I think it is time to report on the incredible hate campaign under way in Hungary in preparation for the October 2 referendum on the nonsensical question: “Do you want the European Union, without the consent of Parliament, to order the compulsory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary?” The outcome of this referendum is of the utmost importance to Viktor Orbán even though it has no tangible consequences. The government is sparing neither money nor energy to ensure that the referendum is valid (that is, that more than 50% of the eligible voters participate) and that the vote is overwhelmingly in favor of the government’s position on the refugee issue.
The official campaign begins on Sunday, August 13, but the government, as usual, has paid no attention to the campaign laws of the country. For months it has been conducting a kind of “informatory intelligence drive” to prepare voters on the subject of the referendum. Of course, this is just a fancy name for illegal campaigning. For months now the government has paid for newspaper ads as well as for TV and radio spots. A month ago several huge billboards appeared in a format similar to the earlier ones that “sent a message to Brussels.”
All “messages,” this time to the Hungarian voters, start with “Did you know?” and end with “Referendum, October 2, 2016.” Let’s take them one by one and fact-check them. (1) “Did you know that since the beginning of the immigration crisis more than 300 people died as a result of terror attacks in Europe?” (2) “Did you know that Brussels wants to settle a whole city’s worth of illegal immigrants in Hungary?” (3) “Did you know that since the beginning of the immigration crisis the harassment of women has risen sharply in Europe?” (4) “Did you know that the Parisian terror attacks were committed by immigrants?” (5) “Did you know that just from Libya close to one million immigrants want to come to Europe?” (6) “Did you know that last year one and a half million immigrants arrived in Europe?”
As is obvious, government propaganda used a number of tricks to scare the population. For example, how big is a city? Hungary has a very long list of settlements designated as cities. Balatonföldvár with a population of 2,064 is a city, and so is Budapest with 1.75 million. I couldn’t find any with a population as small as 1,300, the number of refugees Hungary would have to take in.
One can also find outright lies among these assertions. For example, between November 2015 and July 14, 2016 there were 259 terror victims in Europe, not more than 300. I suspect that the government propagandists included in their number the victims of the terrorist attacks in Turkey. As for how many Libyans want to come to Europe in the future, this is mere speculation.
The accuracy of these slogans, however, is irrelevant as far as their effectiveness is concerned. A year and a half has gone by since Viktor Orbán began a concerted hate campaign against “the migrants.” His efforts have been spectacularly successful. In Hungary 76% of the respondents now link refugees with terrorism. Moreover, 82% of Hungarians surveyed are convinced that refugees will be a burden on the social system. Viktor Orbán can be proud of his propaganda.
It has never been in doubt that those who vote in the referendum will overwhelmingly support the government position. The only question is whether the referendum will be valid. It was for this reason that some of those opposing the government and Orbán’s handling of the refugee issue urged a boycott of the referendum. Unfortunately, as usual, there was no cohesion among the democratic parties. Ferenc Gyurcsány’s Demokratikus Koalíció sent a clear message from the beginning. All of its leading politicians spoke with one voice: a boycott is the only reasonable reaction to this totally useless and misleading referendum question. The others were less explicit. MSZP politicians are well known for airing their personal opinions without taking into consideration the party’s official position. Or, often, the official position comes too late and by that time voters have heard three different opinions coming from three different MSZP politicians. Then there is LMP. In her incredible performance at the Fidesz-organized Bálványos Summer Free University, Bernadett Szél supported Fidesz’s call for a ‘no’ vote. By now, the party has settled for the position that “they have no opinion on the subject.” Their followers can vote (or not vote) their conscience.
At the beginning of August Závecz Research conducted a telephone survey to find out whether people intended to vote in the referendum. The enthusiasm is tremendous. At the moment the majority of population (54%) plan to vote. If they actually follow through, the referendum will be both valid and, from the government’s viewpoint, stunningly successful. Only 19% of the population claim they will stay at home. Another 23% haven’t decided yet. Of those who intend to vote, 85-90% will vote “no.”
Perhaps the most interesting part of the survey is a table that links voter intentions to party preference, especially those who decided to boycott the referendum. It looks as if only DK’s message was effective in that respect. Almost 70% of its supporters got the message and will boycott the referendum; another 20% are still undecided. MSZP with its mixed messages only managed to confuse its followers: 30% will boycott, 37% are still undecided, 17% will go but don’t how they will vote, and 11% will vote and will vote “no.” One commentator went so far as to state that “Orbán can win this referendum only with MSZP votes because there are not four million Fidesz and Jobbik voters.” But “other parties,” where LMP most likely figures large, may also contribute. Only 23% will boycott, 27% will support the government’s position, and 36% haven’t yet decided whether they will go to the polls.
Závecz Research’s survey most likely underestimates the size of the number of voters on October 2 because, for obvious reasons, they couldn’t conduct a poll among ethnic Hungarians living in the neighboring countries, among whom fierce government campaigning is taking place at present. Perhaps 100,000 ethnic Hungarians will vote on October 2 in addition to the bona fide inhabitants of the country. In 2014, 128,378 of them voted in the national election and they overwhelmingly (85.49%) supported Fidesz. The government has made it extremely easy for them to vote in Hungarian elections and referendums. Without much oversight they can vote by mail while Hungarians born in Hungary but currently working somewhere in Europe, the Americas, or Australia can vote only at Hungarian embassies or consulates, often very far from their home. The Orbán government is adamant on the subject. It even used its overwhelming majority in the Constitutional Court to support the indefensible: to maintain a distinction between Hungarians depending on their domicile. They must know what they are doing.