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.

2016. február 24., szerda

Hungarian Government uses skinheads to prevent MP from filing national referendum question

Skinheads vs. opposition MP in the National Election Office

Yesterday was a truly special day in Hungary’s post-communist history: skinheads gathered in National Election Office’s premises to prevent an opposition MP from filing a referendum question.

Fidesz introduced a controversial law in March 2015 that would forbid shops to open on Sundays. The ban has been highly unpopular among voters and hence opposition parties have frequently tried to hold a referendum on the question.

Regarding national referenda: although Fidesz actively used referenda when it was itself in opposition to combat the then-government’s plans, when Fidesz came to power in 2010, they were quick to install changes that would make it materially harder to hold one, and they narrowed the topics in which referenda can be held quite substantially.

Furthermore, one of the more odd novelties Fidesz introduced was, that regarding a specific topic, at a given time only one referendum text proposal can be before the National Election Office which scrutinises the referendum’s proposed question for not being misleading etc.. If there’s a second referendum question on the same topic, its submission to the Office has to wait until the actually analysed question is decided upon.

The government has played this rule by organising private persons to file repeatedly deliberately unacceptable questions. These wrong questions would then be ‘analysed’ by the Office for a couple of weeks, and then be rejected; leading to the next ‘private individual’ to instantly file the next deliberately unacceptable referendum question.

Now you may ask, what happens when several persons wish to file a referendum question on the same topic to the Office. Well, Fidesz’s law says that in this case, the winner is the person to first physically stamps his or her question in the Office’s premises at a defined spot.

The Fidesz government exploited this rule by using those ‘private persons’ and the eager assistance of the Office itself, to prevent opposition parties from filing a referendum on the Sunday ban 18 times now. This included disqualifying the opposition for several technical reasons. In one case, the opposition question was disqualified because the MP submitted his question a few minutes too early. In another case, an opposition MP had the perfect timing, however the Office decided to disqualify it and accept the question of another person, based on the other person having entered the building first. The problem is, if one takes legal action against such a decision, the court procedure may take years, delaying any referendum even further.   

What happened yesterday?
Yesterday was the day when Hungary’s Supreme Court would take a decision on the outstanding question on the Sunday’s shop ban. So, an opposition MP walked to the Office at 6 a.m. to wait for the decision and try to file his question quickly once it’s there; for the 19th time now. However, there also came an elderly lady and a young gentleman, followed by a bunch of muscled skinheads, and so they waited hour after hour for the court decision to arrive.   

Eventually, the MP was physically prevented by the skins to file his question – they ensured that the lady would get there first. So, that’s the 19th time now the government has prevented the opposition from filing a question, but for the first time this happened with physical force, rather than administrative or legal tricks. The whole spectacle played out amid intensive media coverage. 

There are some further fine details to this action. Independent media reported that the skinheads blocked the Office’s main entrance for several hours, journalists for instance had to enter through the back door. The opposition MP called the police, who entered the scene only to leave shortly later, without having taken any action on the skinheads blockading a public building’s entrance, or even having checked their identity.

While all of Hungary’s non-government-controlled media was strongly focussed on what’s happening, state media was for much of the day completely silent on the issue. Later the day, there was a brief piece of news, informing that a socialist MP wasn’t able to file his questions, because ‘some others have been quicker’.

Who dunnit?
Everyone is quite aware that it’s only the government who has any interest in preventing such a referendum to ever happen. The question has been, of course, whether there’s any actual link to the government. While there is no direct evidence, there are some much-telling facts here.

Independent media soon found out that some of the skins involved belong to the security personnel of FC Ferencvaros, Hungary’s most popular football club. The president of this club is Gabor Kubatov, Fidesz’s vice president. The club’s security guards have been used by fidesz earlier as well e.g. by guarding Fidesz’s party HQ against protesters in 2014.

Two of yesterday’s skins as security men of Ferencvaros, club of Fidesz vice President Kubatov

Furthermore, the old lady escorted by the skins turned out to be the wife of a former Fidesz mayor, and a prominent face of a former nationwide Fidesz campaign. Fidesz reacted rather relaxed to the events, with e.g. PM Orban stating there’s been some scramble in the past as well in such situations, and insisting the opposition is only focussed on creating a scandal.

