Clampdown in Hungary

Submitted by Matthew on 12 October, 2016 - 11:15 Author: Hannah Webb

On Sunday 2 October, Hungarians voted in a referendum over whether to accept their EU migrant quota of 1,294 refugees.

The referendum posed the question “Do you want the European Union to be able to mandate the obligatory settlement of non-Hungarian citizens in Hungary without the approval of the National Assembly?”. It was itself part of a long running campaign by Viktor Orbán and his government to retain popular support by positioning as the “defenders” of Hungary against foreign interference.

Orbán explicitly opposes liberal democracy in favour of “illiberal democracy”. The government campaign in favour of voting “no” had posters saying “Don’t put Hungary’s future at risk!” on 6,000 of the 20,000 advertising slots in the country, probably the largest advertising campaign in Hungarian history. In addition, 4.1 million full colour 18-page booklets were sent to Hungarians home and abroad making the case for the “no” campaign. The booklet claimed that there are “no-go” districts in London, Southampton and Peterborough, as well as Paris, Berlin, Stockholm and Copenhagen, where as a result of migrants authorities are unable to keep control.

This campaign followed one which ran since summer 2015 when refugees were attempting to travel through Hungary (despite the government closing train routes out of Hungary, presumably to make migrants seem like more of a threat to the Hungarian population), with slogans in Hungarian saying “If you come to Hungary, you can’t take the Hungarians’ jobs!” and “If you come to Hungary, you have to respect our culture!”, clearly aimed at Hungarians rather than migrants.

The referendum itself had only a 40% turnout, short of the 50% threshold to make the result valid. The liberal opposition to the referendum did not dare to call for a “yes” vote, which would have likely lost, and instead encouraged people to not vote or to spoil their ballots. However, the 98% “no” vote within the 40% turnout demonstrates a worryingly strong anti-migrant sentiment in Hungary.

Less than a week after the referendum, on 8 October, Hungary’s largest left-wing and opposition newspaper, Nepszabadsag, was closed down, both in print and online. Its parent company claimed that was a result of “considerable losses”, despite the fact it made $480,000 profit in 2015. Journalists working at the paper said they weren’t given advance notice, and have described the move as a “coup”, with parties across the political spectrum accusing the Orbán government of trying to further extend its dominance over the media.