Hungary’s referendum about EU quota and what is wrong with it

Hungary has been swamped with billboards again, this time, the government played everything on one card and decided to send a message to Brussels so that they also get it. What is it all about? Who gets richer and what valuable messages does it truly send? Read further to find out how to never construct a referendum question and why you should rather enjoy a nice weekend in October than to vote in the charade the Hungarian government is playing with its voters.

The debate in the European Union about the need to redistribute the incoming refugees between the separate EU members has been on the table for at least a year with the V4 countries being the biggest critics. In February 2016, Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s PM, held an emotional speech in which he called for a nationwide referendum to say “NO” to the EU quota system for redistribution of refugees seeking asylum. The referendum will take place on 2ndOctober 2016 under the name Népszavazás 2016.

In his speech, Viktor Orbán mentioned that the EU quota system would redraw Hungary and Europe’s ethnic, cultural and religious identity. The ballot will ask Hungarian voters: “Do you want that the EU can prescribe the mandatory relocation of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the Hungarian parliament?”

Viktor Orbán has also said that nobody has asked the EU citizens about their opinion regarding the quota system, and that’s why Hungary will hold this referendum. While there is nothing wrong with holding a referendum (in the UK, they seem to enjoy using this democratic principle a lot in the past year), the way how you ask the question is fairly important. The wording of the Brexit referendum phrase has changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” to “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” with answers being either “Remain a member of the EU” or “Leave the European Union”. Similarly, the referendum question for Scotish independence was “Should Scotland be an independent country?”, and not what one might assume “Should Scotland leave the United Kingdom?”. The following phrasing would be just too pushy. This is where the actual linguistics matters. In the UK, the Electoral Commission helps with doing a pre-referendum research to find out how the question is perceived and understood by the general and expert public. Has anybody in Hungary given a second thought to formulating the referendum question?

What constitutes a good referendum question?

It is quite easy — a good referendum question should be simple, clear and neutral. It should not be misleading, or it should not encourage the voter to consider one response more favourably than the other (it is known as acquiescence bias — the tendency of most respondents not to want to challenge an assumption implicit in the question).

Why is the Hungarian referendum question totally off?

What is wrong with the wording of the Hungarian quota referendum question? It reads in Hungarian: “Akarja-e, hogy az Európai Unió az Országgyűlés hozzájárulása nélkül is előírhassa nem magyar állampolgárok Magyarországra történő kötelező betelepítését?” The English translation is: “Do you want that the EU can prescribe the mandatory relocation of non-Hungarian citizens to Hungary without the approval of the Hungarian parliament?”

Firstly, the question refers to “non-Hungarian” citizens, which does not simply implicate that these are refugees or asylum seekers or people in need. These can be as well Estonians seeking some sunlight or Czechs coming to teach Hungarians how to tap their beer properly.

Secondly, the word “előír”, which means to prescribe, order, or ordain, is not the best word choice. Why? You just willingly do not choose to be ordained to do something. Not even when you are a five-year-old and your mummy orders you to clean your toys and believe me; no referendum would be called out on this. The only moment I can imagine a person being happy when they are prescribed something is when they have terrible diarrhea and their doctor provides them with some medicine prescription to pick up at a pharmacy. The connotation of this word is just too high and misleading to be in a referendum phrase that the government puts on the same importance level as the referendum to access the EU. The verb gets even strengthened with the word “mandatory”. Although one would say, if you are prescribed to do something, it cannot be voluntary but can only be mandatory.

Lastly, why on Earth is the referendum question containing this part: “without the approval of the Hungarian parliament”? Does it make any difference what a bunch of elected officials thinks when they called upon a referendum about it? Is it meant to imply that this is anti-democratic? Most probably. It just leads the voter to an awful feeling that they are doing something against their government’s will. Under no circumstances can you imagine having a sane person say yes to such a phrased referendum question.

What is the Hungarian referendum about quota referring to?

According to the redistribution mechanism, Hungary should be accepting 1,294 refugees from hotspots in Italy and Greece. This is not even ten full Boeing 737 aircrafts that regularly bring tourists to explore Budapest. And by the way, there are around ten flights landing in two hours on a normal day at the Budapest airport.

The Hungarian government was together with other V4 countries heavily objecting this mechanism since the discussions about it started in summer 2015. The Financial Times reported that for every refugee a state would refuse to accept from the allotted quota, a fine of 250,000 EUR would have to be paid. Viktor Orbán countered that Hungary might pay out itself from this duty, which if we do the maths properly would mean a fat bill of 323,500,000 EUR. Certainly, something that the Hungarian budget can deal with without a blink of the eye. Not.

