Fidesz is driving Hungarians into a dishonest referendum

Teaser Image Caption
Billboard of the Two Tailed Dog Party: "Did you know? Yesno! Stupid questions deserve stupid answers.Give an invalid vote!".

The government’s hate campaign against the refugees will soon achieve its goal: on October 2, Hungarians will cast their votes in an unnecessary, expensive and inhumane referendum.

The Hungarian government has been using the refugee question consciously for over a year now to mask their shady affairs and to bolster their own popularity with rhetoric of constant war against a foreign enemy.

One year ago, Hungary closed its borders with Serbia in order to shut out refugees on their way to Western Europe fleeing war and persecution. It has been known for a long time that they were not heading for Hungary, as only a fraction of those travelling across the country actually asked for asylum here.

Despite this, the country was full of posters last year trumpeting the government’s messages (in Hungarian) meant to make the population believe that, if necessary, the government: would discipline the foreigners arriving in Hungary, would not let refugees take Hungarians’ jobs, and would require them to obey Hungarian laws. The goal of last year’s poster campaign was mostly to instil xenophobia and a sense of fear in the Hungarian population.

Much has changed in a year, however. While economic stagnation persisted and a steady flow of government-linked corruption scandals emerged, while poverty spread and serious issues in Hungarian health care grew ever more acute, widespread protests flared up: on several occasions during the spring and summer, tens of thousands took to the streets to protest the government’s policies in education.

Meanwhile, the European Union decided on the figures for the resettlement quota: Hungary would be required to take in just over 1,300 refugees. The Hungarian government took issue with the EU on this matter, however; Hungary would not be taking in any refugees.

On 24 February 2016 (only a few days after the large protest over education policy had started), Prime Minister Viktor Orbán unexpectedly called a press conference and announced that the government had decided to hold a referendum. According to the constitution, the government could do this without the consensus of the population (referendums can be called by the President of the Republic, by the government, or with the support of 100,000 individuals). However, the question posed in the referendum violates both the constitutional provisions on the primacy of EU rules and also international treaties on refugee rights that the country has signed, although this has not yet had any legal consequences. At least the prime minister did not call the referendum under the pretence that the result would have any significant effect on European politics or EU refugee policy, which he conceded shortly after the announcement.

The parliament adopted the proposal for the referendum on 10 May. The far-right opposition party Jobbik voted “yes” along with the ruling Fidesz party, giving the “yes” camp a clear majority.

Soon a new public poster campaign and a supporting media campaign were launched, this time with the slogan: “We are sending a message to Brussels, so that they understand.” And while the government spent around HUF 300 million (almost EUR 1 million) on last year’s anti-refugee campaign, this year’s campaign has already cost HUF 3 billion (close to EUR 10 million) according to conservative estimates.

The constitutional court dismissed four complaints challenging the referendum (two were mounted by opposition politicians and two by private individuals), so the President of the Republic, János Áder set the referendum date for 2 October. The fact that the referendum would cost HUF 4.5 billion became public knowledge at the beginning of July. Interestingly, the Hungarian state spent HUF 5.5 billion on actually providing for the refugees last year.

The exact question on the referendum ballots will be as follows: “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens into Hungary even without the approval of the National Assembly?” The question is already manipulative in and of itself, but the government are doing everything in their power to frame it according to their own stance on the issue.

Questionable circumstances

The campaign itself is being run in a questionable manner. The organisation of the most expensive government campaign to date was assigned (under dubious circumstances) to Csaba Csetényi’s companies. Csetényi is a close friend of Antal Rogán, Minister of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office, who has been implicated in a number of current corruption scandals.

The campaign itself was reported to the prosecutor’s office by the Mérték Media Monitor, an independent think tank focusing on media freedom and regulation, on the basis that the media law prohibits radio and television broadcasts of political advertisements outside of campaign periods. And Fidesz has spread government propaganda under the guise of public service advertisements on several occasions. Although the official campaign period had not yet begun during the Rio Olympics, Hungarian viewers were bombarded with campaign slogans beginning with “Did you know?”, and streets and public spaces around the country – even in the tiniest villages – were plastered with posters that spread information such as: “Since the start of the migrant crisis, more than 300 people in Europe have died in terrorist attacks.”

The government’s goal was obvious: to instil fear in the Hungarian population by equating refugees with terrorism. “Migration poses a threat. It increases terrorism and criminal activity. Migration in large numbers will change the cultural image of Europe. Migration in large numbers will destroy our national culture,” Viktor Orbán announced in a speech this summer at a youth festival in Tusnádfürdő, Transylvania. He blamed the refugee crisis mostly on the idleness and bad decisions of the European Union, and also talked about the disappearance of Europe’s central role in the world. “However, like I said, migration is killing us. And migration is embodied by migrants. Therefore, no matter how much empathy we feel for them and no matter how much we see them as victims, we have to stop them at our fences and make it clear to them that anyone who sets foot in Hungary illegally will be imprisoned in accordance with our laws, or will be expelled from the country. My dear Ladies and Gentlemen, respected Open University, there is no friendlier way of defending ourselves,” he said.

