Tag Archives: national consultation

National consultation, 2017: “Let’s stop Brussels!”

Here we go again. A new “national consultation” is under way. Eight some million eligible voters will receive a form with six questions, all of which are related to the alleged attempt of “Brussels” to take steps that are injurious to Hungary and its people.

Viktor Orbán came up with the idea of a “national consultation” in 2011 when the government was in the midst of writing a new constitution–without, as it turned out, any input from the opposition parties. No referendum on the final text was allowed. Instead, 12 questions were mailed to every eligible voter. The questions were formulated in such a way that it was inevitable that the majority of answers would seem to endorse the government text. Here is one example: “Should the new constitution bring under its protection common values such as family, labor, home, order, and health?” The citizen’s choice was a simple yes or no. The others were not one whit better.

Four years later, in April 2015, the government sent out a questionnaire about “immigration and terrorism,” which again was a tool of political mobilization concealed as public opinion research. At the time social scientists protested, pointing out that the questionnaire was constructed in total disregard of the methodological canons of public opinion research. They felt “obliged to bring the attention of the public to the unprofessional, manipulative character of the questions.”

Now we have a new manipulative questionnaire which, according to Magyar Nemzet, will cost the taxpayers 1.2 billion forints. And the majority of people who get the questionnaire will probably toss it straight to the garbage. The new propaganda drive is called “Let’s stop Brussels!” Do you remember when Viktor Orbán sent Hungarian-language messages to Brussels and to the refugees on hundreds and hundreds of billboards? Something like that is under way at the moment. Viktor Orbán thinks that if a large enough number of voters return these meaningless questionnaires with supportive answers, he can use them as an argument against certain measures that might be contemplated by the European Commission. Since there will be no independent body checking either the number of returned questionnaires or the results, the Orbán government can come up with any number it likes. The higher the better.

“Let’s stop Brussels!” / National Consultation 2017

Propaganda for the new “Let’s stop Brussels!” drive started about a week ago. The government placed ads in both pro-government and independent publications, despite the fact that it very rarely pays for ads in opposition papers, making sure that they remain at a sizable disadvantage to the richly endowed pro-government papers.

Spokesmen for Fidesz began to call everybody’s attention to this “national consultation.” János Halász, spokesman for Fidesz’s parliamentary delegation, warned Hungarians that “Brussels” wants to make more and more decisions without any consultation with the “people,” and “when Brussels makes a decision, the Hungarians always lose.” If it depends on Brussels, there will be higher utility prices and higher taxes. And the country will be defenseless against the migrants. “A great battle is ahead of us because [Brussels] even attacks the efforts of the Hungarian government that would serve the transparency of the pro-migrant foreign agencies (ügynökszervezetek).” What an ingenious way to interpret the Orbán government’s efforts to make the work of these NGOs impossible.

Bence Tuzson, one of the many spokesmen of the prime minister’s office, also gave a press conference. He emphasized the point about the incarceration of migrants, which the government hopes the population will support because, after all, “can the country allow people about whom we know nothing to loiter freely?” Tuzson also talked about “the paid foreign activist groups that meddle in [Hungary’s] domestic affairs.” These groups’ finances must be made transparent. The description of these NGOs as foreign agents foreshadows the fate that is awaiting them.

Here are the questions to which Hungarians are supposed to respond, along with correct and incorrect answers, where “a” is always the correct choice.

  1. Brussels is planning to take a dangerous step. It wants to force the abolition of utility rate reduction on us. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) Defend the utility rate reduction. We should insist that the price of utilities must be determined in Hungary. (b) We should accept the plan of Brussels and trust the large companies with fixing utility prices.
  2. In recent times, terror attack after terror attack has taken place in Europe. Despite this fact, Brussels wants to force Hungary to allow illegal immigrants into the country. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) For the sake of the safety of Hungarians these people should be placed under supervision (felügyelet) while the authorities decide their fate. (b) Allow the illegal immigrants to move freely in Hungary.
  3. By now it has become clear that, in addition to the smugglers, certain international organizations encourage the illegal immigrants to commit illegal acts. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) Activities assisting illegal immigration such as human trafficking and the popularization of illegal immigration must be punished. (b) Let us accept that there are international organizations which, without any consequences, urge the circumvention of Hungarian laws.
  4. More and more foreign-supported organizations operate in Hungary with the aim of interfering in the internal affairs of our country in an opaque manner. These organizations could jeopardize our independence. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) Require them to register, revealing the objectives of their activities and the sources of their finances. (b) Allow them to continue their risky activities without any supervision.
  5. In the last few years we have been successful at job creation because we followed our own strategies. But Brussels is attacking our job-creating measures. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) We, Hungarians, must continue to make decisions on the future of the Hungarian economy. (b) Brussels should decide what to do in the economic sphere.
  6. Hungary is committed to tax cuts. Brussels is attacking Hungary because of it. What do you think Hungary should do? (a) We should insist that we, Hungarians, decide on tax cuts. (b) We should accept that Brussels dictates the level of taxes.

I consider the two questions that deal with “foreign agents” especially dangerous as far as the political future of Hungary is concerned. In the present situation, these so-called foreign agents–the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Transparency International, the Hungarian Helsinki Commission, and Amnesty International–are practically the only organizations that can successfully combat the growing autocratic rule of the present political system because the checks and balances that were present earlier have by now been removed.