Referendum needs a campaign

One thing the Hungarian government is particularly good at is erecting billboards around the whole country. This trend started way back in 2012 with posters against former PM Gyurcsány and continued further. Last year, Orbán’s cabinet launched xenophobic billboards, which were rather meant for the eyes of Hungarians than the refugees reading if you come to Hungary, you have to respect our laws/respect our culture/you mustn’t take jobs away from the Hungarians. This cost Hungarian taxpayers around HUF 300 million (950,000 EUR). These billboards were a part of the campaign for the consultation on immigration and terrorism, where 8 million questionnaires were printed and posted at a cost of additional HUF 950 million (3 million EUR) to Hungarian citizens. Read my post from last year about the questions and the reaction of Hungarians to the billboards.

Népszavazás 2016

The Hungarian roads and streets were again flooded with billboards with even a more cryptic message. This time, the text reads: Üzenjük Brüsszelnek, hogy ők is megértsék! English translation: “Let’s send a message to Brussels so that they also get it!” This year, it seemed that billboards are not enough (or maybe because the budget is much higher), so you can come across this message everywhere — bus, tram and metro stops, highways, lower class roads, simply everywhere. There is a total of 9 of these billboards on the short way from Nyugati train station to Honvéd hospital. Truly efficient campaign one would say.

These billboards are just everywhere

Their design is similar to the advertisements from last year. Surely that is because of the companies from a close circle of Rogán Antal, Chief of Orbán’s cabinet, that had the chance again to cut the pie of government money and prepare this unmissable campaign. These companies are Network 360 Reklámügynökség Kft. and Affiliate Network Kft., who received a total of 3.042 billion forints (9,595,501 EUR) for activities in the period from 7/3/2016 to 10/8/2016. These include: taking care of the tasks related to the campaign to inform the population about current actions of the government, graphic design, preparation, online communication, and social media services, integrated advertising agency services, research tasks, media planning and buying PR services including strategic planning and other consulting.

The design was performed by Lounge Design Kft., a company that already received 285 million HUF (900,000 EUR) for creative marketing and design, realisation, message expression, communication strategy and planning in the period 20/2/2013–31/12/2015 — details about these contracts can be found here and here and also here.

READ Anti-Immigration Billboard Campaign — If you come to Hungary…

Are these billboards that popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain truly an informative campaign? Would it not be better to invest the money in something that could improve the life of ordinary Hungarians? Can you imagine how much toilet paper would it buy for local hospitals and schools that sadly do not have enough resources to procure it? Do not imagine: a cost of a toilet paper roll is around 50 HUF (retail price), the cost of the campaign is 3.042 billion HUF, which makes it an incredible 60,840,000 rolls of toilet paper! That should be enough to roll up the Parliament several times. Maybe that could stop the government from throwing money out of the window plus it would put Hungary again in the spotlight! Imagine those tourist pictures.

The details of the referendum alongside with other fun facts are presented on the governmental portal (Hungarian link and a link to the Google Translate of the website).

Will the Hungarian referendum be valid?

The opposition tried preventing the referendum by filing a claim at the Highest Court as they feared it could increase xenophobia in the country. However, as expected, the Hungarian Highest Court confirmed that the referendum can take place and so it will — on Sunday, 2ndof October 2016.

The biggest fear of Orbán Viktor is however that not enough people would turn up and vote. Half of the eligible voters need to express their opinion for the referendum to be valid and with many Hungarians living abroad and the potentially nice Indian Summer weekend, Hungarians may as well choose to spend it at the lake Balaton instead of voting in a referendum with such a strangely formulated question.

READ Everything You Wanted to Know About Hungarians — part 1/2

Lastly, the referendum itself does not have the power to change anything on the deals made in the EU. Moreover, the 1,294 people that Hungary was supposed to accept is a small fraction (and a number from the previous deals, when a total of 160,000 refugees were being reallocated on paper), since then the number of refugees coming to Europe has grown significantly.

What messages does the campaign send then?

That being said, friends in the circle of Rogán Antal got a bit richer again without really changing the world. This campaign also sends a clear cut message to the politicians of other countries, do not deploy billboards with cryptic messages. Or for the better, do not deploy any billboards. Ever. Unless you run a political campaign funded with your own money.

What is the message to Hungarians? Do not let your government waste the taxes they collected on useless advertisement. The government is not a PR agency. Consider having a lovely weekend and skipping participating in answering such a strange referendum question. Because nothing will change. Nada.

And a message to the Hungarian government? Read again the paragraphs about the wording of the referendum question. When finished, read again and again. Until you finally get it. If you want more reading about how to phrase a good referendum question, learn from the British. The Electoral Commission has quite a nice and short guideline here.

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Originally published at www.katechka.com on July 6, 2016.

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