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A beginner's guide to the Hungarian refugee referendum

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If you haven’t been following the run-up to Hungary's refugee referendum on 2 October, here’s what you missed: the governement has been asking people what they know, the former Prime Minister made a playlist, and the two-tailed dogs are on fire.

On 2 October, Hungary will hold a referendum regarding the European Union’s quota system for resettling migrants. The vote will decide on the following question: "Do you want Brussels to be able to determine immigration policy for non-Hungarians in Hungary, regardless of the will of the Hungarian parliament?"

 This article does not wish to debate which side is right, or whether there is a point in holding such a referendum. It merely wishes to list the different approaches of the most important parties in Hungary, and the message of their campaigns, based on mostly their billboards and official statements.

The Hungarian Civic Alliance (FIDESZ), the party currently in power, started their campaign way earlier than the rest of the pack. Some argue that the billboards and leaflets do not even count as campaign material as they simply “state facts” (or that they are basically illegal, since the campaign period had not started at the time of their publication). The form of these was one of question-answer: "Did you know?" followed by a statement (obviously not positive) about migration and its consequences. As the campaign officially started, FIDESZ’s motto changed: "Don’t risk the future of Hungary! Vote no!" According to different polls, this is the most popular opinion in Hungary - whether this is a consequence of the previous billboards or FIDESZ is following the voice of the people is another question.

There is another party that is encouraging Hungarians to vote no: the Movement for a Better Hungary, better known as Jobbik. The infamous right-wing party, which is now trying to move toward the centre of the political spectrum, is clearly against the quota as it is, in the words of spokesman Ádám Mirkóczi, "a pointless dictate of Brussels." They also made a minute-long movie encouraging people to vote no and criticising the government’s "soft" measures against migration. Meanwhile, the party urged FIDESZ to include the refusal of the quota in the constitution - but this might only come after the referendum. Gábor Vona, the leader of the party, also drew a parallel between this referendum and Brexit, suggesting that Viktor Orbán should step down if the referendum is lost.

The majority of the opposition parties are against the quota, and are calling for a boycott of the referendum rather than a “yes” vote. The biggest opposition party, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) - which is still trying to win back its former glory and become a real contender once again - cut the Gordian knot in spectacular fashion, saying: "There is no mandatory quota. The referendum is pointless." Their other advertisement mirrors the confusion around the party: under the gigantic YES word, smaller letters convey the actual message: stay at home on Sunday!

The Demokratikus Koalíció (Democratic Coalition), led by former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány, also urges demobilization. Gyurcsány prepared a playlist, so that people staying at home could listen to his favourite songs, but there were also some more serious efforts on their side. "Stay at home, stay in Europe!" is their main slogan, which clearly indicates that they take the referendum as something directly connected with the EU membership of Hungary. The message of three micro-parties, who decided to campaign together (MOMA, Együtt, PM) is the same. “Who stays at home, votes for Europe” - reads their advertisement. Still, its most noteworthy feature is probably the two people, who show the finger to a blurry version of the FIDESZ billboard and the text above them: "This is the answer to a stupid question." As Viktor Szigetvári said, "this is our answer to an untrue referendum, because this can be the only answer to a stupid question."

The Magyar Liberális Párt (Hungarian Liberal Party) is the only party encouraging people to vote yes. Interestingly enough, however, they are not exactly talking about the quota. Their main slogan - "If you stay at home, Orbán stays as well" - seems to have little to do with refugees, the European Union or any kind of quota.

It’s perhaps no surprise that in such a strong competition of fantastic slogans, the Kétfarkú Kutya Párt (Two-Tailed Dog Party) proved the winner. They’re asking people to vote both yes and no: in other words, to spoil their ballot. The satirical party collects it money through crowdfunding efforts, and imitates FIDESZ’s question-answer structure in its campaign literature. "Did you know?" starts innocently just to ask back instantly: “What?”, to provide us with some uncontested truth ("If something is repeated a lot it seems true. If something is repeated a lot it seems true. If something is repeated a lot it seems true.") or to enlighten us about something previously maybe unknown - "Did you know that the average Hungarian citizen sees more UFOs in their life than migrants?" These sentences are clearly a parody of the government’s billboards, and as their crowdfunding action proved to be extremely successful, they were the ones with the biggest campaign budget in the opposition.

Did you know? Hungarian politics is spectacular.

Story by

Gergely Károly

Hungarian freelance reporter (Magyar Nemzet, Magyar Hang and Cafebabel Budapest). He works as a reporter for The International Cybersecurity Dialogue and is currently enrolled at the Univerity of Oxford, reading Russian and East European Studies.