"Let´s not take a risk! Vote no!"

"Let´s not take a risk! Vote no!"


On October 2 at the upcoming Hungarian referendum voters are expected to give a “yes” or “no” answer to the following question: “Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the approval of [the Hungarian] Parliament?”

Published on balticworlds.com on September 25, 2016

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Margaret Thatcher, in reference to Clement Attlee, once observed that “the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues”.[1] Central and Eastern Europe, too, has seen a number of controversial plebiscites over the past decades, and the upcoming Hungarian referendum on October 2 is hardly an exception. Voters are expected to give a “yes” or “no” answer to the following question: “Do you want to allow the European Union to mandate the obligatory resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the approval of [the Hungarian] Parliament?[2]

The background is of course a temporary provision adopted by the European Council in September 2015, according to which 120,000 refugees would be relocated from Member States where their asylum procedure should have been handled.[3] This provision was rejected by Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, and Slovakia, with Finland abstaining. The quota foreseen for Hungary has been 1,294 persons.[4] Up until July 2016, not one single asylum applicant was relocated to Hungary[5].

News that Hungary would hold a referendum on EU refugee quotas already appeared on February 24 this year.[6] It came as somewhat surprising given that PM Viktor Orbán has in a way already “succumbed” by signing documents a few days earlier at an EU summit, which among other things strive “to fully implement the relocation process…”[7]. On July 5 Hungary’s President János Áder declared the referendum will take place on October 2[8].

The referendum is contested already for its relevance and potential consequences, which largely remain unclear.[9] It is not legally binding on the EU-level, which is most likely why no other Member State has been holding a plebiscite on the migration quota. Still, should turnout and the share of no-votes reach 50% that could increase the role of the Hungarian Parliament in the preparation of decisions related to refugees.[10]  In practice, a valid referendum (with a „no” outcome) would provide the Hungarian government an even stronger popular legitimacy to carry on with its strong position against EU migration quota.

Basic characteristics of the campaign 

The campaign itself officially started on August 20, Hungary’s national day. It extends well beyond the ongoing advertisements on the traditional media platforms (broadcast, print, internet, and social media); according to nol.hu, the campaign also includes phone calls and person-to-person interaction[11]. While I did come across a few staffed stands in Budapest – solely of no-campaigners, – what is for sure is that one has to literally just have arrived from Mars to fail noticing that an intensive campaign is going on across the whole of Hungary. This is largely due to the vast numbers of omnipresent blue billboards displaying strong, yet often highly dubious and vague, anti-migrant messages. Examples include: „Did you know? 1.5 million illegal immigrants arrived into Europe last year”, and „Did you know? Brussels wants to settle as many illegal immigrants to Hungary as the size of a city”.

Additionally, each household was sent a booklet published by the government and entitled „Referendum 2016 against the enforced settlings”, thus already in its name indicating the government’s position. Among other things, the booklet claims Europe does not protect its borders, but Hungary does. It shows hugely diverging numbers of immigrants (the booklet never refers to refugees) arriving to Hungary prior to and following the construction of the border seal. It quotes Horst Seehofer saying that „many will thank Orbán for what he has been doing along his borders”. The booklet further claims „the enforced settling endangers our culture and customs”, and that there are several hundreds of ’no-go’ zones in Europe’s large cities. The final message reads: „Brussels needs to be stopped!”, and „it needs to be sent a message”. Moreover, the governing FIDESZ-KDNP coalition has – as the only party – sent out a leaflet to households encouraging citizens to vote no, claiming that „millions are on their way towards Europe”, and so on.

All this seems to be bringing its intended effects: according to a recent survey, the Hungarian population’s attitudes towards refugees have clearly deteriorated compared to September 2015 – i.e. during the peak of the crisis. This reflects the importance of political rhetoric over actual presence of refugees or migrants (almost no refugee stayed in Hungary). Whereas in July 50% were sure to go to vote, the number increased to 53% by early September. [12]

What are political parties saying?

Contemporary Hungarian political landscape is as well known dominated by parties on the right, with all three (i.e. the governing FIDESZ–KDNP coalition as well as far-right Jobbik) calling on citizens to participate and vote „no”. Despite this state of affairs, the small and rather numerous parties left of FIDESZ have not managed to develop a common stand, let alone to coordinate a shared campaign. At least two small parties on the left (Együtt and PM) and a recently started movement (MoMa) have together launched a poster campaign calling on boycotting the referendum[13]. However, this boycott is envisioned by some as not participating and by others as voting invalid (e.g. by crossing both „yes” and „no”, or by handing in an empty ballot). Yet due to what appear as particularly strict rules of what exactly will be classified as invalid ballots, this latter option has recently been warned against in left-leaning media[14]. The largest (MSZP) and the third largest (LMP) party[15] left of FIDESZ are generally in favour of boycotting the referendum, but are too often sending mixed messages[16]. In the case of MSZP at least, this is because many of its voters are elderly people who have generally taken a more suspicious stance towards migrants and refugees over the past year and a half. In the end, the Liberals are the only party to propagate for a „yes” vote.

One of the more interesting features of this campaign has been the presence of the so-called Hungarian Two-tailed Dog Party, a sort of a mockery of a party established in 2006. It is known by many people mainly thanks to its anti-government poster campaigns: this time the “main goal is trying to mock the government’s fear campaign by showing that actually you can be afraid of almost anything”[17]. The messages on the party’s posters are twofold: some present complementary facts often overlooked by the government (such as “Did you know? There is a war going on in Syria”), while others are simply there to create a more positive atmosphere in society (e.g. “Did you know? Life is beautiful”)[18]. Whatever their impact, people at least talk about these posters and due to their relatively high frequency cannot help not noticing them.

