A friend of mine just returned from a short trip to Hungary and phoned to report on her impressions. She is one of those American-Hungarians who closely follows Hungarian news and is well aware of the tremendous effort the Orbán government has put into ensuring that the referendum on the non-existent compulsory quotas will be valid and that it will pass with a very large majority. Even so, she was not expecting the barrage of giant billboards lining the road from the airport to Budapest. “You have to be there to feel the atmosphere this campaign creates,” she said. No wonder. According to reports, there is a billboard every 40 meters.
The intensity of the campaign has been growing steadily ever since, at the end of February, Viktor Orbán announced his intention to hold a referendum. For Orbán a successful referendum, requiring the participation of more than half of the electorate, seems to be a matter of life and death. This is not an exaggeration. Only two days ago, at the Fidesz picnic at Kötcse, he used the phrase himself. What is waiting for him is a fight with Brussels which must be won because otherwise the death of the nation will be waiting for Hungarians.
Gábor Török, one of the numerous political commentators, questioned the wisdom of the prime minister for putting so much emphasis on the referendum. What if too few people show up and the referendum is not valid? That would be a real embarrassment.
Why is Orbán trying so hard to get out the vote? Even if he didn’t reach the magic 50% + 1 threshold, polls last month showed that over 80% would vote “no,” as the government wants. This result would still show tremendous support for Viktor Orbán’s migration policies. One possible rationale for Orbán’s frantic scramble for votes is that this referendum is not so much about the migrants as it is about gauging (and beefing up) his current level of support.
Admittedly, if more than half of the electorate were to vote massively in line with the wishes of the government, his hand would be strengthened at gatherings of the European Council. “You see, my support at home is overwhelming.” Moreover, he could rest assured that he will remain prime minister for some time to come. But let’s say that only 37% of the electorate turned out to vote on October 2. Not only would he look weak in Brussels, he would look weak at home as well. Especially since the opposition parties more or less unanimously, if belatedly and in some cases half-heartedly, have finally agreed to support a boycott of the referendum. If 63% of eligible voters stay home, there is no way to know how many of them were just lazy or indifferent and how many were active boycotters.
Last week an article appeared in Élet és Irodalom by Mária Vásárhelyi, who is known to readers of Hungarian Spectrum because we have discussed her sociological studies extensively here over the past few years. It is titled “Népakarat vagy politikai manipuláció” (Will of the people of political manipulation). In it she convincingly argues that “in dictatorships and autocracies referendums are the most effective means of political manipulation,” an assertion she supports by pointing to the frequent referendums held in Hitler’s Germany. One of Hitler’s first moves after becoming chancellor was to change the law on referendums: they could be initiated only by the government. Vásárhelyi calls attention to the fact that the Orbán government in 2010 also changed the law on referendums and since then has done everything in its power to prevent holding any referendums initiated by the public. If a referendum in an autocratic regime is intended to increase support for the regime, the fact that the democratic opposition parties haven’t managed to come together and formulate one common message against the referendum “is an unforgivable sin against Hungarian democracy,” she concludes.
Vásárhelyi wrote those lines before the latest Závecz Research poll about the referendum came out. You may recall that a month ago I wrote an article titled “Orbán’s anti-refugee propaganda is a roaring success,” in which I reported on a survey conducted by the same polling company at the end of July. “The enthusiasm is tremendous,” I wrote. “At the moment the majority of the population (54%) plans 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.’”
Závecz Research repeated the survey at the end of August, when the opposition parties’ campaign hadn’t yet started. The hilarious anti-referendum posters of the Magyar kétfarkú kutya párt (party of the dog with two tails) were not yet on the streets. Nevertheless public enthusiasm for the referendum dropped considerably in the past month. Tibor Závecz now feels fairly certain that it will not be valid. The number of people who will vote to support the government has dropped and the number of undecided voters has grown. In July 54% of the electorate was intent on voting while today this number is only 41%. That is a very considerable change.
Here are some details. Support from Fidesz voters is pretty much unchanged. Sixty-four percent of them would go and vote “no.” But the number of those who would vote “yes,” that is against the government, has grown from 5.5 to 8.1%.
The changes that occurred in the month of August are most striking in the case of Jobbik voters, who in July were as enthusiastically supportive of the government’s position as Fidesz voters were (61.8%). That number in August has shrunk to 47%. The number of Jobbik supporters who will go and vote against the government has grown substantially, from 3.8% to 8.5%.
DK’s message has been very effective all along. It was a simple slogan: “Stay at home, stay in Europe.” Their supporters got the message. Seventy-three percent of them will boycott the referendum and 10.8% of them will vote “yes,” which is twice as large as it was in July.
MSZP with its mixed messages managed to confuse its already confused electorate. Their reactions are all over the map, but the upshot is that almost 15% of MSZP voters intend to vote “no,” which must be translated as support for the Orbán government. In addition, 20.2% of MSZP voters indicated that they would vote but claimed they haven’t decided how they will vote, which can easily mean a pro-Fidesz vote. About 20% haven’t decided whether they will vote or not and only 31% say they will stay at home, which is practically the same as it was a month ago. MSZP’s new leadership has proved to be an ineffective lot, perhaps because its members are split on the issue. Some of them share Orbán’s anti-immigrant stance, while others take the position that they have to keep in mind their supporters’ views, which are not exactly friendly toward the migrants. A good summary of MSZP’s attitude toward the referendum can be found in today’s 168 Óra.
A few days ago, in an interview, Richárd Szentpéteri-Nagy, a political analyst with the Méltányosság Politikaelemző Központ (Equity Center for Political Analysis), went further. He suspects that there are “a fair number of people within MSZP who are directly or indirectly maneuvered, instructed by Fidesz.” Mária Vásárhelyi puts forth another hypothesis. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that the “mischievous” MSZP is perhaps already thinking of a possible Fidesz-MSZP coalition.
That’s where we stand at the moment. Only DK and the two other small parties, Együtt (Together) and PM, are consistent and steadfast opponents of the Orbán government which, as a friend told me, is being encircled with “increasingly quiet hatred.” The question is what this currently quiet electorate will do and whether there will be anyone to turn to for leadership when the time comes.