This article is part of a panorama in which eight analysts from around Europe look at how referendums are used or misused, and how they shape public debate. The series explores the role of referendums throughout Europe: how they drive change, whether progressive or reactionary, and foster common understandings crucial for functioning democracies.

“Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?” In 2016, the Hungarian far-right Fidesz-KDNP government called an infamous referendum on EU proposals for a quota-based refugee relocation system. The referendum was flawed for two reasons. For a start, it did not comply with Hungarian law: it is unconstitutional to call a referendum on a matter that is beyond the legislature’s competence, such as obligations arising from an international treaty. Furthermore, the EU had already abandoned the idea of quotas by the time of the referendum. Thus, the question had no clear goal, apart from serving as a predetermined symbolic milestone in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s long-running racist and anti-EU populist propaganda campaign.

Despite voter turnout remaining under the legally required threshold of 50 per cent, the government insisted that the referendum was “politically valid”. Fidesz used the results to strengthen the party’s position in both domestic and international politics. Referendums and referendum initiatives are used for various policy goals and political ends in Hungary. Since Orbán’s 2010 election victory, across the political spectrum, direct democracy primarily subserves party interests. Referendums are less about asking what voters want than accentuating the messages of political parties.

Since Orbán’s 2010 election victory, across the political spectrum, direct democracy primarily subserves party interests.

Since 2010, Fidesz has obstructed dozens of referendum proposals from opposition political actors or citizens, often by raising legal arguments or simply backing off from contested decisions, but sometimes with more heavy-handed methods. In a remarkable incident in 2016, a Socialist Party (MSZP) representative was physically blocked from submitting his referendum question on the lifting of the 2015 ban on Sunday opening in the retail sector. While the socialist politician was held back by shaven-headed, muscular men (who turned out to be tied to a Budapest sports club chaired by Fidesz vice- president Gábor Kubatov), the wife of a rural Fidesz mayor slipped past to submit a similar question as a civil initiative. Although the National Election Committee (NEC) eventually accepted MSZP’s proposal, Fidesz subsequently repealed the original ban, thus preventing the referendum. This parody-like skirmish illustrates the lengths to which the government will go to avoid confronting the will of the electorate in a referendum that it did not call. A government that has based its legitimacy on a two-thirds mandate cannot afford a lawful referendum that contradicts its goals. No wonder the NEC has been kept under strong governmental influence since 2010.

On the uneven political playing field that is Orbán’s soft authoritarian regime, opposition actors have also recognised the potential gains of initiating and holding referendums. Hungary’s youngest parliamentary party, the centrist Momentum Movement, used this strategy with great success. In January 2017, two months before the party was officially founded, Momentum initiated a local referendum in Budapest on Hungary’s bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympic Games. Surveys had shown that at the end of 2016, a majority of Hungarians did not support the bid, especially in Budapest. The result was predictable, and there was nothing to lose, especially for an otherwise relatively unknown organisation. By emphasising the disproportionately high budget and the uncertain benefits, Momentum successfully mobilised Budapest’s population, collecting twice the required number of signatures to call for the referendum. But Fidesz once again stepped in, withdrawing the bid. Following this triumph, Momentum became the country’s strongest extra-parliamentary party and won two seats in the European Parliament.

Fidesz greatly benefits from the consultations: not as a way of gathering opinion, but as a form of propaganda.

Fidesz has also employed a more direct agenda-setting method in the form of plebiscites. Over the past decade, a new form of pseudo-referendum has become institutionalised in governmental communication: the so-called national consultation surveys. Fidesz sent out up to 8 million of these political surveys to Hungarian households on selected issues, supported by publicly funded nationwide campaigns. Contrary to referendums or official surveys, the consultations are not regulated in any way in terms of their formulation, distribution, verification, or evaluation, and the results have no clear consequences. The phrasing is far from impartial, with leading questions and inflammatory language, such as a question on whether Hungary should support international organisations promoting illegal immigration and human trafficking. Strategically selected results are then used to legitimise Orbán’s criticised policies at home, as well as in the EU. Thus, despite the relatively low return rate, Fidesz greatly benefits from the consultations: not as a way of gathering opinion, but as a form of propaganda, a tool for political mobilisation.

Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation
Democracy Ever After? Perspectives on Power and Representation

Between the progressive movements fighting for rights and freedoms and the exclusionary politics of the far right, this edition examines the struggle over democracy and representation in Europe today.

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