Referendum Homestretch on Hungarian Television

Below are screenshots taken from programs broadcast on the M1 news channel of state-run Hungarian Television from 3:00 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. on October 2, 2016—that is, until half an hour before the closing of polls in Hungary’s referendum on European Union migrant-resettlement quotas (see Hungary’s 2016 Referendum on European Union Migrant Resettlement Quotas and The Referendum That Couldn’t Fail).

Aside from intermittent weather bulletins and a report on the new leadership of the U.K. Labour Party, newscasts and programs broadcast on M1 during this three-and-a-half-hour period dealt with just two issues—the referendum results and migration.

The screenshots are from the various reports on migration. Note that in 2013, the National Assembly approved an amendment to Hungary’s electoral laws that eliminated campaign silence (source in Hungarian).

Click on any screenshot to see gallery view.

Sources: screenshots 1 and 2 (00:25 and 7:31, respectively); screenshots 3, 4 and 5 (0:11, 21:40 and 25:59, respectively); screenshot 6 (0:09); screenshots 7 and 8 (0:08 and 13:54, respectively); screenshots 9,10 and 11 (0:09, 9:05 and 9:38, respectively); screenshots 12 and 13 (5:53 and 10:24, respectively); screenshots 14, 15 and 16 (17:58, 21:46 and 25:14, respectively).

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The Referendum That Couldn’t Fail

In February 2016, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán initiated a referendum in Hungary asking voters to respond to the following question (source in Hungarian):

Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary even without the approval of the [Hungarian] National Assembly?

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Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks to supporters following the referendum on the European Union migrant-resettlement quota (photo: index.hu).

This question refers specifically to the resettlement of 1,294 Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean refugees from Italy and Greece to Hungary as part of a European Union plan adopted in September 2015 (see 2016 Referendum on European Union Migrant Resettlement Quotas).

The result of the referendum in terms of approval or rejection of the European Union migrant-resettlement quota for Hungary was never in doubt: opinion polls consistently showed that the number of voters who rejected the quota was many times larger than the number of voters who accepted it (see “Opinion Polls” section of the relevant Wikipedia article).

The only question was: would voter turnout exceed the 50-percent threshold required for the referendum to be considered legally valid?

This combination of factors impelled most voters who opposed the Orbán government’s initiative, regardless of whether they supported the European Union resettlement quota or not, to either boycott the referendum or to cast invalid ballots in the hope of preventing turnout from reaching the required 50-percent validity threshold.

However, the boycott/invalid-ballot strategy entailed the drawback of ensuring that referendum would produce a landslide victory for the “no” votes rejecting the resettlement quota.

The Orbán government was clearly prepared to emphasize the aspects of the referendum results that best served its political interests—the voting outcome, the turnout, or both—and to take legislative action of some kind to prevent the European Union from resettling migrants in Hungary regardless of the specific result.

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“Let’s Not Take a Risk! Vote No! October 2”: Orbán government anti-quota referendum sign in Budapest (photo: Orange Files).

On September 22, Prime Minister Orbán said in an interview: “If it [the referendum] is successful and of convincing strength, then it will produce steps of a different nature than if it is turns out to be scrawnier. This is why it isn’t worth speculating now. Although naturally the referendum will have consequences in terms of public law” (source in Hungarian).

The final results of the October 2 “Referendum against Compulsory Resettlement” permitted the Orbán government to emphasis only the outcome: 98.3 percent of those who cast valid ballots in the plebiscite voted “no” to the EU migrant-resettlement quota, while only 1.7 percent voted “yes.” The Orbán government referred only indirectly to the fact that voter turnout for the referendum was only 40.4 percent, nearly 10 percentage points below the validity threshold (source in Hungarian).

Thus the Orbán government’s intensive, seventh-month propaganda campaign, which included ubiquitous billboard signs, electronic- and print-media advertisements and brochures exhorting the electorate to vote “no” in the referendum—a campaign that the opposition website Átlászó.hu estimated cost 15 billion forints (48.7 million euros)—had no apparent effect on the outcome of the referendum, serving only to further elevate political tension in Hungary to nearly hysterical heights (see The Phony Realist).

