Orbán’s Referendum on Refugee Quotas Is Meaningless and Irresponsible

The Hungarian government will hold a referendum in order to signal to Brussels that refugees are not welcome in Hungary. The referendum itself cannot influence EU policies, and may not even be legal under Hungarian law. Nevertheless, the government stand to gain significantly from it, even while proving itself inhumane.

The Hungarian government have been campaigning against refugees for more than a year. The campaign’s main goals include boosting the government’s popularity, concealing certain corrupt practices, and miscommunicating the debate with Brussels. Usually when Hungary’s governing Fidesz party talks about the refugee problem, it is only to steer public opinion in a particular direction. And, unfortunately, Orbán and his party are stirring up serious fears in Hungarian society, which ultimately bolsters their popularity.

The government’s 2015 anti-refugee poster campaign featured slogans like “If you come to Hungary, you can’t take away Hungarians’ jobs!” and cost the country about 400 million forints (1.3 million euros). The posters, whose slogans were only in Hungarian, were surely not addressed to the refugees, but to Hungarian citizens, and they communicated the idea that the refugees are coming only to hurt the Hungarian people. The campaign was successful in that the already very anti-refugee public sentiment became even more hostile.

This was followed by a national consultation, in which the government appealed to the Hungarian people with even more prejudice, essentially equating refugees with terrorists. The endeavour cost 1 billion forints (3.2 million euros), but out of the 8 million questionnaires that were sent out, only just over 1 million were returned.

The fence surrounding the country cost 10 billion forints (32 million euros), and led to even more popular hatred, shutting out refugees fleeing from the horrors of war and seeking a chance for a better life in Europe. In 2015, until the border lockdown, nearly 400,000 refugees crossed the country. They did not settle in Hungary, but continued on to Austria and beyond. Contrary to what the Hungarian government communicated, they were not there “to take away Hungarians’ jobs”.

The results were conclusive, however. Except for Fidesz, no other party in Hungary could turn the refugee crisis to its advantage. Moreover, the ruling party has managed to revive its lagging popularity – after a drop from 35 to 25 percent last year, Fidesz is back at 33 percent approval, according to the Median public opinion research institute.

Diverting public attention

That was last year, but this year is even more important for Fidesz. Since the government is plagued by scandals and under increasing pressure from a range of European Union organisations, this was a perfect opportunity for Fidesz to attack the EU’s quota system.

Right now, the Fidesz party is facing many inconvenient issues. The protests over education are intensifying, and the Hungarian National Bank’s corruption scandal is significantly undermining the government’s popularity. In light of these events, the government had to play their trump card. Even though the number of refugees in the country has not grown significantly in the past few months, the government has started to stir up fears once again.

Without a doubt, the high point of this process will be the anti-quota referendum. Initiating a referendum as an opposition party or as a citizen is practically impossible in the Hungarian system under Fidesz, mainly because there are too many requirements. In most cases, the National Referendum Office uses made-up excuses to reject proposals, and even if a question is taken into consideration it requires 200,000 signatures to be put up for a vote, and the results are only valid if at least 4 million people participate.

The anti-quota referendum’s question is as follows: “Do you want the European Union to order the obligatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without parliamentary approval?” This wording received a free pass from the Curia, Hungary’s highest court, even though multiple Hungarian and international organisations have indicated that the action is unconstitutional, beyond the purview of the parliament, and misleading.

“An act like this says a lot about the independence of the courts,” says Peter Hack, a criminal law professor at the ELTE University of Budapest and founder of Hungary’s former liberal party SZDSZ – Alliance of Free Democrats, in a recent interview in the magazine Magyar Narancs. “Even though the courts are the last remaining checks and balances in Hungary, many judges are trying to hand down decisions that please the government, as they know that their career prospects depend on how their work is perceived by those in power.”

Mission impossible, even for Fidesz?

Since it would be difficult even for Fidesz to procure all the necessary signatures, the party is resorting to new methods. According to the plan, even ethnic Hungarians in neighbouring countries (who hold dual citizenship) would be able to vote on the issue of accepting refugees. It is self-evident what a ridiculous idea this is – calling upon Hungarians living in other countries (some 180,000 people in total, which is quite a large number in a popular vote) to answer a question on refugees that they are not even affected by.

This is an evil charade, however, because the European Commission is not affected whatsoever by a Hungarian popular vote, meaning it can make decisions on the quota system regardless what the Hungarian people want. On the other hand, the referendum will cost about 5 billion forints (16 million euros), which will come out of taxpayers’ pockets.

Despite all the suspicious conditions, not accepting immigrants and being penalised 250,000 euros per refugee by the European Commission would still only benefit the Fidesz party. Indeed, the Orbán system would continue to fuel popular sentiment against Brussels, and they would insist that the EU is attacking its Hungarian citizens by imposing such penalties on them (an ordinary Hungarian citizen would need to work 40 years to earn that kind of money, Orbán emphasised in a recent radio interview). Moreover, this scenario would enable Orbán to say that Hungarians have said “no” to quotas in a democratic referendum, but that the EU is still insisting on its unacceptable policies.

What’s more, left-wing and liberal opposition parties will have difficulty communicating a clear message on the referendum. All of these parties are pro-EU, but they know on the one hand that the EU is increasingly unpopular in Hungary and on the other that the referendum question is meaningless anyway. Thus, they will need to determine whether they want their voters to boycott the referendum or to vote “yes”, and indeed whether they want to expend time and energy campaigning on this issue at all.

Awakening distrust

In the meantime, a new refugee camp has been opened in Kormend near the Hungarian border. It was not long before the press, which is now mostly under the government’s influence, was filled with anti-refugee hysteria. According to initial news reports, some of the inhabitants of the camp had been eyeing girls at a nearby sports facility and had even broken a window. Never mind that these reports were immediately discredited by local police, but just this one piece of news was enough to turn public opinion against the refugees once more, which only makes it easier for the government to build their campaign for the popular referendum expected to take place this fall. And it is clear that the news has reached the right audience: Hungarian society’s distrust of refugees has been quickly awakened. (According to recent reports, the people of Kormend have already taken up arms to be able to defend themselves.)

In any case, for the referendum to be legally effective in Hungary with its less than 10 million inhabitants, it would need a minimum of 4 million votes. This means that in the next few weeks and months the government is likely to launch their most aggressive campaign yet, if they do not wish to lose their own referendum.

According to EU projections, Hungary will need to harbour 1,294 refugees in the near future. The Hungarian government is spending billions of forints to keep that small number of refugees out of the country, and to bury the suspicious circumstances that seem to be emerging around them continuously these days. By demonising people who have had to leave their war-ridden countries, the Hungarian government as a whole has certainly failed the test of human behaviour.


Nora Dioszegi-Horvath

Nóra Diószegi-Horváth is a journalist who writes mostly on education, health and social issues. She is the editor of the Budapest-based independent platform Kettős Mérce and received her MA in Russian Language and Literature and in Aesthetics from the Faculty of Humanities, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), in 2009.

Proofreading by Evan Mellander