Hungary, Who Never Misses Chance to Ask Citizens’ Opinion

Gerard ter Borch: Woman writing a letter // Public domain
Gerard ter Borch: Woman writing a letter // Public domain

In December 2022, the Hungarian government launched its 12th national consultation, asking voters about their views on the Ukraine-Russia war and the European Union’s sanctions. The consultation, as usual was filled with manipulated questions, false dilemmas, and vague expressions, and was preceded by a strong, one-sided Eurosceptic and state-funded campaign.

The results were celebrated by the governing party, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz, while the opposition was outraged, but no significant effect was achieved except the immediate use of political communication. This is not surprising given the instrument of national consultation and the Hungarian tradition, but it does rightly raise the question of whether it is worth spending nearly a billion forints (about 2 571 880 EUR) on a poll without consequences. The unreasonable spending becomes more debatable with the energy crisis, one of the EU’s highest inflations, and the slow economic recovery after COVID-19.

The consultation itself is an internationally known democratic, bottom-up innovation with a similar methodology to a referendum. In both methods, the political forces ask the voters about public interests, then, based on the answers the authority can consider or even make an immediate legislative amendment. Nevertheless, there are huge indifferences between the consultations and the referendum question formulation, the initiative, and the consequences.

Unlike the referendum, the national consultation is not bound by any legal regulation, so it has no validity threshold or decisive power. Regardless of the results it does not obligate the authority to do anything, the acquired knowledge can be used arbitrarily while the process lacks transparency and verifiability.

The other significant difference comes from the formulation of questions. Generally, the referendum initiative is fixed in the given country’s law thus restricting the initiation and the whole procedure. The questions raised are going through the legislative power, a separate review can be initiated upon request, and depending on the results the authority can even be obliged to change the legislation. On the other hand, in Hungary, the consultation questions are formulated by the Prime Ministry alone without any negotiation with the other branches of power.   

Although the consultation falls short against the referendum in a democratic comparison and despite the negativities, the tool is not in itself wrong or inherently useless. Technically it can serve the effective aggregation of the will of the people and the expansion of democracy as exemplified by the European Union, which also uses this tool from time to time. However, the Union also presents well the limits of the process because their consultation in 2022 about the youth’s opinion and political engagement was answered by only 4 686 people, so even with considerable spending to incentivize participation, it cannot surpass any other average poll.

Because of the clear deficiency and high cost, most countries do not use consultation as a basic tool for the operation of democracy. Still, in Hungary, consultation tradition is going back 18 years despite the fact that the country is not famous for its well-run democracy. The apparent contradiction can be easily resolved by reviewing the circumstances of its institutionalization, which will reveal both its old and new purpose.

Those circumstances go back to 2005. At that time Viktor Orbán who was still campaigning in opposition founded the (obviously non-governmental) National Consultation Centre, with the aim to expand the network of Fidesz and increase their voter base.

The questionnaire was sent out by volunteers, and they contained general themes like “What disappoints us? and “What are we afraid of?” The event was even more personal because of the village parliaments and weekly reception hour where Viktor Orbán has already emerged as a central figure. Although the reach of this first consultation was – for understandable reasons –inferior to the later ones, the popularization of the leader and the party was successful. At the time Fidesz incorporated the answers into their political campaign and because the tool used proved effective after they came into power (2010), they started to institutionalize the consultation.

However, its primary aim was not to inform the party about voter opinions, but to influence, not the party’s opinion, but that of voters’.. The forums and activist roles were pushed to the background as the campaign and delivery have been accomplished. From there it became an established method to place an enemy at the center of the consultation, who was always carefully selected by Fidesz, and who’s responsible for the country’s problems, so the questionnaire was narrowed down to choose between the options designed arbitrarily by the government.

Thus, after the first two experimental consultations financed by Fidesz, the consultation of the year 2012 was preceded by a well-structured campaign, and up until the beginning of 2023, twelve consultations were announced, and conducted, this time, paid for by the taxpayer’s money.

We can talk about the present consultation system since 2015 when migration and terrorism was the topic of the strongly xenophobic questionnaire. After that, the fully developed technique was used with the “Stop Soros” (2017), “Stop Brussels” (2017), the family protection consultations (2018), and in 2020 and 2021 three different consultations about Covid-19.