As for the others, I’m not quite sure what to do with the question about the Orbán government’s handling of the economy. I am unaware of any EU attempt to instruct Budapest to change its economic strategy. The question on lowering taxes is highly misleading. The ignorant public may think that the EU wants to prohibit lowering the personal income tax rate. Actually, what the EU is unhappy about is the Hungarian government’s plans to lower corporate taxes to such an extent that Hungary would become a tax haven within the European Union and thus create unfair competition. The question on utility prices is also misleading. In Hungary, it is the government that sets the utility prices, which currently are higher than they should be due to lower energy prices in general. Brussels’ real concern is not the price of utilities, but the fact that there are different rates for businesses and for individuals. Finally, I have no idea why Viktor Orbán thinks he still has to frighten people with illegal migrants when there are no more than about 300 such individuals in the whole country. Perhaps to keep the hatred alive in case people get too soft when they no longer see pictures of refugees clamoring to get into, or out of, Hungary.

In any case, all this matters not. The questions are moronic, and the answers are totally skewed in favor of the Hungarian government. I know that in Hungary the consensus is that the intellectual level of ordinary citizens is so low that they accept practically anything this government puts in front of them. I personally can’t believe that the overwhelming majority of Hungarians wouldn’t figure out within minutes that this is a scam. They may not grasp the real meaning of the questions, but that there is something very wrong with the answers they can chose from has to penetrate even the thickest of skulls.

April 2, 2017

Viktor Orbán on his western critics

What a coincidence. Smack in the middle of perhaps the biggest crisis of the Orbán era, Hungarian ambassadors met in Budapest this morning. It was their regularly scheduled get together at which it is almost obligatory for the prime minister to speak.

It has been the custom for many years that during the month of August, when most people are enjoying their summer holidays, Hungarian ambassadors travel home to get some direction and personal guidance from their ministry. This year, however, it was decided that one such gathering is not enough. From here on the heads of Hungarian missions will travel back to Hungary twice a year. Once in early spring and once sometime in late August.

These occasions give Viktor Orbán an opportunity to deliver a lengthy speech in which he outlines his thoughts on Hungarian foreign policy. These speeches are regularly criticized by foreign policy experts as a string of inarticulate, ad hoc ideas that often cannot be reconciled with one another. In addition, he usually manages to make some provocative statements. At least one commentator labelled today’s speech “the most incoherent one” Orbán has managed to put together.

Péter Szijjártó finds the jokes of Viktor Orbán very amusing

Péter Szijjártó finds the jokes of Viktor Orbán very amusing

Some themes in these speeches are constant, such as the stress on an “independent Hungarian foreign policy” which takes only one thing into consideration: “Hungarian interests.” Fidesz is the party that represents the true interests of the country. A rival foreign policy tradition caters “to the interests of others.” Of course, we know whom he has in mind: the socialists and the liberals who refrained from waging a war against the European Union but chose cooperation and compromise instead. He indicated today that there might be an inclination to exhibit this kind of opportunistic behavior given the immense “international attacks against us.” But it would be a mistake to take the easy road and avoid conflict with fellow diplomats on account of personal relations. The reaction should be exactly the opposite. Hungarian diplomats should be even more combative when international pressure is on the rise.

It is hard to know whether Viktor Orbán really believes it or not, but in this speech he had the temerity to accuse the western media of being in league with their governments. The Hungarian media is much freer and more independent, he said, than the media in western countries. Opinions in Hungarian newspapers and on internet news sites are much more varied because in Hungary the government in no way tries to influence journalists and reporters. The uniformly bad press his government has been receiving is therefore an orchestrated affair. Governments joined by journalists purposefully spread lies about the Hungarian government. A journalist friend of mine couldn’t help but be reminded of the Kádár regime when high party officials held very similar views about the role of journalists as lackeys of antagonistic, imperialist powers. I guess such attitudes derive from the very nature of dictatorship.

In addition, Orbán accused western governments of being ignorant of the true feelings of their citizens. They are not democratic enough, unlike the Hungarian government which made certain it would have a dialogue with the Hungarian people. He expressed his satisfaction with his earlier decision to launch a national consultation on the question of terrorism and immigration. “The reason we can steadfastly follow our refugee policies is because the voters clearly told us what we should do.” I hope you all remember those twelve leading questions the Hungarian government came up with back in April. Anyone who would like to refresh his or her memory should reread my post on the subject. They were leading, manipulative questionnaires sent out to more than 8 million voters, out of which only 1 million were returned. To bring up this “national consultation” as a mandate is one of the most cynical statements Orbán has ever uttered.

What else is wrong with the west? They are a hypocritical lot. Hungary “has been centuries behind in two-facedness.” Here is, for example, the French foreign minister who criticizes the Hungarian fence while the French government is building one. “And they are not ashamed.” Hungary is not alone in refusing to take in any refugees. The United States, he said, has categorically refused to take any refugees in order to lighten the European Union’s burden, which is not the case. His other example, Israel, cannot be taken seriously as an excuse for Hungary’s refusal to offer a new home for a few thousand refugees.

Otherwise there doesn’t seem to be any change in the stated aims of Hungarian immigration policy. Nobody should be let in, all the refugees should remain in Turkey, and Greece should not allow the refugees in. Hungary doesn’t want to have any immigrants because no nation should be forced by others to let in people it doesn’t want. These are the great man’s ideas.

