The Hungarian government is misusing national consultations to manipulate public opinion and consolidate its power. Undermining democracy with such semi-formalised informal tools will not disappear any time soon from within the European Union.
While Europe is easing lockdown-measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, the Hungarian government has recently announced that it will revoke the controversial “special legal order”, that was introduced during the outbreak of the global pandemic crisis.
The so-called Enabling Act provided Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán with unlimited power to govern by decree without a sunset provision.
The government has even launched an offensive against foreign experts and media outlets, accusing them of “misinterpreting the Hungarian situation” and demanding an apology in official letters.
However, let us not forget what Viktor Orbán claimed in 2011: “I keep telling foreign diplomat that they should not pay attention to what I say but pay attention to what I do!”
Ironically, his words are indicative of his regime as a whole.
While arguing that the “government’s enhanced powers were no longer needed”, Mr Orbán has followed his usual train of thoughts and authoritarian political goals. When the Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister, Zsolt Semjén, submitted the termination of the Enabling act, the government also proposed a new “quasi-state of danger” system for the future.
Amending the rules of the “state of medical emergency”, the government could restrict by direct and arbitrary means the exercise of essential fundamental rights, such as the freedom of movement or the freedom of assembly.
Thus, the government could rule by decree again for a maximum of six months which can be extended indefinitely without any constitutional safeguards. In practical terms, the key provisions of the Enabling Act were simply moved into new medical emergency provisions, seeking to avoid harsh international criticism in the future.
Moreover, the prime minister has announced to launch a new “national consultation” that will gauge the public’s opinion on a range of issues with regards to the pandemic crisis.
The systemic impact of the national consultations
The Orbán government thrives on mobilising its own people: it has launched seven national consultations since 2010. Not only the consultation sets the agenda but helps to cement the electorate of the ruling party.
These public awareness campaigns are accompanied by a robust strategy of media promotion both in the public and in the commercial media while physical questionnaires are sent to every Hungarian household.
The “consultative” questionnaires are asking a series of highly biased questions on any number of given topics, underpinned by massive propaganda disseminated via countrywide billboard campaigns and media advertisements financed through public funds.
At the peak of the refugee crisis in 2015, a consultation “survey” stipulated that terrorism is “linked to migration” and it affects Hungarian people’s lives. At the beginning of this year, a fearmongering consultation was already in the pipeline on the compensation of Roma students whose education suffered due to racial segregation in Gyöngyöspata.
Since the COVID-19 crisis has entirely exploited the political agenda, the current consultation features new key topics.
The first focuses on the overall assessment of the fight against the global pandemic crisis. However, the government would less likely to ask about the previous special legal order, but rather to advertise the new legal framework for handling the pandemic – which is now discussed in the Hungarian Parliament. The voting is scheduled for 20 June.
The second is about restarting the economy, a topic which the government is already depicting as a success story. Viktor Orbán has claimed that “I think all Hungarians feel more comfortable in their skin,” adding that Hungary today was likely to be Europe’s only work-based society.
However, this is somewhat ironic when Central Europe is undergoing one of the most shocking structural realignment since the democratic transition. People have been losing their jobs on an unprecedented scale.
The third feature is the launch of a fresh attack on the Hungarian-born Holocaust survival George Soros. The American philanthropist has proposed that the EU should raise the money needed for the COVID Recovery Fund by selling “perpetual bonds”, which according to Orbán would lead to “debt slavery”.
Finally, it also features after a recent decision of the European Court of Justice, ruling that asylum-seekers may not be detained longer than 28 days in transit zones. Although the Hungarian government closed down the controversial transit zones in Röszke and Tompa, it would never miss a chance to depict refugees as an existential threat.
Thus, the upcoming consultation provides another opportunity to link the coronavirus to migration – which fits the government’s main narrative about “foreigners have brought the plague to Hungary”.
It remains to be seen what else will be on the agenda, as the consultation will feature 13 questions and the government is releasing the topics step by step.
The will of the people
Although consultations are not legally binding like national referendums, up until now they have often served to justify changes to laws for the Orbán government. One of the primary examples is that in October 2017, a consultation process labelled “National Consultation about the Soros plan” took place prior to the submission of the initial “Stop Soros” draft legislative package to the Hungarian Parliament in February 2018.
As a result, the government will use another consultation to shield against potential international criticism with regards to further power grab by referring to the “will of the Hungarian people” – much like two years ago with the Stop Soros law.
This should not remain under the radar of the EU Commission, especially because some of the COVID-19-related measures such as criminalising those who are allegedly spreading fake news will remain in force in Hungary.
The most concerning part is that the ruling party is depicting these direct marketing campaign letters as a democratic tool for “governing with the people”, the consultations have been suffering from a lack of transparency and methodological accountability. The government is not obliged to divulge information about the alleged responses.
Thus, there is no publicly available information neither about the number of people who responded to the government, nor anything about the concrete results.
And yet, Orbán could still allege in 2016 that “he was the one representing the will of the people, contrary to the European leaders who did not dare to ask their citizens about sensitive issues such as migration.”
Enhancing procedural democracy by bringing policymakers and the public closer together via referendums should be welcomed in the region. It became one of the key pillars of the EU, where the Commission is frequently holding online consultations on various issues for citizens and stakeholders to express their views and contribute to the EU decision-making process.
But the above-mentioned biased procedure raises serious rule of law concerns, as the Hungarian government is arguably misusing a democratic tool to manipulate public opinion and consolidate its power.
In an even more disruptive spirit, public consultations are also being instrumentalised by fully autocratic regimes. While Chinese citizens are not allowed to elect their governments, they are regularly consulted on sub-national policy initiatives – often on a weekly basis.
As Dimitar D. Gueorguiev has argued in his book, such consultation is simply “window dressing” for an otherwise authoritarian decision-making process as no new political actors are empowered, and critical comments can be kept entirely hidden amid troubling lack of transparency.
It shall be understood that the Hungarian government will keep proceeding with these consultations, notwithstanding the EU’s response. Which brings us to the conclusion that undermining democracy with such consultative tools will not disappear any time soon within the EU, quite the contrary.
Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovič has been openly praising Viktor Orbán for his “consultative method” of governance, and he also launched so-called “online consultations” in the elections campaign.
Therefore, the newly elected Slovak government should not follow the example of its Hungarian counterpart. Instead, it should adhere to principles of open government to ensure that citizens could meaningfully contribute to future policy making through a fully transparent, constitutional procedure.