The party has built a strong national identity with the help of the consultations (from which opposition voters are essentially excluded), which was transformed into a discursive political tool and moved in the direction of aggregative participation techniques therefore it conclusively failed as a democratic innovation.

The latest month-long consultation in December of 2022 asked the voters about their opinion on the EU’s sanctions and the energy crisis.

Based on the government’s information the undisclosed purpose of the questionnaire is “to correct the failed EU sanctions” and Viktor Orbán stated that “I am not assuming what is on people’s minds, (…) but because of the consultation I know exactly what people think about these questions.”

He added that in this way he can represent not only his point of view but the entire nations in Brussels.

This is not the first time the “Brussels bureaucrats” became enemies in Hungary and most of the consultation’s elements are also not 2022’s innovations. The formula is very similar to the consultation against George Soros and his ‘plan’ but this one personified the European Parliament with its headquarters, which – according to the campaign – is an independent enemy to be-defeated as it disregards Hungarian interests, especially by settling immigrants in the county (2015) and making food more expensive in stores (2022).

The questionnaire of 2022 contained seven questions, each with a paragraph-long introduction. The specific questions at the end of these were as follows:

Do you agree with the Brussels oil sanction / the sanction on gas shipments / the sanction on nuclear fuel elements / that Paks investment should also be covered by the sanction’s measures / the sanction involving restrictions on tourism / with the sanctions that cause food prices to rise?

The introductions before the questions contained statements in all seven cases. These statements are questionable in themselves – as they are constantly questioned by domestic and international experts – yet they are not part of the formation of opinions, the government’s position is given as official data. So even though the questioning complies with the logical structure, those who complete it still must face the paradox that if they accept the accuracy of the description then morally, they can only oppose the given sanction (as Fidesz wishes) and if they do not accept it the question becomes irrelevant. The consultation does not provide any platform for refuting its claims or articulating disagreeing with the government’s views.

This can be proven by any of the questions, for example the last one says:

Sanctions also have a serious impact on the food supply. The increase in gas prices greatly increases the cost of agricultural production and the sanctions also extend to certain components of fertilizer. Rising food prices in developing countries increase the risk of famine. This will lead to even greater waves of migration and increase the pressure on Europe’s borders. Do you agree with the sanctions that cause food prices to rise?”

To answer this question, we must accept that the sanctions cause the disruption of the food supply as well as inflation. Credibility is strengthened by the accumulation of semi-professional expressions, the diversity of arguments, and an extensive chain of cause and effect: therefore, inflation is caused by the increase in gas prices, the background of which is the increase in production costs, which is further aggravated by the sanctions imposed on fertilizer.

Its further findings reflect human fears and insecurities, so without the voter having to think about what this might do to his own life, the question contains the answer – sanctions lead to famine and migration. In addition to the question containing the detailed position, the main question also contains a qualification as it asks for the voter’s opinion on sanctions “that cause food prices to rise.”

The purpose of the consultation would be the interest aggregation or even the political appeal but because the questions do not name any specific sanction, we cannot know what exact political act we can impose. The highlighted question also just vaguely mentions a sanction that causes food prices to rise but does not name any concrete sanction so even after the decisive result of a potential referendum it would not be possible to determine what specific political act this obligates.

In summary, the consultation is not interested in voters’ opinions anymore just wants to prove a government-based theory; like now the harmfulness of sanctions covers all areas.

The consultation was sent out to 8 million people, and it received 1.7 million (or other sources mention 1,3 million) responses, making it the second most successful consultation of all time, even though it hardly reflects the opinion of the entire population. As I will analyze later the respondents mostly come from the rank of Fidesz voters.

The official summary says 97% of the respondents reject the sanctions (answered no to all seven questions), which is about 20% of the voter population, of course, no precise analysis was published just as nothing obliges the party to do so. Based on the information displayed on the government’s website, the production of the questionnaires cost nearly 2.7 billion forints (about 6 992 200 EUR), and the cost of the anti-sanctions campaign before and after the consultation could have costed way more than that.

Mainly, the spending of this much money caused strong indignation on the part of the opposition – both parties and voters. Since this political tool has been used many times, the indignation is becoming more moderate year by year however, the massive spending on the latest consultation caused a greater response due to the economic crisis and inflation.

Yet no mature and effective response from the opposition has been made until today, and the only that could be expected – as it becomes common in all matters of domestic politics – was the international response, which the non-government Hungarian MEPs have attempted to achieve with their speeches.

