So this is how liberty dies? Hungary’s EU migrant quota referendum


On 2 October a referendum was held in Hungary on the EU’s plans for refugee and migrant resettlement. 98 per cent of those who turned out supported the government in voting ‘No’ but the result was invalid as the 50 per cent turnout threshold was not met. Zoltán Gábor Szűcs discusses the background to the referendum and the campaign itself. He suggests that the referendum and campaign, the most expensive in modern Hungarian history, fell short of what we would expect in a democratic country. 

The 2 October referendum on the EU’s migrant quota did not make it much easier for foreign observers of Hungarian politics to understand what is going on. The right-wing government gathered huge support for its politics (3.3 million votes, over 98 per cent of those who voted), but failed to secure the 50 per cent turnout required for a valid referendum. The latter is somewhat ironic because it was the present government that raised the threshold to 50 per cent. And it is all the more surprising too since the money they spent on this campaign is unprecedented in post-communist Hungarian history, the opposition was divided and the government made extensive use of state-controlled media and public administration resources in controversial (even illegal) ways to persuade the public to vote ‘No’. The immediate response of the government was telling in the sense that they said nothing about the invalidity of the referendum in legal terms, but declared a big political victory. The new catchword for this so-called historic victory was ‘New Unity’ (somewhat disconcerting if we are sensitive to its not very democratic connotations) and the government immediately drafted a more or less meaningless amendment to the constitution, banning the settlement of migrants without parliamentary approval. These reactions suggest that the government was not completely satisfied with the results.

To put these events into context, we have to look back to the past ten years or so in Hungarian politics. The quasi two-party system of the late 1990s and early 2000s started to erode after 2004. The chronic moral and leadership crisis of the left led to a series of defeats, and even though in 2006 socialists and liberals won a parliamentary election their last years in power become a nightmare for them full with corruption scandals, embarrassing leaks in the media, ever changing policies and the undoing of a decade-long co-operation of the socialist and the liberal parties. The free fall of the left and the emergence of the far-right Jobbik party radically restructured the political space and provided the opportunity for Fidesz to gain a constitutional majority in the parliament in 2010. The new government could change constitutional institutions without the consent of the opposition, and they were not reluctant to use their power to such purposes. They drafted a new Constitution, a very controversial media regulation, restrained the power of the Constitutional Court, extended citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in the neighboring countries and, among other things, put political appointees into the Constitutional Court, the national election office, the police, the new media authorities and a lot of other positions. The government also used its extensive political power to reorder the Hungarian economy.

The drama of the 2 October referendum comes from the fact that, in the last six years, the government not only achieved an unprecedented concentration of political, financial and media power, but also outmatched its rivals in political strategy. But, for the first time in a decade, they were not able to gain an unambiguous victory.

Earlier they successfully tided over their midterm crisis in 2012, regaining control over the public agenda by a costly but powerful campaign on ‘decreasing living costs’ and they also spent much more money at the 2014 election than ever before. Still, they reached a low point in popularity at the end of 2014. The situation became especially complicated when a long political alliance between one of the most important oligarchs, Lajos Simicska, and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán broke up in February 2015 and it was revealed by journalists working at Simicska’s media outlets that the government had held his newspapers and TV channels under direct control for years.

To stop their decline of popularity, the government again initiated an enormous campaign to regain hegemony over the public agenda. This time it was not about ‘living costs’, but about ‘migrants’, based on the comparatively high level of concern about migration in Hungarian society. As it turned out, it was a very clever choice. Now we know that in 2015 more than ten times the usual number of asylum-seekers arrived at Hungary. But when the government released its first ads opposing what they called ‘economic migration’ and the migrants’ lack of familiarity with and respect to ‘our culture’, the NGOs and the opposition parties seemed right to point out that Hungary was not a target of massive economic immigration and those who fled from a civil war were actually refugees. That the government used the issue simply for political purposes became obvious when the first larger wave of refugees arrived and a mass of refugees were trapped at Keleti railway station in Budapest. The government explicitly denied the refugee aspect of the situation, did everything in their power to get rid of these people (at the expense of Germany and Austria), and framed the whole issue as a foreign invasion. In the meantime they decided to build a fence along the southern borders of Hungary and the state-influenced media became partner without hesitation in a campaign based on pure fear-mongering. The measures taken then by the Hungarian government also did much to break the solidarity among the EU member states and deepened the crisis on the European level.

