Viktor Orbán’s pointless but possibly dangerous referendum

Although the international media has been aware, for some months, of the Orbán government’s looming referendum on the “migration quota issue,” now that President János Áder has fixed its date for October 2 the Hungarian referendum is a hot topic. Stories abound about its unfortunate nature and timing.

Within Hungary its critics viewed it, at least initially, as a stunt designed to reinforce the population’s antagonism toward the “migrants” and bolster their support for the anti-refugee policies of the Orbán government. They thought, that is, that it was primarily a domestic issue.

The democratic opposition parties opposed holding such a referendum, but first the Kúria and later the Constitutional Court agreed to let voters answer the following question: “Do you want the European Union to be able to order the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent?” There are so many things wrong with this question that it shouldn’t have been approved by the National Election Commission in the first place. Not only is it a leading question, but the Hungarian Parliament has nothing whatsoever to do with the government’s relationship with the European Union. It is a bad question on a nonexistent issue. As Leonid Bershidsky of Bloomberg pointed out, the Cameron government’s original question read: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union,” but the country’s Election Commission recommended spelling out both options instead of only one. (Not that it helped.) Orbán’s illiberal state has very few independent institutions by now, and the National Election Commission is certainly not one of them.

After Brexit many people from the left-liberal opposition parties practically begged Orbán to scrap the whole idea. Their argument was that there are many countries where large and powerful anti-EU parties exist, which will try to stage referendums similar to that of the Cameron government. Such actions may fracture the very structure of the Union, already wounded by Brexit. I don’t understand the democratic opposition’s repeated appeals to reason when it comes to this government. By now they should know that once Viktor Orbán embarks on a course of action, he will go through with it no matter what.

Orbán’s goal is a valid referendum with the highest possible number of “no” votes. I have no doubt that those who take part in the referendum will overwhelmingly vote against any mandatory settlement of migrants. That’s a no brainer. The question is whether enough people will turn out to vote. To get four million voters to the polling stations out of the eight million eligible voters will not be easy. As voting patterns from earlier referendums have shown, Hungarians demonstrate a low level of awareness of the blessings of participatory democracy. In fact, the Horn government lowered the requirements for a valid referendum to 25% just before the July 1997 plebiscite on Hungary’s membership in NATO, which was a wise move because only 49% of eligible citizens voted. For the referendum on Hungary’s joining the European Union only 45.6% of eligible voters turned out. Viktor Orbán, who has a genuine fear of referendums, raised the threshold for validity to 50%. It is this hurdle the government has to overcome with a propaganda tsunami between now and October 2.

I have no doubt that nothing will be spared in the next few months to achieve the magic number. The government will use disinformation, lies, and “incentives” to convince as many people as possible to vote with a resounding “no.” Huge billboards have already appeared telling Hungarians that with their vote at the referendum “they are sending a message to Brussels.”

The democratic opposition’s fear is that, although the overwhelming majority of Hungarians view the European Union favorably, such an intensive propaganda campaign might turn a large number of Hungarians against the Union. As it stands, the EU’s strongest supporters are the Poles (72%) and the Hungarians (61%). Is it possible that Viktor Orbán would like to temper this high level of enthusiasm for the EU? Is this why we heard from the government’s second highest official, János Lázár, that he “wouldn’t be able to vote to remain in the European Union in good conscience”? Or is this outrageous remark from the man who is in charge of the dispersion of EU convergence funds merely a come-on to encourage high participation in this very questionable referendum?

Source: András Stumpf's article "It was a mistake to hold a referendum,


Whatever the case, anyone who doesn’t want to be a pawn in Viktor Orbán’s game should stay away from this referendum to make sure it is not valid. The lower the participation the better. The alternative of going and voting “yes” as a sign of support for the European Union is the most bizarre idea I can imagine. Who will consider a “yes” vote an endorsement of the European Union as the Magyar Liberális Párt suggests? Luckily, Gabor Fodor’s Liberal Party is a practically nonexistent entity. Otherwise all the opposition parties, excluding Jobbik of course, will be campaigning for a boycott of the referendum.

To my great surprise even András Stumpf, a journalist currently working for, a right-of-center, pro-government internet site, also considers the referendum “pointless” and Orbán’s insistence on holding it “unfortunate.” He more or less decided to join those who will stay home. According to Stumpf, the question should have been phrased this way: “Do you object to the mandatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliament’s consent even at the possible cost of leaving the European Union?” Well put. But as long as the question voters will see on October 2 is what it is, the only answer is to boycott the referendum. Bershidsky is right in describing it as “manipulative” and the whole affair as a “farce.” But it’s a dangerous farce.

