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?
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 Mandiner.hu, 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.