2016. október 23., vasárnap

25 fun facts on the Hungarian national referendum on refugees

The Hungarian national referendum on refugees was the next grand European voting thing after Brexit and as such, it got quite some international attention. However, there have been subtle differences, such as the Brexit referendum having had a question that actually made sense, and the vote’s outcome making an actual difference. 

In contrast, the Hungarian referendum was a rather absurd - nonetheless pretty evil - smoke-and-mirrors exercise serving exclusively Hungarian party politics goals through the government-orchestrated ignition of hate and fear.  

But there's more to it, and some details reveal quite a bit about the general state of Hungarian democracy and rule of law in this young and dynamic member of the European Union. 

Please enjoy the following little collection.  

1. The referendum's question was about a thing that does not exist
It asked whether the voters would support ‘Brussels’ being allowed to force the re-settlement of refugees to Hungary without the Hungarian Parliament’s approval. No such proposal had ever been on the table in the EU.  

2. It was clear from the outset that the referendum would not have any legal consequence whatsoever, irrespective of the outcome
…given that, even if the question would have made any sense, it was clearly about an issue to be decided on EU-level, and obviously national legislation cannot overrule supranational law 

3. Nevertheless, the referendum question got approved by the National Election Office 
That’s the guys whose job it is to verify if referendum questions are unambiguous and do not contrast supranational treaties. 

I know you will be shocked to learn that the opposition’s referendum questions are typically found to be ambiguous and/or contradicting supranational law, and therefore are rejected. Latest case, opposition wanted to ask the population on the government’s plan to compete as host for the 2024 summer Olympics. The envisaged referendum question was disapproved by the National Election Office inter alia with the reasoning that it counteracts some international treaty on the use of the Olympic logo. Seriously.

4. The government’s campaign was the most expensive political campaign ever in Hungary (costing an estimated 10-15bn HUF / 33-50m EUR). 
I.e. it cost more than any general election campaign so far in Hungary. In fact, more money was spent by the Hungarian government than in the course of the Brexit campaign, both sides combined. Obviously it was all public money and it was all spent on propagating the government’s views. Opponents did not receive any public funding for their campaigns (which pretty much meant there were none).

5. Almost all of that money went into the pockets of government-friendly media tycoons
…which really makes it a win-win (from the government’s point of view).

6. State media orchestrated a hate-and-fear campaigned that is quite unparalleled in the European Union
Only people who have lived in an autocracy know what such relentless, sweeping, propaganda campaigns are like. This one was a pure hate-and-fear campaign coming on all state TV and radio stations, street billboards, national and regional newspapers and so on. 

The government hammered on all channels into the voters’ heads that refugees are terrorists who shall come to Hungary only to take their jobs, blow things up and rape Hungarian women. Facts have regularly been handled rather loosely, with state media disseminating stories long time after they had been proven unfounded.

Just one number here: 42% of the key state TV channel’s complete air time was occupied by refugee-related propaganda material.

7. This reached rather absurd proportions at times, e.g. when during the Olympia, 
State TV commentators ‘forgot’ to mention both the name of Yusra Mardini and the circumstance that she belonged to the refugee team, even though she eventually won her qualifying race. All other athletes in that race were properly introduced. Later it was claimed that a ‘microphone problem’ led to the mistake. 

8. Of course, government-friendly private media also participated in the hate campaign
Foremost TV 2, one of Hungary’s two key private TV stations, which was recently acquired by government-friendly investors, as they politely say. But other media outlets, radios, internet portals moved along in a clearly coordinated manner, hammering the same message 24/7.

9. No opposing views were allowed to appear in state or friendly private media, whatsoever.
That’s pretty obvious in today’s Hungary.

10. The only real counter-campaign was done by a joke-party
The Double-tailed Dog Party was formed by the founder of a funny internet site, initially with purely comedic intentions. Now they collected grassroot funds through the internet and organised a limited billboard counter-campaign mocking the government’s scare-mongering billboards. The funds did not reach 1% of the ‘no’ campaign’s spending.   

11. Fidesz politicians ordered the counter campaign’s billboards to be torn down by public workers
Couple of years ago, the government had replaced unemployment benefits by a system in which the unemployed would have to work in their municipalities in order to receive their benefits (worth about EUR 170 / month). However, this has not been a right but a privilege, whereby the municipalities’ mayors would freely decide to whom to offer it in their city or village. This led to next-to-medieval dependency structures especially in structurally weak rural areas with the mayors being masters of life or death. 

Quickly it turned out that such public workers could well be used for political purposes, not just as mindful voters but also as active campaign personnel on the ground. In this case, they were ordered by government-friendly mayors of Budapest’s districts to tear down Double-tailed Dog Party’s billboards, which they did.

12. The roma population was also targeted by the government’s campaign
Perhaps the most cynical move of all, the government went to convince the country’s Roma population (most of whom live in dire poverty and highly dependent on public aid) that migrants would take away their meagre state benefits.  