These responses, state media coverage and the police’s handling the issue are further clear indication on who’s behind this act.    

Final it became known that several of the skins – as evidenced by their own facebook accounts – have far-right affiliations and/or have been in jail repeatedly.

Far-right henchmen blocking the entrance of the National Election Office

2014. november 4., kedd

An average Tuesday in the European Union

...or, more precisely, in one country belonging to the EU, one which claims to be in its geographical center; Hungary. 

Let's see two key news pieces of the day:

- In Miskolc, one of the largest city of Hungary, a public worker has been fired. He's been fired despite positive former comments on his work because he ran as an opposition candidate in the recent municipality elections. He's then taped a discussion with his own boss (a senior official within the municipality), who confirmed it happened because he ran against fidesz, the governing party. 

(Bit of background: fidesz introduced the special status of public worker as a substitute for long-term unemployment benefits. In this program, hundreds of thousands of typically lowly skilled long-term unemployed people perform simple physical tasks like moving the grass in their municipalities. The trick is that the privilege to do such work for about 100 EUR a month is not a right to all long-term unemployed; municipalities can decide whom to take and whom to leave without any kind of state support. This selection right is said to be abused in a number of ways including using these people as propagandists for the governing party, fidesz. For instance there's plenty anecdotal evidence they are forced to participate in grand pro-government demonstrations called 'peace marches'.) 

Now it would be foolish to assume that there will be any disciplinary action against the boss who fired the guy, or that the public worker would get his job back. Last time a tape became known where a fidesz representative spoke about granting profitable concessions to political friends, the police started an investigation into who had done the 'illegal' taping, and the prosecutor's office confirmed the tape contained nothing that would necessitate it to take action against the fidesz representative.

- A letter became known in the press, written by the ministry of agriculture. It is apparently addressed to everyone in Hungary possessing a fishing or hunting permit (administered by the ministry). And it urges the  holders of such permits to provide in-kind catering services to the participants of to-be-announced Peace Marches, with concrete dates, places and timings. The writer, a department head within the ministry confirmed to a news site he does not see any problem with his letter. 
BTW the organizer of these Peace Marches (see above) is a supposed NGO, which is so non-governmental that its leader is employed by the government and actually in charge of distributing state funding among NGOs. No joke.    

2013. december 15., vasárnap

Nationalizing... teaching books

Nothing extraordinary or unexpected, just business as usual.

The Hungarian Parliament will vote on (and undoubtedly approve) the complete natinalization of school books. The draft is very clear in stating that private actors will be taken out from the drafting, production or distribution of school teaching material.

This fits very well into the education policy of this governent, which has been built around the nationalization and ’gleichschaltung’ of all schools, meaning a wide-reaching uniformisation of tuition programmes and materials. 

2013. november 22., péntek

Hungary to Turkey: how dare you criticize our glorious democracy?!

A short glimpse into the mind and logics of the people running Hungary today.

There’s a long history of the current Hungarian Government using diplomatic channels to protest reports in foreign media that paint an unfavorable picture of it. In fact they even have an under-secretary whose only task is to monitor foreign media voices (including blogs) and react to them.

Recently, Hungary’s ambassador to Austria protested publicly against an Austrian art exhibition centered on anti-Roma sentiments in Hungary, for showing Hungary in a bad light.

In another case, PM Viktor Orban himself got active condemning a ‘children’s news’ piece on German state TV’s, which was critical about freedom of press in Hungary and the weakening of the constitutional court. Mr. Orban said (do spot the hidden beauties):

‘I feel sorry for German kids, being subjected to brain-washing. A thing like that would be unthinkable in Hungary. If it happened here, everyone would be fired.’

And now the unthinkable has happened; a publication of a think tank belonging to the Turkish Foreign Ministry came up with the following sentence:

As it stands, it is impossible to characterize Hungary as pluralist, much less as democratic in the usual sense of the word; at the time of this writing, the Hungarian government, supported by a large proportion of the population, is clearly on an authoritarian track, already displaying clearly illiberal tendencies.’

