Perhaps it isn’t even the referendum items which are so important, although I would be happy to see them addressed [by parliament]….What’s important is that there’s now a kind of program which a future government can implement during its first six months in power” – Ildikó Lendvai, former chairman, Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP)
At yesterday’s civil opposition demonstration held in front of Budapest’s Eastern (Keleti) Train Station, prior to announcing that demonstration organizers had submitted a “system-destroying” 19-point referendum to the National Election Office on Friday, presenter János Kulka proclaimed that “if freedom could be crushed with the might of the law, then that could also be used to restore it”.
Unfortunately, changes made by the Fidesz-KDNP parliament to the law on referendums in 2011 make it rather unlikely any such referendum could succeed.
What has to happen in order for parliament to take up the referendum issues?
First, Hungary’s National Election Office has to approve the wording of the referendum to verify that it is lawful and easy to understand. The question must be worded in a Yes/No form that is easily understood, so that in the case of a successful referendum the Hungarian parliament knows how to create/modify any resulting legislation for a vote by a plenary session.
If approved by the National Election Office, the referendum items’ sponsors can begin collecting signatures throughout the country. Those who support the referendum must provide a signature and a personal identification number or proof of citizenship.
From the day the National Election Office approves the referendum, sponsors have 120 days to collect the 200,000 required signatures. From the time the signatures are submitted, the National Election Office then has 60 days to review and verify the signatures. At such time 100,000 signatures have been verified, the chairman of the National Election Committee has eight days to inform the Speaker of Parliament who, in turn, is obliged to notify parliament of the referendum results at the next session of parliament.
If there are at least 100,000 signatures, it is up to the President of Hungary or the Speaker of Parliament to decide whether to hold a referendum. If there are at least 200,000 signatures, the referendum must be held.
If a referendum is held and voter turnout is at least 50 percent, and a majority of votes are in support of the referendum, the parliament must adopt a law in line with the intentions of the referendum.
Referendums unlikely to achieve intended results
The election law adopted by the Fidesz-KDNP-controlled parliament did away with minimum voter turnout requirements in the case of municipal elections, but introduced a high minimum turnout requirement in the case of referendums. The reason for the latter was probably to prevent the political opposition from doing to the Fidesz-KDNP government what Fidesz-KDNP did to the Socialist government of Ferenc Gyurcsány in 2008.
The following table summarizes voter turn-out in the three elections held last year.
- 2014 National Election (April 6)
Eligible voters: 8,047,769
Voter Turnout: 4,967,881 (61.73%)
- 2014 European Parliament (May 25)
Eligible voters: 8,033,814
Voter Turnout: 2,322,982 (28.92%)
- 2014 Municipal Elections (October 12)
Eligible voters: 8,170,404
Voter Turnout: 3,619,313 (44.30%)
- 2015 Veszprém by-election
Eligible Voters: 73,674
Voter turnout: 33,055 (44.87%)
- 2014 Budapest District 4th by-election
Voter turnout: 26,460 (33.89%)
From the above figures it is clear that a referendum would be lucky to achieve a 50 percent voter turnout. Before the ruling Fidesz party changed Hungary’s election law there was no minimum voter turnout in the case of referendum ballots. All that was required was that at least one-quarter of eligible voters cast a valid vote in the referendum. With around 8 million eligible voters in Hungary, this meant that a referendum needed 2 million votes in order to be taken up by parliament.
However, current law stipulates that at least 50 percent of eligible voters, that is, roughly 4 million voters, participate in the referendum in order for it to be valid.
This means that, while general or municipal election results are valid even if only one person votes per electoral district, in order for parliament to take up the subject of a referendum, at least 50 percent of eligible voters must vote in the referendum.
The referendum as political platform
“For me personally [the event] was a great experience…. It was especially liberating,” former MSZP chairman Ildikó Lendvai told ATV Start about yesterday’s demonstration, which was attended by a number of liberal and left-wing politicians.
What made this event so unique, Lendvai said, is that unlike earlier mass demonstrations, people were allowed to display their party preferences with the banners and flags bearing the logos of their respective parties.
“The fact that opposition party supporters and civilians are able to demonstrate together proves that they share the same core values,” she said.
The announcement of the 19 referendum items at the end of the demonstration was also a unique and positive addition.
“This [demonstration] ended with a finale that promises a new development in the form of a 19-point referendum,” Lendvai said. “Perhaps it isn’t even the referendum items which are so important, although I would be happy to see them addressed [by parliament]….What’s important is that there’s now a kind of program which a future government can implement during its first six months in power. I’m not sure whether you noticed, but these referendum items aren’t impossibly costly and they can actually be carried out.”