13. The government tricked the laws on balanced political campaign spending
It’s easy: they designated the campaign’s elements not as ‘political advertisement’ but as ‘advertisements for the common good’, which usually means things like campaigns against smoking etc. Here the government argued that keeping refugees out is of such overarching national interest that it merits this category; by this they rid themselves of all legal checks and encumbrances applicable to political campaigns.

14. The EU’s Bratislava summit had a very special interpretation in Budapest
All other participants claimed the question of refugee quotas was completely abandoned there, only Viktor Orban insisted on the opposite. It would have made the Hungarian national referendum even more awkward if he had admitted that quotas are completely off the table. Nevertheless it’s telling how the Hungarian public was fed with such a blatant lie through the government-controlled media, and Orban – as usual – got away with it. 
Facts don’t matter that much anymore in Hungary. 

15. Government tried to trick opposition voters 
Hungarian laws require a 50% turnout for a referendum to be legally valid. So when days before the referendum Fidesz got informed on insufficient turnout expectations, they started claiming the government would resign if the ‘yes’ camp won. This was clearly intended to activate opposition voters, get them to the ballot and thereby achieve the required turnout. 

16. Days before the referendum, state TV claimed swarms of refugees would instantly make themselves on the way towards Hungary if the referendum failed to reach quorum
Another last-minute attempt to increase turn-out. Speaks for itself.

17. In the campaign’s last weeks, public servants were ordered to support the government’s campaign by cold calling voters based on illegal lists
There is proof that in several ministries, municipality administrations and other state bodies, employees were made to work several full days on calling voters, trying to persuade them to participate in the referendum and vote ‘no’. Several conversation blueprints and guidelines distributed to ministerial staff reached the press. 

(It also became known that this activity was done based on the so-called Kubatov-list. That list is named after Gabor Kubatov, a key campaign specialist of Fidesz who has compiled a nationwide list of voters including address, phone numbers and political affiliations. In an earlier leaked video Mr. Kubatov boasted that his lists would forecast election results with very low margin of error in a given city and reveal who exactly the voters of the respective parties were and where they lived. This list was used a number of times successfully by Fidesz in the past.

Mate Kocsis, a prominent Fidesz official and spokesman of the party, stated that he sees no problem with ‘providing members of the bureaucracy an opportunity to participate in the debate’, an euphemism if there ever was one.

Now obviously both the mere existence of such lists and forcing state employees to work for a party campaign violate a good number of laws (not that such violation would have any consequence whatsoever in Hungary))

18. In some places, condo representatives too were called upon to campaign for the government’s cause
In Hungary, condominiums have representatives, elected and paid by the owners. They are responsible for daily administration, bills, repair works and so on. 

Now in some districts, such administrators would receive mail from the municipality calling upon them to spread campaign material in the house they’re responsible for.

19. Independent media reports Orban’s aides did not dare to show him the poor turnout forecasts before the referendum
Instead they showed him only optimistic research pieces. 

20. Viktor Orban claimed before the referendum, that a legally valid referendum (i.e. sufficient turnout) would have totally different consequences than an invalid one.
And the turnout wasn’t nowhere near sufficient in the end, but that didn’t stop Orban from claiming victory and going on with the consequence he had planned anyway (see below) 

21. In the press conference after the referendum, media was not allowed to ask any questions
In fact they weren’t even allowed in the room; they had to follow it on screens in a neighbouring room. Only die-hard Fidesz fans were allowed into the press conference room. But of course even they weren’t allowed to ask questions.

22. After the voting, state media simply withheld the information that turnout was in fact insufficient and the referendum failed. 
…as did friendly private media. They boasted on the 98% share of ‘no-s’ among the valid votes (unsurprising given the absurd question) and the absolute number of votes. 

23. Another sweeping campaign is just now underway telling Hungarian people that ‘Hungarians have decided’ and citing the 98% figure.
The impression being created is that 98% of all Hungarians have voted ‘no’. A huge success it is, allegedly.

24. Janos Lazar, chancellery minister stated that ‘the national referendum is a proof of the governance’s democratic nature’
No comment.

25. Viktor Orban announced the intention to amend the Constitution so as to forbid mandatory resettlements of refugees
Funny thing is, as per the Constitution there cannot be a national referendum on changing the Constitution, not that anyone cares. 

And obviously, an amendment in a national Constitution could do equally little to alter supranational law as a national referendum, so again it’s all smoke and mirrors. That doesn’t stop the government from declaring the amendment to be vital and stigmatising in its media outlets the opposition as traitors for being lukewarm on the idea. 

+1. Remember Petra Laszlo?
She’s the camera-women who kicked some refugees, including kids in September 2015 in Hungary. That caused some international outcry and she lost her job with the TV station. Now the fresh news is, after a year of disappearance, she received a good number of awards for some movie she helped to make. The awards were granted by persons and organisations belonging to the Hungarian government’s faithful intellectual hinterland, thus the awards are clearly a signal of moral and financial support.

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