At last someone got the bright idea that instead of just joking about the results of the Orbán government’s notorious “national consultations,” it would be time for the opposition to insist on transparency. In the last ten years five “national consultations” have taken place, including the one currently underway. In all cases, the citizenry had to rely on the government’s reports on the number of valid questionnaires it received. Of course, if the Orbán government had wanted to communicate the truth, it would have invited observers from other parties or would at least have gathered a group of independent witnesses. The mystery numbers announced after each of these consultations were the butt of jokes, but no opposition party ever entertained the idea of challenging the government’s most likely fraudulent figures or insisting on opening the warehouses where these questionnaires were kept.
This time, however, Bernadett Szél and Ákos Hadházy, co-chairs of LMP, decided to do more than poke fun at these ridiculous “national consultations.” The fact that it took them a whole month to get permission to see the premises says a lot about the government’s true intentions. These consultations are propaganda tools designed in such a way that the final result is determined by the will of the government.
The Szél-Hadházy team eventually ascertained that returned questionnaires travel to three government venues. From the central post office on Orczy tér they are moved to warehouses of the Nemzeti Infokommunikációs Szolgáltató Zrt. (NISZ), first to one in District VIII and then to one in Zugló. In the former the envelopes are x-rayed for explosives. In the latter the contents of envelopes are separated because in some cases the senders filled out an extra data sheet indicating that they are ready to receive government “information” in the future. Once all the questionnaires have been x-rayed and sorted, they are then sent to one of the offices of Kopint Datorg in District VIII, where the answers are “analyzed” with the help of special software.
Antal Rogán’s personal approval was required for the two members of parliament to be allowed inside of these facilities, though with serious restrictions. Their “appointment” was set for 5:30 p.m.–that is, after regular business hours. Altogether they were allowed to spend 1.5 hours including travel time, which was considerable given rush hour traffic and the distances between District VIII and Zugló. By the third stop, Hadházy was ten minutes late and was worried that he wouldn’t be allowed to enter. But the powers-that-be were lenient.
In all three places the LMP politicians were told that employees do not keep daily records of the number of questionnaires that arrive. In one of the warehouses the man in charge simply didn’t know what to do when he was asked how many questionnaires they had received thus far. First, he said that he wasn’t allowed to share that information, but “when we became somewhat agitated because of this information, he changed his story and said that there is no such record at all.” The story was the same at Kopint Datorg.
Hadházy was pretty certain that the government’s latest figure of 1.7 million was a fake. Based on the number of boxes he saw, he figured that the government had managed to get back about 900,000 questionnaires. There is a good possibility that Hadházy is more or less correct because, while the two LMP politicians were rushing from one venue to the next, the spokesman for Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation announced that they will ask the government to extend the deadline for the return of the questionnaires. The official deadline was yesterday.
Although the government is outraged and is ready to sue Hadházy, who according to them is lying, I have the feeling that Rogán’s propaganda ministry will have a difficult time proving that their own numbers are correct. It seems that the Szél-Hadházy team’s smart phone was busily recording some of their conversations with the officials on the spot. The staff of Hír TV’s “Célpont” (Target) published two of the conversations. Here is the important one. Note that the post office sends envelopes on to NISZ only once a week, on Mondays.
–These arrived on 20th. 250,000.
–How many arrived on the 13th?
–I don’t know that by heart but about 200,000.
–Less than 200,000?
–And what about the 6th?
–Well then, how on earth do you get one million out of this?
So, by November 14, less than 400,000 questionnaires had arrived, but Csaba Dömötör, one of the undersecretaries of the propaganda ministry, on that very day claimed that one million questionnaires had already been received.
Although journalists were not allowed to accompany Szél and Hadházy, the government sent its own photo journalist to the scene, who took a photo of the two politicians in front of a whole wall of boxes. The caption read: “In the background boxes filled with 500 questionnaires each. Yet the chairman of LMP claimed that the whole consultation is a hoax because no records are kept.” Nice try, but Hadházy was specifically told that those boxes were empty, waiting to be filled.
The exact number of questionnaires returned could easily be ascertained if an independent watch-dog group could find out how many envelopes were processed in the central Hungarian postal service. Since the postage on these returned envelopes is paid by the Hungarian government, the postal service must keep accurate records. Their reimbursement depends on careful record keeping. The problem is that there is no independent supervisory body, so the government can conjure up any figure it finds useful for purposes of propaganda. The higher the better.
The government currently claims that up to date the post office has received 1,754,128 envelopes. So far NISZ has managed to x-ray 599,500 (which would pretty closely match the figures NISZ reported to Szél and Hadházy) and Kopint-Datorg has processed 489,265. These numbers, it is critical to note, should not be cumulative: each response is first x-rayed and then processed. The government also claims that 155,330 people sent their answers back via the Internet. And so, if I understand the system correctly, as of November 20 754,830 responses have either reached NISZ or been submitted electronically. That means that 999,298 envelopes must still be sitting in the central post office on Orczy tér. The government claims, however, that as of Friday over 500,000 envelopes had been registered but were still at the post office. Well, I guess 999,298 is over 500,000.
In addition, I should note that there is something very suspicious about the high number of online responses because in the past very few people opted to fill out the questionnaire online. It is possible that Fidesz activists took advantage of a software glitch, if it was a glitch and not intentional. People could fill out as many questionnaires as their hearts desired. Hír TV’s “Célpont” demonstrates how it can be done here.
Is the government correct in saying that Ákos Hadházy is a fool who mixed up the total number of returned questionnaires that reached the central post office with the ones that had gone through the proper “treatment” of x-raying, sorting, and analysis? I doubt it. It seems to me that it is the government that is playing fast and loose with the figures, most likely adding the number of responses processed to the number of envelopes that the government reported as having been x-rayed. Assuming that all envelopes are x-rayed, this number plus the online responses and the envelopes still at the post office is the total number of questionnaires received.
Of course, we have no idea how many envelopes the post office will send on to NISZ this coming Monday. Will it be the usual 200,000 or so, over 500,000, or close to a million? No independent body will ever know. We can only speculate. But I highly doubt it will bring the total to 1,754,128.