The European Commission’s spokesperson, Peter Stano said “all the sanctioning decisions in the EU are made by the Member States in unanimity. They decide about what sanctions regime we have, when we have it, to what extent.” About the results, he said the Commission had noted “the results of the consultation in Hungary and the very low participation.”

Overall, the international reaction was not considerable and its effect on the specific act was marginal, while the action of the opposition MEPs was well used by Fidesz to highlight the unpatriotic nature of the opposition parties.

After the overview of the consultation’s origin, tradition, and the latest questionnaire some simple questions arise, most importantly: is it worth it? How much do the positive results reflect the success of the government? Does the benefit of the procedure exceed its cost? What reasons encourage the Hungarian government to deploy this questionable tool again and again?

It seems clear that the consultation, as a real democratic political tool for aggregating interests, has failed in Hungary. However, the reason for the failure is not the tool itself, but the way it is used and its targeted distortion as it has now intentionally evolved into a deliberative tool in the hands of Viktor Orbán. Exceeding the tool’s original goals, it does not seek the broad opinions of all the Hungarians but by distorting questions and setting up false dilemmas it turns to Fidesz’s current and future party sympathizers. Today’s form can have several advantages, probably most of which contribute to the frequent use of consultation.

The primary goal may be to reach and mobilize Fidesz voters, which is easily achievable due to its strong agenda-shaping effect. This effect is indisputable, the matters related to these issues are not only brought to every citizen’s living room and public spaces by the extensive campaign but also frame the platforms of the opposition and analysts just as their narrative is also successfully integrated into public discourse.

With the questionnaires, Fidesz can maintain a constant sense of danger in the hearts of voters, so the party continuously proves its necessity beyond and after the campaign period. In this way, they emphasize that every political decision has a stake and accustom voters to participate and secure their continued employability. So, the electoral participation of Fidesz voters is ensured for the next election and it prevents possible loss of motivation or attrition.

In addition to their voters, they also send a message to the opposition and uncertain voters: they draw attention to their democratic operation by asking for opinions and promoting their existing government successes.

Over the years they have also managed to eliminate the problem that the mobilization might create a useful platform for opposition voters. The research of the Republikon Institute in February 2023 found that 46% of respondents agree with the sanctions and only 32% oppose them. In contrast to the results of the consultation, the proportion of those in favor of sanctions is almost one and a half times higher than those against sanctions. This research, the low turnout of the consultation and its one-way result of 97% proves that only those who agree with the government’s narrative completed the questionnaire, while the opposition-minded citizens did not participate.

Behind this it might be the already mentioned paradox; those who are dissatisfied with the questioning or do not agree were left without a platform suitable for articulating their opinions. Since there is no possibility to refute the statements before the questions, and the questionnaire gives only one well-worded way of opposition by the government, moreover, as the result of the technique of the wording the questions portray the person filling in as immoral (against the interest of Hungary, fellow citizens, or want to raise prices, etc.) Thanks to that, the voters who reject government communication can only react by refusing to participate.

            In connection with this, the lack of legitimacy is a problem with the consultation, which perhaps most calls into question the usefulness of the procedure (just think of the EU spokesperson above, who essentially dismissed the consultation results). Fidesz solves the problem by two different methods. First, creating the image of an enemy at the center of the campaign increases the stakes of the consultation as well as the voter participation of the governing party.

The success of this is demonstrated by the lower number of participants in consultations related to COVID-19 (where the enemy was COVID) or the fact that the highest participation so far was achieved by the “Stop Soros” consultation (where George Soros was the selected enemy). Second, a well-established tool against low legitimacy is arbitrarily changing the emphasis on results. Almost immediately after its compilation in January 2023 billboards appeared all over Hungary announcing that 97% of the Hungarians said no to the sanctions.

The participation rates just as after the consultation of migrants in 2015 were not indicated in any form, but were said to be between 1,3-1,7 million people out of the eligible 8,2 million, meaning only 16-20% of eligible Hungarians filled in that they are against EU sanctions.

Therefore, the focus has shifted from legitimacy in general to legitimacy by party sympathizers. Moreover, the consultation of 2022 and the mentioned research of Republikon shows that the mobilization has also narrowed within the electorate to those who support the particular cause. The research says there is a huge difference between the views of the voting camps: while 68% of opposition voters are in favor of sanctions, 60% of Fidesz voters are against them.