And then came a seemingly unconnected reference to Hungary’s Roma population. Hungary’s historical lot is to live together with hundreds of thousands of Gypsies. “Someone sometime decided that it would be that way … but Hungary doesn’t ask other countries in Europe to take Hungarian Gypsies.” On the contrary, when they want to emigrate to Canada “we ask them to stay.” The truth of the matter is that Hungary wouldn’t mind at all if every Gypsy picked up and left, if only Canada would let them in. When the Canadian government put up posters in Miskolc, the city from which most of the Roma went to Canada, to tell them that they will be deported back, the Fidesz mayor of Miskolc created an international incident by telling Canada that it cannot “send its refugees to Miskolc,” i.e. cannot send the Hungarian Roma migrants back to where they came from. Some opposition parties found Orbán’s remarks concerning the Roma disrespectful.

The last topic I consider noteworthy in Orbán’s performance today was his answer to a question about “what differentiates the government’s policies from those of Jobbik.” He began by saying that “the government is not interested in the extreme right.” Hungary is a country where Jewish holidays can be celebrated on the streets without anyone having to go through electronic gates and being asked “whether you are a fascist animal.” What distinguishes Fidesz from Jobbik is “the general security,” whatever that means. So, he didn’t answer the question, for which he should be applauded. It would have been really painful to listen to his lies about the substantial ideological differences between Fidesz and Jobbik.

Two faces of a country: Hungary and the refugees

The following article was written by a Hungarian economic analyst who would like to remain anonymous.

* * *

It is symptomatic how Hungary’s various actors have reacted to the topic of refugees in recent months.

Macro level–The government

In spring 2015, the government of Viktor Orbán saw itself confronted with major challenges. A series of corruption scandals came to light and the governing party’s popularity began to slide visibly. Fidesz had lost all three of the latest interim elections for parliamentary seats, sparking nervousness in their ranks.

From Fidesz's popularity declining from 2014. Jobbik (black) profited most

From Fidesz’s popularity declining from 2014 on, Jobbik (black) profited most

Viktor Orbán realized the potential in the topic of immigration/refugees earlier than many others in Europe. Even though Hungary is not a target for immigrants and is a transit country at best for refugees, Mr. Orbán spoke as early as January 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks, on the topic, blaming failed immigration policies for the bloodbath. That time, his words were received with indignation and contempt Europe-wide given that, as some pointed out, the Kouachi brothers were both born in France.

However, Orbán decided to make refugees the central topic of his political activity in the months to come. This was not an easy task given that the question was not very high on the populace’s agenda in the autumn of 2014 when only 3% of the population considered immigration a serious issue. See p. T18 of the Standard Eurobarometer.

Intent on changing this, Orbán started a ‘national consultation’, meaning a questionnaire was sent out to all four million households in Hungary, urging them to give their thoughts on the topic of immigration and refugees. The action bore the name ‘National Consultation on Immigration and Terrorism’. It was seen by many as distinctly manipulative and camouflaging malicious propaganda as a statistical poll, prompting several statisticians to protest the abuse of the discipline.

The top of the questionnaire of the National Consultation

The top of the questionnaire of the National Consultation

Parallel, state-owned media and government-friendly private media started intensively pushing the issue of ‘economic refugees’ and how they would take Hungarians’ jobs away.

As the intensive media campaign started to work and the flow of refugees into the country indeed started to intensify, the topic came more and more into the focus of voters’ attention. Fidesz used this to start a controversial PR campaign, putting scores of Hungarian language messages onto the streets, saying for instance ‘if you come to Hungary, you cannot take away Hungarians’ jobs’ or ‘if you come to Hungary, you need to respect our culture’.

Government politicians and state media alike were quick to highlight the risk of sleeper terrorist cells among the refugees as well as that of violent and petty crimes.  State media was actively searching for any conflicts within the hopelessly overcrowded refugee camps or any Hungarians willing to testify to any misdoing by refugees. Such reports were then aired 24 hours a day.

In June, it was announced that Hungary would build a 4m high, 175km long fence along the Hungarian–Serbian border in order to stop refugees from pouring in. Building activities are just about to begin, including tests of various fence types in order to find out with the help of test-climbers which version is least surmountable. It became known that the fence will be barbed and include blades pointing to the Serbian side.

In their search for explanations for the fence, government politicians more and more portrayed refugees as dangerous criminals. For instance, a statement by the Fidesz parliamentary faction said: ‘We should not wait until the illegal immigrants arrive with guns’. Lajos Kósa, a prominent senior Fidesz representative and ex-mayor of Hungary’s second largest city, explained that basically anyone who’d come by foot into the country should be regarded as an economic refugee, because non-economic refugees would surely come by airplane.

Government communication continuously stressed the point that they are in fact not against providing shelter for ‘real’ refugees but rather oppose illegal border crossings. However, in 2014 only 9% of the refugee applications were decided positively, compared with an EU average of 45%. Even from Afghanistan, about 80% of them were denied. Human rights activists branded that as cynical argumentation, given that in order to enter the Schengen area (of which Hungary is a part), one needs a visa. In the case of political refugees, however, the visa would need to be obtained in war-torn countries where in many cases the embassies where such a visa can be obtained lie in cities controlled by the very powers the refugees are fleeing from (if they still exist at all).

The government also ensured that the refugees would not feel very welcome. They are being greeted with a Hungarian-only text advising them to travel to one of the refugee centers. Also they receive a map of Hungary showing just the refugee centers, but omitting any cities. The conditions within these centres have been criticised repeatedly by international bodies as being overcrowded and lacking in hygienic standards.

