing.
Yes, I think there is a real chance of actually hurting the cause of the anti-Orbán forces by supporting this somewhat amateurish attempt. One cannot “dismantle” the Orbán regime by asking people to vote on issues such as compulsory membership in professional associations. ÚMKE would have been better off sitting down with all the democratic parties and supporting one well-formulated referendum on Sunday closings. I’m sure that all parties would have endorsed such a move. More than 75 percent of Hungarians look upon Sunday store closings as a symbol of Fidesz arrogance and corruption at their expense. What happened here is a perfect example of the mistaken notion widespread in Hungary that civil groups with no political experience can successfully “dismantle” the Orbán regime. Unfortunately, it might serve Fidesz and hurt the democratic side.