It is important to note that even 30% of the Fidesz camp supported the sanctions, so although the consultation was successful in mobilizing those Fidesz voters who were against them, the result does not reflect the opinion of the Hungarian population, nor the Fidesz voter camp.

Thus, we can say the consultations also function as a general campaign tool as they provide one of the best surfaces for spreading Fidesz’s two main motives: identifying the enemy and deflecting responsibility.

Those two motifs have been recurring elements of Fidesz’s policy since 2010 and are usually connected one another. This is often limited to opposition politicians, but Fidesz is happy to make use of more abstract and complex elements and government communication can build on unknown foundations.

So, while we also see examples of riding on an existing fear such as xenophobia and fear of terrorism during the immigrant campaign, it also happens that national fear is inflated from indirect or almost non-existent emotions, like in the 2017 “Stop Brussels” campaign that launched the 2022 consultation and combined the fear of migration and foreigners with the rejection of globalism.

Turning against Brussels (meaning the European Union) in 2022 was an unfortunate but politically logical step for Fidesz. They won the parliamentary elections primarily with their family support program, calm but passive peace policy, and the country’s economic performance right next to a modified electoral system favorable to Fidesz and the campaign sponsored by billions of public money.

However, right as they would won 2/3s of the parliament seats for the fourth consecutive time, they were immediately faced with a myriad of crises. Ensuring economic prosperity has been a priority for Hungarian voters since the socialist governments so when goods started to become more expensive due to the war and global inflation the ruling party had to act quickly and find someone or something to blame. Since the myth of the opposition’s responsibility lost its validity in face of high government support, the previously established anti-European Union campaign seemed an easily accessible option so the new consultation took on a Eurosceptic aspect.

Another goal within the campaign is the articulation and identity formation. One of the main elements in the formation of national identity is that Fidesz gives pre-developed, clear answers to unsettling questions that require a decision that can be easily incorporated into the voters’ definition of themselves and the nation.

The consultation can be the perfect solution for this because it introduces complex questions that require consideration, even specialist knowledge with simple statements, and then converts it into a moral dilemma that is resolved without research or qualification. This saves the voters time and on the other hand, forces decision-making. After the decision has been made it is less likely to be uncertain or reconsidered so the voters will stand up for the slogan that corresponds to government communication by its internal motivation in the future.

It often arises that the motivations include the provocation of the opposition. This can be indicated by the campaign’s undisguised position, the complete exclusion of the opposition parties from the process, and the provocative billboards covering the whole country. However, there is not much support beyond it except the general opinion of the opposition and it is almost certain that it is not among the main goals, but rather can be called an additional ‘benefit’.

The message of the consultation results was addressed not only to Hungarian citizens but also the international politics, which could be another motivation for the costly implementation. The conflictual relationship between the Union and Hungary was further aggravated by the rule of law mechanism launched in 2022 which sought to achieve the restoration of democratic institutions by withholding union funds and the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war that exacerbated the problem of Hungary’s opening to the east.

Next to the litigation another problem was the issue of sanctions imposed at the EU level due to the war because it became a vital issue for Hungary due to its energy dependence which makes it understandable that the government made it the center of the consultation.

The consultation’s international effect is questionable. While in Hungary, the consultation is an ordinary and well-known political tool, which is welcomed by Fidesz voters and frowned upon by the opposition, its international political reception is unpredictable as is its potential as an advocacy tool.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that the Hungarian government has conducted a national consultation on a package of issues that are decided collectively by the European Union and where Hungary has only a single vote. Bringing those decisions to the level of member states even in a consultation bears no real significance, and in the best case leaves the international community indifferent but could also further worsen the perception about the country.

In summary, national consultations are effective at the level of development we see in Hungary today, despite their enormous cost. Although it is difficult to quantify the extent of its contribution to Fidesz’s election victories and popularity indicators, it’s certain they have a positive impact on their campaigns.

More importantly, the identity forged by the consultations is indeed embedded in the self-definition of party supporters and becomes the topic of political and common discourses. Regarding the legitimacy problem: despite the low turnout rate, the proportion of voters who follow the narrative – answer according to Fidesz – is overwhelming, so their mobilization can be considered successful. Even so, the use of this form of national consultation for any government that claims itself democratic is not recommended especially as the money spent could have been put to better economic or moral use.  


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Fanni Barczikai
Republikon Institute