At the time of writing, a second public campaign is being launched by the government, inter alia showing a young lady claiming ‘We don’t want illegal immigrants’.


On July 16th it was announced that the refugee centres (comprised of solid brick houses) would all be closed shortly and replaced by tent cities farther away from cities and dwellings. Furthermore, Hungarian law is being changed by Parliament so as to treat illegal immigration as a serious crime. This is in order to allow the detention of refugees.

The unrelenting campaign against refugees has clearly been a political success – fear and aversion towards refugees has become rampant (prompting some attacks as well); the issue pushed the government’s scandals out of the public’s focus and allowed the government to portray itself as effectively protecting the people against a manifest threat. Fidesz’s popularity has started rising again.

Micro level–The far right

Hungary’s far right greeted the growing influx of refugees with bitter contempt, or plain hate. They welcomed the government’s actions, including the fence, but branded them as insufficient. There have been appeals on the internet to provide refugees with poisoned food. There are T-shirts on sale with the slogan: the immigrants’ pay can only be death.” In towns near the borders, they organize para-military troops patrolling the border and searching for ‘illegal immigrants’. More and more far-right groups have also travelled to border towns in order to intimidate refugees and voluntary helpers. In some cases, police had to protect the latter. The first attacks on refugees (or Hungarians who look foreign) have occurred.

Members of a radical far-right group in T-shirt promising death to the immigrants

Members of a radical far-right group in T-shirt promising death to the immigrants

A young woman was beaten up when she tried to protect her foreign-looking Hungarian boyfriend from far-right henchmen.

beaten up

Micro level–The civil society

When the suffering of a large number of refugees became apparent, Hungarian civil society organised itself quickly to provide help and relief. A number of NGOs and thousands of volunteers got into action, using Facebook and other social media platforms to organise help ranging from the provision of food and clothing and translation and assistance with administrative matters to trying to reunite families that have been separated in the course of their travels across Europe. A number of volunteers have travelled to the most affected towns and villages; others are helping by sorting through the donations that have been pouring in from all parts of the country and figuring out how best to distribute them. Several restaurant owners have offered their premises for feeding refugees or as a local HQ for the helpers. Notwithstanding the authorities’ and the far right’s opposition and sometimes even physical threats, the volunteers put up an effective, self-organised and self-financed grassroots support network within weeks.

They constitute the last remnant of hope in an ever-growing cloud of darkness.


Children of refugees in Budapest with meals received from volunteers

Hungarian social scientists protest Viktor Orbán’s “National Consultation”

Below you will find a statement signed by a number of Hungarian sociologists who strongly object to the questionnaire the Hungarian government designed for the alleged purpose of gauging Hungarian public attitude toward refugees and immigrants. The twelve questions can be found in an earlier post.

Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission, wrote about this questionnaire on Facebook:

Public consultation can be an important tool for governments and other public authorities to develop policies that can count on support of the population. In this context, it is entirely up to the Hungarian authorities if they want to consult the people on migration. But a public consultation based on bias, on leading and even misleading questions, on prejudice about immigrants can hardly be considered a fair and objective basis for designing sound policies. Framing immigration in the context of terrorism, depicting migrants as a threat to jobs and the livelihood of people, is malicious and simply wrong – it will only feed misconceptions and prejudice. It will create and fuel negative attitudes towards minorities and it will stimulate confrontation between different groups in society. It is wilfully misleading to present migrants only as a burden to our economies and societies, without any mention of their contribution. When we address the many challenges posed by migration today, we must look at the issue in a frank, open and balanced way. We should not close our eyes to the sometimes serious challenges posed by migration in our societies. But in doing so, we should never lose sight of our fundamental values and of the need to preserve a pluralist and diverse society, based on mutual respect and equal treatment of every individual.

Professionals familiar with designing public opinion surveys agree and strongly object to this kind of manipulation.

Anyone who’s interested in joining the undersigned can add his or her signature to the list of names below at http://www.peticiok.com/tarsadalomkutatok_a_nemzeti_konzultaciorol

Johannes Sadeler, Hell, 1590

Johannes Sadeler, Hell, 1590

* * *

Social scientists on the National Consultation

The questionnaire for the National Consultation about “immigration and terrorism” – posted on the Hungarian government’s webpage with the intention of being mailed to all citizens in the coming weeks -, similarly to previous consultations of this sort, is a tool of political mobilization concealed as public opinion research. Even if we ignored the widely disputed substantive content of the questions, it remains apparent that the questionnaire was put together in total disregard of the methodological canons of public opinion research. We understand that the authors of the questionnaire did not intend to play by the rules of scholarly research, but we feel obliged to bring the attention of the public to the unprofessional, manipulative character of the questions.