The government successfully used this issue to regain control over the public agenda well before the idea of a referendum came up in 2016. They used it rather cleverly to discredit the opposition as naïve and anti-Hungarian, to take away a pet issue from the far-right, and to take a stand against the European Union. But at the end of 2015 it seemed that the refugee crisis came to a halt, at least temporarily, and the government had to face with increasing difficulties the opposition’s efforts to initiate a referendum against a widely unpopular government measure, the mandatory closing of all shops and supermarkets on Sundays. On 23 February 2016 a small group of unidentified bald men physically prevented the representative of the socialists from handing over the required documents in time at the building of the national election office.

The next day Orbán announced a referendum against the EU’s alleged ‘obligatory resettlement’ quota. It posed a question that was especially hard to understand (some even question if it has any meaning in legal terms) and it was designed to collect the votes not only of supporters of the government, but of everyone else who is against an ‘obligatory resettlement’ of huge masses of non-European migrants, or who thinks that the European Union (or its members states) does not manages the crisis very well, or who thinks that national sovereignty is important, or who thinks that the left is an agent of mysterious foreign powers and so forth. We can highlight three important characteristics of the subsequent campaign. First, it was the most expensive campaign in modern Hungarian history. Its estimated costs were more than double the 2014 parliamentary election campaign spending and more than triple the 2010 parliamentary election campaign spending. The government reportedly spent 10 billion forints (£29.5 million): to put this in context, the two umbrella groups in the Brexit referendum in the UK were limited to spending £7 million each. It means that the current Hungarian government has control over considerably more financial resources than any other previous government. And we can even suspect that this sum served as a recapitalisation of those media outlets that are on friendly terms with the government. Second, the government explicitly violated the rules of the referendum. For example, they used central and local government staff to campaign for ‘No’, they were accused of illegally accessing databases to reach voters living abroad, and the opposition posters calling for invalid voting were removed on the instruction of local government officials. During the campaign, the boundaries between party resources and government resources became as blurred as ever. Finally, for the first time new machinery of government propaganda was put to use. From the public media to the newly acquired TV channels and newspapers, a shockingly hate-mongering campaign was conducted (that was reflected on social media by thousands of comments about fantasies of ‘migrants’ collectively raping ‘our wives’ if the referendum fails). The public TV channels continued the campaign even on polling day.

This referendum and this campaign were not what we would expect from a democratic country. They demonstrated that the government achieved a centralisation of political and economic power unprecedented in post-communist Hungarian history and this government is unscrupulous in using its immense power. They destroyed the system of checks and balances, blurred the boundaries of private and public, party and government resources. Since they depend on popular support we can see their rule as satisfying at least the minimal criteria of democracy, but we should be cautious to overrate the importance of popular support. Even authoritarian regimes are dependent on popular support in the long run. The ambiguous results of the referendum showed two distinct future trajectories for the regime. The first is a return to the norms of democracy due to the sobering failure of the result, and the second is the need to maintain and extend the ‘New Unity’ of 3.3 million voters at the expense of democracy. There is no question in which direction the events of the week after the referendum are pointing. 3.3 million voters are thunderously applauding (if not for the government, then for a xenophobic policy), but liberty is dying.

About the author

Dr Zoltán Gábor Szűcs is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Political Science, Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Science.

3 thoughts on “So this is how liberty dies? Hungary’s EU migrant quota referendum

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