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Hungary: Orban’s ‘Neverendums’ – Analysis

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Hungary’s prime minister announced another senseless referendum that has little chance of success. This time it’s purportedly to protect children, but critics say its real aim is to divert attention from the Pegasus scandal and the government’s growing row with the EU.

By Edit Inotai

Politics in Hungary these days is bordering on the surreal.

In a Facebook post, Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced on Wednesday that a referendum would be held in Hungary to “protect children” from the dangers of content about sex, homosexuality and transgender issues, asking questions about whether voters support children under 18, or minors, receiving sex education in school without parental consent and whether gender reassignment surgery should be promoted or made available to minors.

Critics counter that the questions are mostly irrelevant, as no school organises sex education for children without the consent of parents and gender reassignment is not legally possible under the age of 18, and even for those older has been made extremely difficult. And sexual content in the media is already regulated by the EU and the Hungarian media law, pointed out Mérték, a media monitoring think tank.

As such, this latest referendum called by Fidesz, less than five years after the last one, is more likely an attempt by Orban’s increasingly besieged government to rally voters and distract from its problems. The referendum’s fate is also expected to be similar to the previous one on migration, which was declared invalid due to low turnout.

Running out of ideas

Despite the screaming international headlines about the referendum, experts in Hungary warn it is important to keep a cool head and not to overreact.

“Let me start from the beginning: despite the high death rate, Fidesz emerged as a winner from the coronavirus pandemic in Hungary and its support was on the rise until early summer, when the controversy surrounding China’s Fudan University halted that. Surprisingly, it took the government several days to react, which already indicates that they are running out of ideas,” Andrea Szabo, senior research fellow of the Institute of Political Science in Budapest, told BIRN.

Problems have mounted for the government even since: the launching of EU infringement procedures, growing criticism over the rule-and-law situation in the country, revelations about the government’s use of the Pegasus spyware against journalists and activists, and the possibility the European Commission will reject Hungary’s National Recovery Plan and halt the 7.2 billion euros in desperately needed funds.

Remarks by EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynerds about not approving the recovery plan were probably the last straw for the desperate government, which lifted the restrictions on public referendums just hours before Orban’s announcement on Facebook. The ban was introduced in February as part of emergency measures to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

“What surprises me is that there is nothing really new in Fidesz’s strategy. We’ve seen all this before – there is no innovation, there are no new ideas. They must really miss [former political advisor guru] Arthur J. Finkelstein,” Szabo said. “But it also gives the opposition a chance to react properly.”

Opposition parties have already indicated they consider the referendum a distraction and will call for a boycott. Legally speaking, the questions first need to be approved by the National Election Office and then by parliament, but it would be a huge surprise it they would not sail through given Fidesz’s huge majority.

The referendum could take place in November at the earliest, though the government-allied daily Magyar Nemzet wrote that it might be timed for January or February, two or three months before next year’s general election.

However, many political experts say the referendum could meet a similar fate to the one held on migration in October 2016.

Appeals to the base

At the height of the migrant crisis in 2016 and the ensuing debate in the EU about mandatory quotas for settling refugees around the bloc, Orban decided to rally the Hungarian people behind his anti-migration stance with a referendum on the EU’s mandatory settlement of migrants and refugees. But despite a strong campaign, the referendum ended up being declared invalid, as less than 50 per cent of voters cast a valid vote.

Opposition parties celebrated the result, but Orban tried to sell it as a political victory, claiming that 98 per cent of those who cast a valid vote said “No” to the mandatory settlement of migrants and refugees.

That referendum was not binding either, but offered Fidesz another opportunity to appeal to its base by scapegoating a vulnerable group and inciting hatred against them, say critics. Similar to today, the government at that time claimed it was protecting the country from outside threats, but critics say most of those were artificially heightened by government spin to distract attention from domestic problems.

“What’s worrying in this case is that the government is using children for political purposes – this is like political paedophilia,” Andrea Szabo said.

To many, it also indicates how high the stakes are just eight months before the next election. Fidesz is facing an uphill battle both domestically and internationally, with polls showing it is neck and neck with the joint opposition. But the stronger the criticism from abroad, the more Orban and his party can pump up the anti-EU narrative during the referendum and subsequent election campaign – all financed, of course, by taxpayer money.

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Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (fornerkt the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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