  1. The questionnaire adopts a graded response scale, which is characteristic for public opinion surveys. Such response scales can use even- or odd-number response options, but must maintain neutrality and balance with respect to the statement that they record the responses to. The response scales used in the planned “National Consultation” do not comply with this requirement. They also offer three response options, but the middle one is not a neutral (e.g. “neither agree nor disagree”) option but a hesitant approval. Thus, if undecided respondents tick this middle option, or some respondents pick their responses at random, they both help to make the statement in the question – invariably the policy opinion adopted by the government – appear to be the choice of the majority, even if that was not the case.
  2. It is standard practice in public opinion research to introduce questions by saying that “Some people think … [something], while others think … [the opposite]”. This is useful because it assures respondents who may be hesitant to state their true opinion that both sides of the given argument are legitimate opinions. It is also important to phrase the alternatives in a balanced way that does not artificially make one opinion more attractive than the other irrespectively of agreement or disagreement with its substance. The questionnaire of the National Consultation does not meet this requirement because all three questions that start by saying “that some people say” identify only one alternative, which always coincides with the prime minister’s position about the subject matter. It is well-documented in studies of public opinion that asking for the expression of agreement/disagreement with only side of an argument facilitates ‘yeah-saying’ (acquiescence bias) among weakly committed respondents and thus distorts our picture about true public opinion.
  3. It is well-known among public opinion researchers that the order and phrasing of the preceding questions can systematically shape the responses that one obtains to any question. The questionnaire of the National Consultation is suggestive from this point of view as well. Both its title and the first three questions link “profiteering immigrants” – a pejorative neologism for immigrants attracted by better economic opportunities away from their homeland – to the obviously negative phenomenon of terrorism, thus increasing the probability that the rest of the questionnaire will find negative attitudes toward immigrants.
  4. The perhaps most important requirement for a credible survey of public opinion is an appropriate sampling of respondents from the given population. Lay people often think that more respondents always mean a more accurate picture of public opinion, and National Consultations are often claimed to represent true public opinion on this account. But this is in fact a false belief and a large number of respondents in no way guarantees that the sample well represents the public at large. If respondents were not selected with rigorous scientific methods but rather by “self-selection,” then there is a high probability that their voice will represent those who had a strong opinion or emotion motivating them to respond. In the case of the National Consultation, in particular, it can be taken for granted that the self-selection will produce politically one-sided results, since it is the Prime Minister himself who asks citizens to respond to his questions.
  5. It further undermines the validity of the results of the National Consultation that the questionnaire does not query the socio-demographic characteristics of the respondents, i.e. it does not provide data about their sex, age, education, income position, etc. Thus there is no way that appropriate weighting procedures could statistically correct the inevitable but systematic shortcomings of any sampling procedure, or that serious analyses of the results could be attempted.

All in all, the National Consultation is not a public opinion poll. Although the Prime Minister’s invitation letter to citizens calls it a “consultation” that prepares the way for some policy decisions, all other appearances aim to reinforce the mistaken impression that the invitation is to a conventional public opinion survey. Yet the manipulative use of the tools and appearances of a public opinion poll by the National Consultation merely highlights the fact that genuine studies of public opinion that could help both decision makers and the public to find out public opinion about policy alternatives are in fact disappearing from the Hungarian public sphere. Such studies could only be carried out by credible researchers who comply with the professional and ethical norms of public opinion research. Only audited institutions complying with high scientific standards should be entrusted with studies of public opinion, with all contracts and resulting databases available for public scrutiny. The government could spend public money on such inquiries: hundreds of them would be financed from the billions spent on the fake national consultations.

Zoltán Balázs, university professor, Corvinus University
Iván Balog, sociologist, University of Szeged
Ildikó Barna, sociologist, ELTE
László Beck, sociologist, Medián
András Bíró-Nagy, research director, Policy Solutions
Balázs Böcskei, political scientist, ELTE
Zsolt Boda, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
József Böröcz, sociologist, Rutgers University
László Bruszt, university professor, European University Institute, Florence
György Csepeli, president of the Hungarian Association of Sociologists
Ágnes Darvas, sociologists, ELTE
Zsolt Enyedi, political scientist, Central European University
Zsuzsa Ferge, member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Anikó Gregor, sociologist, ELTE
Endre Hann, social psychologist, Medián
István Hegedűs, sociologist, Hungarian-European Association
Béla Janky, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Budapest Engineering University
Angéla Kóczé, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Wake Forest University
Éva Kovács, sociologist, Budapest/Vienna
Balázs Krémer, sociologist, University of Debrecen
Zoltán Lakner, political scientist, ELTE
Orsolya Lelkes, sociologist, University of Vienna
Balázs Majtényi, ELTE
Béla Marián, unemployed public opinion researcher
Bálint Misetics, researcher, social policy
Antal Örkény, sociologist, ELTE
Ágnes Rényi, sociologist, ELTE
Péter Róbert, sociologist
Dániel Róna, political scientist, Covinus University
Ágota Scharle, economist, Budapest Institute
Endre Sík, sociologist, TÁRKI
Andrea Szabó, sociologist
Ildikó Szabó, professor emeritus, University of Debrecen
Mária Székelyi, professor emeritus, ELTE
Iván Szelényi, member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Pál Tamás, researcher, Corvinus University
Róbert Tardos, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, ELTE
Gábor Tóka, sociologist, Central European University
Csaba Tóth, director of strategy, Republikon Institute
Anna Unger, poliltical scientist, ELTE
Balázs Váradi, economist, ELTE
Mária Vásárhelyi, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Anna Wessely, sociologist and historian of art, ELTE
Tibor Závecz, sociologist, Ipsos
János Zolnay, sociologist

Viktor Orbán will take care of Hungary’s unwanted immigrants

As many as 900 people may have drowned in the Mediterranean a few days ago in their attempt to enter Europe as illegal immigrants. This tragedy once again focused attention on the serious refugee problem the European Union faces. Thousands of people from war-torn Iraq and Syria have been joining citizens of African countries in dangerous journeys to escape danger and poverty. The EU has been slow to respond to the problem. The extraordinary summit held on Thursday dealt exclusively with those refugees who arrive by boat–admittedly the most pressing, life-threatening problem. But Hungary also receives a large number of applications for settlement in the European Union. The would-be immigrants are largely Kosovars, Syrians, and Iraqis who opted to travel by land across the Balkan peninsula. Their final destination isn’t Hungary but countries in western Europe. Hungary is just a transit point. Nonetheless, Viktor Orbán has been trying to use the immigration issue to his own political advantage.

