Is “propaganda minister” Antal Rogán to blame for Sunday’s invalid referendum?

October 4, 2016

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Prime Minister Viktor Orbán went into Sunday’s referendum with confidence after having been assured by his advisers as recently as two days before that participation would be high enough to validate it, reports 444.hu.

According to surveys conducted in the weeks before the referendum by government-tied Nézőpont Intézet (Viewpoint Institute), the proportion of voters likely to participate would be some 40 percent, not sufficient to clear the 50 percent-plus-one threshold necessary to be valid under Hungarian law. These surveys, however, were withheld from Orbán by Antal Rogán and his Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, or “propaganda ministry”, in favor of a more optimistic survey taken by another government-tied institute Századvég, which assured the prime minister that participation would be high.

Research institutes Nézőpont and Századvég are both used by the government for consultation, media monitoring and public opinion polling, and both have entered into contracts with the government for upwards of HUF 4 billion for their services. (Both are also closely tied to the ruling party: Nézőpont was recently bought by Tibor Győri, former adviser to the prime minister and former secretary in charge of legal affairs for the Prime Minister’s Office. Századvég also has numerous ties to the ruling party and has been called by former employees “a money-laundering factory.”)

Rogán, known in the Hungarian media as the “minister of propaganda,” and his ministry were tasked by Orbán to lead the massive media campaign encouraging voters to vote “no” in the October 2 referendum, which challenged the EU migrant resettlement quota plan. The ministry gathers and analyzes information provided by Nézőpont and Századvég, and directs the campaign and communication strategy based on their findings. Rogán’s office is also tasked with briefing the prime minister on the results of studies conducted by the research groups.

In September, only numbers from Századvég reached Orbán, numbers predicting a rate of 55 percent participation and the potential of an additional 22 percent from “likely” voters. These numbers were still what he was reviewing as recently as last Monday, numbers which overshot the final result of the referendum by more than 30 percent.

Given the information he was being fed by Rogán, it’s not surprising that Orbán spent months confidently assured that his referendum would be a resounding success. Only in the last several days before the Sunday vote did he begin to comment on what the consequences might be in the case of an invalid referendum, (incidentally, essentially identical to the consequences of a valid referendum) suggesting Rogán had finally fessed up to the likelihood that he had failed.

Screaming the same primitive message

The failure of the referendum to mobilize sufficient support has caused some within Fidesz to remark on the shortcomings of the media campaign. According to party leaders and advisers, it had two problems: timing and excessiveness. Some commented that its message was aggressive, negative and based on fear, and likened it to a 2006 campaign based around the message “We are living worse.” Rogán and his ministry were so worried that the referendum would fail that they poured an inordinate amount of money into campaigning, resulting in the unsightly phenomenon of a country littered with overbearing propaganda.

“The billboards provided a counterproductive sight,” wrote 444.hu, “where 3-4 huge posters or banners right next to each other screamed the same primitive message. In the last few weeks the instructions started to blend together.”

A direct subordinate to Rogán said: “It was clear until then that we must hate, but whether to hate Brussels or the unfortunate migrants changed from week to week.”

A government adviser of the media campaign said: “It was a well-oiled machine but the fuel was bad quality.”

Another adviser blamed the failed referendum on the fact that Orbán and his circle had rushed the writing of the referendum question, and that if they had made it easier for the opposition to go to the polls and vote “Yes”, they would have been able to lure the left into participating and thus garnered enough votes for a valid referendum.

Someone’s got to pay the bill

Rogán is already being blamed as the one responsible for the invalid referendum given that he spent HUF 11 billion (USD 40 million) of public money and could only manage to draw 40 percent of the voting population to the polls. But it doesn’t appear that he has any reason to fear for his job. He’s already been placed on the case of touting the referendum as a victory towards the public. Fidesz middle-management, however, might not be resting so easy. As we wrote earlier, it seems likely that those voter district leaders who failed to mobilize sufficient participation will be removed from their posts, as Orbán will be deciding who to place in those 106 districts this year.

Those at the top, however, are resting easy, and boasting the historic victory of the 2016 referendum.