And the referendum itself, in practical terms, was virtually meaningless: the speech that Prime Minister Orbán delivered in Budapest following the close of polls on October 2 could have been written six months ago as one of just two possible versions—that emphasizing the overwhelming majority of “no votes” and avoiding any reference to voter turnout and legal validity.

Below is an Orange Files translation of Prime Minister Orbán’s post-referendum speech (see video of speech in Hungarian).

Esteemed ladies and gentlemen! 

[. . .]

Thirteen years after we decided in a referendum by a large majority to join the European Union, tonight we Hungarians again made our voices heard with regard to a European issue. We achieved a magnificent outcome, because we surpassed the result of the referendum on joining [the European Union]. A total of 3,056,000 voted to join in the referendum on joining [the European Union] and now we’re at 3,204,000 and we still don’t know most of the votes from Hungarians beyond the borders. And perhaps I should say here as well that some 15 percent more people took part now than during the most recent European parliament election. Thus the weapon will be pretty strong in Brussels as well. 

Esteemed ladies and gentlemen! 

First I would like to congratulate everyone and express my recognition to those who, feeling the gravity of the issue, participated in the referendum. They came and contributed to the fact that this enormous agreement of more than three million could come about. With regard to the participants, today nine of ten people voted on the side of Hungary, on the side of Hungary’s right to make independent decisions. I feel that we can be proud that as the first and until now only European Union member state [to do so], the Hungarians were able to directly express their opinion regarding the question of immigration. This was the proper, even honorable thing to do. This question was not yet on the agenda during the 2014 parliamentary election. Therefore, citizens were not able to take a stand on this and could not formulate their opinion. However, esteemed ladies and gentlemen, this is perhaps one of the more important questions of the years ahead of us, one that is about the future of Hungary and the future of our children and grandchildren. Who we live together with, what will become of our culture, what will become of our way of living until now, our economic system that we restored with great difficulty, what will become of our Christian roots. 

Esteemed ladies and gentlemen! 

A modern migration of peoples is taking place in the world. The waves of this have spectacularly and painfully reached Europe. The question now is, how will the European Union respond to this? The proposal of the union is that we let the migrants in and distribute them with obligatory force among the member states. And that Brussels decide about this distribution. Esteemed ladies and gentlemen, we Hungarians have today considered this proposal and rejected it. The Hungarians decided that only we, we Hungarians, can decide who we want to live together with. Brussels or Budapest, this was the question, and we decided that this right to decide lies exclusively with Budapest. Today we started down a path. And it will be a very long path. We took the first and most important step. Serious battles and difficult engagements await us on this long path. Now, following the celebration, we must do two things in order to assert our will. First we must invest the decision of the people with the force of public law. For this reason, I will place a proposed constitutional amendment on the National Assembly’s desk over the coming days. I believe that we must convey the will of the people expressed today. And we must place this in our Fundamental Law as well. The other urgent thing is to enforce the decision we made today in Brussels as well. 

My dear friends! 

Brussels stands before an important decision. Now it is the one that stands before an important decision. The European Union is a democratic community. Today in a member state 92 percent of the participants in a referendum declared that they do not agree with the intention of Brussels. The question is simple: can Brussels do this? Can the democratic community of European states force its will upon a member state, where 92 percent of participants are against it? I promise you, I promise all citizens of Hungary, that we will do everything under our power so that this does not happen. . . . 

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Hungary’s 2016 Referendum on European Union Migrant Resettlement Quotas

Official name: Referendum against Compulsory Resettlemen(Népszavazás a kényszerbetelepítés ellen).

Date: October 2, 2016.

Question: Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary even without the approval of the [Hungarian] National Assembly? (Akarja-e, hogy az Európai Unió az Országgyűlés hozzájárulása nélkül is előírhassa nem magyar állampolgárok Magyarországra történő kötelező betelepítésé?)

Issue: The resettlement of 1,294 Syrian, Iraqi and Eritrean refugees from Italy (306 refugees) and Greece (988 refugees) to Hungary as part of a European Union plan adopted in September 2015 to transfer 120,000 such refugees from Italy and Greece to other EU member states over the subsequent two years (source in English).