Orbán’s populist attitude toward immigration has received wide coverage in the press. He appeals to the basest instincts of Hungarians, whose xenophobia is well known. Hungarian commentators point out that his latest suggestions for dealing with the immigrant problem–which currently is no problem at all–echo the ideas of Jobbik. (Jobbik warmly welcomed the prime minister’s new statements about refugee seekers.) Because it is Jobbik that wants to solve all problems by force, something that Viktor Orbán now advocates himself. This way, the argument goes, he hopes to recapture those Fidesz voters who have moved over to Jobbik and to bolster his sagging popularity among the population as a whole.

What are the main features of Orbán’s ideas on immigration? First and foremost, Europe does not need immigrants at all. Second, the European Union should be sealed and defended against intruders by the army. Third, the European Union should not overreach in its immigration/refugee policies. Each country should formulate its own policies and deal with its unwanted immigrants as it best sees fit.

"We need no refugees" Gábor Pápai / Népszava

We need no refugees” Gábor Pápai / Népszava

I will come back to these topics later, but first let me turn to the government “consultation” on immigration.The government will send out eight million questionnaires to the voting-age public, in the expectation that one million will be filled out and returned. The results will be seen only by government officials, if they bother at all with the exercise. The survey asks the following twelve leading questions.

1. How important is the spread of terrorism as far as your own life is concerned?

2. In your opinion could Hungary become the target of terrorism in the next few years?

3. Do you agree that mistaken immigration policies contribute to the spread of terrorism?

4. Did you know that economic immigrants cross the border illegally and that lately their numbers have increased twentyfold?

5. Do you agree with the opinion that economic immigrants endanger the jobs and livelihoods of the Hungarian people [magyar emberek]?

6. In your opinion did Brussels’ policies on immigration and terrorism fail?

7. Would you support the government in its effort to introduce stricter immigration regulations in opposition to Brussels?

8. Would you support a new regulation that would allow the government to place immigrants who illegally entered the country into internment camps?

9. In your opinion should those immigrants who illegally enter the country be returned to their own countries in the shortest possible time?

10. Do you agree that those economic immigrants who stay in Hungary should have to work to cover the cost of their keep?

11. Do you agree that the best means of combating immigration is to give economic assistance to the countries of origin of the immigrants?

12. Do you agree with the government that instead of allocating funds to immigration we should support Hungarian families and those children yet to be born?

I don’t think that I have to comment on this “national consultation.”

Instead, I would like call attention to something that few people have touched upon. In criticizing Orbán, many commentators point to the large number of Hungarians currently working in western Europe, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Are they not “economic immigrants” in the countries where they have settled? The government’s answer is that the two cases cannot be compared. Hungary belongs to the European Union, which allows citizens of member states free movement and equal job opportunities anywhere inside the borders of the EU. Indeed, this is the case, and on this level the Hungarian government has a valid point. But let’s tackle the problem from another angle. Viktor Orbán appeals to a law that allows Hungarians the privilege of free movement. This privilege is an expression of the common will of the European Union. But now Hungary wants to be solely responsible for creating its own immigration policy that would deal with immigrants from outside of the European Union. When it is to his advantage, he appeals to the authority of the European Union, but when it looks as if he has to take joint responsibility for the immigrant issue, he refuses to cooperate.

If, by the way, Viktor Orbán thinks that immigrants from Eastern European countries are always welcomed by the population in countries of western Europe, he is very wrong. Just yesterday Austrian right-wingers demanded that the government introduce a quota system to keep Hungarians out of the country. They claim that there are enough of them as it is. And Orbán’s friend, British Prime Minister David Cameron, hasn’t shown himself to be exactly a friend of immigrants who come from the eastern periphery of the EU. In general, one can say that immigrants are unpopular, especially in economically difficult times. They are blamed for accepting jobs for less money and taking away the livelihoods of the natives. This is true now, and it was even true in countries, like Canada, where a large number of Hungarians settled in 1956.

As for the generosity of the Hungarian government, let me tell you about a Kurdish family who has lived in Hungary for the last seventeen years. The couple has three children, the oldest of whom is 18. The two younger ones were born in Hungary. Last year the office handling immigration issues refused to give the family permission to settle in Hungary. It was only two days ago that the court ordered a review of the case. The classmates of the older daughter wrote a heart-wrenching letter, pleading with the court not to expel their classmate from the country. So much for the famously Christian country.

The internet tax is only postponed: it most likely will be called something else

The first act of the drama is over, but I’m almost sure that more will follow since the participants in the recent massive demonstrations know Viktor Orbán only too well. Moreover, in his interview today on Magyar Rádió, he was quite blunt about his resolve to reintroduce the tax. The tax will be adopted “but not this way,” “not in this form.” That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

The problem, according to the prime minister, is that once again the people “misunderstood” the original proposal because there was never any talk about an “internet tax.” The proposed tax was simply an extension of the already existing “telecommunication tax.” Again the same old story: all controversial pieces of legislation are misunderstood by the domestic opposition. And naturally they are misconstrued by the antagonistic domestic and foreign media.