What are other societal actors saying?

Hungarian church leaders have generally been vacillating between the stands of Pope Francis, who has explicitly been criticising Hungarian measures against migrants and refugees, and PM Viktor Orbán.[19] On the level of organisational bodies, churches have tended to remain silent; yet individual statements by various Hungarian bishops have increasingly appeared and show a strong polarisation.[20] Interestingly enough the bishop and the 14 deans of the Transylvanian Reformed Church[21] have recently issued a circular letter that basically supports the Hungarian government’s position in the referendum[22]. This is not insignificant as all Hungarian citizens across the world are entitled to vote: at the time of writing the National Election Office registered 274,736 persons without an address in Hungary who are eligible to vote (those with a residence in Hungary number 8,000,742 in total)[23].

Last but not least, Hungary’s Roma population appears divided in relation to the plebiscite, illustrated by two news articles published on the very same day. One reports on an anti-migrant organisation just founded by Roma who fear their daughters, wives, and jobs would be threatened by immigrants[24]. The other article accounts for Roma mayors who reject the government’s hatred-raising, and reports on a (non-Roma) local mayor trying to intimidate Roma that their benefits would be endangered by the arrival of migrants[25].

What is at stake?

At least in the short term little is at stake for refugees and migrants, who would most likely be avoiding Hungary with our without any governmental campaign. The referendum is most important for domestic Hungarian politics. Whether „no” votes would win over „yes” votes has never been a question; turnout is at stake. Should it reach below 50% that would be a major blow to FIDESZ, which can largely thank the refugee crisis for its rising popularity since January 2015. A valid plebiscite on the other hand would of course feed the party with further legitimacy. There even appeared speculations among parties of the opposition that a valid referendum could lead FIDESZ to call early elections, otherwise scheduled for spring 2018, although the party itself has never announced any such plans (yet neither denied them)[26]. As already mentioned, EU decisions would not be impacted, at least in the short run. Yet given that Orbán is not the only European politician with an increasingly critical stance towards migrants and even refugees, what is at stake in the medium term is what direction the Union will be taking in its refugee and migration policies, and other (allegedly) related issues.


[1] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/935c343c-6007-11dc-b0fe-0000779fd2ac.html

[2] http://mediapowermonitor.com/content/subtly-silenced-hungarian-government

[3] http://wmn.hu/2016/09/09/8-kerdes-amire-mindenkeppen-tudnod-kell-a-valaszt-az-oktober-2-i-nepszavazassal-kapcsolatban/

[4] ibid

[5] http://mno.hu/belfold/brusszel-uzeni-nem-kommental-1359945

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/24/hungary-viktor-orban-will-call-referendum-on-eu-refugee-quotas

[7] http://www.nyugat.hu/tartalom/cikk/menekultkvota_orban_viktor_alairas

[8] http://www.vg.hu/kozelet/politika/ader-kiirta-a-menekultugyi-nepszavazast-kiderult-a-pontos-idopont-is-472280

[9] http://mno.hu/belfold/rejtely-mit-hozhat-a-nepszavazas-1361195

[10] http://mno.hu/belfold/brusszel-uzeni-nem-kommental-1359945

[11] http://budapestbeacon.com/featured-articles/fidesz-launch-hardcore-referendum-campaign-national-holiday/37730

[12] http://hvg.hu/itthon/20160903_Celba_ert_az_uzenet_az_orszag_kozel_80_szazaleka_menekultellenes

[13] http://nepszava.hu/cikk/1104669-itt-az-osszefogas—bemutattak-bemutatnak/

[14] http://444.hu/2016/09/18/figyelnie-kell-annak-aki-ervenytelenul-akar-szavazni-az-oktoberi-nepszavazason

[15] based on the lastest available polls (http://kozvelemenykutatok.hu/2016-szeptemberi-kutatasi-eredmenyek-zri-zavecz/)

[16] http://index.hu/belfold/2016/09/07/nem_lefekudtek_a_fidesznek_ennyire_hulyen_csinaljak/

[17] http://budapesttimes.hu/2016/09/17/something-has-to-be-done-against-the-hatred/

[18] ibid

[19] http://index.hu/belfold/2016/09/09/a_migranellenes_kampanynak_sulyos_tarsadalmi_kovetkezmenyei_lehetnek_a_jezsuitak_szerint/

[20] ibid

[21] The members of this largely – if not exclusively – consist of ethnic Hungarians.

[22] http://444.hu/2016/09/16/erdelyi-reformatus-egyhaz-szerint-a-kvotareferendum-a-nemzetegyesites-szimbolumava-is-valhat

[23] http://www.valasztas.hu/hu/ref2016/1144/1144_0_index.html

[24] http://444.hu/2016/09/16/migransellenes-szervezetet-alapitottak-a-borsodi-ciganyok-akik-a-lanyaikat-az-asszonyaikat-es-a-munkahelyeiket-feltik-a-bevandorloktol

[25] http://index.hu/belfold/2016/09/16/roma_polgarmesterek_elutasitjak_a_kormany_gyuloletkelteset/

[26] http://mno.hu/belfold/tenyleg-van-eselye-az-elore-hozott-valasztasnak-1362388

  • by Péter Balogh

    Péter Balogh’s research focuses on geopolitical narratives in Hungary and Central and Eastern Europe. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Regional Studies, CERS-HAS, where he is critically analysing how and why the notion of ‘Central Europe’ has been changing over the past years.

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