This will be my sixth post on the controversial law that forbids larger retail stores to be open for business on Sundays and on the futile attempts to convince the National Election Committee to allow a referendum on the issue. It is becoming obvious that the Orbán government will never allow such a referendum to be held. The list of tricks that have been employed to prevent it is a mile long, which shows that Viktor Orbán finds the prospect of a referendum a real threat to his regime. For that reason the officials whose job it is to approve or disapprove referendum requests are instructed to do everything in their power to block any such attempt. Even if their methods are blatantly illegal and fraudulent.
What is it about the seemingly innocuous question of whether stores should be open or closed on Sundays that frightens the powers that be? Especially when the law on holding referendums was written in such a way that it is almost impossible to hold a plebiscite that will be valid because of the very high participation requirements. Out of the approximately eight million voters four million must turn out to vote. But Orbán and company fear that this particular issue might galvanize the voting population and that the government would be forced to abrogate the law that came into force only a year and a half ago. A successful referendum would in essence be a vote of no confidence in the government.
I would like to emphasize at the very beginning that this “cat and mouse game” that the government is playing with those who would like to see this referendum take place is deadly serious. It shows how “Orbán-style democracy” is playing out in real life.
In order to explain the story, I’m afraid I will have to start at the beginning. Here I will try to summarize earlier failed attempts at submitting proposals that the National Election Committee (NVB) would approve. However, to grasp all the intricate finagling of NVB and the National Election Office (NVI), I highly recommend that you read my two earlier posts that detail the tactics used by these two arms of the Orbán government.
First, you have to understand that no new referendum question can be submitted to the National Election Office until the fate of any previous submission has been decided, which normally means three months. So far so good, but what has been happening is that all sorts of bogus questions are being submitted by phony parties or by individuals wanting to help the government’s cause or, even worse, acting on the orders of the government. Here are some of the early bogus questions submitted by Zsolt Szepessy, former mayor of Monok and nowadays chairman of a phony party. “Do you agree that on Sundays all stores of multinational corporations [multik] should be open?” “Do you agree that all stores should be open on Sundays?” “Do you agree that all stores belonging to multinational corporations [multik] be closed on Sundays?” I guess I don’t have to continue the list. Szepessy was doing his level best to keep others from suggesting more logical and perhaps acceptable propositions. After Szepessy came various trade unions and finally the Magyar Munkáspárt (Hungarian Communist Party) with equally inappropriate questions. By that time it was April 2015, when two serious propositions were submitted, one by MSZP and the other by a civic group that calls itself Új Magyar Köztársaság Egyesület (ÚMKE).
These two questions looked as if they had more of a chance of passing the watchful eyes of the National Election Committee. MSZP’s question read: “Do you agree that parliament should annul Law CII of 2014 that forbade performing work on Sunday in the retail sector?” while ÚMKE’s was: “Do you agree that no law should limit the opening times of retail businesses?” At this point the head of the NVI resorted to some “dirty tricks.” Although MSZP’s proposal arrived at her office earlier than ÚMKE’s, she declared that she was ready to submit ÚMKE’s to the Commission. Appeals followed, the propositions were resubmitted in June, but in the end neither of them reached NVI because a third person allegedly reached the office ahead of MSZP and ÚMKE. This person again turned out to be an “agent” of the government who submitted a question that was clearly unacceptable. It read: “Do you agree that Sunday should be a day of rest for everybody and that stores be closed?” This was rejected because it was “ambiguous.” Well, I would call it outright nonsensical since it is impossible to guarantee everybody a day of rest on Sundays. Since the Kúria, Hungary’s highest court, has 90 days to decide whether the referendum question passes muster or not, this meant further delay.
But that is not the end of the story. In October MSZP had another opportunity to submit its original proposition, for the fourth time. MSZP activists arrived at NVI at 5:30 a.m., but again they were late. This time the following happened. As soon as the Kúria’s website indicated that the Office can again accept new propositions, the politician in charge of MSZP’s effort phoned the activists to tell them to move. But suddenly out of nowhere an older woman and a young man passed them and turned in their question. They beat the socialists by 20 seconds. Well, one could say that the socialist activists were not sufficiently aggressive, but apparently they were told by some official to stand a little farther to the left, which allowed the two tricksters to pass them and register their proposition ahead of the socialists.
This time it was a 65-year-old woman, Mrs. Simon, Gabriella Gercsényi, who was the lucky person. Mrs. Simon has a small store in Tordas, a village of 2,000, which, by the way, is open on Sundays. Her question was: “Do you agree that retail stores could be closed on Sundays?” It was rejected by the head of NVI because Mrs. Simon forgot to attach some annex to her question, without which it was invalid. Yet the National Election Office allowed her to proceed and only asked her to submit the necessary additional documents later. Surely Mrs. Simon wasn’t exactly heartbroken. She knew from the moment she embarked on her adventure into high politics that she was there only to prevent the socialists’ proposal from ever reaching the commission and eventually the high court. Or, at least to slow down the process. MSZP’s question was rejected because, according to the head of the Office, it was basically the same question as that of Mrs. Simon. Anyone can tell at a glance that this wasn’t the case since MSZP’s proposition was still about the abrogation of the Law CII of 2014 that forbade performing work on Sunday in the retail sector.
Since both questions were rejected, Mrs. Simon’s on a technicality and MSZP’s presumably by virtue of its provenance, there was yet another opportunity to race to the Office. This time Mrs. Simon’s young companion showed up and again beat the socialists to the finish line. He resubmitted the same question, with the appropriate documentation. Although the question is ludicrous since any store owner can decide not to open his/her store on Sunday, NVI sent Mrs. Simon’s proposition to NVB, which approved the question. Népszabadság called the decision “stupefying.” Tamás Harangozó, one of the vice-chairmen of MSZP, announced today that he will contest the decision at the Kúria.
One could dismiss all this as a tempest in a teapot, but unfortunately it is not. It shows how hopeless it is to legally challenge the powers that be. Critics of the left-of-center parties often complain about their inability to effectively challenge the government’s undemocratic governance. But, tell me, how can anyone win against the government when all allegedly independent agencies, like the National Election Office and the National Election Committee, are under the government’s thumb? The story of the futile attempt of MSZP politicians to hold a referendum highlights the fact that Hungary is no longer a democracy.