People who know Viktor Orbán are only too aware of his absolute intolerance of contrary opinions. We were reminded of this character trait only today when Tamás Mellár, the conservative economist who worked at Századvég for a year until he resigned in disgust, told the following story to a Népszabadság reporter. One day, when four or five economic experts gathered for a meeting with Orbán, he dared say to the prime minister: “Forgive me, but you are wrong in that.” A deathly silence followed, during which Mihály Varga, minister of national economy, “pulled” Mellár’s hand under the table, signaling to him that such a thing is simply not done.

So, you can imagine the scene when the normally servile reporter who conducts Orbán’s Friday morning radio interviews had the audacity to say that it doesn’t matter whether we call the disputed tax an “internet tax” or a “telecommunication tax”–it is only “playing with words.” A brief silence followed, and one could feel the stunned surprise and wrath of the prime minister. It was a frightening moment. But that was not the only awkward exchange in the conversation. The reporter mistakenly thought that Orbán had exhausted the topic of the internet aka telecommunication tax and wanted to switch over to foreign criticism of Hungarian policies, which he thought was somewhat connected to the upheaval over the internet tax. Orbán snapped at him again. First of all, these two things don’t have anything to do with one another, he claimed, and, second, he does not want to talk about this now. What he wants to bring up and what is very important is that the Hungarian government has an understanding with internet providers to make the whole country internet ready by 2020. This is what is important.

As for the criticisms, Orbán had a very simple answer. Naturally, the accusations of Hungarian wrongdoing have nothing to do with the facts. It is noticeable that criticisms multiply when the government stands up for the Hungarian people which in turn hurts foreign business interests. Right now, for example, after the parliament passed a piece of legislation that forces mostly foreign banks to lighten the burden on Forex borrowers, foreign governments are trying to put pressure on Budapest. Falling into the same category are the mostly foreign internet providers who don’t carry their fair share of the tax burden. They make enormous “extra profits” that they take out of the country. These extra profits disappear into thin air. He leveled this charge despite the fact that earlier in the interview he praised the same foreign internet providers for continuing to pour enormous sums of money into the development of broadband service.

Finally, Orbán announced a “national consultation” on the subject of the non-“internet tax.” Tamás Deutsch, a member of the European Parliament who hangs out on Twitter all day long entertaining people with his obscenities, will be in charge of this grand consultation. Although Deutsch thinks that the tax is “stupid,” he called the protesters “ragamuffins” and “stink bugs.” As for the so-called “national consultation,” we have witnessed a few of these in the past and we know that they are a farce. Viktor Orbán sends out millions of questionnaires to voters containing questions that beg for affirmative answers that justify the government’s position. For example, “internet dependency is a serious psychological illness” or “the internet is dangerous to young people because of pedophiles roaming the Net.”

As for the mysterious “extra profit,” I get annoyed every time I hear someone use the term. And unfortunately one hears it far too often. It stirs up old memories of a compulsory university course called “political economy.” In it one learned the Leninist definition of extra profit. According to Lenin, extra profit derives from the exploitation of workers in the colonies. These extra profits are then distributed at home to raise the living standard of the working class in order to keep them quiet. According to Marxist-Leninist theory, all profit is based on exploitation of the workers but the extra profit is achieved by taking exploitation beyond the normal level. The notion of extra profit in today’s public discourse makes not the slightest sense. Viktor Orbán is taking advantage of the Hungarian people’s discomfort with capitalism and what it entails–including competition and profit–and invoking concepts from the very same communism he wants to banish once and for all from the country. And, by the way, the profit these providers earn is apparently rather low.

Delete Viktor

So, will Viktor Orbán’s announcement this morning quiet the protesters? It looks as if Viktor Orbán’s interview, widely reported in the foreign press as announcing a withdrawal of the tax–a capitulation by the prime minister, did not impress Hungarians. Tonight József nádor tér was still full of demonstrators, and the slogans and posters highlighted various “sins” of the government. For example: “Viktor, you will find the extra profit in Felcsút.” Norwegian and EU flags were seen everywhere. The speakers announced that there is no need for “national consultation” because that already took place in the last  few days on the streets of Budapest and other Hungarian cities. The speakers argued that the government needs extra taxes because of the corrupt tax authorities.

In Szeged a very large crowd gathered tonight. Here the speakers covered several topics, including corruption and the lack of media freedom. The internet is the only “free island which the government hasn’t occupied yet.” It is, one speaker claimed, the most significant invention since the discovery of fire and the wheel and the symbol of Hungarians’ tie to Europe. “We cannot stop at the internet tax, let’s demolish the walls while they are not yet plastered and painted. … Long live freedom and the fatherland!”

The first day of the “new country”

Viktor Orbán promised that all those Hungarians who live within the borders of the Hungarian Republic will wake up in a new country on April 26. Such campaign slogans of course cannot be taken too seriously but in some ways Viktor Orbán was right. Topics that had been shelved for years suddenly cropped up.

The first piece of news this morning was that the Christian Democrats, who again want to have their own parliamentary delegation although they don’t have a party, announced a warmed-up demand: all supermarkets and shopping centers must be closed on Sundays. Allegedly the reason for this “innovation” is that the Christian Democrats are against the exploitation of the poor employees who have to work on Sundays. The family cannot spend a day together and, after all, for the Christian Democrats the family is very, very important.

