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“The refugee vote is a misuse of political communication”

“The refugee vote is a misuse of political communication”


On Sunday, 2 October, Hungary’s eight million eligible citizens were to decide in a plebiscite whether Hungary should accept the European Union’s quota system for asylum seekers.

Ahead of this vote, Democracy International has interviewed Zoltán Pozsár-Szentmiklósy, an Assistant Professor at the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest where he teaches constitutional law and human rights.

Interview by Cora Pfafferott

As a Hungarian citizen who lives in Budapest, how do you assess the current state of democracy in Hungary?

In Hungary, there is democracy, but when we look into the core elements of a democracy, then I’d say political rights are weakened in more aspects. For example, considering citizens’ right to elect members of the parliament, or to participate at national referenda, democracy in Hungary definitely has some flaws.

For instance, those citizens who have residence in a foreign country can cast their votes by post from abroad. On the other hand, citizens residing in Hungary but travelling abroad on election day can only vote in person at the diplomatic and consular missions. Moreover, according to the current media law, political advertisements can only broadcasted for free of charge – that is why only public media broadcasts such advertisements. However, it is the private channels that people watch and listen to. Hence in campaign periods, political messages do not really reach the people in an appropriate way.

Does this weakening of political rights go along with Prime Minister Orban’s intentions to introduce an “illiberal democracy” as he had announced in July 2014?

Yes, the traditional understanding of a “liberal democracy” or let’s say a state that profoundly bases on traditional constitutional values as rule of law, fundamental rights, separation of powers and the sovereignty of people is changing. In the political argumentation the government’s messages are getting stronger in contrast to the constitutional principles that are weakening. In terms of political communication, we experience that the “national interest” and “national sovereignty” are of key importance, having far more weight than the principle of the rule of law.

How does this acting on behalf of the national interest apply to the upcoming referendum on Sunday, 2 October, that asks voters whether Hungary should accept the EU plan of a mandatory quota system for refugees?

The referendum clearly is a political communication tool of the Hungarian government to pursue its goals to act in the presumed interest of the Hungarian nation and against the EU. It is an example of plebiscitary direct democracy: the popular vote is not about protecting the interests of the minority and counterbalancing the majority, but the actual majority initiated it to gain more support and power. The government uses the vote to back its politics as the legal basis of the referendum is uncertain and it could have no legal effects.

„Do not take chances!” Campaign poster of the Hungarian government. Source: The Little Glass Slipper, CC BY-SA 4.0

What is the atmosphere in Hungary ahead of the popular vote on 2 October?

The government runs a very strong campaign. You can see billboards everywhere calling upon the people to vote in accordance with the intentions of the government. There is no real counterbalance. There are some civic movements in opposition to the government and some small parties but they are absolutely campaigning at low-key level in comparison to the government. Their messages do not reach the crowds.

Do people talk a lot about the referendum and the refugee issue in Hungary?

I cannot really tell because at my University (Eötvös Loránd University Budapest) there is an atmosphere that is not representative for the whole nation. But my impression is that many people talk about the issue in a very defied and simplistic manner. They comply with the government’s line to vote in the presumed interest of the nation and they think that refugees are a risk. Overall, in Hungary political culture is not in a proper state and political debates are too simplified. We need a political culture that is well informed and critical.

How can this better form of political culture be realised?

Through education, discussion, debates and more responsibility of every person in the community in which she/ he lives. Direct democracy can also help to improve the quality of the political culture, but it must be citizen-initiated and be used in a proper way. The refugee vote on Sunday seems to be a misuse of political communication.

More information

on Zoltán Pozsár-Szentmiklósy here

The Navigator to Direct Democracy informs about the legal designs of direct democracy in Hungary here


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