The government have also argued that the refugee crisis and the issue of quotas have demonstrated how disrespectful the EU can be when it comes to Hungarians’ needs. The campaign has successfully spun the issue of the solidarity contribution (a “penalty” of EUR 250,000 for each rejected refugee) by telling voters that for irrational Eurocrats the value of an immigrant is much greater than that of a European, and that this is apparent when the EU imposes a fine for the rejections of a single refugee which is the equivalent of 40 years’ earnings of a hard-working Hungarian.

The confused opposition

It seems that the government have successfully pushed the opposition parties into a messaging quandary. Since government propaganda has reached the majority of the population and most Hungarians now fear foreigners and reject refugees, campaigning on traditional leftist values would be a risky strategy for opposition parties.

According to a new public opinion survey, 80 percent of Hungarians are anti-refugee, believe refugees pose a danger, and do not want them to settle in Hungary. Public sentiment has shifted since last year: now, 50 percent of respondents say refugees do not have to be treated more humanely, and 63 percent believe that it is not our responsibility to help refugees.

Accordingly, the left were unable to find their voice in the campaign for a long time. It was only at the beginning of June that the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) announced a “Free Europe Day” for the day of the referendum. The party is encouraging its supporters not to participate in the referendum, and thus to support Hungary’s EU membership status. By the beginning of August, however, party leaders felt that in addition to boycotting the vote, calling upon supporters to cast invalid ballots was also a possible route.

The opposition parties Együtt, Dialogue for Hungary (PM) and the Modern Hungary Movement (MoMa) have urged their supporters to boycott the referendum: “Viktor Orbán asked a dishonest question in the service of his own goals – someone who lies in the question does not deserve an answer,” says Viktor Szigetvári, the president of Együtt. The Democratic Coalition (DK, the party of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány) is also supporting the boycott.

The Hungarian Liberal Party is the only parliamentary party that is campaigning for a “yes” vote – but its campaign will most likely have no real impact, as it lacks an independent parliamentary faction as well as any measurable popular support.

LMP have no idea which strategy to pursue, although according to co-president Bernadett Széll they are urging their supporters to vote “no” in the referendum with Fidesz and Jobbik. In practice, however, they will leave it up to their supporters to decide. They will not run a campaign.

In a vacuum

Fidesz launched its campaign at the beginning of September. The party will organise some 200 residential forums, and has mobilised the majority of its activists for the referendum. Party insiders believe that parliamentary elections could potentially be moved forward if the referendum is a success, which demonstrates that the government have called the referendum in order to strengthen their own political position.

During the fifty-day campaign period, the parties will receive a combined total of 1,050 minutes of free advertising time on public television and a few other channels. This is divided amongst 5 parliamentary factions, with the governing party receiving the majority of the airtime, 630 minutes. They have also had a bit of a head start: according to Hungarian media reports, by 13 August, before the official start of the campaign period, over 2,000 minutes of government propaganda had been aired as public service announcements. Not even counting the online ads, the government’s “PSAs” have appeared in the media some 10,000 times.

This puts the other parties in a very difficult position, as their campaigns are hardly visible next to the government’s. At present, the only party that has managed to really draw attention to itself is the Hungarian Two Tailed Dog Party – a joke party (this is the second time they have reacted to the government’s anti-refugee hatemongering) – that announced a poster campaign to be financed through crowdfunding and placed posters on the streets. Thus far, the party has received HUF 28 million in donations, more than any other opposition party. Their posters followed the “stupid questions deserve stupid answers” strategy, making a joke out of the government’s messages. Fundamentally, however, they are urging their supporters to boycott the vote.

In summary, the total amount spent by the government on the campaign could reach HUF 5 billion by the end of the campaign period. The divided opposition will spend around HUF 50 million to voice opposing views, while civic organisations are in an even more difficult position, as they have only begun to campaign in social media (and op-eds published in independent newspapers) during the past few days. Two major human rights organisations in Hungary, the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (TASZ) and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, are calling on citizens to cast invalid ballots because they believe that simply boycotting the referendum would give the impression that people do not care about the issue (after all, it is hard to distinguish between those who stay home out of indifference and those who do so in protest). In the meantime, Amnesty International is trying to provide the electorate with as much objective information on refugees as possible, so that they can make an informed decision about what the hatemongering means for Hungary. The organisation is preparing a street event for 15 September, which is the anniversary of the Hungarian government passing a legislative change that made it possible to shut refugees out of the country. Several smaller civic organisations are planning to launch a unified campaign, but without significant funds they are unlikely to generate a significant media presence.

It is quite obvious that the majority will vote “no”, but the opposition still hopes that the number of abstentions and invalid votes will be high enough to deem the outcome referendum void (in accordance with Hungarian law). Undoubtedly, the government has already succeeded in making the refugee crisis the central topic of public discourse during the fall of 2016. Meanwhile, Hungary’s health care system is in ruins, its education system is crumbling, and poverty is becoming more and more acute.