National Election Committee certifies referendum question submitted by ex-Fidesz mayor’s wife

March 1, 2016

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“What happened was what we expected would happen. On Tuesday the skinheads prevented István Nyakó from submitting his referendum question in time and the National Election Committee did not challenge that at its meeting on Monday. Of course, the story isn’t over yet.  The Curia is up next. But we continue to be in the situation where everything happens according to the will of Fidesz.” – Róbert László, election expert, Political Capital

Hungary’s National Election Committee voted 7 to 5 on Monday in favor of validating a referendum question on the subject of Sunday store closures submitted last Tuesday by Mrs. László Erdősi.  The elderly wife of the independent mayor of Herceghalom (formerly a member of Fidesz) managed to submit her application four seconds before that of MSZP politician István Nyakó with the help of some twenty muscle-bound skinheads who blocked the latter’s access to the time stamp machine.

A flashmob took place that afternoon in front of the National Election Office after it turned out that the individuals “escorting” Mrs. Erdősi worked for Fradi Security, a security company owned by the Ferencváros Football Club whose executive director is none other than Fidesz managing director Gábor Kubatov.  Since then opposition politicians of all colors have taken turns denouncing Fidesz for physically preventing Nyakó from exercising his democratic right, and even Jobbik, Hungary’s radical right-wing party, has called for a parliamentary committee to investigate what happened.

Bottlenecking the system

Fidesz has employed a range of tricks to prevent a referendum on the issue from taking place. It seems the most effective of these tricks is to slow the process of getting the referendum to the ballot, and the best place to do so is at the National Election Office.

On several occasions since the Sunday store closure was passed in 2014, opposition politicians attempted to submit a referendum question on the closure law. While the outcome was always the same (i.e., the question never made it to the ballot), the method of obstruction has taken various forms.

There have been instances when questions submitted by opposition politicians were disqualified on grounds that the question was not clear enough, and there have been instances when someone else submitted a similar question minutes before an opposition politician could get to the National Election Office.

The end result has always been the same: the questions are ultimately disqualified. More importantly, the disqualification is a process that lasts months because of the ensuing lawsuits. It takes months for the official decision to be rendered that the question cannot be validated — all the while, no questions on the subject can be submitted to the National Election Office.

That is why everyone ran to the National Election Office last Tuesday

When MSZP politician István Nyakó ran down to the National Election Office last Tuesday, he did so because Hungary’s highest court, the Curia, had just rendered its decision disqualifying the previous question that was submitted several months ago.

It soon became evident that Nyakó wasn’t the only one who made a mad scramble for the National Election Office. Others had been waiting for this moment, too.

What exactly happened there isn’t entirely clear but, based on what was reported by members of the press at the scene, it is very clear that a group of muscle-bound skinheads obstructed Nyakó from time stamping his question at the front counter.

An elderly lady, Mrs. László Erdősi managed to submit her question four seconds before Nyakó.

They both wanted a referendum on the Sunday store closure, so what’s the problem?

It certainly matters how questions are asked. The same is true of the questions submitted last Tuesday regarding a Sunday store closure referendum.

Mrs. Erdősi’s question read: “Do you agree that retail shops — in accordance with the … law — should continue to remain closed on Sundays?”

István Nyakó’s question read: “Do you agree that the National Assembly should annul the … law which forbids retail employees from working on Sunday?”

The National Election Office approved BOTH questions BUT…

On Sunday it was announced that National Election Office President Ilona Pállfy approved both questions. Her approval, however, did not mean both questions received a green light to be put on the ballot. Pállfy’s” approval” merely verifies that the questions do not contain spelling errors, misleading facts, etc.

Having received Pállfy’s approval, the questions then made their way to the National Election Committee for a final decision.

The committee convened Monday in the media spotlight. During the meeting, which lasted several hours, the committee held a few votes on the National Election Office fiasco in which they established that

  • the muscle-bound skinheads abused an electoral right when they obstructed Nyakó and provided access for Erdősi, however
  • the committee could not establish for certain that Erdősi and the individual accompanying her had used the wall of muscle-bound skinheads to their advantage
  • the National Election Office violated no laws last week during the fiasco.

The committee then got bogged down in a debate surrounding the manner in which Erdősi submitted the question. It was not Erdősi herself who actually submitted the question, but the man accompanying her.

András Patyi, chairman of the National Election Committee, recommended that Erdősi’s question be invalidated because Hungarian law requires that a question be submitted in person, which he interpreted to mean that the person signing the application must physically time stamp and submit the application.

The committee ended up voting 7-5 in favor of validating Erdősi’s question, thereby Nyakó’s question was disqualified because Erdősi’s was submitted four seconds sooner.

So now what?

The National Election Committee’s decision to validate Erdősi’s question can be challenged in Hungary’s highest court, the Curia, within 15 days. If it is challenged, the court will have 90 days to render a decision regarding the validation of the question.

Róbert László, an electoral system expert with Political Capital, a think-tank and consultancy, says the court will not only look at the question itself, but also the circumstances under which the question was validated, including the fiasco.

According to László, the court also has the power to invalidate Erdősi’s question and validate Nyakó’s question in its place if it feels crimes were committed at the National Election Office.

The lesson

“What happened was what we expected would happen,” László told ATV Tuesday morning. “On Tuesday the skinheads prevented István Nyakó from submitting his referendum question in time and the National Election Committee did not challenge that at its meeting on Monday. Of course, the story isn’t over yet.  The Curia is up next. But we continue to be in the situation where everything happens according to the will of Fidesz.”

The validation of Erdősi’s question will surely be challenged in court. Regardless of how the court decides, the Sunday store closure referendum scandal will continue to drag on for months.