The Hungarian Foreign ministry reacted promptly by calling-in the Turkish ambassador in Budapest for a talk. There the Hungarian side put out that this analysis does not fit at all into the context of continually improving Hungarian-Turkish relationships. Also they demanded explanation how such an opinion could be published.

This blogger is happy to report that the ambassador distanced himself from that analysis, emphasizing that the views appearing in the publication are not those of the Turkish Foreign Ministry.

2013. november 12., kedd

“Dear employees, we advise you to demonstrate for the government”

Yet again, a true gem. 

CBA is a household name in Hungary; it is a huge food retail chain with the largest network of stores. Also, it is known that the persons behind the company have been early and ardent supporters of Fidesz and Viktor Orban.

Orban’s government has not been unthankful; with a number of measures it ensured CBA's swift growth and weakened its competitors. To name just one issue from a long list, the punitive sectoral special tax on retail companies was designed so as to exclude CBA and instead hit the likes of Auchan, Tesco and Spar.  

But CBA knows money is not the only way it can support the government. And hence a cute little letter, published today by Hungarian media, was sent to all CBA store managers for dissemination to all employees.

In essence it called for participation on the October 23rd ‘peace march’, periodical grand demonstrations designed to show the mass support behind the government to the world.

The letter, signed by the owners of CBA and sent to store managers reads like this (admittedly my humble English cannot nearly deliver the sheer beauty of the Hungarian original, but I'll give it a try) :

‘László Baldauf and Vilmost Lázár {the owners of CBA} have an appeal of private nature to make to the members of our alliance system, the members of the grand, supportive CBA-family.   

On October 23rd we commemorate the heros and martirs of the 1956 revolution. However this celebration also presents a good opportunity to show the support for our national government. Affirmation and sticking-together is important, given that only by uniting we are able to limit and counter the ugly jiggery-pokery of postcommunist, liberal thugs who are again and again traitors to our country, serving the interests of multinationals, thereby sacrificing the Hungarian peoples’ well-being and development.

All who care for our nation’s strengthening and systematic and even development are called upon to come and participate together on the peace march and then listen to the Prime Minister’s {capital letters in the original] speech.  It is important that all of us, national-minded true patriots support our Hungarian politician of greatest format, our nation’s prime minister, Viktor Orban.

[Information on timing and route of peace march]

We ask upon the store managers to inform all employees on this letter and its important contents.’

By the way, there’s a continuous dispute among Hungarian intellectuals whether there is dictatorship in Hungary or not. The overwhelming majority is of the opinion, that there’s no (not yet a) dictatorship. 

2013. október 1., kedd

Interim elections ‚irregularities‘

Once again a priceless little chain of events that is more telling than a thousand pages of analysis.

The southern Hungarian town of Baja is otherwise not terribly spectacular (save for the fish soup made there, that is well known throughout the country),  but it now got its 15 minutes under the sun due to a recent interim election for parliament, which has taken place due to the local MP’s decease. Being just half a year ahead of national elections, the voting attracted nationwide interest and major efforts on the parties’ behalf (NB classical polls are not so reliable in Hungary as opposition supporters are known to often shy away from outing themselves) .

Fidesz won the vote tightly before the democratic opposition’s contestant. However the opposition pointed to irregularities and showed video tapes that seemed to prove multiple-voting and organized transport of certain voters to the voting stations. Charmingly, Fidesz seems to have outsourced this fine task to its Roma allies ‘Lungo Drom’ (a nationwide Roma organization). Apparently, after all those ambiguities about the role and worth of Roma in Hungarian society, Fidesz has found a use for them!

Anyhow, the opposition went before court, which ruled the election be repeated.

Fidesz was quick to interpret the court’s ruling saying no cheating had been identified. Being asked about the irregularities, and whether there would be consequences within Fidesz, the press was told by the head of Fidesz’ parliamentary group to ‘do their campaigning for the opposition elsewhere’.

He added that they would change the electoral law such that the practices in question would not be illegal anymore at the national elections in 2014. He referred to Western European examples naming e.g. Germany and the UK as countries which inspire the said change of law.