July 6, 2016
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July 7, 2016 12:45 am

re: “I have no doubt….to achieve the magic number. ”

Oh give me a break, Eva, with a government daily breaching every level of acceptable, civilized, notions of legality…what makes you think that a vote and its results would be ‘correct’?

Orban will put up a number, greater than 50%, and will tout it as the people’s rejection of EU intimidation.

Does the writing have to be any clearer on the walls?

July 7, 2016 4:17 am

The referendum is of course not pointless if Orban thinks he can gain an advantage over the opposition. There are no rational arguments only does this or that action has the potential of prolonging Orban’s power or not? If it has the potential then no costs are too high.

July 7, 2016 4:58 am
There is a more sinister aspect here, propaganda and hate mongering apart: some of the highest institutions like the National Electoral Committee/Office and the High Court (Kúria) bent the law to serve the regime. (yet again) 1. There is no “compulsory quota”, so the question is misleading. 2. If there were any compulsory quota, it would be under international agreement/decision (reached with the participation of Hungary), regarding which no referendum can be held (Basic Law 8.3) 3. The referendum is binding for the parliament (Basic Law 8.1), but the parliament can not act with regard to a nonexistent provision/situation or contrary to an international agreement. Hence the process is pointless and should not be allowed (Law 238/2013 par. 10.9). 4. The Referendum Law no. 238/2013 (sloppy or intentionally murky, as most of the Fidesz legislative mass production) dedicates less than a line regarding the purpose of a referendum in its preamble: to allow the citizen “to take part in deciding the most important matters concerning the fate of the country”. The advised (non compulsory) quota of several hundred to 1200 refugees definitely does not concern the faith of the country. The whole episode is another sign that the rule of… Read more »
July 7, 2016 5:12 am

An outsider to Hungarian politics surely will think that Hungary has gone mad over this …

But that’s nothing new – all my German friends who follow politics in the EU have been asking me this.

Why are Hungarians so crazy – biting the hand that feds them?

And many are openly asking for a “closure” – build a core EU that works together and let those at the periphery rot in their own f****!

People in countries like Hungary and Poland have to wake up and react – if they’re comfortable with their situation and their government, then it’s their problem!

July 7, 2016 9:05 am

Re: ‘the rule of law is dead’

Looks it when it comes to er… ‘good’ government where its motivation is to secure a modicum of quality of life and ‘happiness’ in existence for its residents. Like slavery which existed in the US South democracy in Magyarorszag is one of those ‘peculiar’ institutions. Peculiar in the sense where one group deems another to have the power to exert control over lives as well as their thinking.

So called democratic pursuits by the government now in the country seem to attempt to channel the electorate towards making decisions offered to them through political gamesmanship. Sorry to say the ‘rig’ is in with this democracy. Political questions now being put in front of the electorate are filled with great portent and hidden sub-texts. How good decisions can be made in that kind of environment is beyond understanding. Nothing sure looks like it seems.

July 7, 2016 5:39 am

I also posted an article about the referendum wording and billboards yesterday!
To me the billboard message is very cryptic and I am not sure people understand it.

Excerpt from my article: “Firstly, the referendum question refers to “non-Hungarian” citizens, which does not simply implicate that these are refugees or asylum seekers or people in need. These can be as well Estonians seeking some sunlight or Czechs coming to teach Hungarians how to tap their beer properly. Secondly, the word “előír”, which means to prescribe, order, or ordain, is not the best word choice. Why? You just willingly do not choose to be ordained to do something. Not even when you are a five-year-old and your mummy orders you to clean your toys and believe me; no referendum would be called out on this.” read further at:

Albrecht Neumerker
July 7, 2016 10:01 am

Dr Balogh, thank you for the tip. It seems to me contain a lot of information for one who has not lived in Hungary for a long time.

Thank you again.

Gyula Bognar Jr
July 7, 2016 8:46 pm

While it is understood, that over half of the Hungarian people prefer to remain in the EU, if the viktor takes them out and shackles up with Putin, perhaps some people will wake up and decide to participate in politics, take responsibility for the governing of their own lives. If not, they deserve what comes to them.
We all know the proverb.
“Be careful what you wish, you might just get it.”
On October 2, those, who participate in the elections will make their wish. I hope they will get it.


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