Behind this demand to close supermarkets and malls are an alliance and an antipathy. First, the Christian Democrats have a very close association with the Catholic Church. According to rumors, the Catholic Church insisted on having a distinct Christian Democratic group within the Fidesz caucus that would represent the Church within the walls of parliament. However, only about 13% of the population frequent churches on Sundays and therefore arguing on religious grounds might not attract much sympathy. Second, they are antagonistic toward the multinationals who own most of the supermarkets and shopping centers. However, it is difficult to talk about this openly. So there remains their fervent protection of the exploited workers who, by the way, receive double pay on weekends.

Sundays are popular days for family shopping. The kids love going to the malls, and shopping is often accompanied by eating at one of the restaurants inside the shopping center. I heard an interview with the spokeswoman of Tesco who claimed that 10% of their business comes from being open on Sundays. An owner of a restaurant chain is beside himself because his restaurants are in shopping malls and 25% of their business is conducted on Saturdays and Sundays. Both people claimed that they would have to fire some employees if the Christian Democrats’ plans become reality.

A socialist sympathizer who likes shopping on Sundays came up with a capital idea. A referendum should be held where people could vote for or against Sunday openings. My feeling is that the yeas would way outnumber the nays. But I think Viktor Orbán knows that too. Moreover, he has been especially friendly with associations representing those “oligarchs” he has been condemning so fiercely in the last couple of days. Among his supporters is at least one very rich man who has built multiple shopping centers in Hungary as well as abroad. Somehow I don’t think that Orbán’s favorite oligarch would be enamored with the ideas of the Christian Democrats. Thus, although we will hear a lot about this issue, I doubt that anything will come of it.

As for that alleged national cooperation/unity the Financial Times also noticed that although Viktor Orbán emphasizes the necessity of such unity or cooperation, his plans don’t include any kind of cooperation with the opposition. Today Fidesz gave another example of the kind of “cooperation” they have in mind. Tibor Navracsics, head of the Fidesz caucus in the last parliament, wrote a lengthy letter to Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai in which he outlined their numerous demands for the transition of government business. Bajnai immediately answered that in fact his government had already prepared the details of the transition that included all the Fidesz demands and more. He invited the representatives of Fidesz to discuss the details. Answer: Fidesz doesn’t talk to this government. Period. Good beginning.

A third piece of news concerned the new civil code that was passed during the last legislative session. Fidesz didn’t vote for it because they objected to certain provisions. The Christian Democrats were especially upset over the provision for civil unions for gays and lesbians and the omission of an old (1950s) provision in the civil marriage vows that included a reference to marital fidelity. Although the President himself didn’t go to the Constitutional Court for a decision on the issue, Róbert Répássy, the Fidesz representative in charge of legal questions, did. The Constitutional Court decided that certain provisions in the civil code are unconstitutional and therefore it cannot come into force on May 1 as planned. What a coincidence! After all, Fidesz said months ago that if the new civil code became the law of the land the new Orbán government would immediately suspend it. The Constitutional Court did them a favor. All that legal hassle will be unnecessary.

And on to something I found amusing. I read in today’s Népszava that Jobbik will insist on the creation of a National Hungarian Guard (Nemzeti Magyar Gárda). The courts and the democratic parties have been struggling with how to get rid of the Hungarian Guard, which is the party’s paramilitary organization; now Jobbik wants to make it the official national guard of the country. That most likely makes István Simicskó, originally Fidesz and later for convenience sake a Christian Democratic parliamentary member, cringe. Simicskó might be the next minister of defense, and his hobby horse until now at least was the establishment of a volunteer reserve force akin to the National Guard in the United States. But can you imagine if the National Guard is also supported and to a great extent manned by Jobbik and its sympathizers? This force could eventually become a real threat to the Orbán government or its successors. And then there would be the international fallout to any cooperation between Fidesz and Jobbik in establishing a Hungarian National Guard.

One more footnote to the topic of the aborted civil code. A provision that would have been changed, also from the time of the one-party dictatorship in the old civil code, was that a newspaper that quotes a source is responsible for its content. To give an example. Let’s say that MTI, the Hungarian news service, reports on an event in which a statement was uttered that someone found objectionable. The “injured person” could then force not only MTI but also the paper that used the item to publish a “correction.” Galamus.hu twice found itself in this predicament by simply publishing MTI wire news. The editor of the on-line paper made the corrections but wrote a piece in which she expressed her frustration with this practice based on some idiotic law of the 1950s. At the end of her piece she optimistically said something to the effect that people can continue to make these demands for another fourteen days but then comes May 1 when the “injured persons” can save themselves a lot of legal fees. Well, it seems that she was too optimistic. The nonsense will continue.

And finally, there is nothing new under the sun. I was hoping that once Viktor Orbán felt safe as prime minister-elect of the country he would give up his old populist ways and actually start governing. But no, he continues with his “national consultations.” There will be national consultations on five topics: law and order, social security, recovery of the economy, salvaging health care, and bringing back democratic norms. So again, Orbán is planning to conduct politics outside of parliament and to engage in useless consultations with “the nation.” I for one was hoping that he and his team already had some plans worked out and that they were not hoping to get ideas from the people who are singularly badly informed about economic and financial matters. But, of course, this is just a trick by which he is hoping to turn people’s attention away from the stark reality of the country: people will not live better for a while and the government will not be able to provide without economic growth that hinges on an international economic recovery.

April 26, 2011