Hungary eyes referendum wins home and abroad

Hungary eyes referendum wins home and abroad
The anti-immigration campaign has helped drum up support for the ruling Fidesz party
By Blanka Zoldi in Budapest September 28, 2016

There's little doubt among members of the ruling Fidesz party that Hungarians will say “no” to the EU’s quota system in the referendum to be held in five days. There's also plenty of confusion about what comes after the national poll on October 2.

“The referendum will have very serious consequences, we will be able to protect the country” a Fidesz MP claimed on a video published on September 27. However, there were no details offered about the plan. Tibor Navracsics, Hungary's EU commissioner, claimed in the same footage that a referendum "does not necessarily have to have an effect”.

With Brussels having essentially admitted that the quota system is all but dead, it remains questionable whether the referendum, which is not legally binding, will have any impact on the EU-level. However, Prime Minister Viktor Orban dreams of playing the heavyweight on the international stage, while the referendum is also seen as a helpful diversion from other, more problematic, issues at home such as education and health.

“Orban clearly counts on Europe becoming even weaker, and populist politicians gaining even more ground," Robert Laszlo, an analyst at Budapest-based Political Capital, tells bne IntelliNews. "He does not only want to become the leader among the Visegrad countries, but an important factor in all Europe.”

Demons

Over the summer, the government has spread billboards and brochures demonising immigrants across the country, as well as flooding state media with public service announcements warning of the dangers of refugees and the terror they would import. The government has spent at least HUF11.3bn (€37mn) on the referendum campaign – around four times the budget of Fidesz' campaign for the last election in 2014.

The referendum is certain to return the right answer to the question of whether they “want to allow the European Union to mandate the resettlement of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly”. However, Fidesz is desperate to push the turnout to 50%, the threshold needed for the referendum to be valid, which has been passed by just one of five such national polls since 1990. This, Budapest is convinced, will strengthen the legitimacy of the Hungarian government's opposition to the European Commission.

However, with Brussels having already largely abandoned the idea of refugee quotas, and the lack of any binding legality it remains questionable what tangible impact the referendum will have on the international stage. One point of agreement is that Orban will surely try to use it as leverage to raise his profile as a heavyweight leading efforts to "reform" an EU in which populists have been building their platforms through the crises blighting the bloc.

“In Europe, Fidesz will likely use the outcome of this vote as proof that Orban’s maverick stance on the EU stage has domestic political support," suggests Otilia Dhand at Teneo Intelligence. "Orban will also strengthen his calls for a reform of the EU that would return powers to national capitals."

Half baked

Orban’s track record, however, raises questions over his ability to gather support and present solid plans for reform. Although a firebrand at home, the Hungarian premier consistently tones down his rhetoric in the company of EU hierarchy. He spoke of "revolution" ahead of the EU summit in Bratislava in mid-September, but toed the line laid down by Brussels and Berlin when it came to the crunch.

The PM insists he has “an idea for the next step” should the referendum prove successful, but refuses to disclose details. “If I wanted to reveal what will need to be done after the referendum, I would have already revealed it. (…) Now is not the right time to think about the days that come after the referendum,” Orban remarked in a recent interview with Origo.

Vague schemes have emerged in recent weeks. A “giant refugee camp” in Libya or on unspecified "islands," where asylum seekers would be detained has been mooted. Orban is also reported to be hoping to push for the amendment of the Lisbon Treaty, the fundamental constitution of the European Union. However, that would require full agreement from the parliaments of all 28 members states, and Hungary's immigration policy is anything but universally admired, despite the support of populist parties.

Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn argued recently that Hungary should be kicked out of the European Union for abusing EU values in its treatment of refugees. Leaders from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden recently expressed “great concern” over the same issue, and also backed up Austrian complaints that Budapest refuses to take back migrants as decreed in EU rules.

Many other voices have joined the chorus. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR have all blasted Hungary for violently abusing refugees at the country’s southern border with Serbia.

Although Orban's plans are “unlikely to be followed [up]," there is a clear risk of further "deterioration of the country’s image" internationally, Dhand warns.

“Fidesz wins anyway”

Given the half-baked nature of his plans, however, it seems likely that Orban's eye is fixed closer to home. The bitter anti-immigrant campaign unleashed by Fidesz in early 2015 has already proved successful in reviving support lost through corruption scandals and a confrontation with the US in late 2014.

"Orban has seen that the migrant issue can stabilise his power more than anything” Laszlo claims. The timing of the announcement to hold the migrant quota referendum was significant, the analyst adds.

Orban announced his plans on February 24 at a hastily called press conference, long after the first influx of refugees last September. However, it was also just a day after the "skinhead scandal" - in which Fidesz was accused of using thugs to prevent an opposition MP from submitting a referendum application to the National Election Office - blew up.

“Fidesz wanted to take the lead again, and divert attention from the skinhead scandal with proposing the referendum,” Laszlo insists. Reinforcing the anti-refugee campaign is also widely seen as helping Fidesz divert attention from mounting problems in healthcare and education, and also from repeated corruption scandals at the central bank and involving party politicians.

The added bonus is that the referendum has only exposed the hopelessness into which the Hungarian opposition has fallen. Predictably, the far-right Jobbik backs the vote, but the largest left-wing opposition party, the MSZP, has also stepped into line.

Three small left-wing opposition parties - MoMa, Egyutt and PM - have called for a boycott, hoping that an insufficient turnout will render the vote invalid and weaken the platform Fidesz seeks. However, the effort has been remarkably lacklustre in the face of the media onslaught from the government.

That has left it to The Two-tailed Dog Party, an absurdist movement set up by activists, to mount the highest profile campaign. It has run an “anti-anti-immigration campaign” encouraging voters to ruin their ballot paper.

The disorganisation or cowardice of the opposition suggests that whatever the turnout, Fidesz will find it easy to present the vote as a success. "It hardly matters whether the referendum is valid or not,” Laszlo claims. “Fidesz wins anyway.”

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