Orbán government position: Rejects mandatory resettlement quotas.

Prime Minister Orbán on resettlement quotas:

“Only we can make the decision about who we want to live with. They can’t say this in Brussels and Brussels cannot settle people here whom we don’t want to live with.” December 4, 2015 (source in Hungarian).

“Letting the migrants in is hardly a correctable mistake. Moreover, [there exists] this question of principle: can somebody from outside Hungary tell us ‘you Hungarians must live with people you don’t want to live with.’ This doesn’t depend on whether this means ten, one hundred or one million people. Here we are defending our national sovereignty. If the Hungarian parliament decides to do so, then we will accept refugees, though we will never under any circumstances allow Brussels to force a quota system upon us.” December 24, 2015 (source in Hungarian).

Required voter participation for referendum to be valid: More than 50 percent of all eligible voters.

Required percentage of “no” votes for referendum to pass: More than 50 percent of all votes cast, not counting invalid ballots.

Consequences of valid referendum vote against resettlement quotas: No legal consequences. The purpose of the referendum, presuming that the “no” vote wins, is to provide the Orbán government with greater authority to resist the previously adopted and possible future European Union resettlement quotas (source in Hungarian). On September 23, 2016, Prime Ministry chief János Lázár said during his weekly press conference that “if the referendum is valid and successful, the government could propose amendment of the Fundamental Law” (source in Hungarian).

Legal foundation for EU resettlement quotas: Article 78 of the European Union Treaty of Lisbon: “In the event of one or more Member States being confronted with an emergency situation characterized by a sudden inflow of nationals of third countries, the [European] Council, on a proposal from the [European] Commission, may adopt provisional measures for the benefit of the member State(s) concerned. It shall act after consulting the European Parliament” (source in Hungarian).

In December 2015, the governments of both Hungary and Slovakia submitted challenges to the European Court of Justice claiming that the European Union migrant resettlement quota adopted in September 2015 infringe EU law  (source A and B in English).

Other EU members that reject the September 2015 resettlement quota: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania (source A and B in English).

Potential EU fines on member states that  refuse to participate in resettlement plan: On May 4, 2016, the European Commission proposed offering EU member states that chose “to temporarily not take part in the reallocation” the option of paying a 250,000-euro “solidarity contribution” per each refugee not accepted under the resettlement plan (source in English). Under this proposal, the Orbán government would be compelled to pay a “solidarity contribution” of 323.5 million euros if it refused to accept Hungary’s quota of refugees in accordance with the resettlement plan.

Orbán government referendum campaign: In May 2016, the Orbán government launched an “informational campaign regarding the Referendum against Compulsory Resettlement.” The government’s referendum campaign has been divided into three phases:

first, the display of billboard signs throughout Hungary bearing the following text (see sign):

Let’s Send Word to Brussels so that Even They Understand It! (Üzenjük Brüsszelnek, hogy ők is megértsék!);

second, the display of billboard signs throughout the country with the following six texts (see gallery):

Did You Know?: More Than 300 People Have Died in Terrorist Attacks since the Beginning of the Immigration Crisis. (Tudta?: A bevándorlási válság kezdete óta Európában több mint 300-an haltak meg terrortámadásban);

Did You Know?: Immigrants Committed the Paris Attacks. (Tudta?: A párizsi merényletet bevándorlók követték el);

Did You Know?: Harassment of Women Has Increased Sharply Since the Beginning of the Immigration Crisis. (Tudta?: A bevándorlási válság kezdete óta ugrásszerűen emelkedik a nők elleni zaklatások száma Európában);

Did You Know?: Last Year One and a Half Million Illegal Immigrants Arrived to Europe. (Tudta?: Tavaly másfél míllió illegális bevándorló érkezett Európába);

Did You Know?: More Than One Million Immigrants Want to Come to Europe from Libya Alone. (Tudta?: Csak Líbiából közel egymillió bevándorló akar Európába jönni);

Did You Know?: Brussels Wants to Settle a City’s Worth of Illegal Immigrants in Hungary.¹ (Tudta?: Brüsszel egy városnyi illegális bevándorlót akar Magyarországra telepíteni);

and third, the mailing of 20-page brochures entitled “Information about the Referendum” (see gallery) to all 4.1 million households in Hungary and the display of and a new billboard sign (see sign), this one in Hungary’s red, white and green national colors, bearing the text “Let’s Not Take a Risk! Vote No! October 2 (Ne kockáztassunk! Szavazzunk nemmel! Október 2).

