Hungary: Refugee referendum – Victory in defeat?

Workers’ united action needed against policies of unstable government

The beginning of October saw 8.2 million Hungarians called upon to vote in a referendum organized by the government. The referendum’s unnecessarily complicated text came down to the question of whether Hungary should accept refugees against the will of its parliament when the EU demands it. The government used the EU’s demand that Hungary settle 1,294 refugees as an excuse to wage a racist campaign exploiting old and new prejudices in an attempt to strengthen its position.

From the very beginning this referendum was held on a very disputable legal basis. In 2015, the government stopped a referendum held over a nuclear plant to save a 10 billion-euro deal with Russia (which was very likely profitable for some in the ruling circle) on the basis that referendums must not touch international treaties. But this referendum never was to approve a law, it was a political manoeuvre.

Even though the referendum failed by about 6% to mobilize the necessary 50% of voters to make it become law, Orbàn’s calculations worked out: he appears to have ‘won’ both on the domestic and international fronts. But this is only one side of the story.

Practically all of those who participated voted in favour of the government and, in this way, against the EU. During the campaign the government painted the picture of an international conspiracy based in Brussels against the Hungarian nation. Refugees were called “invaders” in support of a “left wing agenda” to take over Europe. Exploiting the fear of terror attacks, Orbàn claimed “every single migrant poses a … terror risk”.

Orbàn’s “conflict” with the EU provides him with the role of champion of Hungary and public support. Criticism of his politics by other European governments or the EU leaders only confirms this conspiracy theory amongst those who follow it. While the turnout in the referendum was low, over one million more voters supported the government than voted for the government party Fidész-led alliance in the April 2014 general election. The 55.1 million euro in public funds spent on this campaign of hate, fear and lies helped to mobilize support. The government used over a quarter of Hungary’s 20,000 advertising hoardings for its “Don’t put Hungary’s future at risk!” campaign. But an irony that Orbàn seems to ignore is that Hungary’s future is more at risk from its constantly falling population (in 2011 it fell below 10 million for the first time since 1960). In recent years Hungary’s potential labour force has fallen by between 40,000 to 50,000 annually.

It does not matter too much for Orbàn at the moment that big parts of the population do not support him and mostly hates the corrupt government, as they are poorly organized. There is no real force challenging Fidész. This allows him to appear victorious, but, in reality, his social base is weak and his rule is based upon the absence of active opposition.

The “opposition's” stand

The strongest “opposition” party at this time, the neo-fascist, Jobbik, has real difficulties distinguishing itself from Fidész on the question of refugees. There is not much more you can demand to stop refugees if the government already builds a border fence, secures it with police, army and militias and imprisons refugees who still make it into the country, on the charge of ‘illegal border passing’. So Jobbik had not much to win or lose in this referendum. While many of its 2014 voters probably voted yes, Jobbik deemed the referendum an “irresponsible” attempt to boost the government’s popularity after a number of by-election defeats.

The bourgeois democratic opposition, led by the social democrat party, MSZP, called for an abstention. They argued a vote would only legitimate Orbàn’s “illegal” manoeuvre. Following the result of the failed referendum, they announced victory, as the majority of the population abstained. It is difficult to estimate how many people followed the opposition’s call. Even the very polarized and much more far-reaching referendum on membership of the EU, in 2003, only saw a turnout of 45.6% of voter (the 50% minimum poll was introduced by the Fidèsz government to make it harder to interfere with their policies). All referendums, since the 50% bar change, failed to pass 50%.

The call for abstention was not given from a strong position as there was no clear counter-proposal. The bourgeois opposition feared losing support if they campaigned for a pro-refugee, pro-EU vote. After years of not offering any alternative to the strong racism of Fidész and co, many of their voters support racist ideas, as well, even though they often despise the government. By denouncing the referendum as ‘illegal’ the opposition took the easiest way out. Their main motivation was political cowardice. It is an exaggeration to say failure to reach the 50% turnout a victory for the opposition, although it did show the limitations of the Fidesz government’s support base.

International effects

Orbàn’s victory in the domestic sphere is echoed internationally. When the EU leaders and liberal politicians in many EU countries attacked Hungary over its extremely strict anti-refugee actions in 2015, many other politicians internationally stood by Orbàn’s side. Since then, politicians’ support for reinforcing ‘Fortress Europe’ has grown. Even countries that officially denounce Hungary as “barbaric” or worse are in favour of the EU-Turkey deal on refugees. This deal comes down to stopping refugees entering the EU by force, which is very similar to the policy Hungary started one year earlier. Those who hypocritically still “oppose” Orbàn are also under pressure from growing far right parties all over the EU. In Austria, for example, Chancellor Kern tries to gain support by criticizing Hungary’s refugee policies, while his foreign minister (from a governing coalition partner party) openly declared himself a fan of it. This “division of labour” is designed to keep both liberals and the right-wing behind the Austrian government, as is also the case with Germany’s Chancellor Merkel and her Bavarian counterpart, Seehofer, and others.

Those who fight against some way of distributing refugees among the EU countries, which Germany is in favour of, rally behind Orbàn and provide him with more influence. In hindsight, it seems that for many commentators “the Merkel course” in dealing with the refugee crisis proved wrong, while Orbàn was right, all along. What these commentators fail to see is that Hungary closed its borders in the interests of the German government that was happy some other EU state played the “villain”. As soon as they could, the German government and the EU followed Orbàn down the path of resisting refugees by using police and soldiers, though not so much at their own borders but along the Mediterranean, in several African dictatorships and in Turkey. Much of this fighting over the correct refugee policy among the EU members is just populist manoeuvring, as the EU governments basically agree on their racist, murderous actions.

In recent years, the Hungarian government had conflicts with other EU states. The EU confined its criticism of Hungary to questions of union rights and freedom of the press and made verbal reprimands against Orbàn’s attacks on foreign European banks and companies. Hungary’s way of dealing with this EU pressure was to build counter-pressure with the help of other powers, such as Russia and China. The European capitalists always fear losing their grip on Hungary if they insisted too strongly on EU “free competition” laws. With the post-Brexit-referendum crisis in the EU, the smaller member states could try to increase their influence. Playing openly with the threat of a Hungarian exit from the EU, which is what Orbàn practically did during the referendum, is a very good means for that goal, at least for a short time.

Getting rid of Orbàn

But, as fortunate and successful as Orbàn might seem, it does not hide that the Hungarian government is extremely unstable. What Fidész fears most is the long overdue resistance of the working class. While the Hungarian union leaderships still hesitate to organize any real opposition against brutal austerity, wage cuts and attacks on workers’ rights, workers are yet to take to the stage. But recent struggles in health care, public transportation or the education system show their potential. When bigger protests appeared, like the “internet tax” and the student strikes, solidarity was huge amongst the population and the government was quite easily forced to negotiate and make concessions.

What is missing is a force to take up the frustration and anger and uses it to organize the struggle.  To bring down Orbàn and his policies, a new workers’ party, with a campaigning socialist programme, is desperately needed. This is also the way to block the progress of Jobbik and to weaken it.  Both refugees and Roma, who also are targets of the Fidész's racism, are not the enemy of workers in Hungary but their allies, with the same need for jobs, decent wages and affordable housing. Solidarity in struggle is the best way to defeat the “divide and rule” strategy of the ruling class.  A step in this direction would be a 24-hour general strike, to show workers their own power.

In the end, it is not the hypocritical criticism of the European liberals or the corrupt Hungarian bourgeois opposition parties that offer an alternative to Orbàn, the EU and poverty. It is the international working class movement and a democratic socialist society.


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October 2016