Opinion
04.10.16

Hungary’s Orbán “Failed to mobilise the electorate” in referendum

Illustration by Roland Brückner | bitteschoen.tv

EU integrity is at stake, says former Commissioner László Andor in interview.

What is the perception among Hungarians about the October 2 referendum?

László Andor: The referendum was a culmination of a long and dark chapter in Hungarian politics. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán carried out a vicious campaign against immigrants, including asylum seekers, in the 18 months since the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. At that time, he was under pressure due to controversies around perceptions of corruption and some of his policy ideas, like an Internet tax.

After the referendum was announced in spring 2016, fearmongering switched into fifth gear. Even the TV broadcast of the UEFA Euro football cup in France and the Rio Olympics were filled with migration and terrorism reports. This did make an impact, shifting public sentiment against EU quotas and immigration in general. However, most people (especially in larger urban areas) also understood that this campaign was about diverting attention from a general failure of governance (especially in policy areas like health care and education), large scale corruption and abuse of EU funds.

Making the referendum invalid through boycott or casting an invalid vote is one way to protest. This was advocated by the centre-left, though a tiny Liberal Party was on the side of voting yes to the somewhat complicated question: “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 legality of this question itself was not clear, because Hungary’s basic law (constitution) rules out referenda on international obligations.   While the question referred to “non-Hungarian citizens” in very general terms, the EU proposals are about asylum seekers specifically. The Hungarian question also used the word “resettlement”, as opposed to the EU’s reference to “relocation”. The former sounds like permanent immigration, while the latter also allows for temporary arrangements.

The overdose of anti-immigration and anti-Brussels propaganda may have been an important factor behind the very low participation in the referendum. This result also shows that the (democratic) opposition’s call for a boycott was largely successful. Orbán failed to mobilise the electorate, despite the most expensive political campaign in Hungarian history. Those who did vote mainly voted “no” (meaning: 98.3 % of valid votes for Orbán and against the refugee quotas), but in legal terms the referendum failed to deliver a valid result.

Participation was spectacularly low in Budapest which, together with counties like Borsod and Baranya, demonstrates that former centre-left strongholds responded well to the call for a boycott. On the other hand, we also saw that Orbán can rely on the support of churches in driving people to vote, and to vote the way he would like, especially in villages and smaller towns. The majority of Catholic priests in Hungary are more loyal to Orbán than to Pope Francis. The highest participation, and thus strongest support for Orbán came from the rural west (3 counties along the Austrian and Slovenian borders).

How should Europe view the purpose and result of this referendum? What implications does it hold for the EU and for Hungary?

LA: Europe should see both the domestic and international aspects of this referendum and the situation that has emerged afterwards.

Orbán has fought the EU for a year on immigration, especially since the 2015 Council decision on refugee quotas. Hungary challenged that decision at the EU Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The government has been saying that the referendum is not about the  quota, and the court decision would be respected when it comes (most likely late 2017). However, since there are similar (more general) quota proposals in the pipeline, the referendum aimed to oblige the Hungarian government and parliament to oppose all such EU initiatives.

With the campaign and the referendum, Orbán not only pursued domestic political goals in a specific policy area. More generally, and especially in a European context, it was also a project to build up an anti-Brussels and anti-Merkel coalition under his leadership. Exploiting the Visegrad cooperation framework (with Poland, Czechia and Slovakia) as well as the government reshuffle in Austria have been important components of this strategy.

Orbán forged a particularly close alliance with Polish populist leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Neither of the two want to exit the EU, but their desired form of integration would focus only on supporting the less-developed countries, not on common political norms and social standards.

Even if now the referendum (result) is legally invalid, Orbán can use the majority of the “no” side to propose constitutional changes in Hungary. He can expect support from the far right Jobbik party, unless the latter prefers undermining Orbán as opposed to the prohibition of EU coordinated immigration.

The government can also try to make proposals at EU level, although it is well understood that the referendum result is not valid according to Hungarian law. These rules were, by the way, introduced by Orbán in order to ensure that the tools he used to undermine previous governments were not available for others to weaken his rule.

Since pre-referendum polls already suggested that turnout would not be high enough, Fidesz-leaders and government representatives claimed any majority for the “no” side would empower them to maintain the line and take action as though the referendum were valid. They also have admitted that proposing an EU treaty change is not likely on this basis, but preserving the Hungarian position (anti-quota, anti-immigration) for the time when treaty change comes (in the context of Brexit or otherwise) is likely.

Pointing to the failure of mobilisation through the fear and hate campaign and the invalidity of the referendum will be important in the coming period. The democratic opposition (centre-left, liberals and greens) also needs to analyse these developments from the perspective of the 2018 general elections.

What is the state of democracy in Hungary? How does this relate to the handling of immigration and asylum in the EU and what is the future of EU cooperation amid the rise of populism?

LA: Orbán has undermined democratic values and the rule of law in Hungary since 2010, but this particular campaign has been largely about undermining solidarity in the EU and preventing any further shift of competences to the European Commission. The campaign language was directed against “Brussels”, in the name of a supposedly more legitimate vision, which is about the Europe of nations.

This referendum was problematic from a democratic point of view mainly because other referenda (on issues like Sunday work, Budapest Olympics, nuclear plant extension) have been prevented by Orbán’s machinery. This question was given the green light despite the fact that it is outside the scope allowed by law, according to constitutional experts. Another important distortion is that citizens outside Hungary (in Romania, Serbia etc.) who don’t have an address in Hungary were allowed to vote via mail, while those who have an address in Hungary (but work abroad, e.g. in UK) were not allowed.

The referendum is another example of how Orbán can bend the rules if he wishes in order to strengthen his power base in Hungary and boost his standing abroad. It proved again that Hungary is ruled today without respect to European values. Orbán’s reforms have hollowed out democracy and the rule of law, and he has launched a Putin-esque war against civil society.

The Hungarian question has been on the EU agenda for over five years, sometimes leading to small corrections, but without a lasting positive impact. Of course, the EU has limited capacity to protect standards of democracy and rule of law within its member states, and it also has to avoid double standards. There is, however, a clear need for safeguards against democratic backsliding, whether it takes place in in the East or the West.

It is now primarily up to Orbán’s Western allies, like the European People’s Party or the Bavarian CSU to decide whether Hungary fell below democratic standards that are acceptable within the EU. It will be very sad if the EU continues to turn a blind eye to Orbán’s practices and their various consequences.

On the other hand, mainstream politics within the EU institutions have to reflect on the root causes of populism, and not only the symptoms. Populism and nationalism that often hinders EU cooperation feeds on failures to tackle the consequences of globalisation and intra-EU imbalances, as well as the resulting insecurity and anxiety. The lack of experience in Central and Eastern Europe with non-European immigration comes on top of this general sentiment.

If progressive and centre-right forces do not find ways to address popular concerns in the Eastern member states, and fail to organise against tendencies of political degeneration, the integrity of the entire EU may be put in jeopardy.

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