Cost of Government Campaign: The Prime Ministerial Cabinet Office spent 3.9 billion forints (12.6 million euros) on signs and television advertising broadcasting the same messages as those displayed on the signs (source in Hungarian). The brochures cost at least 100 million forints (324,000 euros) to print and mail (source in Hungarian). Thus the total cost of the government’s referendum campaign is at least 4 billion forints (12.9 million euros).

Position of National Assembly parties toward referendum:

Fidesz: no;

Christian Democratic People’s Party: no;

Jobbik: no;

Hungarian Socialist Party: boycott;²

Dialogue for Hungary: boycott;

Together—Party for a New Era: boycott;

Democratic Coalition: boycott;

Hungarian Liberal Party: yes;

Politics Can Be Different: neutral.

Two-Tailed Dog Party anti-referendum campaign: On August 15, 2016, the Two-Tailed Dog Party (Kétfarkú Kutya Párt), an extra-parliamentary opposition joke-party, began collecting donations via its website in order to finance an anti-referendum sign campaign. By August 28, the Two-Tailed Dog Party had collected around 27 million forints (87,000 euros), which the party said would pay for 450 large signs, 500 medium-sized signs, 200,000 small posters and 100,000 stickers urging voters to cast invalid ballots in the referendum (source in Hungarian).

The Two-Tailed Dog Party signs referring in ironic and absurd terms to those that the Orbán government had posted earlier in the summer began to appear on the streets of Budapest in late August (see gallery).

Likely outcome of referendum: According to a Závecz Research poll conducted for the opposition website index.hu during the last week of July, 53.9 percent of respondents reported that they intended to vote in the referendum, while 18.6 percent reported that they intended not to vote. A total of 40.3 percent of respondents reported that they would vote “no,” while 4.2 percent reported that they would vote “yes” (source in Hungarian).

According to another Závecz Research poll in late August, 54 percent of respondents reported that they intended to vote in the referendum, an increase of 0.1 percentage points compared to late July, while 18.8 percent reported that they intended not to vote, an increase of 0.2 percentage points compared to late July.  A total of 36.8 percent of respondents reported that they would vote “no,” a decrease of 3.5 percentage points compared to late July, while 5 percent reported that they would vote “yes,” an increase of 0.8 percentage points from late July. Only 0.9 percent of respondents reported that they intended to cast invalid ballots (source in Hungarian).

According to yet another Závecz Research poll conducted for index.hu in late September, 51.8 of respondents reported that they intended to vote in in referendum, down 2.2 percentage points compared to late August, while 24.4 percent reported that they intended not to vote, an increase of 5.6 percentage points compared to late August.  A total of 43.7 percent of respondents reported that they would vote “no,” an increase of 6.9 percentage points from late August, while 2 percent reported that they would vote “yes,” a decrease of 3 percentage points from late August. A total of 1.6 percent of respondents reported that they intended to cast invalid ballots, up 0.7 percentage points compared to late August. (source in Hungarian).

¹On August 29, 2016, the Curia (Hungary’s supreme court) rejected Hungarian Socialist Party Vice President András Nemény’s claim that this sign was misleading because the phrase “a city’s worth” implied that more than the actual 1,294 migrants would be resettled in Hungary according to the European Union plan and that referring to them as “illegal immigrants” obscured the fact that they were determined to be genuine refugees. The Curia based its decision on the premise that the “government’s statements voiced as part of the campaign at most orient [voters], though do not inform [them]” (source A and B in Hungarian).

²Hungarian Socialist Party (HSP) President Gyula Molnár stated on September 1, 2016 that “the HSP is prepared to support the government in the effort against the obligatory quota in the event that the European Union indeed is planning such steps” (source in Hungarian).

See: gallery of Orbán government referendum signs; gallery of Orbán government referendum brochure; gallery of Two-Tailed Dog Party referendum signs.

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